James Holmes

Introducing John Boyd

Why an airman can help the U.S. Navy regain its nautical mastery.

James R. Holmes

Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz form the bedrock for understanding and making strategy. Their ideas are indispensable. Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett are the saltwater theorists. They take strategy to sea. The late U.S. Air Force colonel JohnBoyd (1927-1997) is the Mad Hatter of strategic theorists. And therefore Colonel Boyd ranks among the Naval Diplomat’s faves! One imagines, and hopes, his ghost approves of the U.S. Navy’s belated effort to reacquaint itself with the rigors of sea control. This is an important undertaking. The United States must ready itself to fight for what it has long taken for granted. If its effort falters, it must forego certain options or abandon important regions.

Firming up U.S. command of the seas and skies has both material and human dimensions. The sea service needs to field new weaponry to keep pace with an increasingly challenging strategic environment. It must also abolish twenty years of ingrained assumptions, doing away with the notion that command of the maritime commons belongs to American seafarers as though by right. Boyd wasn’t a sea-power theorist. He was a fighter pilot first and foremost, but through self-education he established himself as perhaps history’s premier thinker about how individuals and institutions create and respond to change. That’s why an airman can help the U.S. Navy regain its nautical mastery.

Boyd gleaned his first insights into strategy from personal experience and observation as a tactical pilot. Although he missed the air war over Korea, he wondered how U.S. pilots achieved such a lopsided (10:1) kill ratio in air-to-air combat while flying aircraft with performance characteristics comparable to those of enemy warplanes. His answer was stunningly simple: the bubble canopies mounted on F-86 Sabres afforded U.S. pilots better visibility than their opponents flying Soviet-built MiGs. Simple as that. They could see around better and thus manage engagements better. Small design features had a major impact on the outcome of battle.

He also wondered why he was able to defeat every adversary he faced in mock combat, and why he could do so within forty seconds. (His record earned him the, ah, unfortunate nickname “Forty-Second Boyd.”) Boyd came to believe he always won because he could spring unexpected changes on his adversaries. Sudden, swift, radical maneuvers forced them to respond to what he did. In effect the deft pilot could alter the character of an engagement, hitting enemies with “fast transients” with which they couldn’t keep up. Nor was this dynamic confined to aerial battle. Boyd generalized his thesis after schooling himself in the classics of strategy. He maintained that the combatant who adapts to change—or, better yet, imposes change to which an opponent must conform—amasses an almost insuperable edge in combat. Hardware that facilitates adaptation and fast transients only sharpens that edge.

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He thus put substance into one of Sun Tzu’s aphorisms, namely that the successful general dictates the nature of battlefield combat, compelling his enemies to fight on his ground and his terms. In competitive interactions, then, the competitor who observes the surroundings accurately and quickly, orients to changes observed in those surroundings, decides on a course of action, and acts decisively enjoys a commanding advantage over a less flexible adversary. Observe, orient, decide, act: that’s Boyd’s famous “OODA loop.” Compressing the decision cycle lets a nimble combatant outthink, bewilder, and outmaneuver his opponent. A disoriented adversary is an easy nut to crack.

One reason John Boyd is more obscure than the other greats of strategic theory is that he wrote little. He left behind no Art of War to codify his ideas. Students of strategy discover his legacy mainly from PDFs of grainy viewgraphs taken from the briefings he delivered to many audiences during his lifetime—U.S. Marines, who pride themselves on flexibility, were among his most fervent admirers—complemented by a smattering of biographies and scholarlyanalyses of his ideas. That’s not the sort of thing you can easily build curriculum around. Nevertheless, diligent leaders can harness his ideas to keep strategy, organizational practices, and habits of mind aligned with changing surroundings.

Institutions have their own OODA loops, and most are set in their ways. Successful organizations in particular find it hard to react to fast transients. Which brings us back to the U.S. Navy’s effort to reinvent itself for more competitive realities, especially in Asia. Tomorrow we’ll investigate why the world’s predominant navy must rediscover its culture of maritime command, and how a fighter pilot can help.