How Col. John Boyd Beat the Generals
Martin Edwin Andersen
August 11, 2002
[Reprinted with permission]
For nearly 40 years a group of Washington's best minds on defense issues has met each Wednesday at the end of the day for a midweek happy hour in the basement of the Officers Club at spacious Fort Myer in Virginia, overlooking the Potomac River and the federal capital beyond. Participants on any given evening might include a French liaison officer, a Russian intellectual, several retired colonels, a former assistant secretary of defense and a budding journalist needing to be schooled in the intricacies of one of the Pentagon's newest weapons systems.
As the beer flows, one knot of guests is talking about the latest news from the budget wars on Capitol Hill; another, sitting at an adjoining table, the applicability of Sun Tzu's theories to the war in Afghanistan. High-powered debate is laced with testosterone-fueled war stories and sometimes-raucous humor. The median age of the group gathered at the club is older now, but its purpose remains pure: to make sure that the Pentagon offers America's troops the best-tested and most developed weapons. Their collective record in doing so is fearsome.
The largest presence at the club, however, is not seated there in the Old Guard Room but buried a mile away at Arlington National Cemetery. In March 1997, Col. John Boyd was interred with full military honors from the U.S. Air Force he served for 24 years, as well as with the highest accolade the U.S. Marine Corps can bestow. "Forty-Second" Boyd, the man remembered for defeating every opponent in aerial combat at the Air Force's premier dog-fighting academy in two-thirds of a minute, helped found the Fort Myer get-togethers at the end of his Air Force career.
But these weekly gatherings are in some ways merely a grace note in the long and often painful saga of a man who, as a full colonel, went toe to toe, time after time, with a phalanx of two-and three-star generals for the good of the country, winning most of his battles and surviving long enough to help provide secretary of defense Richard Cheney the ideas needed for swift and decisive victory in the Persian Gulf War. ("Keep it simple - so that the generals will understand it," Boyd frequently told his small band of fellow guerrillas, known collectively as "The Acolytes.") Boyd was, in the words of Pierre Sprey - a Pentagon "Whiz Kid" who became a close friend and advocate of the colonel and eulogized him that wintry morning five years ago - one of the rare few who were "defined by the courts-martial and investigations they faced." He also was, biographer Robert Coram tells Insight, "the most important unknown man of his time and the most remarkable unsung hero in American military history."
From hardscrabble beginnings in Erie, Pa., where he grew up without a father, Boyd first achieved fame at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where he became an instructor upon returning from a combat tour in Korea. (He had just missed action in World War II, serving in Japan as part of the occupation force.)
A thinking fighter pilot, Boyd while still a junior officer became the first person ever to codify air-to-air combat techniques. His "Aerial Attack Study" eventually became official Air Force doctrine and a foundational text for air forces around the globe. After studying thermodynamics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Boyd applied his knowledge as a fighter pilot to create his energy-maneuverability (E-M) theory. The contribution was so significant that the "Mad Major" went on to play a key role, through the application of E-M to the aerodynamic configuration of the planes, in making the F-15 and the F-16 the finest aircraft of their class in the world. In fact, the Soviets also used Boyd's ideas in designing both the MiG-29 and the SU-27 fighters.
Loud and profane, Boyd's intellectual achievements were matched by his relentless guerrilla warfare against hidebound "careerists" then running the Air Force. These careerists believed that big bombers and equally large budgets were both the wave of the future and their ride to advancement in the service and in the wild blue yonder of lucrative "retirement." Shrewd and aggressive, Boyd took profound delight as he repeatedly "hosed" squadrons of two- and three-star careerists from the general staff. Throughout his career, Boyd's own professional advancement appeared in jeopardy as his string of bureaucratic victories left rivals seething for revenge. Only the repeated intervention of the most senior officers - impressed by Boyd's intellect, single-minded dedication and devotion to the service and its men - allowed him to rise to the rank of colonel.
Boyd's service in Indochina came not as a fighter pilot but as commander of a top-secret intelligence center in Thailand, a base whose activities were so sensitive that for the first three years of its operation it did not officially exist. His performance there was "absolutely superior," one rating official remarked, and Boyd's leadership on the ground was matched by his pilots' equally outstanding efforts in the air, where they employed the devastating panoply of aerial-warfare techniques that Boyd himself developed. Once back in Washington, Boyd succeeded - through a back channel to then-secretary of defense James Schlesinger - in developing off the books a prototype of an ultralight fighter (which later became the F-16) that was opposed vigorously by the Air Force brass.
At the same time, Boyd and two of his growing coterie of Acolytes, Capts. Raymond Leopold and Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, successfully challenged the generals over the cost of the B-1 bomber, a contractors' boondoggle whose price ballooned far beyond what the Air Force would admit. Boyd even advised Schlesinger and (through him) Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about the true capabilities of the Soviet Backfire bomber, allowing for a more realistic threat analysis during delicate SALT arms negotiations. ("The Backfire," Boyd appraised, "is a piece of s***, a glorified F-111.")
It was Boyd's retirement in 1975, Coram tells us in his stunning new biography Boyd - The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War that marked his emergence as one of the world's most important military strategists. An autodidact, Boyd set upon a dervish-paced study of warfare from the beginning of time, engaging history's strategists such as Hannibal, Belisarius, Genghis Khan and von Clausewitz as if in a dogfight, probing the perimeters of their thought to "find the six" (identify the vulnerabilities) of their ideas. The only theoretician Boyd did not attack was Sun Tzu, author of the oldest book on war, instead using contemporary ideas from diverse disciplines such as math, physics, anthropology, biology, economics and philosophy to update and reaffirm the work of the Chinese master.
It was during this period, Coram tells us, that Boyd "became the founder, leader and spiritual center of the Military Reform Movement - a guerrilla movement that affected the monolithic and seemingly omnipotent Pentagon as few things in history have done. For a few years he was one of the most powerful men in Washington." Boyd's followers, too, began to have their own singular impact on the military. Spinney would become famous - featured on the cover of Time magazine - for a briefing he prepared called "The Plans/Reality Mismatch," a superbly researched paper in which he showed how unnecessarily complex weapons systems - career builders for many rising officers - were in fact wrecking the Pentagon budget. Another Acolyte, Jim Burton, successfully took on the entire Pentagon over safety failures covered up by the Army in the Bradley fighting vehicle - imperfections that made them virtual deathtraps in war conditions.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nongovernmental watchdog group, who worked with Boyd during the battle over the Bradley. She says Boyd "inspired people to challenge assumptions, to think things through and to fight like hell those who get in your way." Said Spinney: "He was a creative genius ... who inspired a generation."
Perhaps Boyd's most important contribution to modern warfare - and the management ideas pioneered by guru Chet Richards - was the "Observe-Orient-Decide-Act" cycle, commonly known as the "OODA loop." Simply rendered, the OODA loop is a blueprint for the maneuver tactics that allow one to attack the mind of an opponent, to unravel its commander even before a battle begins. Boyd's ideas spread like wildfire among the Marine Corps, where a new breed of restless young officers, led by Gen. Al Gray and Col. Mike Wyly, were tired of their image as knuckle-dragging infantrymen and sought glory in matching toughness with intellect. In one of the greatest ironies of U.S. military history, a pilot from a military culture so unlike their own taught the Marines how to fight a ground war using tactics evolved from the OODA loop.
Coram traces how Boyd's ideas percolated into key centers of civilian and military decisionmaking and led to a swift and decisive victory in Operation Desert Storm, and how his maneuverist doctrine foretold the type of terrorist tactics used on Sept. 11. In an interview Coram conducted with now Vice President Cheney, the former defense secretary acknowledged that Boyd, whom he met with repeatedly during the planning stages of the Iraqi campaign, was "clearly a factor in my thinking" on the strategy to pursue. When Boyd died, Marine Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak praised him as one of the premier influences on the thinking that led to victory in the Persian Gulf, where Marines schooled in his ideas on maneuverability outperformed other U.S. forces arrayed against Saddam Hussein.
As Cheney remarked to Coram, a comment all the more poignant as America again prepares for war with Iraq: "We could use him now. I'd love to turn him on our current defense establishment and see what he could come up with. We are still oriented toward the past. We need to think about the next 100 years rather than the last 100 years."
The Colonel's Universal Teaching
Col. John Boyd, his biographer Robert Coram reports in his well-written book, had a speech he often gave to those who, like the fighter pilot himself, found that doing right did not always mean doing well. Known as the "To Be or To Do" speech, Boyd used it to rally flagging spirits of apprentices who, until they became involved as one of his Acolytes, had appeared fated to climb the highest rungs of conventional success. The tenets of this speech reflected both his spirit and values:
"One day you will come to a fork in the road. And you're going to have to make a decision about what direction you want to go." [Boyd] raised his hand and pointed. "If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments." Then Boyd raised the other hand and pointed another direction. "Or you can go that way and you can do something - something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won't have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference." He paused and stared. "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?"
Martin Edwin Andersen is a reporter for Insight magazine.