The strategic genius of John Boyd: “The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War”

Robert Coram, author of Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War describes John Boyd as “first, last and always a fighter pilot – a loud talking, cigar-smoking, bigger-than-life fighter pilot”. But also as more than that: “he was that rarest of creatures – a thinking fighter pilot.” Boyd is widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest military strategists, despite the fact that it’s unlikely you have ever heard of him. Over his career he bought the Air Force its Aerial Attack Study, invented Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) Theory, was the father of the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets and created a decision making framework called the OODA loop. His thinking about strategy spread across the US armed forces: his Patterns of Conflict briefing provided the basis for the US military’s strategy in the first Gulf War, leading to their 100 hour victory. It still underpins US Marine Corps fighting doctrine to this day.

John Boyd was an endearing eccentric and strategic genius who is brought wonderfully to life by author Robert Coram in his meticulously researched book. Coram demonstrates what one man, surrounded by a few devoted and loyal Acolytes, can do to change the world. Maneuverability, as it relates to military (and business) strategy, we learn is key. 

The strategic genius of John Boyd: "The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War"

Aerial Attack Study

In 1959, when he was just a young Captain, Boyd became the first man to codify the elusive and mysterious ways of air-to-air combat. He developed an wrote the Aerial Attack Study, a document that became official Air Force doctrine and the bible of air combat. Fighter aviation became no longer a bag of tricks to be passed down from one generation of pilots to another. For the first time, the high stakes game of aerial combat was documented, codified and illustrated.

The Aerial Attack Study’became the manual for air forces around the world. It changed the way they flew and the way they fought. Forty years after it was written, even with the passage of the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, nothing substantial had been added to it. And it was written by a thirty three year old Captain who wasn’t happy with it. Boyd believed [the study] could be formulated another way, that there had to be a better method of articulating the contents, maybe even something beyond the maneuver-countermaneuver strategy, something that went even beyond the mathematical formulae to the core, the very essence, of combat flying.

Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) Theory

Talking about the ‘Aerial Attack Study’, Boyd is quoted as saying “one day I’ll have a breakthrough on this”. And that’s exactly what he had. In 1961, when back at college for a degree in engineering, Boyd went off on a riff late one night when studying for an exam in thermodynamics about being a fighter pilot in Korea and what it was like to fly an F-86 down MiG alley. Suddenly what he had learned in thermodynamics meshed with all that he had learned as a fighter pilot and Boyd had the epiphany that became his Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) Theory. The theory, at its simplest, is a method to determine the specific energy rate of an aircraft.

In the beginning the entire thrust of his theory had been to understand the full performance envelope of an American aircraft, with the goal of developing new tactics for aerial battles. Then he realised that if E-M could quantify the performance of American aircraft, it could – for the first time – do the same for ‘threat aircraft’, for the MiGs and Sukhois flown by the Soviets. Finally, if E-M could quantify aircraft performance, why couldn’t he back up the theory and use it to design fighter aircraft.

Thanks to Boyd’s theory, pilots could now outwit their enemy based on a mathematical understanding of their planes capability and that of their enemy’s:

In the past, when pilots thought of maneuvering, they thought strictly in terms of air speed. Good pilots intuitively understood energy, though they could not articulate it. In World War II, for instance, they knew never to get into a turning fight with a Japanese Zero; in Korea, never turn with a MiG. Now, thanks to E-M, they could look at a chart and know at what altitude they could best fight. They knew how many Gs they could pull at a given altitude and still maintain not airspeed but excess energy.

The Father of the F-15 & F-16

The gospel of E-M theory was spreading fast but it was highly resisted by a military establishment gripped by the Eisenhower Doctrine and the Massive Retaliation approach to war. Bigger-Higher-Faster-Farther was the mantra for airplane design; a constantly airborne fleet with the ability to deliver ever-bigger nuclear bombs on targets across the globe.

You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever.

Boyd’s was guided in his work by one simple principle: he wanted to give pilots a fighter that would out-maneuver any enemy. He knew it mush have a high thrust-to-weight ratio if it were to have neck-snapping acceleration. And he knew it had to have lots of wing in order to maneuver quickly into the firing envelope. It had to have the energy to disengage, go for separation, then come back into the fight with an advantage. It had to have the fuel to penetrate deep into enemy territory and sustain a prolonged fight.

But all these criteria were vague. The closest Boyd came to defining a specific technical solution was when he said the aircraft should pull enough Gs at 30,000 feet to “roll down your goddamn socks” and that it should be so maneuverable that it could “fly up its own asshole”!

Through the 1960s Boyd and his ‘Fighter Mafia’ set to work within the Pentagon to make this fighter plane a reality, with the first F15 flying in 1972. The full story of this internal battle over bureaucracy is told in the book, but Boyd and his select team’s relentless pursuit of the perfect fighter and “knowledge gained from E-M made the F-15 and [later] F-16 the finest aircraft of their type in the world. Boyd is acknowledged as the father of those two aircraft”.

The OODA Loop

Boyd retired form the Air Force in 1975, having reached the rank of Colonel. His abrasive style and anti-establishment attitude meant that he was never promoted to General, despite his contributions.

Then he went into a self-imposed exile and immersed himself in a daunting study of philosophy, the theory of science, military history, psychology, and a dozen other seemingly unrelated disciplines. He had evolved form being a warrior to a warrior-engineer, and now was about to move into the rarefied atmosphere of the pure intellectual. He synthesized all that he studied into all that he knew about aerial combat [and] expanded it to include all forms of conflict.

He wrote ‘Destruction and Creation’, an extraordinary and little known thesis on creativity and reacting to changing environments. He then applied this “to an operational issue – that is, a better and more thorough definition of ‘maneuverability'”.

Boyd went back to his beginnings… to Korea, where the F-86 achieved such a stunning kill ratio against the MiG-15, a superior aircraft in energy-maneuverability terms. He used additional examples; Germany’s blitzkreig attack against France in 1940 and the Israelis’ lightning-fast raid at Entebbe Airport to free hostages seized by Uganda. In both instances the ability to transition quickly from one maneuver to another was a crucial factor in the victory. Thinking about operating at a quicker tempo – not just moving faster – than the adversary was a new concept in waging war. Generating a rapidly changing environment – that is engaging in activity that is so quick it is disorientating to the enemy – inhibits the adversary’s ability to adapt and causes confusion and disorder that, in turn, causes an adversary to overreact or underreact. Boyd closed the briefing by saying the message is that whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives.

Boyd’s studies continued. Four areas drew most of his attention: general theories of war, the blitzkreig, guerilla warfare, and the use of deception by great commanders. He studied Sun Tzu (400 B.C.), Alexander the Great (300 B.C.), Hannibal (200 B.C.), Belisarius (500 A.D.) Gengis Khan (1200 A.D.), Tamerlane (1400 A.D.), then Napoleon and Von Clausewitz and on through World War I and World War II.

Boyd devised the Oberve-Orient-Decide-Act cycle, or OODA Loop, a decision making framework that can, according to Coram:

Be vicious, a terribly destructive force, virtually unstoppable in causing panic and confusion and – Boyd’s phrase is best – “‘unravel the competition’. This is true whether the Loop is applied to combat, in competitive business practices, in sports or in personal relationships. The most amazing aspect of the OODA Loop is that the losing side rarely understands what happened.

John Boyd strategy

Boyd paid particularly close attention to German strategy and tactics. Words such as Schwerpunkt and Fingerspitzengefuhl became everyday expressions. Schwerpunkt means the main focus of effort. On a deeper reading it is the underlying goal, the glue that holds together various units. Fingerspitzengefuhl means a fingertip feel and applies to a leader’s instinctive and intuitive sense of what’s going on and what is needed in a battle or conflict. Boyd considered that the blitzkreig is far more than the lightning thrusts that most people think of when they hear the term; rather it was all about high operational tempo and the rapid exploitation of an opportunity. The lessons for business strategy and leadership are so rich:

In a blitzkreig situation, the commander is able to maintain a high operational tempo and rapidly exploit opportunity because he makes sure his subordinates know his intent, his Schwerpunkt. They are not micromanaged; instead they are given “mission orders”. This means that they understand their commander’s overall intent and they know their job is to do whatever is necessary to fulfill that intent. The subordinate and the commander share a common outlook. They trust each other, and this trust is the glue that holds the apparently formless effort together. Trust emphasises implicit over explicit communications. Trust is the unifying concept. This gives the subordinate greater freedom of action.

Boyd’s epic contributions to modern military strategy

At the end of the 1970s, the unnecessary complexity of major weapons systems meant that the US defence spending was spiraling out of control. The Army, battered by the Vietnam War, was also under enormous pressure to change from its ancient doctrine of attrition warfare. The new Army field manual still placed heavy emphasis on centuries-old ideas of firepower and orderly frontal assaults. The Army continued to rely on the idea that whoever has the biggest guns and the most soldiers will win.

Boyd, and his Acolytes, were playing central roles in government and the Pentagon, as part of the Reform movement, to bring about changes in strategy. But it was in the Marines where Boyd found a home for his final masterpiece. The Marines strategy still revolved around the concept of advancing on the line, just as they had done in World War I and still in Vietnam, to disastrous effect. Developed out of his work on the OODA Loop, Boyd delivered his Patterns of Conflict brief to the Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School (AWS) in 1980 and heralded in a new style of maneuver warfare, still enshrined in current Marine doctrine.

In a final twist, Boyd would become close to then US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, after the outbreak of the 1990 Gulf War. Though this was not known about until books were written afterwards, Cheney generally opposed General Norman Schwarzkopf’s initial war plan. Schwarzkopf’s strategy was to launch a head-to-head assault against the main strength of the Iraqi forces, the classic mindset of the Army commanders imbued with the theory of attrition warfare.

This strategy was revised and a left hook envelopment proposed. Although ridiculed, it has, according to Coram:

“Become an article of faith that Cheney developed his own plan for fighting the Gulf War. He had had enough one-on-one sessions with Boyd to give him the knowledge and self-confidence to second-guess even a head strong four star General such as Norman Schwarzkopf”

Cheney says that Boyd was “clearly a factor in my thinking”, though he minimises his role in changing Schwarzkopf’s initial plan. As transpired, the Marines would feint an amphibious assault while the Army would make a wide sweep through the western desert and then swing north to cut off the Iraqi Army. It worked to devastating effect.

Everything successful about the Gulf War is a direct reflection of Boyd’s ‘Patterns of Conflict’ – multiple thrusts and deception operations that created ambiguity and caused the enemy to surrender by the thousands. America (and the coalition forces) won without resorting to a prolonged ground war. America not only picked when and where it would fight, but also when and where it would not fight. Coalition forces operated at a much higher tempo than the enemy. The resulting crises happened so fast that opposing forces could not keep pace with them. The one hundred hour ground war blitz against Iraq is a splendid example of maneuver warfare, the conventional and the unconventional, all done so quickly the enemy was disorientated and collapsed from within.

Remembering Colonel John Boyd

Colonel John Boyd died from colon cancer in 1997; “he was one of the most important unknown men of his time”. He was creative genius and grand master of strategy.

Boyd’s work proves that maneuverability provides the basis for superior performance. A business is not a fighter plane, but the idea that there may be some way to codify its strategic capabilities, to analyse the competition and design for success is an interesting one. And I see deep analogies between the concept of maneuverability versus traditional attrition in the field of contemporary business and entrepreneurship, as agile technology-enabled businesses take on their corporate counterparts. Boyd embodies the spirit of the entrepreneur:

Boyd and the small group of people working with him had an impact on the Defense Department disproportional to their numbers. And that is the essence of Boyd’s story. Like any good story it has a moral, one consistent with other powerful biographies. The moral is that, one by one, individuals committed to an idea provide the positive, constructive forces of history. Read this book. Examine its practical evidence against your ideas about what one person can do to change the world.

Maj. Chris Yunker, Marine Corps Gazette

If you enjoyed this, you might like:

Jocko Willink talking all things Boyd and the history of military strategy on his podcast 35: Maneuver Warfare, Being a Rebel, Disarming w/ Words, Sliding into Old Habits.

Boyd was a complexity thinker. My post Three fundamental truths about uncertainty dives much further into this topic.

15 books that will make you wiser, and check out the rest of my Library, a virtual curation of all the books that I have read.