Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Review: "Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War" by Robert Coram

John R. Boyd was a genius. He was also profane, obnoxious, arrogant, uncouth, insensitive and monomaniacal. He repeatedly developed revolutionary insights that were transformative in their fields. He also put his wife and children through sheer hell.

He wore the uniform of the United States Air Force for twenty-four years and became, in some ways, the Air Force's worst nightmare. But he is most honored - almost venerated - by the United States Marine Corps. It is difficult to understand Boyd's work in all of its complexity and interdependency, and it is virtually impossible to understand the man. But in Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Robert Coram makes a worthy effort and the result is a book that is essential for anyone seeking to understand the modern US military.

John Boyd was born in 1927 and grew up in Erie, PA, in a single parent home. His father died when John was very young, leaving his mother with very limited resources to care for five children including one with major health issues.

After high school he enlisted in the Army, and then attended the University of Iowa where he majored in economics and participated in the ROTC program. Upon graduation he entered the Air Force and was trained as a pilot. He went to Korea where he flew the F-86 Sabre for a few combat missions but he never had the chance there to engage the enemy in air-to-air combat.

But all agreed that John Boyd excelled as a fighter pilot. In the 1950's, USAF fighter squadrons sent their best pilots to the Fighter Weapons School (FWS) at Nellis AFB in Nevada. John Boyd went to FWS and found himself in his element.

After honing the skills of the best pilots, FWS would retain the best of the best as instructor pilots. John Boyd stayed at Nellis to instruct and soon the legend of "Forty-Second Boyd" was born. The legend began, as the author tells it, because many of the students arriving at Nellis were already quite impressed with themselves. It is an occasional pedagogic necessity to demonstrate to a student that he really isn't as good as he thinks he is. Boyd did it with flair.

The North American F-100 Super Sabre was an unforgiving airplane. John Boyd loved it. He loved pushing it into corners of its performance envelope that no sensible pilot sought out. He could make the "Hun" dance. He would bet any pilot $20 that he could let him set up at his six o'clock position within gun range, and that within 40 seconds of "Fight's on!", he'd have their positions reversed.

He never lost the bet.

While he was instructing at FWS and "pushing the envelope" in the F-100, Boyd was continually refining his understanding of aerial combat. He used his experiences in simulated air combat with the students to refine his theories and used his theoretical concepts to bring his techniques to the highest levels. When it was time for him to move on, he knew he'd have to write a manual on air-to-air tactics.

The author describes how Boyd, working on his own time, created his manual and then forced it, at considerable risk to his career, on an establishment that wanted only to shelve it. His Aerial Attack Study became a fighter pilot's bible. After its initial grudging acceptance of his work, the USAF finally realized its value and awarded him the Legion of Merit in recognition of the "first instance in the history of fighter aviation in which tactics have been reduced to an objective state." His commendation said that he was "undisputed master in the area of aerial combat."

The Aerial Attack Study was the sort of achievement that crowns a career. John Boyd was just getting started.

Boyd desperately wanted to make rigorous analyses of the combat capabilities of fighter aircraft. And he wanted those analyses to be mathematically bullet-proof and credible. To those ends, he needed further education in engineering so he manipulated the Air Force system to get it. He went to Georgia Tech for a second bachelor's degree, this time in Industrial Engineering. The author follows Boyd through this process, observing that he kept a focus on aircraft performance throughout his engineering course work. He was looking for a breakthrough in understanding and he found it in thermodynamics class.

Thermo came hard to Boyd...it's hard for most people. But when insight came on the interplay of energy and entropy in closed systems, it brought with it the tools he needed for his second major achievement. He called it "Energy-Maneuverability Theory."

Fighter pilots have always known that the "high ground" in aerial combat lay in having speed and/or altitude advantages over your opponent. John Boyd reduced that instinctive knowledge to rigorous mathematical formulae, derivable for any aircraft in any energy state, and most critically, to an ability to chart the comparative capabilities of any pair of aircraft. He gave pilots the tools needed to understand what parts of their airplane's performance envelope were advantageous against a likely adversary, and what portions were disadvantageous...or even suicidal.

Below, as an example, is an E-M diagram for a Mig-21. It is a simple matter to overlay upon it a comparable diagram for an F-4E Phantom II. From this, the F-4 driver can understand how to best engage an enemy flying the Mig-21. With this work, John Boyd saved lives.

Boyd took his early E-M work back to Eglin AFB and proceeded to plot the performance envelopes of every fighter aircraft in the USAF inventory, as well as those of adversary aircraft. He did this "off the side of his desk," as it was not an authorized project. It required immense amounts of computer time. John Boyd stole the data processing hours.

Author Robert Coram describes well, how word of Boyd's E-M work trickled through USAF networks until the General who ran Tactical Air Command (TAC) heard of it and asked to be "briefed." As it happens, the Briefing is an art form in the military and John Boyd was a master of the art. The TAC commander's staff gave him 20 minutes...and the briefing wound up consuming nearly two days. The TAC boss, Gen. Walt Sweeney, was convinced, and that led to then-Maj. John Boyd's ideas being heard throughout the Air Force.

These events occurred in the mid-1960's, as the Air Force's activities in Southeast Asia were heating up. F-4's and F-105's were encountering Mig-19's and Mig-21's and the outcomes were not gratifying. Boyd was summoned to the Pentagon where he used his E-M diagrams to show that those big, fast, unwieldy airplanes were dog meat in a turning fight with the more agile Mig's. It would be only a matter of time before John R. Boyd would be at the Pentagon, working the problem. It remained unclear whether the Air Force could deal with that.

The author chronicles an eventful decade, from the mid-1960's to 1975 when Boyd was instrumental in transforming the nature of the Air Force. With remarkable bureaucratic in-fighting skill backed up by technical credibility (derived from E-M analyses) he transformed the F-X program. That design, which began as a bloated, unwieldy multi-role F-111 successor, became the F-15 Eagle, the world's best air superiority fighter for three decades. Then, disillusioned by the "gold plating" of the F-15 design, he energized a "Lightweight Fighter" program that began as a bootleg design "study" and ultimately produced the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Along the way, his office produced the data that terminated the B-1A bomber program and provided critical support to the A-10 close support aircraft - another successful airplane the Air Force did not want.

Of course, John Boyd did not work alone. He had the ability to attract and inspire other crusaders. Boyd, it would seem, did not have friends. He had apostles; followers who referred to themselves as "the Acolytes". To enter Boyd's inner circle was a nearly spiritual act, a conversion. Men such as Pierre Sprey, Chuck Spinney and Col. Mike Wyly were powers in their own rights, but they orbited about John Boyd.

At the mid-point of this turbulent decade, Boyd left the Pentagon for a one year combat assignment. The war in Southeast Asia was still hot and he was assigned to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai AFB (also known as NKP or occasionally, "Naked Fanny"). NKP was on the "dark" side of the war, home to special ops units, Combat Search and Rescue squadrons, Forward Air Controllers and classified Intelligence and Electronic Warfare groups.

Boyd came to NKP as Vice Commander of the project responsible for "bugging" the Ho Chi Minh trail. Later, he became NKP's Base Commander (the "landlord" for all resident units). Coram tells how he excelled in each role, garnering superb evaluations from his superiors.

While at NKP, Col. Boyd never missed an opportunity to travel to bases where the F-4 Phantom drivers worked, to brief them on the E-M data for their aircraft as compared to their likely adversaries, especially the Mig-21. A number of F-4 pilots owed their lives to these briefings.

John Boyd had a great deal of time to think while he was at NKP a half-world away from the Pentagon (and his family). Much of his thinking focused on ideation, creativity and theories of problem-solving. He formulated ideas that would provide the intellectual basis for the final act of his professional life. He began to see that destruction was a pre-requisite for creation.

Boyd returned to the Pentagon after his tour at NKP ended. He evaluated the B-1A program (fatally), and monitored the Lightweight Fighter program's prototype competitive fly-off that pitted the General Dynamics YF-16 against the Northrop YF-17. All of Boyd's E-M data and analysis seemed to indicate a close win for the YF-16.

He was right...the YF-16 won. But he was wrong...it wasn't close. Nowhere near it. The fighter pilots who flew both airplanes loved the YF-16 and considered it vastly superior to the YF-17. E-M theory did not account for this. The difference, it emerged, lay in the YF-16's agility, its quickness. It could transition from one maneuver to the next much faster than any other airplane. Boyd called these transitions "fast transients." He filed this away with his thinking on Creation and Destruction, for future use.

On 25 June 1975 the Secretary of the Air Force presented the service's most prestigious scientific award, the Harold Brown Award, to Col. John R. Boyd, acknowledging the role of E-M theory in the design of both the F-15 and the F-16. E-M gave the Air Force the means to "forge a superior fighter force in the decades ahead."

On 31 August 1975, after 24 years of service, Col. John R. Boyd retired. It was time for the third phase.

Almost a year to the day after his retirement, Boyd released
Destruction and Creation. An extraordinarily dense eight-or-so pages, it weaves concepts from Gödel and Heisenberg with the Second Law of Thermodynamics to offer a theoretical underpinning for the analysis/synthesis sequence of creativity. The paper is the only formal written document John Boyd ever created aside from Air Force technical publications. It is the starting point for all of his subsequent work.

With the issuance of "Creation and Destruction," Boyd set about understanding the "fast transients" phenomenon in its context. He went back to his beginnings, to the F-86 Sabre in Korea. It was easy to argue that the Mig-15 was the better airplane. E-M analysis suggested that they were closely matched. So why did the Sabre rack up a 14:1 kill ratio? Were our pilots really that much better? Boyd focused on the fact that the F-86 had hydraulically actuated flight controls while the Mig relied on cables and bell cranks. As a result, the Sabre could be flown with a much higher maneuvering tempo. It was agile, it was quick, and it was deadly. The Sabre pilot was quickly one or two steps ahead of the Mig pilot. He was operating inside the Mig pilot's time scale. (Sadly, 15 years later in the case of the F-4 and F-105 vs. the Mig-21, the situation was reversed.)

Boyd looked for other historic examples where operational tempo was decisive. He found Heinz Guderian's blitzkrieg attacks in 1940 and the Israeli commandos' raid at Entebbe to be instructive. He absorbed and built on Sun Tzu's Art of War and he read and found fault with Clausewitz.

He distilled all of this into a masterful briefing he called Patterns of Conflict.

The briefing, Boyd's Meisterstück, introduces us to the concept of the OODA Loop. This is John Boyd's best known legacy and it is, unfortunately, often mis-interpreted. OODA is an acronym for "Observe - Orient - Decide - Act." Every operator must cycle through an OODA loop, and the victor will be the one who can function inside the time-scale of his opponent's OODA loop. Many conclude that you have to be faster than your opponent. That is simplistic. In fact, Boyd teaches that you must be more "intellectually agile" than your adversary. (N.B.: The present writer's recent reading of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs gave the distinct impression that Grant "got it", a century before John Boyd codified it.)

Boyd had expanded his world-view to include ground warfare. This did not particularly interest the Air Force, as every academic study of the theories of warfare concluded that air power was subordinate to and properly in the service of ground forces. Boyd was in need of a new audience. He got one.

In 1980, Lt. Col. Mike Wyly invited Col. John Boyd to brief his class at the USMC's Amphibious Warfare School in Quantico, VA. And the rest, as they say, is history. Author Coram describes how Boyd's theories of warfare propagated from this starting point, enveloping the Marine Corps and penetrating the Army. A decade later when Gulf War I was fought, John Boyd's ideas were dominant. Describing how the coalition forces had completely befuddled the Iraqi army, Marine BGen. Richard Neal said "We kind of got inside his decision cycle."

John Boyd had won his war.

Col. John R. Boyd, USAF (Ret'd) succumbed to cancer and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. At his memorial service on 20 March 1997 the Air force was under-represented. The Marines were present in force. A Marine Colonel placed the Eagle, Globe and Anchor next to the urn containing John Boyd's ashes. That, a remarkable act in the context of Corps tradition, says it all.

How do you sum up John Boyd? Author Robert Coram quotes his advice to a junior officer - one of the very, very few quotable passages that he ever produced - as follows:

"Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road. And you're going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments. Or you can go that way and you can do something - something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won't have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.

To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That's when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?"

Col. John R. Boyd chose to do something and we are eternally in his debt.

Here is a video recording of John Boyd doing Q&A at the end of a brief. The video is of poor quality but the audio is good. The aggregate length of the four videos is 32:23.


Royski said...

Great stuff - thanks.

Frank Van Haste said...

You're welcome, Royski...my pleasure.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this... I was aware of Boyd but reading this review has led me to seek out this book for a better understanding of the man's life work.

Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Anymouse:

Thank you. My job is done here. :-)


George Castellion said...


Thank you for pointing me to your review. I echo Royske ... great stuff!


tobiashommerich@aol.com said...

That was a masterful review of a book that I have reread a dozen+ times.It lead me to several other books about Boyd and the themes revolving around him. I even contacted Coram and Spinney as well as Sprey about several topics treated in this book.Its a life altering book in my eyes.

Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Tobias:

I agree that Boyd was a seminal figure and I'm pleased that your reaction to my review was positive. Thanks for reading and commenting.