Science, Strategy and War
The Strategic Theory of John Boyd

by Frans P. B. Osinga.
Colonel, Royal Netherlands Air Force

DNI Review by Chet Richards, DNI Editor

London: Routledge, 322 pages. A volume in the Strategy and History Series, edited by Colin Gray and Williamson Murray.

Read Bill Lind's review (3 Oct 2007)

Available from and Barnes & Noble
New! Now available in paperback (print-on-demand) directly from Routledge, $35.95.

13 January 2007

Newton explained that if he had seen further than other men it was because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. As Frans Osinga demonstrates in this meticulously researched new study, Boyd did indeed see further than other men, and he introduces us to the giants upon whose shoulders Boyd stood.

Unlike his Prussian predecessor, Carl von Clausewitz, US Air Force Colonel John R. Boyd, who died almost exactly 10 years ago, began to have a significant influence within his own lifetime. His mathematical description of air-to-air fighter strategy, energy-maneuverability, is still taught today. The implications of that theory have guided fighter design from the F-15 in the late 1960s to the F-16 that Col Osinga flew to the F-22 and F-35, which are just now coming off production lines. Much more significant, however, were his insights into the general nature of conflict, any conflict that involves a struggle between humans where one group can win only to the extent that the others lose.

Not all human life involves such conflict, of course. But there will always be people who, failing to get what they want or feel that they need by any other mechanism, will resort to the ultimate strategy of taking it by lethal force. The problem Boyd set himself was this: If you find yourself in such a situation, how do you ensure that you are the one that wins? If you can resolve it favorably without fighting, if you can achieve Sun Tzu’s optimum in other words, Boyd would cheer you on, and that form of winning is encompassed by Boyd’s great work, A Discourse on Winning and Losing. How do you prevail, however, if armed conflict is forced upon you or even if you choose it faute de mieux – if the alternatives are fight or lose your capacity for independent action, or your ability to survive on your own terms, or even your ability to survive at all?

Boyd’s answer, the Discourse, is a set of roughly 300 charts, and Osinga has set himself the task of guiding his readers through them. It is a formidable assignment. Boyd, you see, did not intend the briefings of the Discourse to be read on their own. For years, he would not give out copies until after the presentation, and it had to be the “whole brief or no brief.” It may seem obvious, but it was in briefing format not so much in tribute to Sun Tzu – although The Art of War is, like the Discourse, a set of bullet points – but simply because he didn’t feel that there were enough readers inside the Beltway to make it worthwhile.

Osinga accomplishes his mission magnificently. If you are interested in Boyd’s problem of how to win regardless, stop right now and order the book. If you have not heard the briefings, my recommendation is to begin with chapter one, then skip back to chapter seven for a summary of Boyd’s influence on strategy. Then, download the charts, go back to chapter two, and work your way through the rest of the book. [The briefings are all available here on DNI, and I offer live presentations.]

Chapter one hints at the controversy surrounding Boyd. For some of this Boyd has only himself to blame since he never wrote any explanation in normal prose. The biggest misconception is that the “OODA loop” is a sequential step-model: first observe, then orient, then decide, then act. Boyd truly has himself to blame for this since he briefed it just this way many times. The problem, as Boyd came to realize, is that it cannot work. Organisms don’t stop observing while they make decisions, or at least those that survive don’t. It’s not a good formula for winning against an intelligent and resourceful opponent. As Osinga explains, Boyd solved this problem by making orientation the “Schwerpunkt” or most important part of the loop and conceived of the other elements as radiating out from it (only observation feeds in). Boyd’s concept of orientation is quite rich and complex, and Osinga does a wonderful job of explaining its roots in the works of scientists such as Karl Popper, Michael Polyani, Thomas Kuhn, and Ilya Prigogine. Osinga, who had access to Boyd’s library, is able to trace the evolution of Boyd’s thinking through the copious notes he made in the margins of these books. One of the delights of Osinga’s volume is his capsule descriptions of the ideas of these scientists and philosophers, a few of the giants who hoisted Boyd on their shoulders.

Osinga breaks his walking tour of Boyd’s inspirations into three logical divisions, military in chapter two, science and epistemology in chapter three, and what we might call “weird science” in chapter four. It is the content of this chapter – complexity, chaos, the far-from-equilibrium “dissipative structures” of Prigogine – Boyd’s Zeitgeist as Osinga terms it – that gives Boyd’s work its unique flavor. Osinga calls these ideas “postmodern” and concludes that Boyd was the first postmodern strategist.

There is a world of implication in that last statement. Where Clausewitz and practically every strategist since considered war as a clash of wills, Boyd sees it as “the non-linear clash of two Complex Adaptive Systems” (124). In Boyd’s scheme, this is equivalent to a non-linear clash between two learning, or equivalently, novelty-generating systems, although it should be noted that Boyd rarely uses the term "system." So whereas Clausewitz saw warfare as a logical extension of policy, Boyd’s universe allowed war to arise from innumerable factors and thereby gave foundation to Martin van Creveld’s concept of nontrinitarian warfare and the roughly equivalent notion of fourth generation war, points that Osinga makes in the final chapter.

The other chapters of the book take the reader through the elements of the Discourse virtually chart-by-chart. In these chapters, Osinga was confronted with a choice for which there are no good alternatives. If you just expound upon the slides without providing them, then you may be incomprehensible to readers, particularly future readers, who don’t have access to the slides themselves. On the other hand, if you try to include them in the text somehow, you give up an enormous amount of valuable real estate that you could be using for explanation and further insight, for providing, in a sense, the words Boyd used when he briefed them (I don’t believe that Col Osinga ever heard Boyd brief). Osinga chooses the latter – realistically what other option is there? – and suffers from some of the same weaknesses that Grant Hammond did in his 2001 biography. The most serious of these is that sometimes it is hard to tell whether we’re reading Boyd or reading about Boyd. Osinga, as did Hammond, ends up quoting substantially from many charts, and I have had to refer back to the source occasionally to tell who is who. All this is properly cited, but it is distracting nonetheless. Unfortunately I don’t have a better alternative, but I would have preferred more of Osinga’s own insights and analysis.

When we get such insight, it is uniformly helpful and interesting. For example:

  • The observation that Boyd’s last briefing, “The Essence of Winning and Losing,” connects epistemology with grand tactics (operations)

  • His analysis of how Boyd derived the common foundation that underlies both the blitzkrieg and guerrilla warfare

  • The linkage between the “struggle for survival” and epistemology on page 131. This is key to understanding Boyd and I have never seen it explained better, although readers may want to compare Chuck Spinney’s presentation, “Evolutionary Epistemology,” on

  • The observation that “One may react very fast to unfolding events, but if one is constantly surprised nevertheless, apparently one has not been able to turn the findings of repeated observations and actions into a better appreciation of the opponent, i.e. one has not learned but instead has continued to operate on existing orientation patterns,” which is as good a summary as I know of why “speed is not the way” (to quote Musashi) and why Boyd’s strategic theory is much, much more than just high speed OODA looping (in fact, it isn’t that at all).

  • His controversial inclusion of network-centric warfare, swarms, cyberwar, etc. under the Boydian umbrella.

I think he’s correct in this last bullet, although these approaches, as opposed to 4GW, assume a state military or other conventional force that’s willing to go head-to-head with us on a battlefield. Boyd would not have agreed that technology, any technology, can blow away the fog of war.

The only potentially significant problem I have is the statement that the OODA loop is only valid at the tactical level. On page 237, for example, Osinga states that “It is only at the tactical level that Boyd actually refers to ‘OODA more inconspicuously, more quickly and with more irregularity.’” That quote is from chart 132 of Patterns of Conflict, and in fact it refers to the grand tactical / operational level. Osinga’s point, however, that as we move up the ladder from tactical through operational, strategic, and grand strategic, Boyd also moves away from OODA loops and towards adherence to a moral code, is insightful and valid. Yet, even at these higher levels, mental interaction – the true role of OODA loops – plays as an element of what Boyd called the “strategic game.”

Is it a tough read? Do you know of anything really worthwhile that is easy? Just as there is no royal road to mathematics, there is no royal road to Boyd. I was present at the creation of many of these charts, and I found a lot in this book that was new and helpful in broadening my understanding (for one thing, I have not, as Osinga did, read Boyd’s original notes in the source books).

Osinga’s assessment in the last chapter represents a many-sided, implicit, cross-referencing and illustrates the claim with which Boyd began the Discourse:

For the interested, a careful examination will reveal that the increasingly abstract discussion surfaces a process of reaching across many perspectives; pulling each and every one apart (analysis), all the while intuitively looking for those parts of the disassembled perspectives which naturally interconnect with one another to form a higher order, more general elaboration (synthesis) of what is taking place. As a result, the process not only creates the Discourse but it also represents the key to evolve the tactics, strategies, goals, unifying themes, etc., that permit us to actively shape and adapt to the unfolding world we are a part of, live-in, and feed-upon.

I should note that this book is a distilled version of Col Osinga’s Ph.D. dissertation, which he completed while serving as a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in The Hague. He has done an excellent job of making academic rigor accessible to the general reader – the only equations, for example, are the ones Boyd used in “Destruction and Creation” – while exploiting the depth of research that a dissertation requires. For the intellectually rapacious, there are 32 pages of single-spaced notes and 12 of bibliography.

I enthusiastically recommend Science, Strategy and War to all students of strategy, particularly those more concerned with where strategy is going than where it has been.  It's well worth the somewhat steep asking price, although check around - as of 6 February Barnes & Noble has it at 20% off for members of their club.

More on Boyd:

  • Robert Coram's compelling epic, Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Amazon, B&N), sets the standard for modern military biographies.

  • Grant Hammond's The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security, is also quite good.  It appears, however, to be out of print. [Correction: 18 Jan - the paperback is available - Amazon, B&N]  Hammond was one of Osinga's advisors, and his book has more biographical material than Osinga's, which has practically none, but much less than Coram's.

  • For applications of Boyd to business, I modestly recommend my own Certain to Win.  Boyd was involved with the early drafts.

Visit the DNI Science, Strategy and War preview page.

Return to DNI Home Page