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John Boyd (military strategist)

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John Boyd (military strategist)

John Boyd
Nickname(s) Forty Second Boyd, Genghis John, The Mad Major, The Ghetto Colonel
Born (1927-01-23)January 23, 1927
Erie, Pennsylvania
Died March 9, 1997(1997-03-09) (aged 70)
West Palm Beach, Florida
Buried at Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Air Force
Years of service 1945–1948 (Army Air Corps)
Rank Colonel
Battles/wars Korean War
Vietnam War
Awards Legion of Merit (4)
Other work Military strategist

Colonel John Richard Boyd (January 23, 1927 – March 9, 1997) was a United States Air Force fighter pilot and Pentagon consultant of the late 20th century, whose theories have been highly influential in the military, sports, business, and litigation.

Early years

Boyd was born on January 23, 1927 in [2] Boyd enlisted in the Army Air Corps on October 30, 1944; he was a junior in high school. On March 27, 1953 Boyd arrived in Korea as an F-86 pilot (Coram 49). Although Boyd was never credited with any kills, after his service in Korea he was invited to attend the most prestigious school a fighter pilot could attend, the Fighter Weapons School (FWS). Boyd attended the school and not only performed well, but rose to the top of his class. Upon graduation he was invited to stay at the FWS as an instructor. In Boyd’s time, being an instructor for the FWS was the most prized position any fighter pilot could hold. It was here that Boyd would revolutionize aerial tactics and develop his concept of the OODA loop.

Military career

As a high school graduate, Boyd enlisted in the United States Army and served in the Army Air Forces from 1945 to 1947, assigned as a swimming instructor in occupied Japan. After graduating from the University of Iowa, he served as a U.S. Air Force officer from July 8, 1951, until his retirement on August 31, 1975. Boyd flew a short tour (22 missions instead of 100) in F-86 Sabres during the Korean War, during which he served as a wingman and never fired his guns or claimed an aerial kill.[3] Boyd was later assigned to the USAF Weapons School, where he became head of the Academic Section and wrote the tactics manual for the school.[3] He was dubbed "Forty Second Boyd" for his standing bet as an instructor pilot that beginning from a position of disadvantage, he could defeat any opposing pilot in air combat maneuvering in less than 40 seconds; Boyd was brought to the Pentagon by Major General Arthur C. Agan, Jr. to do mathematical analysis that would support the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle program in order to pass the Office of the Secretary of Defense's Systems Analysis process.[4] According to his biographer, Robert Coram, Boyd was also known at different points of his career as "The Mad Major" for the intensity of his passions, as "Genghis John" for his confrontational style of interpersonal discussion, and as the "Ghetto Colonel" for his spartan lifestyle.[5]

Boyd died of cancer in Florida on March 9, 1997 at age 70. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on March 20, 1997.[5][6]

Military theories

During the early 1960s, Boyd, together with Thomas Christie, a civilian mathematician, created the Energy-Maneuverability theory, or E-M theory of aerial combat. A legendary maverick by reputation, Boyd was said to have stolen the computer time to do the millions of calculations necessary to prove the theory,[7] it became the world standard for the design of fighter aircraft. At a time when the Air Force's FX project (subsequently the F-15) was floundering, Boyd's deployment orders to Vietnam were canceled and he was brought to the Pentagon to re-do the trade-off studies according to E-M. His work helped save the project from being a costly dud, even though its final product was larger and heavier than he desired. However, cancellation of that tour in Vietnam meant that Boyd would be one of the most important air-to-air combat strategists with no combat kills. He had only flown a few missions in the last months of the Korean War (1950–1953), and all of them as a wingman.

With Colonel Everest Riccioni and Pierre Sprey, Boyd formed a small advocacy group within Headquarters USAF that dubbed itself the "Fighter Mafia".[8] Riccioni was an Air Force fighter pilot assigned to a staff position in Research and Development, while Sprey was a civilian statistician working in systems analysis. Together, they were the visionaries who conceived the LFX Lightweight Fighter program, which ultimately produced both the F-16 and McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, the latter a development of the YF-17 Light Weight Fighter. Boyd's acolyte Pierre Sprey was also largely responsible for developing the highly successful Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II or "Warthog" ground-support aircraft, although Boyd himself was not involved in this project, his interest being in air superiority fighter aircraft.[9]

After his retirement from the Air Force in 1975, Boyd continued to work at the Pentagon as a consultant in the Tactical Air office of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Program Analysis and Evaluation.

Boyd is credited for largely developing the strategy for the invasion of Operation Desert Storm.[11][12] Boyd had substantial influence on the ultimate "left hook" design of the plan.[13]

In a letter to the editor of Inside the Pentagon, former Commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak is quoted as saying "The Iraqi army collapsed morally and intellectually under the onslaught of American and Coalition forces. John Boyd was an architect of that victory as surely as if he'd commanded a fighter wing or a maneuver division in the desert."[14]

The OODA Loop

Boyd's key concept was that of the decision cycle or MiG-15s and North American F-86 Sabres in Korea. Harry Hillaker (chief designer of the F-16) said of the OODA theory, "Time is the dominant parameter. The pilot who goes through the OODA cycle in the shortest time prevails because his opponent is caught responding to situations that have already changed."

John Boyd during the Korean War

Boyd hypothesized that all intelligent organisms and organizations undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with their environment. Boyd breaks this cycle down to four interrelated and overlapping processes through which one cycles continuously:

  • Observation: the collection of data by means of the senses
  • Orientation: the analysis and synthesis of data to form one's current mental perspective
  • Decision: the determination of a course of action based on one's current mental perspective
  • Action: the physical playing-out of decisions

Of course, while this is taking place, the situation may be changing. It is sometimes necessary to cancel a planned action in order to meet the changes. This decision cycle is thus known as the OODA loop. Boyd emphasized that this decision cycle is the central mechanism enabling adaptation (apart from natural selection) and is therefore critical to survival.

Boyd theorized that large organizations such as

In 2007, strategy writer

The OODA Loop has since been used as the core for a theory of litigation strategy that unifies the use of cognitive science and game theory to shape the actions of witnesses and opposing counsel.[16]

Aerial Attack Study

Boyd also served to revolutionize air-to-air combat in that he was the author of the Aerial Attack Study. The Aerial Attack Study became the official tactics manual for fighter aircraft. Boyd changed the way pilots thought; prior to his tactics manual, pilots thought that air-to-air combat was far too complex to ever be fully understood. With the release of Boyd’s Aerial Attack Study pilots realized that the high-stakes death dance of aerial combat was solved (Coram 114). Boyd said that a pilot going into aerial combat must know two things: the position of the enemy and the velocity of the enemy. Given the velocity of an enemy, a pilot is able to decide what the enemy is capable of doing. When a pilot knows what maneuvers the enemy can perform, he can then decide how to counter any of the other pilot’s actions. The Aerial Attack Study contained everything a fighter pilot needed to know (Coram 115).

Aside from the overwhelming belief in the Air Force that air-to-air combat was a thing of the past, Boyd proved that it was very much alive. The Air Force was moving away from aerial combat because of development in missiles. The Air Force thought that air-to-air combat was dead because of these developments in missiles. Boyd proved in his Aerial Attack Study that this was very much incorrect. He proved that the art of the dogfight was not dead in showing that fighter pilots could out-maneuver missiles. John Boyd’s Aerial Attack Study was revolutionary because it was the first instance in history in which tactics were reduced to an objective state (Coram 116). Boyd’s manual proved that he was the undisputed master in the area of aerial combat. Within a decade the Aerial Attack Study became the text for air forces around the world.

Foundation of theories

Boyd never wrote a book on military strategy. The central works encompassing his theories on warfare consist of a several hundred slide presentation entitled Discourse on Winning & Losing and a short essay entitled "Destruction & Creation" (1976).[17]

In Destruction & Creation, Boyd attempts to provide a philosophical foundation for his theories on warfare. In it he integrates Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics to provide a context and rationale for the development of the OODA Loop.

Boyd inferred the following from each of these theories:

From this set of considerations, Boyd concluded that to maintain an accurate or effective grasp of reality one must undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with the environment geared to assessing its constant changes. Boyd, though he was hardly the first to do so, then expanded Darwin's theory of evolution, suggesting that natural selection applies not only in biological but also in social contexts (such as the survival of nations during war or businesses in free market competition). Integrating these two concepts, he stated that the decision cycle was the central mechanism of adaptation (in a social context) and that increasing one's own rate and accuracy of assessment vis-a-vis one's counterpart's rate and accuracy of assessment provides a substantial advantage in war or other forms of competition. The key to survival and autonomy is the ability to adapt to change, not perfect adaptation to existing circumstances. Indeed, Boyd noted that radical uncertainty is a necessary precondition of physical and mental vitality: all new opportunities and ideas spring from some mismatch between reality and ideas about it, as examples from the history of science, engineering and business illustrate.

Elements of warfare

Boyd divided warfare into three distinct elements:

  • Moral Warfare: the destruction of the enemy's will to win, disruption of alliances (or potential allies) and induction of internal fragmentation. Ideally resulting in the "dissolution of the moral bonds that permit an organic whole [organization] to exist." (i.e., breaking down the mutual trust and common outlook mentioned in the paragraph above.)
  • Mental Warfare: the distortion of the enemy's perception of reality through disinformation, ambiguous posturing, and/or severing of the communication/information infrastructure.
  • Physical Warfare: the abilities of physical resources such as weapons, people, and logistical assets.

Military reform

John Boyd's briefing Patterns of Conflict provided the theoretical foundation for the "defense reform movement" (DRM) in the 1970s and 1980s. Other prominent members of this movement included Pierre Sprey, Franklin C. Spinney, William Lind, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Testing and Evaluation Thomas Christie, Congressman Newt Gingrich, and Senator Gary Hart. The Military Reform movement fought against what they believed were unnecessarily complex and expensive weapons systems, an officer corps focused on the careerist standard, and over-reliance on attrition warfare. Another reformer, James G. Burton, disputed the Army test of the safety of the Bradley fighting vehicle. James Fallows contributed to the debate with an article in The Atlantic Monthly titled "Muscle-Bound Superpower", and a book, National Defense. Today, younger reformers continue to use Boyd's work as a foundation for evolving theories on strategy, management and leadership.

Boyd gave testimony to Congress about the status of military reform after Operation Desert Storm.[18]

Maneuver warfare and the Marines

In January 1980 Boyd gave his briefing Patterns of Conflict at the U.S. Marines AWS (Amphibious Warfare School). This led to the instructor at the time, Michael Wyly, and Boyd changing the curriculum, with the blessing of General Trainor. Trainor later asked Wyly to write a new tactics manual for the Marines.[19] John Schmitt, guided by General Alfred M. Gray, Jr. wrote Warfighting, during the writing, he collaborated with John Boyd. Wyly, Lind, and a few other junior officers are credited with developing concepts for what would become the Marine model of maneuver warfare.

Wyly, along with Pierre Sprey, Ray Leopold, Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, Jim Burton, and Tom Christie were described by writer Coram as Boyd's Acolytes,[20] a group who, in various ways and forms, promoted and disseminated Boyd's ideas throughout the modern military and defense establishment.



  1. ^ Coram 2002, p. 33.
  2. ^ Coram 2002, p. 103.
  3. ^ a b Michel 2006, p. 297.
  4. ^ Michel 2006, pp. 77–78.
  5. ^ a b Hillaker, Harry. "Tribute To John R. Boyd." Code One Magazine, July 1997.
  6. ^ John Richard Boyd at Find a Grave
  7. ^ Coram, Robert. "Interview (Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art of War)". Span video. Retrieved November 29, 2012.
  8. ^ Burton 1993
  9. ^ Ford 2010, p. 11.
  10. ^ Coram 2002, p. 355.
  11. ^ Coran 2002, pp. 422–24.
  12. ^ Ford 2010, pp. 23–24.
  13. ^ Wheeler and Korb 2007, p. 87.
  14. ^ Hammond 2001, p. 3.
  15. ^ Greene, Robert. "OODA and You." Power, Seduction and War: The Blog of Robert Greene. Retrieved: September 7, 2011.
  16. ^ Dreier 2012, pp. 74–85.
  17. ^
  18. ^ Schwellenbach, Nick. "Air Force Colonel John Boyd's 1991 House Armed Services Committee Testimony." U.S. Project On Government Oversight, March 26, 2011. Retrieved: September 7, 2011.
  19. ^ Coram 2002, p. 382.
  20. ^ Coram 2002, p. 182.


External links

  • Correll, John, "The Reformers", Air Force Magazine (online ed.) .
  • Cowan, Jeffrey, From Air Force Fighter Pilot to Marine Corps Warfighting, Defense in the National Interest, DNI pogo .
  • Richards, Chet, Colonel John R. Boyd, USAF, Briefings, Air Power Australia .
  • Spinney, Chuck (early 1999), Defense and the National Interest (archive the commentaries of defense analyst [and Boyd "acolyte"]), [W]e have the complete works of the late military theorist, Col John Boyd, USAF. 
  • Brian, Danielle (March 1999), "Defense and the National Interest", Project On Government Oversight (collection of [Boyd "acolyte"] Chuck Spinney’s commentaries on the foibles of our defense program), The Project on Government Oversight, archived from the original on November 24, 2009 .
    • Boyd, Writings, DNI Pogo .
  • Coram, Robert (January 26, 2003), "Booknotes", Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (interview) .
  • "John Boyd", Intellipedia, Intelink .
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