'Off We Go . . .'
reviewed by Maj Chris Yunker, USMC(Ret)
Marine Corps Gazette
November 2002, p99
BOYD: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War
By Robert Coram
Little, Brown and Company
New York, 2002
ISBN 0316881465 (HC), 440 pp.,
Gen James L. Jones once stated that the Marine Corps does not look forward to transformation, that our transformation began as we adopted maneuver warfare precepts as the way we think about war. In his opening address to the U.S. Naval Institute/ Marine Corps Association Transformation Symposium, Gen Michael J. Williams pointed out the role of intellectual diversity in our tradition of innovation and its necessary place in our Corps as we look to the future. The common thread here is that compelling change is based on ideas, and ideas occur in the minds of people.
In Boyd, author Robert Coram provides a case study of a person with a penchant for compelling change-in himself, his profession, and his environment. His tools were his ideas, and his material was evidence from the physical world. Coram provides the more human dimension of the life and work of the late Col John Boyd, USAF (Ret), offering a suitable companion to the work by Grant Hammond, entitled Mind of War, that focused on interpreting Boyd's ideas and work.
Coram's Boyd is the tale of a man who saw himself foremost as a competitor who grew up in difficult circumstances in Erie, PA. That competitive drive carried him initially to college as a swimmer, then on to the Air Force as a fighter pilot where he responded with-out reserve to the call of the military profession. But the man in this portrait became much more than a U.S. military pilot. In a pattern repeated throughout his life, Boyd studied, then applied, the principles of the fighter pilot, earning respect within the community by winning dogfights at the Air Force Fighter Weapons School. His active and powerful mind saw both the need and opportunity to improve the art of aerial combat, so true to character, he worked tirelessly to find a better model (actually a better idea and a better way of looking at the problem). Evaluating experience against ideas, he transformed the art and science of designing combat air-craft. Like many others John Boyd sought change, but unique to his character was the willingness to determine what was "better" only after examining the practical evidence against new ideas. His contributions were founded in a relentless pursuit of truth-based on evidence, not exposition. While early chapters of the book suffer from a series of unqualified descriptors (the best fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force), Coram may be excused as his effort to document Boyd's exceptional character found few written sources on his personal life. Based on interviews with friends and family he does describe, in sometimes painful detail, the personal costs Boyd and his family paid for both his enthusiasms and his standards.
The storyline is familiar to well-read Marines. John Boyd, after short service in Korea, becomes "40-second Boyd" at Fighter Weapons School by using what are later described as "fast transients" to get on his opponents tail in 40 seconds or less. Drawing on his practical experience while studying theory, he develops energy maneuverability theory while a student at Georgia Tech and during his assignment to Eglin Air Force Base. Boyd's theory provides the first conceptual model to explain dog-fight performance in terms of physics and aircraft design parameters. This higher level of understanding concerning airframe design bears fruit in sever-al ways. Guided by the theory, Boyd and his "acolytes" drive the Air Force to implement improvements to the F-15 design and force the inception of the "lightweight fighter," a design initiative that resulted in production of both the F-16 and the F-18. The A-10 design was also influenced by this small group of activists, although Boyd was only peripherally involved in this program.
Of greatest interest to Marines, how-ever, are the chapters that describe Boyd's work after retiring from the Air Force. Subsequent to retirement Boyd studied history and, working with Marines and military reform advocates (Col Michael Wyly, USMC(Ret); Gen A.M. Gray, USMC(Ret); Col G.I. Wilson, USMCR(Ret); Bill Lind; Chuck Spinney; and others), lay the ground-work for significant doctrinal changes in both the Army and the Marine Corps. The "Boyd Cycle" or "OODA (observation, orientation, decision, action) Loop" is the shorthand way Marines describe the basis of maneuver warfare, and these chapters explain how Boyd influenced our thinking. 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 commit-ted to an idea provide the positive, constructive forces of history. Read this book. Examine its practical evidence against your ideas about what one per-son can do to change his world.
Maj Yunker is the Deputy Director, MAGTF Expeditionary Family of Fighting Vehicles, Marine Corps Systems Command.