2003 February 09 Sunday
John Boyd: American Warrior

Robert Coram has recently written a book entitled Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. Boyd was a USAF fighter pilot who has had a huge effect on aircraft fighter design, pilot training, and more broadly how the US military fights wars. His is a classical story of someone who made many enemies while battling resistance by narrow-minded bureaucrats, higher level officers wedded to older doctrines, and contractors trying to peddle flawed weapons systems.

On C-Span's Booknotes Brian Lamb interviewed Robert Coram about John Boyd.

LAMB: ... show you a little bit of that later, when he does talk about Mike Wiley (ph). He`s sitting next to Gary Hart, and there are also some others in the room at that particular hearing. You also mention in this book his connections to Senator Grassley, Senator Kassebaum`s top aide, Senator Gary Hart`s top aide, the Reform Caucus in the House of Representatives, and the vice president of the United States, now -- then secretary of defense, Dick Cheney. What -- how did that work?

CORAM: Boyd met all of the above when he was the leader, the spiritual leader, if you will, of the reform movement. Dick Cheney, then a young congressman from Wyoming, heard his briefing, then had a number of one-on-one sessions with Boyd. When Cheney became secretary of defense, he was rare in that he knew more about strategy than most of his generals did. He called Boyd out of retirement in the early days of the Gulf war, and from him got an updating, if you will. And it was Boyd`s strategy, not Schwarzkopf`s, that led to our swift and decisive victory in the Gulf war.

The vice president, Cheney, gave me about 30 minutes to talk about Boyd. And on television, he seems very reserved and controlled, but when he talked to me about John Boyd, he was enthusiastic, and I could tell he had great respect for this man.

LAMB: What part of the Gulf war in 1991 plan did John Boyd have some responsibility for?

CORAM: All of it. The multiple thrust, the feints, the ambiguity, the Marine feint, the...

LAMB: You mean the landing in Kuwait, the early landing?

CORAM: Yes. Yes.

LAMB: That was his idea?

CORAM: It was his idea. He was behind every bit of it.

One of Boyd's allies thinks Rumsfeld is going about transformation without enough understanding of what needs to change.

The saga demonstrates that radical change is possible, even in the world's most notoriously hidebound institution, but suggests it must bubble up from deep within the ranks.

``Rumsfeld is trying . . . to impose change from the top down,'' complained Franklin ``Chuck'' Spinney, one of the few members of the Fighter Mafia still working in the Pentagon. ``And what that means is that they have to have an answer they're trying to impose. . . . The problem is, they haven't done the research to see if that answer is actually workable.''

In contrast, Boyd, the Mafia's godfather and the central figure in the broader military reform movement it spawned, was a cigar-chomping, free-cursing dynamo, notorious for challenging convention and questioning authority at every level. He was endlessly revising projects he'd spent years developing.

Some of Boyd's Mafia also worry that Rumsfeld's vision of transformation relies too heavily on gadgets and not enough on human intellect.

DCMilitary.com has an excellent review of Coram's book written by Bill Swanson.

Boyd's major contribution to military theory is what he called "the OODA Loop," a.k.a. the Boyd cycle. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, and despite its apparent simplicity it turns out to be a fairly complex analysis of military decision-making before and during battle. It is revolutionary because for the first time it introduced the concept of time, and it has moral and psychological dimensions. Rather than being a book, paper, report or manual, the OODA Loop exists in its main form as a 185-slide Pentagon-style briefing, and depending on the level of audience participation and question-and-answer, it can take a full day or two just to explain. The crux of it is that the side that proceeds through the cycle fastest is the winner. If you can figure out what your enemy's cycle is likely to be (in other words, if you can figure out what he's going to do), you have "gotten inside his decision cycle." You don't want him inside yours, and that's what happened on 9/11.

Here's a great excerpt from Coram's book.

An essay by Major Jeffrey L. Cowan, U.S. Air Force on John Boyd's influence on US Marines warfighting doctrine.

What finally turned years of struggle into something concrete was General Gray's publication of FMFM (Fleet Marine Force Manual)-1, Warfighting, a document that would be the cornerstone for all other Marine Corps doctrinal publications. A small group, including retired Colonel Boyd, was instrumental in producing this seminal publication. For many, it offered a radical departure from the ideas of attrition. FMFM-1, now MCDP-1, offered all Marines a common purpose and direction. "Maneuver warfare is a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy's cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope."24

Colonel Boyd should be considered one of the most important military theorists of the United States. Though his ideas permeate disparate disciplines such as business and the military art, only a few now know his name. He would want it that way. His ideas had no proprietorship. This dedication to ideas—from publishing Aerial Attack Study, to inventing Energy Maneuverability Theory, to being a Pentagon reformer, to, finally, writing The Green Book—was the thread of his life.

A longer version of Cowan's article can be found here.

According to Boyd, "Patterns of Conflict represents a compendium of ideas and actions for winning and losing in a highly competitive world." This statement suggests why Boyd's work has equal applicability in warfare as it does in business and inter-personal relationships. Boyd's first work on conflict and warfare was wholly derived from both historical research and his combat experiences in Korea. In a generalization of his work, on page four, Boyd states: "[We] need a fighter that can both lose energy and gain energy more quickly while out-turning an adversary. In other words, suggest a fighter that can pick and choose engagement opportunities-yet has fast transients ('button hook') characteristics that can be used to either force an overshoot by an attacker or stay inside a hard turning defender." Boyd further derives this need into what has become the enduring classic, the OODA Loop. "Idea of fast transients suggests that, in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries-or, better yet, get inside the adversary's Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action time cycle or loop." This is the first mention of the OODA Loop in the discourse.

The OODA Loop has been used to describe the very human process of decision-making and can run the gamut from business negotiations to combat. Aside from its humble beginnings in air-to-air combat, it has been used to describe or quantify the minute differences in tempo that can be discerned between two adversaries in any endeavor. However, it is particularly germane to warfare. Why is there a concern with operating at a tempo faster than an adversary? As Boyd commented, "Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries-since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing as well as faster transient rhythm or patterns they are competing against."

David Hackworth in March 1997 on the occasion of John Boyd's death:

Future generations will learn that John Boyd, a legendary fighter pilot, was America's greatest military thinker. He's remembered now by all those he touched over the last 52 years of service to our country as not only the original Top Gun, but as one smart hombre who always had the guts to stand tall and to tell it like it is.

He didn't just drive Chinese fighter pilots nuts while flying his F-86 over the Yalu River during the Korean War, he spent decades causing the top brass to climb the walls and the cost-plus defense contractor racketeers to run for cover.

A collection of his works is available for download mostly in PDF format. His presentation Destruction and Creation can be read in HTML with a link to Chuck Spinney's commentary. The Belisarius.com site has writings of Boyd and focuses on their application to business. Belisarius has a collection of links to articles about Robert Coram's book on Boyd.

Grant Tedrick Hammond has also written a biography of John Boyd entitled The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security. Lt Col Eric Ash, USAF says Hammond's book is an examination of Boyd's thought processes.

But how Boyd went about all this both led to his success and became his tragic flaw. He was the quintessential intellectual maverick—a man who thrived on bending the rules and violating the regulations. Whether stealing computer time, jumping the chain of command, or risking his reputation and career, he did what he thought was necessary, regardless of who or what got in the way. Such proclivities made Boyd both famous and infamous. He was loved or hated, revered as a genius or despised as a loose cannon. In a way, he lacked common sense but at the same time had uncommon sense—which made him the ideal subject for Hammond, who has a passion for challenging orthodoxy. True to form, Hammond uses this biography to upbraid the Air Force for not granting Boyd the recognition he deserved and to criticize the service’s systemic detractors who reward company people over critical thinkers. Very likely, this biography would have pleased Boyd.

In his assessment of Boyd’s thinking process, Hammond engages in extensive psychoanalysis—perhaps to excess. But Boyd was a very deep thinker, and his cognitive process affected people just as profoundly as did the product of his mind. Certainly, the OODA loop is just such an example. Hammond’s study, therefore, is more a biographical case study of how someone thought than it is a chronology of a person’s life.

Robert Coram, writing to criticise a reviewer of Grant Hammond’s biography of Colonel John Boyd [The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security reveals a favorable view of Hammond's book.

Boyd is the reason the F-15 and F-16 have such maneuverability today (although “missionizing” the aircraft degraded their performance far below what it was originally). The Air Force was on the way to producing a ponderous aircraft with a variable-geometry wing—an updated F-111—that, in turn, Congress would almost surely have refused to authorize. Had Boyd not given America the F-15, the Air Force would have been forced to buy the Navy F-14.

Grant Hammond wrote a good, solid book, and it deserves more serious treatment than that afforded by Whiting.

David Goyne reviews Hammond's book on Boyd.

The Mind of War is above all else a story about a man of character--at times ‘a 24-karat pain in the ass’ [ 9], but always independent, worth listening to and all too often right. He was a man whose opinions were arrived at by a process of deep and wide ranging thought, and then tenaciously upheld against all without fear or favour and certainly regardless of rank. This single minded approach to doing what was right, not what was expedient in a large part contributed to the fact that Boyd left the USAF as a Colonel, but he lived it on the basis he wanted, one where he could retain his independence and self respect. Boyd’s attitude of doing the hard right, rather than the easy wrong, is best summed up by a quote from another of his disciples, USAF Colonel James Burton: ‘... you have to make a choice about what kind of person you are going to be. There are two career paths in front of you, and you have to choose which path you will follow. One path leads to promotion, titles and positions of distinction. To achieve success down that path, you have to conduct yourself a certain way. You must go along with the system and show that you are a better team player than your competitors. The other path leads to doing things that are truly significant for the Air Force, but the rewards will often be a kick in the stomach because you may have to cross swords with the party line on occasion. You can’t go down both paths, you have to choose. So, do you want to be a man of distinction or do you want to do things that really influence the shape of the Air Force? To be or to do, that is the question.’ [ 10]

Intellectual debates that occur within the defense establishment are too often ignored by political commentators and policy analysts who are outside those circles. This is partly due to a snobbery that holds that military men are by definition not intellectual. Yet the United States is pursuing strategies which are causing so much debate because of arguments by national security intellectuals that can be traced back to the 1970s.

This fused with a political analysis. As long as ago as the 1970s, Wolfowitz was warning (in a document still classified today) of the international threat posed by Saddam Hussein. He saw the Middle East as a crucible in which were commingled the hatred of America and Britain, the resentments of an Arab world whose politics prevented both democracy and economic progress, the loathing of Israel and the adaptation of Islam for extreme political ends.

The hawks - and remember that the hawk is a bird that can see things from a long way off - thought that the threat of "asymmetric warfare" (ie terrorism, often by "non-state actors") was serious. They thought that fast-growing Muslim populations, whose proportion of young men both in Europe and in the Arab world far outweighs that of European Christians, would be drawn towards extremists.

In the era between WWI and WWII Percy Hobart of the British Army was probably his era's military thinker equivalent of John Boyd.

Liddell Hart's "Mongolian" concept of strategic mobility became the focus of Hobart's considerable intellectual resources. Development of these concepts and their adjustment to the mechanical twentieth century dominated Hobart's life from the time they were put forward. His creative imagination had been fired by the military revolution he could visualize, but his creativity was combined with a rock-hard realism. "Wars cannot be fought with dream stuff," he used to say, as he poured his life's energies into the development of practical machines for armored warfare, and the effective methods of directing these new mobile weapons. His goal was to break military science out of the straitjacket of trench warfare by updating the Mongol methods.

Where the Mongols lived off the country through which they ranged, Hobart planned to carry sustaining rations in the tanks. Refueling would be from lightly-protected dumps in the enemy rear, where the far-ranging armored columns would penetrate and strike. He worked with relentless zeal to cut "the tail" of non-fighting service vehicles which hobbled and almost immobilized conventional army units. Tank forces of the future were to be self-contained for the maximum possible range.

Down-to-earth problems such as these did not prevent Hobart from taking a prescient look up at the sky. He planned for the time when the increasing power and versatility of aircraft would permit mobile armored columns to be completely supplied by airdrop. Standard practice today, this concept was in those times often the subject of mockery. Hobart planned to send his hard-hitting columns ripping into enemy supply lines and nerve centers in the rear, paralyzing command and demoralizing troops in the front lines. Less than twenty years later, America's General George S. Patton was to carry out these tactics on a vast scale and with historic success.

Resistance to these radical ideas began to stiffen. The old order found its neurotic and professional security threatened by the progress of strategic mobility. "Hobo," as he was affectionately called by his intimates, viewed the old order and its resistance to the new ways with direct and unconcealed contempt. "Why piddle about making porridge with artillery," he said, "and then send men to drown themselves in it for a hundred yards of No Man's Land? Tanks mean advances of miles at a time, not yards!'

Update: Be sure to follow Joe Katzman's links to writings about Fourth Generation warfare. 4th generation warfare (or more commonly 4GW) is a logical extension of John Boyd's ideas.

DOD weapons analyst Franklin Spinney argues we are not ready to fight 4th Generation Warfare against terrorist groups.

The inheritor of Boyd's mantle is a Pentagon weapons analyst named Franklin C. "Chuck" Spinney, who has spent the past two decades arguing that static thinking, poor financial oversight, weapons-procurement bloat, and a personnel system that accentuates careerism over training have undermined America's war-fighting readiness. (For anyone interested in these topics, Spinney's Web site, Defense and the National Interest is indispensable.) As Spinney sees it, the September 11 attacks call attention to something that a number of military reformers have been warning about for years: the advent of "fourth-generation warfare," and the fact that the U.S. military isn't ready for it. As Spinney observed on his Web site recently, the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center have "dispelled forever the notion that 4GW is just 'terrorism' or something that happens only in poverty-stricken Third World countries."

Spinney's web site has a lot of great relevant articles. Here's an article from the October 1989 Marines Corps Gazette by William S. Lind (an influential civilian defense theorist who worked with Boyd), Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR). Its entitled "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation".

Some elements in terrorism appear to reflect the previously noted "carryovers" from third generation war fare. The more successful terrorists appear to operate on broad mission orders that carry down to the level of the individual terrorist. The 'battlefield" is highly dispersed and includes the whole of the enemy's society. The terrorist lives almost completely off the land and the enemy. Terrorism is very much a matter of maneuver: the terrorist's firepower is small, and where and when he applies it is critical.

Two additional carryovers must be noted as they may be useful "signposts" pointing toward the fourth generation. The first is a component of collapsing the enemy. It is a shift in focus from the enemy's front to his rear. Terrorism must seek to collapse the enemy from within as it has little capability (at least at present) to inflict widespread destruction. First generation warfare focused tactically and operationally (when operational art was practiced) on the enemy's front, his combat forces. Second generation warfare remained frontal tactically, but at least in Prussian practice it focused operationally on the enemy's rear through the emphasis on encirclement The third generation shifted the tactical as well as the operational focus to the enemy's rear. Terrorism takes this a major step further. It attempts to bypass the enemy's military entirely and strike directly at his homeland at civilian targets. Ideally, the enemy's military is simply irrelevant to the terrorist.

The second signpost is the way terrorism seeks to use the enemy's strength against him This "judo" concept of warfare begins to manifest itself in the second generation, in the campaign and battle of encirclement. The enemy's fortresses, such as Metz and Sedan, became fatal traps. It was pushed further in the third generation where, on the defensive, one side often tries to let the other penetrate so his own momentum makes him less able to turn and deal with a counterstroke.

Terrorists use a free society's freedom and openness, its greatest strengths, against it. They can move freely within our society while actively working to subvert it. They use our democratic rights not only to penetrate but also to defend themselves. If we treat them within our laws, they gain many protections; if we simply shoot them down, the television news can easily make them appear to be the victims. Terrorists can effectively wage their form of warfare while being protected by the society they are attacking. If we are forced to set aside our own system of legal protections to deal with terrorists, the terrorists win another sort of victory.

The 4th generation then is a logical extension of the 3rd generation with the fighting shifted so thoroughly to the enemy's rear that its in his own society and the combatants are blended into that society. Maneuver then consists of efforts to live among the enemy and move around unrecognized. The combatants can not easily be recognized as combatants and even their weapons are often components of the civilian society (e.g. hijacked aircraft). Conventional military firepower is useless against an enemy that may be living in an apartment building in one's own society. This is the great challenge of 4GW and why its often called asymmetric warfare. Technological trends are moving in a direction that will increase the power of small numbers of people to do enormous damage by launching attacks from within a society.

The problem is that even if the US military learns to use 3rd and 4th generation warfare tactics such proficiency is helpful for offensive warfare by our military but it doesn't address the question of how to fight 4th generation warfare on the homefront. The types of initiatives that the US military makes along the lines of home defense that might actually be effective (e.g. the proposed database project to look for data patterns to identify concealed terrorist warriors living among us) inevitably lead to objections from civil libertarians. But as Heather Mac Donald argues we need a way to find the hidden warriors living among us.

EVERY WEEK brings new evidence of al Qaeda's continuing plots against the United States and the West. Yet the 108th Congress may well shut down one of the most promising efforts to preempt future attacks, thanks to a media misinformation blitz playing to Americans' outsized Big Brother paranoia.

The Pentagon's prestigious research unit, the same Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that helped invent the Internet, is exploring whether computers could detect terrorist planning activity by searching government and commercial databases across the globe. The program, dubbed Total Information Awareness (TIA), embodies the recognition that before an attack can take place, certain critical activities--casing targets, rehearsing, and procuring financing, supplies, and weapons--must occur, and that those activities will leave computer signatures.

The Spinney web site Defense and the National Interest has a nice collection of links to 4GW articles.

Update: Al Qaeda military thinkers have published an article on an Al Qaeda web site which refers to the 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article linked to above.

"Fourth-generation warfare, the experts said, is a new type of war in which fighting will be mostly scattered. The battle will not be limited to destroying military targets and regular forces, but will include societies, and will [seek to] destroy popular support for the fighters within the enemy's society. In these wars, the experts stated in their article,(6) 'television news may become a more powerful operational weapon than armored divisions.' They also noted that [in forth-generation wars] 'the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point…'"

"Other Western strategists(7) disagreed with these analyses, claiming that the new warfare would be strategically based on psychological influence and on the minds of the enemy's planners - not only on military means as in the past, but also on the use of all the media and information networks… in order to influence public opinion and, through it, the ruling elite. They claimed that the fourth-generation wars would, tactically, be small-scale, emerging in various regions across the planet against an enemy that, like a ghost, appears and disappears. The focus would be political, social, economic, and military. [It will be] international, national, tribal, and even organizations would participate (even though tactics and technology from previous generations would be used)."

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 February 09 12:35 PM  Politics Grand Strategy

Joe Katzman said at February 9, 2003 9:11 PM:

Glad to see someone else covering Boyd... but it would have helped put a few things in perspective for your readers if you had made the connection from Boyd's ideas to the concept of 4th Generation Warfare.

Suman Palit said at February 10, 2003 12:42 PM:

Thanks for all the links, really good job. Now I have reading material for the next two weeks ..!!

Dewey C Chapman said at August 3, 2004 12:21 PM:

Military thinking as it was in 1955 to 1958, when was in the Army as a helicopter crew chief, seems not to changed a whit.Yhe primary reason I would not reinlist was because thoxe that played the game even tho' they were not good soldiers, were in, and thinkers and doers were out. One of my pilots was ingrade long enough to be a Major, but was passed over, probably riffed after his last tour overseas.Smarter and more aware than our commanders, he would not kiss ass to be IN.
We need more like Boyd and my pilot in the armed forces.Not less.
As a dogface I looked down on the Marines as cannon fodder.How wrong I was as they had the forsite to appreciate the mind and skills of Colonel Boyd.

Richard L. Hamilton said at May 21, 2007 3:17 PM:

Like Mozart whose maverick behavior was lengendary and whose musical genius was not fully appreciated until after his death, now comes the legend of COL John Boyd. My home is Las Vegas, NV home of Nellis AFB and the fighter weapons school where a very tiny building is named for Boyd. I discovered this man's work while presently serving with Marines as a Navy oral surgeon. It is too bad that Vice President Cheney seeems to forget all Boyd tried to teach him. The present counterinsrugency manual mfm 3-24 is pure Boyd in it's roots. Too bad it wasn't adopted 4 years ago.

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