Friday, August 12, 2011

'Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art of War' Robert Coram

John Boyd never made General in the air force. In fact, he never became an 'ace' through any of our nation's conflicts. Yet he was one of America's finest fighter pilots, and his long tenure tussling, teaching and 'hosing' America's top young pilots at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base trained the nation's top aviators that flew and fought in the age of the fighter jet. His thoughts about military strategy not only codified the complex world of air to air combat, but led to the structural designs of America's best fighter aircraft. Both the F-15 and F-16 fighters were heavily influenced by Boyd, and they will have a longevity extending from their introduction in the early 1970s through their retirement scheduled for 2028. That will be an astonishing fifty-five years, and is markedly longer then their contemporaries, the Air Force's F-111 and the Navy's F-14. He ultimately brought his theories on perception, time pressure, ambiguity and confusion to a broad understanding of the nature of conflict. Though all of his innovative thoughts were rebuffed by the air force and only brought to the fore through tireless promotion, the insights that he brought to combat ended up having the most profound influence on the most unlikely of services, the US Marine Corps. The result was the lightening campaign witnessed in the first gulf war. A conflict that was predicted to cost the Untied States tens of thousands of lives was completed after suffering only 147 fatalities, the bulk of which were suffered in a single scud missile strike.

The story of his life and struggles with the bureaucracy that is the air force and the Pentagon command structure teaches a number of great truths about life. Robert Coram presents a well written, fast paced and intriguing look into this maverick genius. I highly recommend it.


  1. Bill Whittle had a good post about Boyd's OODA (Observe. Orient. Decide. Act.) loop and applied it to the Petraeus Surge in Iraq:

    It's amazing Boyd was able to have such a profound effect on our military machine.

  2. Yes, and as you read through the book you get a feel for the monolithic nature of the Pentagon, and the resistance it generates to changing anything, whether it be designing and purchasing weapon's systems, or changing the way the military approaches conflict. Not to steal from Robert Coram's excellent work, but the essential realization for Boyd was that the victorious fighter pilot was the quicker pilot. Overall speed was not as important as quickness in maneuverability. Quickness enables you to get inside your opponents loop. What was remarkable was that Boyd was not only able to codify maneuver warfare for fighter pilots, but he took it beyond arial conflict and applied it to conflict in general. And then he used those same tactics to get his ideas past the slow moving traditionalist at the Pentagon. He was the few against the many, and he did not gain much recognition for "doing the Lord's work" as he liked to refer to his work in code. Still, his ideas had profound effect upon the military, especially for the US Marine Corps.

    Coram is an excellent story teller, and given the fiery and combative nature of his subject it made for a fun, fast moving read.

  3. By the way, E, that's an excellent piece by Whittle.

    Thanks for the link.