Colonel John R. Boyd (1927-1997) never wrote a substantial text on strategy. (1) He developed prodigious multipleslide briefings and produced a few papers, but he never published anything formally. He was a gifted fighter pilot, but he never held a senior leadership position in the United States Air Force. He had little respect for the military chain of command and struggled to find a superior he admired. Most people who met Boyd felt uncomfortable in his company: he could be arrogant, loud, disrespectful, and single-minded to the point of obsession. He was an abrasive and uncompromising maverick who was intolerant of anyone who disagreed with him. He had the table manners of a five-year-old. Allegedly, he had an IQ of only ninety, which he claimed was an advantage because it forced him to be more efficient. (2)
Boyd lacked academic credentials; he was mainly self-taught and never obtained a postgraduate degree. He did most of his reading after he retired from the military. He could not afford to buy many of the books he read, instead surfing through bookstores and libraries, but he still insisted on sharing his ideas free of charge. His infamous 327-slide superbriefing, Discourse on Winning and Losing, (3) took two or three days to deliver. He would give the presentation to anyone who would set aside sufficient time to listen, but he steadfastly refused to reduce to a more accessible length for busy senior audiences, on the avowed premise that if they did not have the time for it, he did not have the time for them. He was known as well for long late-night telephone calls to his closest friends, whom he subjected to an exhausting intellectual waterboarding. He lived like a Spartan, believed that "money corrupts," and died a poor man, wondering if anyone would remember him.
Yet, despite all his idiosyncrasies and pathologies, many professional analysts rank the autodidact Boyd among the twentieth century's most impressive general theorists of strategy. Professor Colin Gray, for example, includes him in his list of leading military thinkers among the likes of Bernard Brodie, Edward Luttwak, Basil Liddell Hart, Herman Kahn, and John Wylie. (4) Boyd certainly was not "the most influential military theorist since Sun Tzu" or "the fighter pilot who changed the art of war," but his Discourse on Winning and Losing is a universal theory of conflict filled with historical details, collected military wisdom, and insightful advice on how to reason strategically.
Creating the Legend: Books on Boyd
Four books help explain Boyd's ideas and his watershed concept, the OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop. Professor Grant T. Hammond's The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (2001), the first book-length examination of Boyd's military career and theories, (5) explores the origins and evolution of Boyd's tactical, operational, and strategic thinking, and the significance and legacy of his ideas. It also links Boyd's theories to those of other military thinkers. By doing so, he offers considerable insight into the man and his times, combining studious breadth, depth, and context. Primarily an intellectual biography, The Mind of War also explains why some considered Boyd "Christ-like" while others viewed him as a "24-karat pain in the ass."
Although Boyd did not focus on business per se, he showed an interest in management theory
Robert Coram's Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002) takes a less scholarly and more personal approach. (6) The book presents stories of Boyd's eccentricity, intellect, and moral courage; portraying him as a man who never played by the rules and who broke step and rank as he pleased. It tells the story of how he evolved from the reputed "40-Second Boyd" to the Mad Major, to the Ghetto Colonel, to Genghis John. It reads like a novel and has no footnotes. It also goes into detail about Boyd's private life and family issues, making no attempt to disguise the negative aspects--some of them so embarrassing that the author chose not to include them in the book. (7) Coram offers a readable, colorful, and dramatic report, casting Boyd as a larger-than-life heroic figure at war with the Pentagon and subject to a series of conspiracies. Because of these qualities, Coram's book was a bestseller, but the author has also been criticized for overstating Boyd's achievements and influence to the point of having written a hagiography. One reviewer found the book contained too many "inconsistencies, inaccuracies, leaps of faith, lack of sources, and cheap shots" to merit credibility. (8)
Although Boyd did not focus on business per se, he showed an interest in management theory, especially in themes such as competition, organizational survival, and adaptability. He wanted to prove that his Big Idea had universal applicability and therefore offered both encouragement and counsel when Chester W. Richards began work in the 1990s on what became Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business (2004)--a relatively short book that highlights the relevance of Boyd's philosophy to the entrepreneurial world. As a result, Richards, who came to know Boyd in the 1970s, contributed to Boyd's becoming known well beyond military circles. (9)
Air Commodore Professor Frans Osinga's Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2007) contains the most systematic, detailed, and insightful treatment of Boyd's strategic reasoning and inter-disciplinary reading. (10) Osinga focuses on the theories and theorists who influenced Boyd, and thus ranges widely over such topics as political science, epistemology, mathematics, sociology, psychology, physics, biology, neurology, computing, cosmology, economics, management theory and more. He notes that Boyd was the first to link Godel's incompleteness theorem, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and the Second Law of entropy, using the seemingly unrelated fields of mathematical logic, physics, and thermodynamics to develop a comprehensive theory of conflict. Osinga explains what that means and demonstrates through his critical examination that Boyd's vision was far more comprehensive than most people recognize:
Boyd's work constitutes an eclectic search for patterns of winning and losing through a survey of military history; an argument against techno-fetishism and an attritionist, deterministic military mindset; a rediscovery of the mental / moral dimensions of war; a philosophy of command and control; a redefinition of strategy; a search for the essence of strategic interaction; a plea for organizational learning and adaptability; and, finally, an argument on thinking strategically. (11)
Collectively, Coram, Hammond, Richards, and Osinga have made Boyd's strategic thinking accessible to military professionals and the public. (12) Their work provides a much-needed reader's guide to Boyd's puzzling slides and way of thinking, primarily because he struggled mightily to express precisely what point he wanted to make. The sheer scope and scale of Boyd's undisciplined, certainly unconstrained, sampling of many centuries and contexts also had the effect of numbing an audience intellectually, (13) as illustrated by the 327-slide briefing, which would have benefitted from careful and systematic editing.
Ultimately, Boyd's generic and conceptual outlook constitutes both the strength and the weakness of his thinking: his theories have impressive latitude and stand the test of time, but military planners understandably have difficulty in translating what amounts to a series of elusive thoughts into practical actions. To put it another way, Boyd's theorems are so inclusive, yet so abstract, that they transcend time, place, and topic, but they are not readymade for implementation.
The OODA Loop
Any appreciation of Boyd's strategic thought must start with the OODA Loop, which largely represents a grand extrapolation from his air-to-air combat experience in Korea. Although the Soviet-built MiG-15 enjoyed some performance advantages over the F-86, the latter's hydraulically boosted flight controls and better field of view from the cockpit gave Sabre pilots the critical ability to shift more rapidly from one maneuver profile to another during a dogfight. Because of the F-86's capacity for so-called "asymmetric fast transient" maneuvers, its pilots accumulated an impressive kill ratio against the otherwise formidable MiG-15. (14) Boyd codified this combat lesson in a tactical manual titled "Aerial Attack Study."
A few years later he quantified the ideas contained in the manual into his "Energy Maneuverability Theory" study, which compared US and Soviet flight performance envelopes at different speeds, altitudes, and gravity-forces. The study's findings, incidentally, became critical inputs into the design of the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Military Reform Movement, a diverse group of controversial and persistent civilians and ex-military members determined to change the attrition-centered doctrine that had governed the Vietnam War, used the OODA Loop as their common point of departure when they sought to revitalize maneuver warfare in the 1980s. (15) Some of them referred to Boyd as their "spiritual leader."
Although Boyd's strategic thinking encompasses far more than the OODA Loop, the cycle does indeed lie at the heart of his deliberations. However, the student of warfare must realize that Boyd himself never drew the "dumbed-down" version depicted in Figure 1, although it is this simplified model that has made him famous outside military circles. A narrow and shallow interpretation of the abridged model is also the usual basis for criticism of Boyd, reducing the model to a contest in which success comes simply from going through the OODA cycle "more rapidly than the opponent." (16)
In fact, Boyd did not see the observation-orientation-decision-action cycle as a series of simple, sequential, and repetitive acts, but as an...