John Boyd was a brilliant man of contrasts and one of the most influential military theorists of the 20th century. He was an Air Force fighter pilot who changed the way every air force flies and fights.
His pursuit of the intellectual side of war became the basis for the Marine Corps ‘Warfighting Manual.’ He was an arrogant, stubborn, and brilliant man who was shelved until he was called out of retirement to help plan Desert Storm. He had substantial influence on the ultimate “left hook” design of the invasion plan (Coram, 2002).
The Fighter Pilot
After a brief stint in the Army, Boyd joined the Air Force. He became a fighter pilot. He flew 20 combat missions in F-86s at the tail end of the Korean War.
He was selected to become one of the first instructors at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis, Air Force Base in Nevada. This is the Air Force version of the US Navy’s “Top Gun.”
Boyd was much a great stick-and-rudder man. He was a thinking fighter pilot. Boyd was the first man to codify the elusive and mysterious ways of air-to-air combat (Coram, 2002). He developed and wrote the “Aerial Attack Study,” a document that become the bible of air combat.
Later, after it was declassified, it became the basis for aerial combat for air forces around the world. It was a huge intellectual contribution to the US Air Force. Heady stuff for a junior officer.
A young captain designed the dogfight tactics that were used at Fighter Weapons School. He earned the nickname “40-Second Boyd.
It was a standing bet he could maneuver from a position of disadvantage (challenger on his tail) to advantage (positions reversed) in 40 seconds — or pay the challenger 40 dollars (Spinney, 1997).
By the late 1950’s he was considered one of the best U.S. fighter pilots in the Air Force. The man who, in simulated air-to-air combat, defeated every challenger in less than forty seconds (Coram, 2002). Boyd was “… a this maddening mix of eccentricity, intellect, creativity, and moral courage — a mix that did not fit into neat compartments,” (Spinney, 1997).
The Warrior Scientist
He personified the romantic image of a fighter jock. A tall, lanky man who wildly gestured while he talked. He was a loud and irrepressible, in-your-face type of guy.
He smoked long, thin stogies. While blowing smoke in your face, he shouted and sprayed saliva at you in a head-on attack. He felt no shame in doing this two inches, nose-to-nose with you while telling about his theories.
But 40-Second Boyd’s flamboyant exterior hid a razor-sharp intellect. Not everyone was a fan of the gregarious strategist.
He was about to blossom into a warrior-scientist.
Energy–maneuverability theory is a model of aircraft performance. It is useful in describing an aircraft’s performance as the total of kinetic and potential energies or aircraft specific energy.
The quantitative model (thrust, drag, and weight) of flight characteristics says that a faster a plane flies the more it will survive a dogfight. A plane may fly excellent, but a good fighter plane most also think fast.
This theory brought about improvements in the requirements for the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters. It was a physical theory that forever altered the way fighter planes were designed (Coram, 2002).
He devoured books. He marked them up, cross-correlating information in the front with information in the back, seeking out contradictions with every turn of the page, gleefully tearing each author’s argument to pieces (Spinney, 1997).
How Boyd is best remembered as an influential military theorist. He developed a theory of military strategy that has been adopted throughout the world and even applied to business models for maximizing efficiency (Coram, 2002).
Boyd thought that any conflict could be viewed as a duel wherein each adversary observes (O) his opponent’s actions, orients (O) himself to the unfolding situation, decides (D) on the most appropriate response or countermove, then acts (A) (Spinney, 1997). OODA Loop was a bold way of looking at warfighting.
Boyd’s theory of operating inside an adversary’s decision cycle -or OODA loop- and its relationship to conflict was a bold new conception. His strategic aim was to isolate his adversary – physically, mentally, and morally – from his external environment by destroying his view of the world: his orientation (Spinney, 1997).
The key to appreciating the power of Boyd’s ideas is to understand why the orientation function is the door through which a competitor can penetrate his opponent’s decision cycle.
In short, the key to victory is to be able to create situations where you can make appropriate decisions quicker than your opponent. The faster you can make decisions you achieve victory.
Boyd was also known at different points of his career as “The Mad Major” for the intensity of his passions. Also known as “Genghis John” for his confrontational style of interpersonal discussion (Coram, 2002).
Not everyone was a fan of the brilliant officer. He retired as a Colonel from the Air Force.
He never attempted to publish his work, but assembled all his research into a 13-hour briefing called a “Discourse on Winning and Losing.” He gave the briefing to enlisted men and generals, congressmen, newspaper reporters, scientists, futurists, academics, anyone who would listen (Spinney, 1997).
Boyd is credited for largely developing the strategy for the invasion of Iraq in the Gulf War of 1991. In 1981, Boyd had presented his briefing, Patterns of Conflict, to Dick Cheney, then a member of the United States House of Representatives (Coram, 2002).
By 1990 Boyd had moved to Florida because of declining health, but Cheney (then the Secretary of Defense in the George H. W. Bush administration) called him back to work on the plans for Operation Desert Storm (Coram, 2002).
The Marine Corps revere Colonel Boyd. The Air Force and Army gave him little credit due to his brash demeanor and challenge of authority – the Marines, however, erected a statue of him at the Marine Corps Research Center in Quantico, VA (Fritz, 2014) .
His strategy was credited for the ingenious “left-hook” campaign that decisively won the Iraq Invasion in the 1991 Gulf War. Two divisions of Marines raided behind Iraqi lines and prevailed while Saddam’s army searched forward for a massive Army invasion they had been programmed to expect (Fritz, 2014).
Commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak is quoted as saying, “The Iraqi army collapsed morally and intellectually under the onslaught of American and Coalition forces. John Boyd was an architect of that victory as surely as if he’d commanded a fighter wing or a maneuver division in the desert,” (Coram, 2002).
To build a new paradigm you have to destroy the existing one. Boyd’s legacy is disputed because of his confrontational personality than his contribution.
Colonel Boyd wanted “to do” something for America and the Air Force, and chose to make sacrifices, endured much abuse, and repeatedly jeopardized his career with that goal in mind.
He purposely chose “to do” something, rather than “to be” somebody, which he defined as one who gives up his integrity to get ahead in the system. This insight is one that applies not only to the military, but to any organization.
It is the fundamental choice that everyone has to make, and hearing of his successes against the system has encouraged others to follow his example, if only in some small measure.
He taught military leaders to Fingerspitzengefühl- a German term, literally meaning “finger tips feeling.” It means intuitive flair or instinct, as used in English as a loanword.
In military terminology, it is used for the stated ability of some military commanders, such as Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel, as the ability to maintain, with accuracy and attention to detail, an ever-changing operational and tactical situation by maintaining a mental map of the battlefield.
The idiom is intended to evoke a military commander who is in intimate communication with the battlefield. It seems like he has a feel for the pulse of battle, a fingertip on each critical point. By “having a feel for combat” a commander can make quick, decisive choices to win a battle.
“…you have to make a decision: to be or to do,” said Colonel John Richard Boyd.
Coram, R. (2002). Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. New York : Hatchette Book Group .
Fritz, M. (2014, March 30). Innovation Excellence. Retrieved from What’s in Your OODA Loop?: http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2014/03/30/whats-in-your-ooda-loop/
Spinney, F. C. (1997). “Genghis John”. Newport, RI: U. S. Naval Institute.