A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker
By Dr Michael Hankins
In March 2018, Air University Press released a new edition of Colonel John Boyd’s
with a new introduction by Grant Hammond. On top of his heavy influence in designing the F-15 and F-16 fighters, Boyd was one of the most influential and often cited officers in the history of the US Air Force (USAF), but unlike most famous strategic thinkers, he published almost nothing. Thus, this new edition promises to be possibly the most widely disseminated and studied edition of Boyd’s intellectual output.
John Boyd during his service in Korea. (Source: Wikimedia)
Boyd is, however, a controversial figure. Among USAF officers, Boyd is either loved or hated. Hammond’s introduction refers to him as ‘legendary,’ ‘a great original thinker,’ and ‘a paragon of virtue – loved by many […] for his character and integrity.’ On the other hand, former fighter pilot and USAF Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak summarised the opposing view: ‘Boyd is highly overrated […] In many respects he was a failed officer and even a failed human being.’ Boyd was the type of person who challenged authority and fought for what he believed. He was also the kind of person that was so profoundly insecure that he stalked food courts to hunt down and physically assault people whom he perceived had not shown him proper respect. However, many younger officers have never even heard of Boyd nor are they familiar with his ideas or character. With the recent release of the new edition of his work, it is worth taking time to briefly summarise Boyd’s significant contributions and provide some context as to why he is both so praised and so controversial.
First, we must deal with the notion of Boyd as – according to Hammond – ‘a premier fighter pilot.’ Some have referred to Boyd as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and many press outlets mistakenly refer to him as an ace. Although Boyd did fly F-86 Sabres during a brief tour in the Korean War, he does not have a single air-to-air kill to his credit. He never fired his gun in a combat situation. This is not necessarily an indictment of his skills. The reason is that in those years, the USAF tended to fly in formations in which only the lead element was cleared to fire, while the wingmen provided protection. Boyd only ever flew in a wingman position, and never got in an opportunity to fire at enemy MiG-15s. Later, Boyd became a flight instructor at the USAF Fighter Weapons School, and he wrote a manual on dogfighting tactics. His reputation as a fighter pilot was built on his time as an instructor, during which he displayed a penchant for defeating incoming students in simulated dogfights (developing his claim that he could always do so within forty seconds). Fans of Boyd laud him for this, although his detractors often wonder why an instructor defeating his students using an oft-repeated manoeuvre is noteworthy, much less a point worth bragging about.
Boyd’s first significant contribution to USAF thinking was ‘Energy Maneuverability Theory’ (EMT) in the early-to-mid 1960s. This was an application of the principles of thermodynamics to aircraft metrics. Up until that point, the most important metrics for evaluating fighter planes tended to be wing loading ratios, top speed, and acceleration. Many fighter pilots tried to argue that agility and manoeuvrability were more important in a dogfight, but although wing loading could provide a rough idea of how well a craft could turn, it fell far short of an accurate description of a plane’s manoeuvrability. Boyd’s EMT instead analysed how well an aircraft could change energy states – involving speed, acceleration, kinetic and potential energy – essentially giving a numerical value to how well a plane could manoeuvre under various conditions. Charting this value on a graph corresponding to speed and altitude will give a curve of the aircraft’s manoeuvring capability. This method gave fighter pilots a way to talk to engineers in their ‘language,’ and describe dogfighting in mathematical terms, which had a significant influence on aircraft design. Beginning in the late 1960s, EMT became a significant factor in designing and evaluating American aircraft.
This chart, a typical example of the types of charts Boyd produced, compares the agility of an F-4 Phantom II and a MiG-21, but specifically under conditions of a 5g turn. (Source: USAF Academy Department of Aeronautics)
Although Boyd appears to have come up with these ideas independently, he was not the first to do so. A decade earlier, in 1954, an aerodynamics engineer working for Douglas named Edward Rutowski had the same concept. Rutowski’s work did not apply to dogfighting, but to calculating fuel ranges of various types of aircraft. However, the equations – and the charts – are almost the same as Boyd’s, who later admitted to copying the charts after denying it for years. One element that Boyd did add, however, was overlaying the EMT curve for one aircraft on top of another, to show where one aircraft had an advantage in manoeuvrability. These comparisons, first done in the late 1960s, showed that Soviet aircraft of that time might have a distinct advantage in dogfighting compared to the American fighters of the day (which, in that period, were mostly interceptors, not traditional fighters). Thus, while not necessarily completely original, Boyd did more to popularise the EMT concept and apply it to fighter design and tactics training, which then became part of a push within the USAF to design aircraft that were more specialised for air-to-air combat.
Boyd had a hand in the design of those planes. The first major USAF project to design a dedicated air superiority fighter was the F-X program, which eventually resulted in the F-15 Eagle. Boyd was brought in partway through this project and attempted to influence the design toward being more dedicated for dogfighting. To Boyd, this meant making it as small as possible and gutting it of sophisticated technologies, especially radar. The more massive the radar dome in a fighter’s nose, the larger the entire plane needed to be. Making the radar as small as possible (or, as Boyd advocated, eliminating it), could make the plane smaller and lighter. Boyd managed to have a significant influence on the design of the F-15, but he did not get everything he wanted. The plane was significantly more extensive and more sophisticated than he advocated, so in disgust, he turned to another project.
McDonnell Douglas F-15A (S/N 71-0280, the first F-15A prototype). Note the square wingtips and unnotched stabilator. (Source: Wikimedia)
Using a combination of subterfuge, connections with high-level decision-makers, stealing unauthorised time on USAF computers, and meeting with aircraft manufacturers in secret using coded language, Boyd pressured the Air Force to procure a smaller lightweight fighter. Boyd wrote the requirements for that plane, which happened to match almost identically the characteristics of a plane he had been secretly designing with General Dynamics’ Chief of Preliminary Design, Harry Hillaker. That plane eventually became the F-16 Fighting Falcon—his ideal true dedicated air-to-air dogfighter. However, Boyd was also disappointed by the modifications made to that aircraft. The USAF made it heavier and more sophisticated than he wanted, and so Boyd denounced it in disgust. Indeed, although his vision for the F-16 was a pure dogfighter, the plane has rarely been used in air superiority missions by the USAF and has achieved zero air-to-air kills for the US.
An air-to-air right side view of a YF-16 aircraft and a YF-17 aircraft, side-by-side, armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, c.1972. (Source: Wikimedia)
After his retirement in 1975, Boyd went back to work in the Pentagon as an analyst, and it was during this time that he completed most of the intellectual output in the recently released new volume. This began with a short essay entitled ‘Destruction and Creation,’ which argued that societies and systems only really change when they are destroyed and recreated, rather than reformed from within. In 1976, Boyd received a NASA grant to study the differences in pilot behaviour between simulators and reality. Instead of focusing on that, Boyd produced a study titled ‘Fast Transients Brief,’ which consisted of carefully picked historical examples with which Boyd argued that victory in war was the result of being quick, unpredictable, and agile, with the goal of producing confusing in the enemy. This brief was essentially the first draft of what became a larger briefing called ‘Patterns of Conflict,’ which Boyd continually expanded to include more historical examples of his point. This briefing continued to grow, including more examples, until it became the final form under the new title ‘A Discourse on Winning and Losing.’ In this form, it was a fourteen-hour briefing split into two days. Boyd refused to shorten his briefings or to distribute summaries or slides to those who did not attend, insisting on being given the full amount of time, or nothing.
Also embedded in these briefings was his evolving idea of the OODA loop, which stands for ‘observe, orient, decide, act.’ This was Boyd’s description of the process by which decisions are made at all levels from the tactical to the strategic. Boyd argued that all combatants in a conflict are going through that cycle, and whoever can complete repetitive OODA cycles more quickly will always be the victor. Fans of this theory tend to argue that this insight is revolutionary and secures Boyd’s place alongside thinkers such as Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. Others claim that this idea is very simplistic and offers very little in the way of insight or practical application. Interpreting and applying Boyd’s theory to subjects ranging from warfare to business has become something of a cottage industry. The OODA loop is still taught at US professional military education institutions. Love him, hate him, or merely indifferent, one cannot deny that Boyd has left a legacy and influence.
One final component of Boyd’s life that one must be aware of is his involvement in ‘The Reform Movement.’ During his time in the USAF, he and his followers who pushed for lightweight, dedicated air-to-air combat planes began referring to themselves as the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and saw themselves at odds with the US government – to the point of depicting themselves as participating in a guerilla war against a government that they deemed as corrupt and ineffective. After Boyd’s retirement, this group morphed into what became known as ‘The Reform Movement’ and moved away from just fighter planes to becoming politically active on broader defence issues. This effort included a litany of journalists, military officers, and politicians who went as far as to form their congressional caucus, as well as non-governmental organisations with the goal of lobbying for particular policies.
The group wanted all US military hardware to be cheap and ‘simple.’ Simple in this context meant technologically unsophisticated relative to the mid-1970s. They argued for cancelling expensive ‘complex’ weapons such as the F-15 and the M-1 Abrams tank and replacing them with cheaper, ‘simple’ alternatives, such as relying on the older M-60 Patton tank or replacing F-15s and F-16s with swarms of F-5 Tigers. ‘The Reform Movement’ was more political than the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and although the movement attracted some moderates and left-leaning individuals such as James Fallows (journalist for The Atlantic) and Senator Gary Hart (D-CO), it tended to skew conservative. Over time, it grew more conservative with the addition of politicians such as Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Dick Cheney (R-WY), and possibly its most prominent and active member (who coined the term ‘the Reformers’): self-proclaimed monarchist and white supremacist William Lind. For this group, Boyd was seen as a messiah, and he was often discussed in religious terminology as a saviour preaching a new gospel.
Although this movement had an influential voice in the early 1980s, it had begun to stagnate by the end of that decade, and the 1991 Gulf War discredited many of their arguments. However, despite that war demonstrating the effectiveness of all the weapons systems that the Reformers (and Boyd) had argued against, Boyd himself took sole credit for the success of that war. Boyd claimed he had been the actual author of the ground attack plan, which was not true, and that it would have been even more successful if his ideas had been implemented further.
Boyd is a complex figure, and his influence on the US military, especially the USAF, is impossible to deny. Although the bulk of his work has been floating around the internet for years, having a new edition of his work in an easily accessible and well-produced print edition is extremely useful and quite welcome.
For more information on Boyd, the best place to start is most likely John Andreas Olsen’s 2016 article, ‘Boyd Revisited: A Great Mind with a Touch of Madness’ in Air Power History while the best examination of Boyd’s intellectual output is Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2007). Several authors further explore Boyd in Olsen’s edited work Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (2015). A genuinely scholarly biography on Boyd’s life has yet to be written. Hammond’s brief biography, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (2012) is a useful starting point but leans into praise for Boyd to a level that some readers might be uncomfortable with. Robert Coram’s popular biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002) has its uses but is little more than hagiography and should be read with a sceptical eye.
Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and and Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page
and can be found on Twitter at .
Header Image: A USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 40 aircraft after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during a mission over Iraq on 10 June 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)
If you would like to contribute to , then visit our submissions page
to find out how.
Grant Hammond, ‘Introduction to “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” in Colonel John Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, edited and compiled by Grant Hammond (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2018), pp. 1-2.
San Diego Union Tribune, 23 November 2017.
See, for example, a story of Boyd seeking out a former colleague who had expressed doubt in Boyd’s ideas years before. Boyd put out his cigar on the man’s clothing, then began shoving him and shouting obscenities at him, all in public. Told in more detail in Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002), pp. 179-80.
Edward S. Rutowski, ‘Energy Approach to the General Aircraft Performance Problem,’ Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences, 21 (1954), pp. 187-95.
USAF Historical Research Agency, K239.0512-1066, John Boyd, Corona Ace Oral History Interview, 22 January 1977.
For details on the development of the F-15, see Jacob Neufeld, The F-15 Eagle: Origins and Development, 1964-1972 (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1974).
On this issue, see: Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 2012).
These briefings are most thoroughly explored in Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (New York: Routledge, 2007).
For a brief summary of Lind’s extremism (he was known for keeping a portrait of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in his office), see Bill Berkowitz,
Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 August 15, 2003. Lind’s radical right-wing viewpoints are evident from his voluminous writing as the former Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism, and his many columns in a variety of conservative websites and magazines. His 2014 novel Victoria not only celebrates a violent militia movement overthrowing the American government but glorifies deportations and executions of non-whites and other minorities he deems undesirable, including Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and it favorably depicts the use of nuclear weapons against African-American populations.
For a summary of ‘The Reform Movement,’ see: John Correll, ‘The Reformers,’ Air Force Magazine (February 2008), pp. 40-4. To see them discuss their ideas in their own words, see: James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Vintage, 1984) and James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).
14 thoughts on “”
This somewhat balanced yet critical assessment is useful.
It contains several flaws:
1. Factually incorrect: “On 27 December 1992, a USAF F-16D shot down an Iraqi MiG-25 in the airspace over southern Iraq with an AIM-120 AMRAAM; this was the first USAF F-16 kill since the F-16 was introduced; and was also the first AMRAAM kill.” And there were others.
2. Overlooks the critical roles played by Sprey, Christie, Spinney and Myers;
3. No apparent effort to consider Boyd’s impact on Desert Storm for both the USAF and USMC to include:
a. Combat effectiveness of the F-15 and F-16
b. USMC Maneuver Warfare based on Boyd’s concepts — sources must include former CMCs Gray, Krulak and LGEN Van Riper
c. Then SECDEF Cheney should be contacted about Boyd’s role/influence during Desert Storm.
4. Instead of taking on Bill Lind’s facts, logic and arguments, the author goes out of his way to smear Lind personally.
If Boyd were alive, he’d take McPeak’s comments as complimentary.
I appreciate your comments. You’re right about the F-16 air-to-air kills in the ’90s (in the Iraq no-fly zones and in Yugoslavia), I should correct that.
Regarding the combat effectiveness of the F-15 and F-16, we would probably agree. I am certainly no critic, they are great airplanes. I find it interesting that Boyd and his colleagues tended to not like them because they had been so modified. But certainly they’ve both been very effective in a variety of roles.
Regarding the other individuals you mention, I was trying to limit the article to focus on Boyd himself, rather than provide a broader history of everyone. I am currently working on a manuscript that does spend quite a bit of time on Sprey, Christie, Myers, Spinney, Lind, and others as well like Riccioni and Hillaker.
In that work I have an entire chapter that deals with Boyd’s influence on the Marines, and on Desert Storm, although my interpretation probably differs from yours. I won’t get into that argument here, as I am still working on that project.
This article was getting to be too long as it is, so I didn’t want to go into too much detail on those other folks here. However, if you’d like to write a piece that goes into the Fighter Mafia and/or the Reformers a bit more and submit a piece to the blog for us, we’d be happy to take a look at it, it might fit in well alongside this piece.
You wrote, “Boyd claimed he had been the actual author of the ground attack plan, which was not true….” Could you go into a little more detail such as where he said it, the context in which he said it, and why it was not true?
Good questions. The claim I’m referencing (that Boyd planned the ground assault) is found both in Coram’s biography and in _The Pentagon Wars_, by James Burton, a close colleague and friend of Boyd’s. The story goes that the original plan for the Desert Storm ground campaign was a straight-on attack. Boyd allegedly met with Dick Cheney and pitched him a plan to do a feint from the east while the main force attacked from the west–commonly referred to as the “left hook.” Cheney and Boyd say that this “left hook” option was all their idea. However, every history of Desert Storm I’ve seen shows that the “left hook” was always part of the plan. The details changed over time, but the left hook concept predated Boyd’s meeting with Cheney. In looking at Desert Storm, I relied most on Rick Atkinson’s _Crusade_ and Rob Citino’s good synthesis of the literature in his _Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm_. There are certainly others out there.
Boyd and his colleagues also claimed that if they had been listened to more (in the sense that if the Army had abandoned the M-1 Abrams and the newer APCs that Boyd was against, and instead relied on older equipment such as M-60s), that the ground assault would have gone better, had fewer losses, and that the Republican Guard would not have escaped. I did not find any evidence to support this, as there were many other reasons for why those events played out the way they did. But these interpretations are inherently somewhat subjective.
The marines component of the ground attack, which was mostly that feint in the east, did make use of the marines’ new doctrine of maneuver warfare, which Boyd had a heavy hand in drafting, so in that sense, he had a big influence on that aspect of it.
After getting through at least 10 instances of British spelling (we fought that war so we could spell our own way) I have comments about your attempt to damn John Boyd (among others) with false statements, innuendo, or faint praise.
I have placed your comments in boldface:
“… influence in designing the F-15 and F-16 fighters, Boyd was one of the most influential and often cited officers in the history of the US Air Force (USAF), but unlike most famous strategic thinkers, he published almost nothing.”
As I recall, neither did Socrates.
Boyd was the type of person who challenged authority and fought for what he believed.
As did the Founding Fathers.
He was also the kind of person that was so profoundly insecure that he stalked food courts to hunt down and physically assault people whom he perceived had not shown him proper respect.
I have been with Boyd when he was tracking someone down. It was not because he felt he was not shown enough respect; it was due to his belief that the person had interfered with his attempt to make the U.S. Air Force more potent. In your example, Boyd was at odds with the manager of the computer department who was attempting to garner attention for himself while Boyd, along with Tom Christie, was attempting to validate their work on energy maneuverability.
Boyd only ever flew in a wingman position, and never got in an opportunity to fire at enemy MiG-15s.
And your point is? Many pilots never got a chance to fire at MiGs. Are you attempting to imply that great Air Force leaders and thinkers could only get there by having fired shots at the enemy?
Boyd became a flight instructor at the USAF Fighter Weapons School, and he wrote a manual on dogfighting tactics.
Indeed, for which he received an award. Furthermore, it showed that for every maneuver, there was a counter-maneuver, which was part of the reason it was classified as SECRET.
. . . he [Boyd] displayed a penchant for defeating incoming students in simulated dogfights (developing his claim that he could always do so within forty seconds). Fans of Boyd laud him for this, although his detractors often wonder why an instructor defeating his students using an oft-repeated manoeuvre is noteworthy, much less a point worth bragging about.
If Boyd generated this maneuver against a student, it would have been an infrequent event. His offer of $40 to anyone who could defeat him within 40 seconds was applied to any and all takers. Most pilots believe they are the best, and Boyd proved otherwise. For you, Dr. Hankins, I offer $40 if you can find that the takers to Boyd’s standing offer were more students than non-students.
Although Boyd appears to have come up with these [Energy Maneuverability] ideas independently, he was not the first to do so. A decade earlier, in 1954, an aerodynamics engineer working for Douglas named Edward Rutowski had the same concept. Rutowski’s work did not apply to dogfighting, but to calculating fuel ranges of various types of aircraft. However, the equations – and the charts – are almost the same as Boyd’s, who later admitted to copying the charts after denying it for years.
Boyd talked about Rotowski frequently and always gave him credit. I believe Rutowski’s work was related to quickest climb and it has some similarities to Boyd’s Energy Maneuverability work but Boyd when much further. Rotowski never used his ideas in anything remotely comparable to Boyd’s use of Energy Maneuverability in tradeoff analysis.
I know nothing about Boyd’s coping the charts, nor his admission after denying it for years. But you seem to be implying that Boyd copied Rutowski. That Boyd learned something from Rutowski, and incorporated some of Rutowski’s work is most likely true, but standing the shoulders of other thinkers is like most breakthroughs in the history of science. Boyd’s use of Rutowski’s work was not theoretical but practical. For example, Rutowski did not go to Southeast Asia and tell fighter pilots how to avoid getting shot down, but Boyd did.
One late afternoon I went to the Miramar Naval Officer’s Club to wait for a friend at the bar. While there, I looked to my left and there sat a naval aviator. I noted from his ribbons that he had been in Vietnam, had a ribbon for valor, and more to the point of this story, I confirmed by asking him if he had been in Vietnam.
“Yes,” he said.
“Did you ever hear of a guy named Col. John Boyd?” I asked.
He smiled, with an unusual grin. I wasn’t taking notes, but in essence, here is what he said:
“Oh, yeah. He came over and briefed our squadron on how to avoid SAMs. My wingman thought he was full of crap, I thought he made sense. My wingman’s dead, and I’m here talking to you.”
The first major USAF project to design a dedicated air superiority fighter was the F-X program, which eventually resulted in the F-15 Eagle. Boyd was brought in partway through this project and attempted to influence the design toward being more dedicated for dogfighting. To Boyd, this meant making it as small as possible and gutting it of sophisticated technologies, especially radar.
The size of the F-X when Boyd got involved was as large or larger than the F-111, clearly not an airplane dedicated to dog-fighting. Boyd was not against technology, he was against technology that was inappropriate. He also did not want the radar to size the airplane. At Topgun, it was an everyday experience to see F-16s and F-15s seeing each other on their radars at approximately the same time, evidence that the smaller size of the F-16 could nullify the larger size of the F-15’s radar. Since the Air Force could buy several F-16s for the cost of one F-15, and an increase in the number of fighters worked to the Air Force’s advantage, their approach to fighter procurement made sense. And as a practical matter, if it were not for the lower costs and higher production rates of the F-16 and A-10, the Air Force would have never made its force structure goals in the mid 1980s. Today’s aging crisis in the Air Force’s fighter force is a direct consequence of being unable to match the production rates achieved in the late 1970s, even though the contemporary Air Force budget is much higher than in the 1970s (after removing the effects of inflation).
Boyd pressured the Air Force to procure a smaller lightweight fighter. Boyd wrote the requirements for that plane, which happened to match almost identically the characteristics of a plane he had been secretly designing with General Dynamics’ Chief of Preliminary Design, Harry Hillaker. That plane eventually became the F-16 Fighting Falcon—his ideal true dedicated air-to-air dogfighter.
This is not exactly correct. Boyd, along with Harry Hillaker and Pierre Sprey were able to work together without interference due to Everest Riccioni’s fortuitous help. When the Air Force learned that Riccioni was helping to develop an even smaller fighter than the F-15, the Air Force fired him. As punishment, they told him he was going to Korea for one year. A one-year tour meant that he could not take his family. In firing him, the Air Force did not get around to sending him to Korea for nine months, time enough for Riccioni to use funds at his disposal to help develop the two competitors for the final lightweight fighter. Boyd, Sprey, and Hillaker all have said that without Riccioni, the F-16 would not exist.
You’ve written that Boyd argued that all combatants in a conflict are going through that cycle, and whoever can complete repetitive OODA cycles more quickly will always be the victor.
Your attempt to capture what Boyd wrote is simplistic, and in fact misleading, but keeping with the same simplistic explanation, Boyd also required that you must out-number the enemy. Outnumbering the enemy is inversely proportional to the cost of the airplanes.
I heard Boyd’s briefing for the first time while I was in my late 30s. After returning to San Diego where I lived at the time, I was invited to a party, one of those where the cost of the home is more than I would make in a lifetime, and approaching the flyaway cost of the F-16. As I wandered around living room, the “help” walked around with margueritas. I accepted one. By the time I was working on my third, I spotted a beautiful table that turned out to be one with inlaid marble, with matching chess pieces.
As I stared at the table, someone walked up beside me and said: “Do you play?”
“The last time I played, I must have been in elementary school,” I said. “I doubt I can remember how the pieces move.”
“Let’s play, I’ll remind you,” he said.
We began playing. My opponent was thoughtful, contemplative, and planned each move. As the third marguerita began reminding me I had had one too many, it was also clear that whatever I remembered about chess was not going to help me. I began reflecting on some of Boyd’s comments from the previous day. Soon, I began moving pieces within seconds after my opponent moved without giving any thought to the benefit of the move. He contemplated every move while I gave it no thought and simply moved as quickly as I could reach my piece.
We hadn’t played more that 10 minutes when he said, “I resign,” and laid his king on its side. I wasn’t clear what was happening but he got up and walked away.
A few minutes later someone walked up to me and said, “I hear you beat . . .” and uttered his name.
“I guess so,” I said. “He just quit.”
“No, he knew what you were up to and realized he would lose.”
“How could he know?” I asked. I sure as hell didn’t know.
“Don’t you know him?” he asked.
“He’s the California state champion . . .” of some sort but I stopped listening and was reflecting (as one does with three margueritas), at the realization of the effects of being unpredictable.
‘Fighter Mafia,’ . . . saw themselves at odds with the US government – to the point of depicting themselves as participating in a guerilla war against a government that they deemed as corrupt and ineffective.
The “fighter mafia” did not seem themselves at odds with the U.S. Government, they saw themselves dealing with a corrupt U.S. Air Force that for the same budget could become much more efficient and more lethal. Most importantly, they were men of character, who like Billy Mitchell, who fought and risked their careers for what they believed in. The Air Force used to pride itself on its mavericks. I find it sad indeed that a young history professor, secure in his careerist womb at the Air War College, would fail to see a basic point goes to the heart of the what used to be the Air Force ethos.
I don’t really have an opinion on Boyd–when I taught him at ACSC I didn’t really see what the big deal was. But I didn’t understand Clausewitz the first five times I read him either, so maybe it’s just me. I do doubt that the Air Force has EVER prided itself on mavericks. They ran Mitchell off, as I recall, and didn’t care much for Robin Olds either. I guess we could ask Claire Chennault or John Warden about that, but my experience was that it was, and is, about the most paint-by-numbers service there is, worshipping at the altar of technology and “independent operations” and whatever else everyone else is doing, as long as it doesn’t involve too much “book learnin’.” But I don’t see how being in a “careerist womb” (which, in the case of Maxwell, makes one of suspect parentage!) either adds or detracts from an argument. If you are implying that teaching at AU makes you more likely to drink the kool aid, then I guess you haven’t been down there in a while. Even the “fighter mafia” didn’t give a crap about CAS–they were as much about independent air campaigns as any LeMay acolyte–they just disagreed on the delivery platform. Warden’s critique of AirLand Battle makes that abundantly clear. There are lots of reasons not to like people, but I can’t see where challenging orthodoxy on Boyd is one of them. Seems ironic that you are complaining about the lack of “mavericks” by attacking one.
My problems with your research, objectivity and now transparency.
Five days ago I sent you a short but detailed reaction to your piece about John Boyd.
I sent it to you at your own website’s contact link at .
I took some time to be brief, detailed and documented to point out what I regard as your poor research and lack of objectivity regarding John Boyd.
My personal expectation was that an avowed historian would have welcomed to opportunity to argue over the facts and – certainly – to fend off the accusation of poor research and bias.
However, I have received no response from you, and you have chosen not to respond in any public way, such as at the comment section for your article.
It’s as if a criticism’s not being public can be ignored and that you can proceed as if it doesn’t exist –especially regarding your public readers.
The criticism does exist; it follows.
I await your refutation of it; please do me the courtesy of citing the new facts and links that support your argumentation.
I have read your short article, “A Discourse on John Boyd:…”, and came away quite disappointed with your research and objectivity.
Disclaimer: While I was not one of the inner circle of associates of John Boyd, I was a friend and a frequent recipient of advice from him.
From that, I benefitted immensely.
Because of my personal bias in favor of Boyd, I will restrict myself to matters under my personal observation and what can be interpreted directly from that, using your assertions as a point of departure.
You write that Boyd’s requirements for the F-16 “happened to match almost identically the characteristics of a plane he had been secretly designing with General Dynamics’ Chief of Preliminary Design, Harry Hillaker.”
This statement can easily be read as your inferring, as with your discussion of Energy-Maneuverability,” that Boyd raided the work of others, and didn’t give them credit, to the point of being something of an imposture.
I first met Harry Hillaker at Boyd’s funeral and came away with the impression that it was Hillaker borrowing from Boyd, instead.
However, readers should not take my word for it; they should take Hillaker’s.
Find it at .
You failed to give your readers that reference, and you did not convey the nature of the relationship as stated by Hillaker.
You imply derision of the F-16’s air to air capability, pointing out-incorrectly according to Dan Moore-that US F-16s have had no air-to-air kills. You failed to point out that the Israelis have a very different history and
that our Air Force has gone to some length to ensure what you assert is the case. It is not just the tons of weight the Air Force added to the F-16 prototype.
For example, in Desert Strom General Horner and his staff made it clear to F-16 pilots that “the first F-16 pilot that goes air-to-air goes home.”
That was a quote given to my GAO research team that looked at the air campaign for Desert Storm.
I will admit the reference is hard to find, but the Air Force’s climate of anxiety about the F-16 as a competitor to the F-15 as a fighter is not.
One has to question why that is not an issue you discuss in writing about Boyd.
You write “…whoever can complete repetitive OODA cycles more quickly will always be the victor.” You imply it’s all about speed.
That’s not how I and many others understand it.
You need to read more about OODA loops and better understand them, in my judgement.
An excellent description appears in Robert Coram’s “Boyd.” I have heard others denigrate Boyd and the OODA loop as all about speed; in each case, I learned that the person had not received Boyd’s briefings or had not read Coram or others about it after Boyd died.
I also cite this example and one reason why Boyd insisted “it’s the whole briefing or none at all.”
He understood Washington and its politicians, in and out of uniform, and among its various non-government dependencies.
You assert “the 1991 Gulf War discredited many of their [the reformers’] arguments” and that the war was an example of “demonstrating the effectiveness of all the weapons systems that the Reformers (and Boyd) had argued against….”
One has to only begin to scratch the thin patina of Air Force mythology about the performance of both simple and complex weapons in the air campaign to find that your assertion reflects incomplete research.
Find the details in the 240 page, declassified version of work that I and some colleagues at GAO did on the air campaign. Find that at .
Did you ever read it? It was massively reported in the press in the late 1990s.
Why did you ignore this work on the details of air systems’ performance in Desert Storm?
There is much in that report to not just unravel the Air Force mythology about its preferred and complex systems in combat, but also in favor of the thinking and handiwork of the Reformers.
For example, please check out the detailed examination of the F-117’s performance in attacking the Iraqi air defense network “in the first hours of the first night.”
Note the abject failure of the F-117s in that regard.
But there’s more, much more.
All ignored by you.
On technology itself, you reflect a fundamental misunderstanding about what Boyd and the Reformers have argued for decades.
In essence, you assert the difference as between simple, cheap “swarms” versus sophisticated technology.
That is not how they put it.
Try instead, simple versus complex, affordable compared to unaffordable (especially in meaningful numbers), and operationally tested versus poorly and incompletely tested (and perpetually in development).
Attack, if you will, what the Reformers did say, rather than simply repeat the way their critics inaccurately characterize them.
You evidence what I believe to be the same bias in discussing the Congressional Military Reform Caucus.
You get the conservative/liberal history of the Caucus quite wrong; you discuss none of its legislative work on operational testing, smoking F-4 engines and the Army’s contemptible testing of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and you digress into an attack on Sen. Gary Hart’s staffer, Bill Lind, pointing out his nutty (and worse) political ideas since he left Capitol Hill, thereby seemingly attempting to smear the entire Reform effort.
I should also point out that my former boss, Nancy Kassebaum, would very probably be quite uncomfortable with your characterizing her as the same sort of conservative as Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney, who have done so much since their involvement in the Military Reform Caucus to make themselves publically ignominious.
What were Gingrich’s and Cheney’s good and bad ideas as Military Reforms?
You say not one word.
It’s as if you are more interested in a smear.
Find more about the Military Reform Caucus in a book I co-authored: “Military Reform: An Uneven History and an Uncertain Future” at . There much there, both praising and critical of the people involved in the Military Reform Caucus.
You make the same sort of statement (“profoundly insecure”) and inference (coming close to characterizing him as a phony) about John Boyd’s character.
In doing so, you are, in my judgement, profoundly misunderstanding why he behaved as he did in that food court and with other “superiors.”
You also give prominent display to General McPeak’s ad hominem attack.
John Boyd had his flaws, which you failed to point out (but are discussed in Robert Coram’s biography, which you dismiss as a “hagiography”). Because you did not probe more deeply into what he said, did and wrote, I must ask that you do more and higher quality research and probe for less Air Force dogma and for more objectivity before your write more about John Boyd.
Winslow T. Wheeler (Former staffer to Republican and Democratic Senators, Assistant Director at GAO, and writer for the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information and the Project On Government Oversight)
I would offer that the description of the OODA loop presented here is incomplete. The OODA loop is not a decision cycle, it is the action cycle of a system. Decisions by themselves are not very useful unless they can be effectively put into action.
I offer this period of instruction I created for the Marine Corps to better illustrate this:
You also do not have to rely on my word to understand John Boyd’s work. You can listen to him describe his own work. “Patterns of Conflict” presented by John Boyd is available online:
I take issue with your claim that my biography of John Boyd was a hagiography. I wrote that Boyd was profane, loud, had little respect for superiors, ignored AF rules and regulations, was coarse, demanding, abrasive, unreasonable; and that he was a terrible husband and a worse father. If that makes for a hagiography, then I guess I wrote a hagiography. But I noticed that in your piece you quoted quite liberally from my hagiography and without attribution.
The information about Boyd’s role in planning the Gulf War, came from an interview with Dick Cheney when he was a sitting vice president. Given that Cheney was SecDef during the war, I’m inclined to believe what he said.
It is incorrect to say Boyd only challenged students to meet him over the Green Spot. I interviewed AF pilots who said fighter pilots at most AF bases knew of the standing offer.
Finally, I taught at Emory for twelve years and must say I was surprised by the lack of intellectual rigor, the poor research, and the biased conclusions in your piece. That might be okay in writing about comic books, but here you are wading into deep water and the subject deserves better.
If you believe the Fighter Mafia did not give a crap about close air support (CAS), you will be surprised if you look at those involved in the development of the A-10.
It appears that this article has generated an unexpected (on my part) amount of controversy, and not only on this site, but on social media, and with some comments directed to my personal email. Many of the charges being brought against the piece are personal attacks and accusations which are both unfounded and have little place in scholarly conversation. Insults about my editor’s nationality, or accusations that I am a careerist shill for the US Air Force, and the other similar attacks on my character from people who have never met me, have no place in this discussion and are not worthy of addressing.
However, I can speak to at least some of the other charges. Most of the complaints seem to fall into two categories:
1) “You didn’t fully address topic X.” Some readers seem angered that the article is not a full, in-depth analysis of some particular topic — such as every individual aspect about Boyd’s career, or Boyd’s personal life, or a detailed examination of each of his colleagues and their careers & lives, or EMT, or the OODA loop and its place in the evolution of strategic thinking, or of the Marine Corps’ doctrinal changes in the 1980s, or of the Reform movement broadly, or of the entire Gulf War, or a full examination of the merits of the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter (which, to my knowledge, Boyd had nothing to do with), or any number of other issues.
I did not go into detail about each of these topics because this is not a book length manuscript. This is a short blog post, and one that is already longer than the usual word count we tend to publish. The goal of this brief sketch was spawned by the recent release of AU Press’s new edition of Boyd’s work. I was hoping to provide a useful entry point for those who were unfamiliar with Boyd — that meant doing a very brief introduction to his ideas and activities–which, for someone of Boyd’s level of output, is very difficult to do in such a short piece.The intent was that readers new to Boyd could get a broad overview, and then follow some of the sources mentioned to go further in particular directions that interested them. Part of the goal of this article was to demonstrate that Boyd is a controversial figure that raises strong feelings in many people, both for and against him. I think the reaction to this article has demonstrated exactly that point fairly well. My goal was never to disparage Boyd, and I don’t think that I have. I have tried to present him in a balanced way–I have tried to show why some people love him, and some people don’t. I tried to show what elements made him controversial. I tried to show what important contributions he made (especially EMT and the OODA loop, among other things) while also giving acknowledgement to those who criticize those contributions. Admittedly, I am personally less fond of Boyd than some of my colleagues, and it is possible that came through unintentionally in my tone.
2) Misunderstanding or misquoting the article. It seems that many of the complaints are about things I did not actually say, or seemingly ignoring some things I did say. There’s no need to go point for point through every single complaint, but two examples will suffice. First, for example, some are upset that I claimed Boyd stole the idea for EMT from Rutowski. I did not say that. I said that they each came up with the basic concept independently. This is called “multiple discovery,” and it happens on occasion. I also argued that Boyd applied EMT in different ways, but that Boyd did later “borrow” Rutowski’s visualization methods (the charts) although also applied the charts in different, unique ways. I say that he “borrowed” the charts because that is exactly what Boyd said he did in an oral history interview. For a second example, some are upset that I am disparaging the performance of the F-15 and F-16. That could not be further from the truth. Those are both great, effective aircraft (I have models of both on my desk as I type this). What I think it is interesting is that Boyd was frustrated with both aircraft because they were not as focused on air-to-air as he wanted, and I think it is ironic that both ended up being multi-role fighters that are often used for air-to-ground missions, and are quite effective in both roles, and other roles as well. None of that is an indictment on either aircraft, it is more a comment on Boyd’s thinking and what he prioritized. I did make one factual error about the air-to-air kill count of the F-16, which I already addressed in earlier comments. That was a simple mistake on my part and I apologize.
Overall, I’m glad to see that there are many people who are passionate about this subject. I would encourage further debate on this topic, and anyone who has a different mindset is of course welcome to submit articles here as well. This site is a great place to explore and discuss divergent views. However, these discussions should take place with mutual respect, civility, and focus on the ideas and evidence being presented.
On behalf of my contributors and Assistant Editors – who it should be noted contribute to this site for free – I am grateful to everyone for the time that you have taken to respond to Dr Hankins’ brief article on the career of John Boyd. However, I am dismayed by the degree of vitriol that this article has created, and the generation of ad hominem attacks both towards this site and Hankins himself.
As such, my comments here are limited to several issues of housekeeping about what I believe constitutes a robust discussion of ideas in the virtual academic environment while also highlighting several points of interpretation and misunderstanding that appears to have emanated from this article.
Starting with the apparent offence of using the Queen’s English on this site, which appears to have annoyed at least one commentator. I, as the owner and Editor of this site, am British, though I now reside in Australia. As such, I am responsible for the final editing of all material that appears on the site, and it is my prerogative to publish it in which version of English I so choose. I appreciate and respect that readers from the US may believe that the fact that you have fought in several wars gives you the right to read everything in American English; however, this is not so.
More importantly, however, on several occasions, commentators have brought into question Hankins integrity and objectivity as a historian. While I am happy for people to critique ideas in the articles we publish, I am not willing to let people launch ad hominem attacks that are, in my opinion, unwarranted. Indeed, to claim that Hankins is safely ensconced in a ‘careerist womb’ at the USAF ACSC is unfair. Furthermore, given the lack of tenure prevalent at US PME institutions I would not describe ACSC as a ‘womb.’
More serious is the criticism of objectivity and indeed even an oblique reference to plagiarism. As Editor of this site and an air power specialist myself, I take pride in my ability to read and commission good quality articles. Having undertaken peer-review activities for several leading academic journals and university presses, I believe I can judge whether the work presented is objective. I think this article is objective in its tone and outlook.
On the inference of plagiarism, I find that unfounded given that Coram’s work is not only cited in the footnotes but also mentioned in the bibliographic note. Indeed, unlike Coram’s book, Hankins has, despite the compact nature of his article, at least cited sources that he examined. Indeed, for example, on EMT and the issue of whether Boyd copied Rutowksi, Hankins is quite clear when he stated that Boyd admitted to ‘copying’ the charts and provided a citation to support that argument – an oral history interview from 1977. For historians, the use of notes, which admittedly can, at times, become copious, are essential as they allow fellow scholars to understand what sources have been used to construct the argument present in any work.
The issue of plagiarism is an interesting and important one because, of course, it has been used by those who have written on Boyd. Most notably, the US Army has been accused of plagiarising Boyd’s work during the development of its AirLand Battle doctrine in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, Osinga (2007, p. 50) used this terminology in his excellent exploration of Boyd’s ideas. However, as one student at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies concluded in 2012, ‘there was not a direct correlation between John Boyd’s concepts and the AirLand Battle Doctrine; however, similarities between Boyd’s work and the doctrine were due to the larger reform movement within the Department of Defense preceding and throughout the doctrine’s development.’ The distinction between similarities and plagiarism may be considered semantic by some, but it is important. In claiming that Boyd’s work was plagiarised, authors are arguably seeking to give him a status that is potentially ahistorical. This is, however, not to say that his ideas did not have an impact but rather to illustrate that debates over the issue of influence and how we measure and conceptualise this metric as historians are contested territory. Finally, this does not take away from Boyd’s importance. Indeed, Boyd’s inclusion in Lawrence Freedman’s (2013) seminal history of strategy illustrates that he has been an important contributor to the development of strategic thought in the twentieth century. Moreover, his importance was in no way overlooked by Hankins who concluded that Boyd’s influence is ‘impossible to deny.’
Another issue raised is the description of Coram’s work as hagiographic. However, this is not a new description of this biography as illustrated by David Mets’ 2004 review essay in the USAF Air and Space Power Journal. In this essay, Mets provided an outline of what he viewed as the issues inherent in Coram’s biography and concluded in his final footnote that ‘[I]f you really want to read a work on Boyd, choose the Hammond book.’ However, even Hammond’s work has been criticised in several sources. Indeed, it is a truism that any work on a controversial character such as Boyd is going to generate divergent views and opinions, and this is something that I both admire in many good historians and encourage from my contributors to this site if they have the evidence to substantiate their interpretations. If an article I commission and publish makes you uncomfortable and forces you to engage, then ‘Fox One’ to me.
Overall, the critical problem appears to be that Hankins has provided a view of Boyd that differs somewhat from that which several of the commenters here hold. Indeed, it seems that Boyd is considered sacrosanct by many. No matter how balanced the criticism provided might be, it appears that it is considered fair play to attack that individual personally if their views diverge from the orthodoxy. It is not. Challenging the orthodoxy is no bad thing. After all, history is a conversation without end. While that may appear to be an obtuse observation, it is essential as the study of the past is about going back and re-examining the evidence to try to understand the challenges of the past. What Hankins has sought to do in this concise article is provide some context to Boyd’s ideas and the man himself that is shorn of some of the myths and shibboleths that have emerged around this individual. In doing so, he has encountered one of the critical challenges of contemporary history; writing about a person whom people still alive knew and revere. The reverence in which some people hold Boyd is evident in some of the responses present here, and this raises the spectre of the subjectivity of those commenting. The ability to distance oneself from the subject on which we write is a crucial skill for the historian and something that is instilled during our training. This is because, unfortunately, subjectivity can and does lead to hagiography.
Given the contentious nature of the replies to this article I, as Editor and owner of this site, have decided to close the comments section to this piece. If you have an issue with that, then please feel free to get in
with me to discuss.
Dr Ross Mahoney
Comments are closed.
bloggers like this: