Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part II.)

Part I. in this series dealt with the topic of COIN, which is not a theory but rather a type of warfare. Part II. appropriately begins with the late theorist Colonel John Boyd, whose many contributions to American military thinking went generally unrecognized in his own lifetime, except for a narrow group of senior officers and political appointees. A group that included Dick Cheney, who as Defense Secretary in the first Bush administration, reportedly sought and followed Boyd’s counsel in regard to revising the warplans for Operation Desert Storm ( what John Boyd would have thought of the current Iraq war, I’ll leave to others, but that Cheney was deeply impressed by Colonel Boyd and his ideas in 1991 is difficult to dispute). In the aftermath of the Gulf War, USMC General Charles C. Krulak wrote:

” The Iraqi Army collapsed morally and intellectually under the onslaught of American and Coalition forces. John Boyd was an architect of that victory as surely as if he’d commanded a fighter wing or a manuever division in the desert”

Colonel John Boyd:

The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

Colonel Boyd was virtually unknown to the general public until the publication of Robert Coram’s recent biography, which I read initially because the claims for Boyd’s importance seemed to border on the fantastic. Boyd, however, walked that talk. Formally a fighter pilot and an engineer, Boyd was a brilliant and abrasively eccentric autodidact. Known variously as “40 second Boyd”, ” the Mad Major” and ” Ghengis John” to his contemporaries, Colonel Boyd racked up a staggering list of professional accomplishments:

122 Combat sorties in the Korean War

Command of USAF base in Thailand during the Vietnam War

Original USAF “Top Gun”

Author of the official USAF Aerial Attack Study

Creator of the E-M Theory (which led to the design of the F-16 and F-18)

Creator of the OODA Loop

Cognitive theorist for a ” dialectical engine” of learning in his paper, Destruction and Creation

Inspiration for the development of USMC ” Maneuver Warfare” doctrine

A foremost authority on the lessons learned from 2400 years of military history, distilled in two mega-briefs entitled Patterns of Conflict and A Discourse on Winning and Losing

A major inspiration for the later development of Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) theory and to a lesser extent, influenced concepts such as Network-centric Warfare (NCW), among others.

I do not claim to be an expert on the considerable depth or extent of John Boyd’s ideas; for that you need one of Boyd’s associates like Dr. Chet Richards or Franklin “Chuck” Spinney, both of whom can be found at Defense and the National Interest, but I shall attempt a brief summary. Colonel Boyd, who was deeply read but perhaps most influenced by the ancient Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu, reintroduced fluidity and creative adaptivity to American military strategy of a kind that had seldom been seen since the daring tactical prowess of Robert E. Lee. Boyd’s emphasis on Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) treated a military unit, from the individual soldier to an Army corps to the national leadership, as an adaptive, learning, organism. “Getting inside” the enemy’s OODA loop through unpredictable action, deception and psychological attacks on their mental and moral resilience, would disrupt their ability to anticipate and respond effectively to physical attack and maneuver.

Boyd saw mental and moral levels of warfare as critically important compared to the physical and technology was of little importance without the will and discernment to apply it’s power effectively. Much of what Boyd stressed in his briefs ran counter to the modern American military practice of building a logistically massive, industrial age, killing machine and predictably directing it’s overwhelming force more or less at the enemy, be he Confederates in Atlanta, Germans across the Rhine or Viet Cong in the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta (“Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle!“). Boyd viewed his OODA loop as an essentially destructive mechanism while grand strategy and, above that, a “theme for vitality and growth” were the constructive elements for victory in his strategic theory.

Recommended Reading and Links:

Defense and the National Interest and

These are the closest to “official” sites for the strategic ideas of Colonel Boyd. A wealth of material to read and download.

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

Fast CompanyThe Strategy of the Fighter Pilot

Maneuver Warfare Handbook by William Lind

Interview with Chet Richards” by


Variations of the OODA Loop 1, Introduction by tdaxp

Related Posts:
Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part I.)
Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part III.)
O-5 and the Peter Principle

18 thoughts on “Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part II.)”

  1. The Coram book is excellent, and accessible to the non-expert. At minimum, it is a study of a fascinating man who was an American original, an ascetic scholar of warfare who lived in defiance of the norms of behavior of his own branch of the military and pursued the truth as he saw it, at huge personal cost, especially to his family. His opponents saw an egomanica, a fanatic, a lunatic — and there were elements of those things. But overall he made a massive contribution to the defense of our country, the defense of civilization. Boyd’s was a unique and uniquely heroic life.

  2. This sounds exteremely intersting and fascinating… It will be a relief for me to find something I’m actually eager to read that isn’t all doom and gloom.


  3. You are welcome, James.

    Lex, you bring up an interesting angle – great men, particularly those of high intellectual ability, often purchase their accomplishments at a cost in normal human relations. Sometimes, like Isaac Newton, they are isolated from normal life with no family and few friends; more often their families suffer neglect due to their creative or professional obsessions.

    On occasion, a son of a prominent father surpasses their accomplishments ( Alexander the Great overshadowing Philip of Macedon, Winston Churchill his father Lord Randolph) or is well adjusted ( Todd Lincoln) but frequently their lives are unhappy ones.

  4. Lex, if you found that fascinating, it would probably be worth your time to read up on Huba Was de Czege, the most influential Army general and thinker nobody has ever heard of. He is the intellectual godfather of Norman Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks and a hundred other generals you have never heard of. When you look at our modern combined arms tactics, you can thank him for it.

    Ralph Peters was on a similar track within the Army prior to his retirement, and was highly thought of as an innovative thinker. Sadly for him, he mostly served in a time without drawn out wars, the kind that cull the dumb and the deadly orthodox thinkers from the upper ranks. He got a bad rep for speaking out of turn and was gone. (Orthodoxy having taken strong hold in the ranks after the Cold War, during the defense drawdown).

    So it goes with the “In Case of Emergency Break Glass” kind of leaders.

  5. Yes, the military mind is traditionalist and slow to change, or be changed. How is this different than any other corporate entity?

    More importantly, why is it necessarily always a bad thing?

    It is fine to talk about radical, innovative theorists, and these geniuses deserve their reputation, sometimes, but it is also important to recognize the role played by inertia and incremental change in preventing the kind of chaotic, schoolyard atmosphere that would result if anyone with a new idea was simply given his head, and no structural mechanism for tradition and continuity was in place to prevent an entirely different brand of “here’s what we’ll do” from sweeping over the military every time there was a change of political administration, or some turnover in the Joint Chiefs.

    Just as the scientific community has its peer review, and the medical/drug community has its hospital and laboratory trials, so the military as a community has its own form of leavening and filtering of ideas. (I remember reading a very nice analysis of American politics many years ago which acsribed the same function to the heartland of the country—the innovations and radical approaches formed in the “think tanks” of the east and west coasts being forced to undergo a filtering examination by the common sense, workaday perspectives of the farmers and middle class people of the midwest and prairies).

    Yes, many innovative ideas are delayed, and some very deserving people are denied the recognition, or at least delayed in receiving it, that they deserve. But the constitutional system of civilian oversight, and the excruciatingly slow and complex system of convincing enough people that an idea is right and will work the way it is advertized, maintains a certain equilibrium and balance in our armed forces that seem to be missing in the militaries of many of our adversaries.

    The Billy Mitchells and the Boyds may not get the acclaim they are due, when it is due, but an awful lot of wrong-headed and potentially disastrous castles in the air don’t get built so easily either.

    As with any enormous, complex organization, changing directions in the military is like steering one of those huge oil tankers—you need a couple of miles just to slow down and change course.

  6. The excruciatingly slow process of change is not about institutional inertia in any constitutional sense. It is about the iron triangle between the military, the congress and the defense contractots, who are happy to see soldiers die and wars be lost rather than lose any money. That is what Boyd was fighting against. It is the same problem we have today. The military is a vast and unaccountable government bureaucracy, amongst other things. It is not leavening and filtering ideas, it is crushing anyone who cares more about victory and American lives than about gorging at the trough. The real warriors leave the military in disgust. Few get to senior rank. Boyd didn’t, but he managed to have an impact anyway by a sort of guerilla method within the bureaucracy. Read the book and see. Boyd was one guy who from time to time managed to get the pigs to behave in the public interest.

  7. I’m sorry Lex, but I find that response reeks of zealotry, and is, frankly, bizarre in its sweeping declaration that the only people who stay in the military are some kind of corporate whores who aren’t really warriors, or who don’t care about the lives of their soldiers.

    Strange and disappointing.

  8. Very Retired – I don’t think that Lex is condemning everyone who stays in the military, but the majority who climb above O-6 are as he describes them. Many of those at the O-6 level are as well – see here.

  9. VR, Bad doctrine well enforced under a cloud of orthodoxy prevents the kind of adaptation that is necessary to meet new challenges, and gets good men killed, often in great numbers. That’s why an excess of orthodoxy – common in the peacetime military – is bad. “Hit the beach, dig in, then move up the hill” led to Gallipoli. “Get off the beach immediately, move inland” (the result of unorthodox thinking by men like Mike Edson, who generated an after-action review of early fights in the Pacific that later became the handbook for amphibious operations) caused the Pacific campaign in WWII to be cheaper per square mile than the European campaign. Mark Clark at Anzio, versus Omar Bradley in Normandy. You make the call.

    It’s the difference between the lifer attitude – ‘if it’s in the Field Manual, that’s how we’ll do it’ and the attitude that looks for a flexible way to win. Many in the military are innovative and flexible, but the system does not reward innovative and flexible thinking with career advancement, except in wartime when those who fail to throw out the FM, when appropriate, have their failings revealed. As members of the German General Staff observed in debriefings after WWII, the Germans did well because they followed their peacetime doctrine; the Americans did well because they discarded theirs.

    A certain degree of orthodoxy is smart. When taking a strong point on the attack, a firepower superiority of 3:1 is necessary. Interior lines are always preferable to exterior lines. On a day-in, day-out basis, the average man can only carry around 60 pounds on his back, or he will experience a fairly catastrophic physical breakdown, especially if contact is imminent/frequent.

    But those are the bare bones of what has to be accepted by all, the lingua franca. Beyond that, leaders need to be open to trying new technologies and tactics, and new ways of mixing combined arms forces. I don’t care if it pisses of General Dynamics that we don’t want to buy their new armored chassis… For the most part, the peacetime military does not reward this kind of thinking, due to its reversion in peacetime to a big fat bureaucracy. I have seen it first hand, and know that careerism tends to permeate the ranks and eat away at a military’s proficiency; during the drawdown I saw a lot of good mud soldiers cashiered in favor of the garrison grenadiers. Meanwhile, doctrine tends to stay stuck on whatever worked during the last successful war.

  10. Well, John says Lex didn’t really mean it, then goes right ahead and repeats the widesweeping condemnation.

    Al says the military suffers all the common problems of any large bureuacratic organization.

    That’s what I thought I said.

    Apparently if you disagree with the classification of all career soldiers as unthinking louts who don’t know what they’re doing, you have somehow said the military is perfect. I’m used to that kind of reaction on leftist blogs, but I wasn’t expecting it here.

    Good thing we never fought any really tough, professional military foes. These garrison soldiers and corporate schills would get beat pretty badly by pros like the Germans or Japanese.

    OK, that last was sarcastic, but I’m cranky from missing my afternoon nap.

    You guys need to rent “The Caine Mutiny” and listen to the last scene especially. The officer for the defense deals with the “dumb careerist” attitude pretty well, and it applies to some of these disparaging comments as well.

    I’m done with this distasteful discussion now.

  11. I meant it — though without Veryretired putting words in my mouth, a bad habit.

    One of these days I’ll put something on the blog about all this.

    In the meantime, don’t take it from me, read three books:

    Corum, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War
    Vandergriff, The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs .
    Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century.

    Especially Vandergriff.

    One more:

    McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam

    Love of country, respect for our soldiers, concern for their wellbeing, desire for victory in our wars, and interest in our national security are best served by a very unromantic understanding of our military, past and present. Generally, sadly, it is not a very edifying tale. Career building and bureaucratic imperatives, and venality, have very often been given greater weight than victory, or the lives of American soldiers. This is something we as citizens should always be alert to and on guard against. The only government bureaucracy that can wrap itself in the flag and get away with this kind of thing is the military.

  12. “How can we be sure all this “4GW” buzzword stuff is really innovative and not just a competing orthodoxy?”

    Fair question, Phil. 4GW is my topic for part III. but my short answer would be that while there are “hard” and “soft” 4GW advocates ( with the former seeing it as a predictive model and the latter seeing it as a useful if not universal taxonomy) there is a lot of disagreement in the views the school’s key thinkers of what the parameters of 4GW actually is. Chet Richards states flatly that we do not know what 4GW is while Thomas X. Hammes refers to it as an ” evolved super-insurgency” that is some eighty years old and already on the way out (5GW is emerging) and William Lind would probably reject either contention.

  13. I think Boyd would agree with his friend Chet Richards in this quote from the REASON Magazine interview:

    “Reason: If Dick Cheney called you up tomorrow and asked for your advice on how to proceed there, what would you tell him?

    CR: I’d say, “Dickie, you’ve got two choices: Get in or get out.” And by “get in,” I mean open your Roman history. You can see how it has to be done. We’re talking 27 million people in Iraq, so figure a couple percent, 500,000 to a million people, and lock the place down. Get it back under control, and then you can think about withdrawing.

    If you’re not going to do that, then just get out. What we have now is the worst of all possible worlds. We’ve got enough force in there to be an irritant and a target, but not nearly enough to influence the situation.

    If you go in, you have to go in with enough force and enough people. You have to go house to house to take the weapons away. If you don’t bring that much force in, you’re better to get out.”>

    Another way of saying what I said before the war: The only way is the Roman way, be prepared to stay 300 years (and the USA is not going to do that), so DON’T DO IT.

  14. Funny thing is, I’ve heard that Cheney _did_ seek Boyd’s
    advice during the First Gulf War, and if the advice was
    “go to stay or stay home” I doubt the contact would have
    been as extensive as reported.

  15. Essentially, they did go home. They just did it after smashing the iraqi military. They didn’t go into the cities, they didn’t plan to stay. If I’m not misunderstanding you, how is it incongruous?

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