‘Larger Than Life Strategist’
My first introduction to the story of John Boyd was these two (very long) forum posts:
This snippet from the beginning of those posts shows why it’s such an alluring story:
In the mid to late fifties, a fighter pilot could earn himself a quick forty bucks and perhaps a nice steak dinner in Vegas – not to mention everlasting renown, which is to fighter pilots what oxygen is to us lesser beings – by meeting over the Green Spot at thirty thousand feet and taking position just 500 feet behind an arrogant and unpleasant man with precisely zero air-to-air victories to his credit. From that perfect kill position, you would yell “Fight’s on!” and if that sitting duck in front of you was not on your tail with you in his gunsight in forty seconds flat then you would win the money, the dinner and best of all, the fame.
To be challenged in such a manner is an irresistible red flag to men like this, and certainly no less of one because the challenger was a rude, loud, irreverent braggart who had never been victorious in actual air-to-air combat. And yet that forty dollars went uncollected, uncollected for many years against scores of the best fighter pilots in the world.
But even though he was by those accounts an incredible fighter pilot, that’s not really the story of John Boyd.
As those posts and this book go on to show, the John Boyd story is about what he did after he was an expert fighter pilot. What he did with his expertise was:
- Create a new theory about aerial combat and how aircraft design impacts combat (the Energy-Maneuverability Theory),
- Use this theory to explain problems with existing and planned aircraft designs,
- Use it to design improved fighter aircraft (he was partly responsible for some aspects of the F15 and F16),
- Generalise from aerial combat to a more general approach to tactics – the OODA Loop (Observe – Orient – Decide – Act Loop).
- Generalise still further, from tactics to strategy, developing what would go on to become the US Marine’s model of maneuver warfare.
Mostly, though, the story of John Boyd is how he achieved all those things pretty much against the express wishes of his bosses. He had the same mindset tackling intransigent bosses as he had in dogfighting, saying things like ‘We hosed him, Tiger!’ when generals backed down.
The political infighting of the Pentagon was rife, and everything seemed aimed at supplying not the cheapest nor the best, but the most expensive equipment. Much of the telling of procurement at the Pentagon in this book reminded me of the cynical JPL quote ‘Why use gold when platinum will do.’
Sometimes this book re-tells stories Boyd would tell over drinks. The author makes the point that while these stories may not be true, they’re still valuable and worth re-telling because of the insight they give into Boyd’s thinking. I’m not sure about this. While the author is sometimes sceptical of some of Boyd’s stories, pointing out where there’s no evidence, I think I’d prefer a more sceptical take on them all. While stories are good, facts are better. It’s not like there’s a shortage of great facts about Boyd.
But then again maybe I’m not being sceptical enough here. There does seem to be some ‘hero worship’ in the book, and Boyd is painted as a larger than life figure. Critics say he had less to do with some of those achievements above than has been claimed, and for all I know they’re right. Given how fluidly the book sometimes goes from stories to facts it’s sometimes hard to know.