A veteran of aerial combat in the Korean War could help America’s ground-pounders vanquish terrorists in the Middle East today. From his experience dueling with Soviet MiGs, Air Force Colonel John Boyd derived a way of thinking about strategy that applied not only to dogfighting over the Korean Peninsula, but to all dimensions of conflict and competition.
Boyd’s theory was deceptively simple: The combatant who was best able to adapt to an environment that was perpetually in flux, and thus to keep his opponent off-balance, would enjoy a nearly insuperable edge in battle.
Intuition started Boyd on his improbable journey from fighter pilot to strategic theorist. After Korea he landed an assignment as a flight instructor at the Air Force’s elite Fighter Weapons School. There he earned the nickname “40-Second Boyd” after issuing a standing $40 bet that he could win any dogfight within 40 seconds after starting from a position of disadvantage.
He won every encounter – and became obsessed with figuring out how, in theoretical terms, he had pulled it off.
Victory in air-to-air combat, reasoned Boyd, hinged on getting your opponent in a position where he was already reacting to something you had done, then making a quick change in altitude, speed, or direction that would put you in position to make the kill. The ability to cause and react to changes – “fast transients,” he called them – was decisive. Building on this insight, Boyd literally wrote the book on dogfighting in jet aircraft, the Air Force’s “Aerial Attack Study.”
In the early 1960s, working at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Boyd further codified his thinking as “energy maneuverability theory.” Using stolen computer time, he developed a technique for comparing the performance characteristics of fighter aircraft throughout their operating envelopes. This allowed him to determine at what altitude, speed, and g force one aircraft would have an advantage over another flown by a comparably skilled pilot.
The energy-maneuverability concept transformed not only the way American aviators fought, but the aircraft they flew. Boyd had a hand in designing the F-15 Eagle; he joined with like-minded individuals to form a “Fighter Mafia” that lobbied the Air Force hierarchy for a simpler, cheaper fighter to complement the F-15. The result of their five-year bureaucratic insurgency was the F-16 Fighting Falcon – the most nimble fighter ever.
When Boyd retired from the Air Force in the mid-1970s, he began to expand upon his theorizing. Mathematics, physics, and biology influenced him. From Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Incompleteness Theorem, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics he absorbed the idea that the human mind had to be able to destroy one model of reality when conditions changed – as they were apt to do – and quickly create a new model.
In the frenzied environment of combat, whoever could observe his surroundings, orient to new circumstances, make a decision, and act most swiftly would win. The winner would sow disorientation in the loser by getting “inside” his decision cycle, thus outwitting and outmaneuvering him. Brute force was a secondary concern.
History and strategic theory reinforced the insights Boyd had gained from the sciences. He found the writings of the classical Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, who prescribed a strategy built on deception and the artful blending of direct and indirect attack, particularly compelling. Boyd’s work found surprisingly receptive audiences in the ground services, which at the time were beginning to reinvent themselves as the ultramodern force of today.
Indeed, his influence helped wean the Army and Marines away from their traditional reliance on conventional wars of attrition, replacing this quintessentially American way of war with a doctrine premised on speed, indirection, and maneuver. This new outlook was on display both in Desert Storm – General Charles Krulak, then the commandant of Marines, credited him with being an architect of the victory – and in the high-intensity phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
To win in the fluid, unconventional environment of post-Saddam Iraq, the coalition needs to think unconventionally, and unleash some fast transients of its own. Fortunately, U.S. special operations forces excel at keeping their opponents in reactive mode, much as Boyd counseled. They have the language skills and the cultural acumen to ferret out the Baathist holdouts, disaffected Iraqi soldiers, and foreign terrorists who are trying to destabilize the country.
And, most importantly, they are renowned for inventiveness – witness the campaign in Afghanistan, where soldiers on horseback illuminated targets and called in air strikes featuring satellite-guided ordnance. America doesn’t need to throw more resources at the problem in Iraq. It needs to unlock the ingenuity of its unconventional forces.
Dr. James Holmes is a senior research associate at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security and a former professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. This article is republished on an excellent military analysis siteDefense and the National Interest.