Boyd - The Fighter Pilot who Changed the Art of War - Notes

John Boyd was US fighter pilot who might also legitimately claim to be one of the most important strategic thinkers of the 20th

In 1959 as a young air force Captain he wrote the ‘Aerial Attack Study’ a document that in time became official Air Force doctrine and which once declassified had a massive impact on air forces around the world. ‘Put another way, while still a junior officer, John Boyd changed the way every air force in the world flies and fights.’

He went on to develop the Energy-Manoeuvrability Theory (E-M) which marks a fundamental demarcation point in the development of fighter aircraft and their tactics as stark as the shift from Copernicus to Newton.

His final and arguably greatest intellectual contribution was a theory of conflict he entitled the ‘Patterns of Conflict’ which appeared as a slide brief (which ran to around 14 hrs!) but which was never turned into a formal publication. Both the US Army and Marine Corps eventually changed their basic war fighting doctrine based on this work.

The presentation can be viewed and downloaded here:

Boyd is one of the most important ‘unknown men’ of his time.

Always a difficult subordinate he was frequently out of favour with the Air Force for the force of his opinions and his unwillingness to ‘play the game’. In the military conforming is overly valued and becomes almost requisite for senior promotions – the paths of doing the right thing and the success diverge & then you must choose. ‘To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?’ p285

Those that play along in the view that once they are sufficiently senior they will change things never do. ‘Study after study shows that the higher in rank a military officer ascends, the less likely he is to make change.’

‘If your Boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. But if he demands integrity give him loyalty.’ J Boyd

Judge people on what they do not what they say they will do.

Vietnam a low point for US forces. Senior leaders were managers more than leaders who cast around to cast blame rather than accept responsibility.

Big problem in the Pentagon bureaucracy generally too much analysis and too little synthesis, ‘They know more and more about less and less until eventually they know everything about nothing’ Boyd example of the difference p324

Time was a very central component of Boyd’s thoughts on conflict – ‘whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives’ operating at a quicker tempo than your adversary creates a rapidly changing environment for the enemy which disorientates them.

Criticism of Clausewitz thoughts on friction (one of his most important strategic concepts) spends all of his focus on how to minimize friction within own forces and none on how to maximize friction for the enemy. Sun Tzu did think on these lines.

Point of the OODA loop is to create menace uncertainty and mistrust and magnify and exploit them, in Boyd’s words ‘unraveling the competition’

Speed is too often taken as the essence of the OODA loop which dumbs is down. Speed is important but must not lose sight of the implicit parts of the model not just focus on the explicit. The orientation phase is the single most critical phase. Have to get inside the mind and decision-making cycle of the enemy.

Its described as a loop but is not really due to the numbers of possible connections between the ingredients. ‘Becoming orientated to a competitive situation means brining to bear the cultural traditions, genetic heritage, new information, previous experiences and analysis / synthesis process of the person doing the orientating.’

Really understanding the loop allows a commander to compress time, to select the least expected course of action not what is simply predicted to be most effective.

To shape the environment one must have 4 qualities: Variety, rapidity, harmony and initiative.

T E Lawrence talks about the requirement to ‘arrange the mind of the enemy’

‘Machines don’t fight wars, people do and they use their minds’ ‘People, ideas, hardware in that order.’ Boyd

DUTY, HONOUR, COUNTRY. Boyd wrote these on a blackboard and then wrote underneath; PRIDE, POWER, GREED. The choice he often spoke of to others and especially his key acolytes in the military you will come to a fork and must choose whether to be someone or do something. (See Once an Eagle by Anton Myer for a fictionalized story of this challenge)

The air force has never made a serious study of warfare because the inescapable conclusion of such a study is that the Airforce must be subordinate to the ground commanders plans. Contrary to the logic of a separate service.

Synchronisation is a dangerous concept it will often mean you end up operating at the speed of the slowest, waiting for them to catch up. Synchronization can be cast aside if opportunity presents.

US Marine corps in time adopts the manoeuverist approach Boyd develops. Fight the enemy not the terrain. Gen Mike Myatt was commander of the 1st Marine Div during the Gulf was intimately familiar with Boyd’s work. The Marines raided deep behind Iraqi lines 3 days before the ground campaign officially began, they bypassed opposition and strong points, ignored their flanks and caused massive confusion forcing the Iraqis to respond to what they thought was now the main effort assault. 15 Iraqi Divisions surrendered to 2 Div of Marines.

Understanding has to be implicit, if its not you can’t do it fast enough.

Dick Cheney as Sec of Defence during the First Gulf War, very influenced by Boyd who he constantly consulted. Everything successful about the Gulf War was classic Boyd – straight out of ‘Patterns of Conflict’.