Colonel Boyd: An American Strategist
I have been focusing on strategy and strategic thinkers in anticipation of the release of my interview with Sir Lawrence Freedman, author of Strategy: A History. In his book, Freedman discusses the contribution of Colonel John Boyd to strategy. Colonel Boyd was a fighter pilot, who served in the United States Air Force during World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Throughout his career, Boyd studied dogfighting principles, and looked at the ability of an aircraft to maneuver into positions of advantage where it could shoot down an opposing aircraft. After Colonel Boyd served in Korea, he was assigned to the Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School where he gained the moniker “40 second Boyd,” which referred to the fact that he could out maneuver an opposing aircraft in forty seconds or less. In his career, Boyd studied science, mathematics, and history in an effort to develop theories of warfare, maneuver, and also develop ideas for the ideal fighter aircraft. As part of a relentless drive to explore his theories of maneuver, Boyd earned an engineering degree from Georgia Tech. Colonel Boyd is widely known in business and military circles for his popular idea of the OODA Loop. “OODA” stands for observe, orient, decide, act. The principle of the OODA Loop became extremely important to military thinkers, who were interested in “maneuver warfare.” The purpose of the OODA Loop is to generate a cycle of decision-making that is quicker than the enemies’ decision-making cycle. The goal is for friendly forces to observe, orient, decide, and act at a pace that is greater than the enemy. The Marine Corps championed this philosophy, and codified it into its doctrine on Warfighting and Tactics.
Boyd’s Work and a Break from Attrition Warfare
The Marine Corps has embraced the work of Colonel Boyd because of its emphasis on the “mental domain” (Freedman 199). Warfare based on “attrition” typically refers to a mass of forces trying to overcome another mass of forces. Vietnam is seen as an example of attrition warfare because the U.S. prioritized “body counts” as a metric for success in combat. However, despite the fact that the U.S. could achieve higher casualty counts, the strategy did not disrupt and shatter the enemies will to fight. As a result, in the post-Vietnam era, the mental and moral component of warfare has been developed as a more effective component of strategy. With respect to Colonely Boyd, Sir Lawrence Freedman writes:
Boyd distinguished between attrition warfare, focused on the physical domain and using firepower as a destructive force, and maneuver warfare, focused on the mental domain where the aim was to generate “surprise and shock” by using ambiguity, mobility, and deception. (Freedman 199)
Although Colonel Boyd never wrote a book explaining his ideas, they exist in a series of briefs that he gave when he was working at the Pentagon. One of these briefs is called “Patterns of Conflict.” At the beginning of the brief, Boyd describes the goal to “collapse adversary’s system into confusion and disorder causing him to over- and under-react to activity that appears simultaneously menacing as well as ambiguous, chaotic, or misleading.” This encapsulates the principles of a “friendly OODA Loop” moving faster than an “enemy OODA Loop” in an effort to shatter the enemies’ cohesion.
Here is Colonel Boyd’s illustrated depiction of the OODA Loop from “The Essence of Winning and Losing.” It is important to see that the OODA Loop relies on a series of feedback loops that inform decision making. It must be emphasized that this process does not have to be hasty or rushed. Speed is relative to the enemy. This process only needs to happen quicker than the enemies’ ability to observe, orient, decide, and act. With the feedback loops, we see several criteria upon which success is based. The ability to communicate important information in a timely manner is crucial. Thus, any organization, military or otherwise, must look to implement systems of organization in which the right information flows to the right people at the right time.
The process of effective decision-making is a major part of maneuver warfare as the Marine Corps understands it. Furthermore, the emphasis is on giving leadership at all levels especially the tactical and operational levels the ability to make fast, intelligent decisions that contribute to the success of the mission. In a paper entitled “Destruction and Creation,” Colonel Boyd wrote:
Decisions must be rendered to monitor and determine the precise nature of the actions needed that will be compatible with the goal. To make these timely decisions implies that we must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself appears to change.
This paper was part of Boyd’s thinking on the second law of thermodynamics and entropy in which he studied the way mental concepts developed in environments of chaos and uncertainty. In his conclusion, Boyd writes, “These mental concepts are employed as decision models by individuals and societies for determining and monitoring actions needed to cope with their environment—or to improve their capacity for independent action.” Again, we see the influence on how military thinkers would develop the idea of empowering small unit leaders to be able to make decisions in environments of chaos and uncertainty, which the Marine Corps recognizes as part of the nature of war. Furthermore, by decentralizing actions and empowering small units, the Marine Corps recognizes the ability of small units to achieve large victories and defeat larger units. Sir Lawrence Freedman explains that military thinkers like Bill Lind would develop these concepts based on historical models such as the blitzkrieg. Blitzkrieg based operations were based on destroying the “will of the opposing high command by creating unexpected and unfavorable operational and strategic situations” (Freedman 200). Freedman mentions that the Marine Corps’ doctrine of Warfighting published in the 1989 FMFM-1 explained warfare by maneuver as a process in which a physically superior foe could be defeated if “his moral and physical cohesion” was destroyed (Freedman 201).
Boyd’s Contributions to the Military
If one has a mental caricature of a stubborn, iconoclastic Colonel, Boyd seems to fit the stereotype perfectly. He was famous for his brash and combative nature in voicing his ideas. Robert Coram is the author of a comprehensive biography called Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. In the biography, Coram mentions that Boyd occasionally became heated in debates to the point in which he would shove the lit end of his cigar into the tie of a co-worker at the Pentagon. In the book, Coram paints a detailed portrait of a man who approached all aspects of norms and etiquette within the Pentagon with a devil may care attitude. Indeed, Boyd’s single-minded focus on promoting his theories caused him to neglect considerations of his own personal promotion and pay. When he retired from the military, he famously did not want to be paid for his work as a consultant. Unfortunately, Coram describes Boyd’s character as having an adverse affect on his family too. Thus, in many ways, Boyd’s greatest strength- his passion for his work- was also the source of his greatest flaw- neglect for those closest to him.
Nevertheless, Boyd endeared himself to a cohort of followers, who became known as the “acolytes.” These individuals were determined to promote Boyd’s legacy and ideas. They responded to his infamous decree that one must either decide to “be somebody or do something.” In terms of his contributions to the military, Boyd applied his theories of Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) in the F-15 and F-16 program. The E-M theory was instrumental in developing aerial tactics. Coram writes the following of E-M:
It provided a scientific means by which the maneuverability of an aircraft could be evaluated and tactics designed both to overcome the design flaws of one’s own aircraft and to minimize or negate the superiority of the opponent’s aircraft, and, finally, it became a fundamental tool in designing fighter aircraft.
Much of Coram’s book documents Boyd’s fight to develop the F-15 and F-16 into fighter aircraft capable of winning dogfights. As a result, Boyd frequently clashed with people in the Pentagon who wanted to weigh the aircraft down with needless technology that did not maximize the efficiency of the platform. Coram shows that Boyd was also fighting the institutional wisdom of Air Force strategists, who focused on the Air Force’s ability to fly long range missions to drop conventional munitions, but had neglected the function of the Air Force to fight battles in the air.
Perhaps one of Colonel Boyd’s greatest contributions to the military came through the relationship he had developed with Dick Cheney, who met Boyd when Cheney was a member of the House of Representatives. When Cheney became Secretary of Defense, he was a key figure in planning for the Gulf War that would take place as part of America’s military effort to liberate Kuwait from Saddam’s Iraqi Army. Coram writes that Cheney overruled initial plans of General Norman Schwarzkopf in favor of plans that applied maneuver principles that Boyd had talked with him about. Part of Boyd’s influence on strategy involved bypassing enemy center’s of gravity, which the Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz called Schwerpunkt, and creating confusion and chaos in the enemies’ systems. The following excerpt from Coram’s biography illustrates how Colonel Boyd’s ideas had such a profound impact on military operations during the Gulf War:
What is still not generally known to the public is how well the Marines performed in the Gulf. Brigadier General Mike Myatt, a graduate of the Fort Pickett free-play exercises and a man intimately familiar with Boyd’s work, was then commander of the 1st Marine Division. Three days before the war officially began, Myatt’s men raided deep behind Iraqi lines. They bypassed strong points, forgot their flanks, and penetrated so deeply and caused such confusion that the Iraqi Army rushed in reinforcements against what they anticipated would be the main thrust of the American invasion. Then they began surrendering by the thousands. Nowhere can be found a better example of Boyd’s ideas on “folding the enemy in on himself” than in the fact that some fifteen Iraqi divisions surrendered to two divisions of Marines.
Coram writes further:
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.
The quick and decisive defeat of the Iraqi Army by coalition forces was a remarkable achievement. Combat operations were declared over within 100 hours from the time they began. Despite strategic blunders that occurred after combat ended, it is clear that at the tactical and operational levels, the American military had proven capable of executing fantastic blitzkrieg-style maneuvers. Considering the fact that the previous war America had fought in Vietnam was based on attrition, the Gulf War was a remarkable turnaround. It was vindication for military strategists like Boyd, who had worked for years to promote a style of warfare based on maneuver.
In his late years and after his death, the Marine Corps honored Colonel Boyd more than any other branch of service. In fact, Boyd is hardly mentioned by the Air Force to this day. But, he is revered by the Marine Corps. Coram wrote, “When Boyd died, Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak wrote a moving tribute in a defense journal saying Boyd was the architect of America’s victory in the Gulf War.” Coram also explains that many Marines attended Boyd’s funeral to pay homage to a man, who had influenced the doctrinal publication of Warfighting.
Colonel Boyd’s “Patterns of Conflict” is an excellent presentation to read and study. Marines will recognize that many of Boyd’s ideas appear in our doctrine, and directly impact the logic and thinking of our tactics. Robert Coram’s biography is extremely well-written, and worth reading not only as an entertaining look at an influential military leader, but also for some fascinating history on the Air Force, stories on the inner workings of the Pentagon, and to see how one man can have a positive impact on the institutional inertia of large organizations like the Department of Defense. Finally, the website Slightly East of New is a good place to find Boyd’s work as well as articles and resources related to his life and thinking.
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