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Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art of War by Robert Coram


How does one describe Colonel John Boyd? He was partly an incarnation of the Egyptian God Set (the God of chaos who is also associated with war), part Albert Einstein, and part Sun Tzu. Complexity theory tells us that creativity is at its greatest on the edge of chaos. Link. What I took from this book is that John Boyd's life was lived on the edge of chaos (much to the detriment of his family) but that this path resulting in an explosion of creative energy. Boyd was a first-class character and Coram spices up the book with many hilarious anecdotes out of the man's life. I'll not dwell on the stories of Boyd's many bureaucratic battles during his career nor the quirky incidents that populated his life. The man is a legend due to his theories on military tactics (plus the E-M Theory, discussed below) and, thus, this review shall focus upon these accomplishments.

Boyd started his professional career as an air force fighter pilot. He was acclaimed for his dogfighting skills as a younger man but this is merely an historical footnote. Boyd's contribution to history came later as a military theorists. While in Korea during his first and only combat tour as a pilot (1953), he was made tactics instructor for his squadron. To aid in this duty, he made notes on aerial combat, assembled briefings, and studied tactics from previous wars. Immediately after graduating from the Air Force Fighter Weapons School (FWS) at Nellis AFB (the Air Force's program upon which the Navy patterned its Top Gun program), Boyd became an instructor pilot at the FWS.

First Major Achievement--Aerial Attack Study
While at the FWS, Boyd continued to codify a manual on air-to-air combat and the maneuvers that make up this art. He was not just creating a list of potential maneuvers but, also, searching for mathematical theorems to explain why a given maneuver worked in a given situation. To do this, he first had to teach himself calculus. The fruit of this labor was a 150 page manual entitled "Aerial Attack Study" that Boyd (then a captain) created on his own time and against the wishes of his Colonel. Nonetheless, Boyd's creation became the official training manual for aerial combat at the FWS and remained so for many decades after its creation by Boyd. FN1 The "Aerial Attack Study" preached "situational awareness" meaning that a pilot must have a three-dimensional picture of the battle in his head (i.e., know the location of all friendly and hostile aircraft in the battle plus their altitudes, air speeds, and the angle of attack). The higher and faster a plane flew, the higher its "energy state" (i.e., altitude can be traded for speed (or energy) thus altitude must be taken into account when determining how much energy an opponent has at his disposal). By quantifying elements of aerial combat, Boyd for the first time made it possible for a systematic study of the discipline to be undertaken. Boyd's manual helped to move aerial combat from a shadowy martial art to a scientific skill that could be taught and mastered.

Second Major Achievement--E-M Theory
In 1960, Boyd left Ellis AFB and enrolled at Georgia Tech to study engineering. In studying thermodynamics while at Georgia Tech, Boyd stumbled upon an even more scientific way to evaluate aerial tactics and fighter aircraft. It had to do with calculating energy and measuring entropy rates (which is energy lost due to inefficiencies in its use). After graduation from Georgia Tech in 1962, Boyd was posted to Elgin AFB in Florida where he basically held unimportant staff positions not utilizing his engineering degree; however, he continued to work on his new theory which was now called Energy-Maneuverability Theory (or E-M Theory). Coram describes E-M Theory as follows:
Reduced to its basics, Boyd's work hinged on thrust and drag ratios. * * * The E-M Theory, at its simplest, is a method to determine the specific energy rate of an aircraft. * * * In an equation, specific energy rate is denoted by "Ps". The state of any aircraft in any flight regime can be defined with Boyd's simple equation: Ps = [T-D/W]*V or thrust minus draft over weight multiplied by velocity. (Pages 147-148.)
At Elgin, Boyd picked up an important partner in his work: Tom Christie (a civilian employee at Elgin who was a trained mathematician and had access to computer time). As with the Aerial Attack Study, the Air Force did not initially support Boyd's work on the E-M Theory. In fact Christie had to steal computer time from Elgin AFB in order to test and refine the equations that proved the theory. Boyd and Christie took data from the complete US inventory of fighters as well as those of their Soviet counterparts and created charts showing in what situations the American aircraft would have the advantage and the situations where the Soviet aircraft would have the advantage. This quantified what before had been learned through trial and error (i.e., WWII pilots learned not to get in a turning contest with Japanese Zeros after several of their comrades first got shot down that way). Equally important, Boyd's theorems could determine the flight characteristics of a proposed plane (and its usefulness as fighter) before it went into production. Boyd was one of the first Air Force critics of the F-111: an underpowered, overweight, unmaneuverable fighter bomber that had absolutely no usefulness as a fighter. This, in turn, led to a revolution in the way fighter aircraft were designed, tested, and purchased by the military and its contractors. E-M Theory was also applied to missiles in relation to their ability to shoot down aircraft and proved that missiles were nowhere near as effective against aircraft as advertised. FN2. Boyd and Christie's E-M report (then classified as "secret" by the military) came out in 1964.

In 1966, due to his acclaim generated by the E-M Theory, Boyd was sent to the Pentagon to work on the Air Force's new fighter-bomber project (then called F-X and, at that time, was proposed as essentially a smaller F-111 meaning it would suck as a fighter). When Boyd arrived, the Air Force was having trouble selling the F-X to Congress. Although brought to the Pentagon to support the F-X project, Boyd attacked it and tried to exert his influence to radically alter the design (smaller, one engine, greater thrust-to-weight ratio, single seat, highly maneuverable). What emerged was a compromise. Boyd successfully killed the swing wings of the F-111, got single seat and guns (thus, the plane looked nothing like the F-111) but lost the light-weight, highly maneuverable plane he sought. What emerged was the F-15 and Boyd was a major contributor to the project. But Boyd got the last laugh as the light-weight, single engine dogfighter he envision was eventually built, the F-16. Boyd was a prime mover in getting this plane built (which the Air Force establishment did not want).

Third Major Achievement
The accomplishments summarized above would constitute an outstanding career for a guy who rose no higher than colonel, but Boyd greatest contribution was yet to come. While studying aircraft using the E-M Theory, Boyd noticed an anomaly. A plane that on paper was highly superior to an adversary did not always display the same level of superiority in actual combat. Two examples are the MiG-15 v. the F-86 (during the Korean War) and the YF-16 v. the YF-17 flyoff (two USAF prototypes). In the case of the MiG-15, it was superior to the F-86 in many areas of the flight envelope per Boyd's E-M charts yet the F-86 ended up having a high kill ratio versus MiGs in combat (10-1). On further examination, Boyd determined the F-86 gained an advantage from its fully hydraulic flight control system (lacking in the MiG) which gave it greater quickness in transitioning from one maneuver to another (plus the F-86 had a bubble canopy affording the pilot an unobstructed 360 degree view). Although the MiG was quicker and tighter in most maneuvers once initiated, the F-86 pilot could get his plane into and out of any given maneuver more quickly due to better hydraulics. The YF-16 (later to become the F-16) was the first fly-by-wire fighter jet and its electronically activated controlled surfaces gave it a like advantage over the YF-17 that used older hydraulic technology.

Another person may been satisfied to discover (and quantify) that quicker control surfaces on fighter aircraft translated into a tactical advantage in aerial combat. Not Boyd. He dug deep into the issue plumbing the depths of this issue searching for the answer "why". In the process, he left the world of fighter aircraft and waded into the realm of the human thought process--i.e., how do humans (and their organizations) make decisions? The result was Boyd's now famous OODA Loop.
Col John Boyd, USAF (Ret), coined the term and developed the concept of the "OODA Loop" (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action). Perhaps most importantly, Boyd was instrumental in explaining and disseminating the concept of "cycle time" and "getting inside the adversary�s decision cycle." Boyd gave his two most famous briefings, "Patterns of Conflict" and "A Discourse on Winning and Losing" over 1,500 times. The ideas, words and phrases contained in Boyd's briefings, which began as one-hour long presentations and grew into 15-hour sessions given over two days, have penetrated not only the US military services but the business community and academia around the world. The OODA Loop is now used as a standard description of decision making cycles. Quote from MindSim Corporation web site.
The OODA Loop was shorthand for the steps necessary to any decision cycle. The upshot of the theory was that whoever can go through the steps the quickest and get to action has an advantage over his or her adversary. This is why the F-86 and F-16 performed better that their E-M charts suggested against comparable aircraft of their day (i.e., the pilot was able to get through the OODA loop quicker in an F-86 than his adversary in a MiG-15). In aerial combat, the goal of a pilot locked in a turning battle is get inside the opponent's loop or turn. Translated into the OODA language, this became "getting inside the adversary's decision cycle". Boyd eventually retired from the Air Force in 1975. Over the following years, he expanded the application and breadth of the OODA loop concept from fighter tactics to war in general to conflict in general (which would include conflict between opponents in the business arena). One of Boyd's close friends (who also worked for him at the Pentagon) was Chuck Spinney and he formulates this broader application of Boyd's theory as follows:
[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 counter-move, then acts (A). The competitor who moves through this OODA-loop cycle the fastest gains an inestimable advantage by disrupting his enemy's ability to respond effectively. He showed in excruciating detail how these cycles create continuous and unpredictable change, and argued that our tactics, strategy, and supporting weapons' technologies should be based on the idea of shaping and adapting to this change � and doing so faster than one's adversary.

While the concept of disrupting an opponent's decision cycle is an old idea in military affairs, Boyd's theory of operating inside an adversary's decision cycle � or OODA loop � and its relationship to conflict is 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. The key to appreciating the power of Boyd's idea is to understand why the orientation function is the door through which a competitor can penetrate his opponent's decision cycle.
Genghis John by Chuck Spinney (1998).
Applying the OODA Loop theory to combat in general led to Boyd's concept of Maneuver Warfare. Although fighter pilots could readily appreciate the need for maneuverability in their discipline, such was not universally accepted by commanders of ground forces. Traditionally, fire power was thought to be king in ground combat, not maneuverability of units. By examining history (such as the success of Genghis Khan and his Mongol army or Hannibal and the Carthaginians at Cannae against the heavy armament of the Roman legions), Boyd postulated that rapid decision-making and movement would allow lighter, faster forces to defeat more heavily armed but slow maneuvering ones. That is an oversimplification of the doctrine of maneuver warfare for the concept went further than just the mechanical makeup of the force but, also, the command structure. Boyd advocated pushing authority down to lower-level commanders to make instantaneous decisions in the heat of battle rather than attempting to push information up the chain of command and wait for orders.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney called Boyd out of retirement in 1991 to advise him on the first Gulf War and it is thought that Boyd's influence resulted in a battle plan featuring a wide, swift northern enveloping movement of the Coalition forces. Boyd's conception of maneuver warfare had its greatest impact on the U.S. Marine Corp which readily adapted its concepts. See 1997 letter of Marine Corp Commandant Gen. Charles Crulack upon the death of Boyd. "The second Iraq campaign is considered by many experts to be the ultimate expression of Boyd's tactics, including feints and disinformation campaigns designed to befuddle the enemy (and more than a few journalists, as it turns out)." Link.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the art of war or, more generally, the art of conflict. Boyd was a colossus of a thinker and deserves his rightful place in the history of military thought.

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Footnote 1: According Coram, Boyd's "Aerial Attack Study" was also adopted by many foreign air forces to train their fighter pilots.
Footnote 2: This was prior to the American Military's large scale involvement in Vietnam and, therefore, the military lacked experience with the use of missiles in air-to-air combat. The common thinking was that air-to-air missiles would be near 100% effective against enemy aircraft (so much so that early models of the F-4 did not have guns--i.e., it's only weapons against other aircraft were missiles, Link).

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