Osinga Roundtable on Science, Strategy and War – Applying Boyd: Adam Elkus

This post by Adam Elkus represents the final, formal, contribution to this Roundtable and fittingly, after much discussion about grand strategy and John Boyd’s discourse, Elkus applies Boyd to our thorniest foreign policy problem – Iraq.

Analysis: Boyd, Iraq and Strategy

by Adam Elkus

How do the theories of John Boyd speak to America’s most important international security issue, the war in Iraq? This is no idle question—if Boyd is as revolutionary a strategist as claimed, what do his ideas say about the war? Or rather, what does the war say about his ideas? I will examine Boyd’s influence on network-centric warfare and the strategy of “shock and awe,” as well as the Boydian subtext inherent in larger geostrategic issues.

“Shock and Awe”

The operational phase of the campaign was heavily inspired by Boydian theory. US forces isolated, paralyzed, and destroyed Saddam Hussein’s government in record-breaking speed. Many observers–especially retired military analysts on the major cable news networks–had predicted a quagmire. Despite my own (continuing) opposition to the war, it was surprising—and exhilarating—to see a murderous tyrant’s apparatus of oppression rapidly smashed to bits with a minimum of American casualties.

The intellectual architect of the victory was Harlan Ullman, author of Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance. Ullman’s doctrine was heavily effects-based, using rapid and overwhelming force to attack the enemy’s cognition. Every bombing, tank thrust, or combined arms attack was designed to sever the psychological, organizational, and technological bond that maintained the power of the Hussein regime. Although “Shock and Awe” is seen in the public eye as emblematic of the Bush administration’s hubris, it was the perfect tool for destroying Baathist Iraq.

Authoritarian regimes are not known for their adaptability, and Iraq was no exception. Hussein denied his subordinates the autonomy to act on their own or report accurate information, keeping them in constant fear of purge. Worse yet, any politician or soldier that had managed to rise to the top of the Baathist heap did so because of patronage, not ability. There was no way such a paranoid, authoritarian, and brittle system could survive the violent shock that “Shock and Awe” put it through. One can compare the effect to that of German blitzkrieg on Stalinist Russia in 1941.

Although the greater strategic literature of effects-based operations (EBOs) makes little reference to Boyd, it is not hard to see where the ideas originated. Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict synthesized the airpower and maneuver warfare theorists and tied their strategies to ancient Eastern theorists such as Sun Tzu and Miyamoto Musashi. The end result was a strategy where force was designed to isolate, paralyze, and collapse the enemy instead of completely destroying his army. As Robert Corum and Grant Hammond recount in their biographies, Boyd’s tireless briefings created the intellectual environment for the military to create Boydian-derived (and frequently overlapping) strategic concepts such as EBO, “Shock and Awe,” and network-centric warfare (NCW).

Destruction and Creation

As Ralph Peters notes, the terrorists and guerrillas that oppose us in Iraq are even more “net-centric” than we are, with a fraction of our resources. Their networks have had tremendous success in targeting both Iraqi and American physical, mental, and moral centers of gravity with sophisticated military and psychological operations. Why is this?

Noah Shachtman’s article in Wired recounts some of the more common failings of these theories in regards to counterinsurgency. They are exclusively state-centric, they apply little to fighting insurgents, criminals, and terrorists, and they provide excuses for the Pentagon to sate the gluttony of defense contractors. Yet the real problem is that strategies like NCW, EBO, and “Shock and Awe” fail the most crucial Boydian test–they are all about destruction. They do not provide a means for, as Boyd would say, “vitality and growth.”

As Rupert Smith recounts in The Utility of Force, to win on today’s battlefield, the surest way to lose is to focus solely on destroying the enemy. Many (chief among them the tireless public diplomacy advocate Matt Armstrong) argue that the use of all segments of national power, military, economic, and political—is necessary for success. America has traditionally excelled at efficient, machine-tooled destruction, and failed at conducting the kind of holistic political-military struggle necessary for counterinsurgency.

Although the Bush’s administration’s epic failure in post-conflict planning has justly been savaged, there are many aspects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that would be familiar to a Kennedy/Eisenhower-era Cold War hand like Edward Lansdale. We blunder about with little knowledge of the long-term consequences of our actions, or even how those actions fit into vaguely-defined grand strategy. We back lawless “open-source militias” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, but to what end? What purpose?

Defense thought is also increasingly compartmentalized. Peruse any of the major military journals and you’ll see a blizzard of differing strategies, strategic concepts, and position papers, all which seem to exist in isolation to each other. Perhaps Boyd’s greatest strength was not the originality of his ideas, but his skill as a synthesizer, weaving the disparate strands of defense knowledge into a coherent worldview consistent from the tactical to grand strategic levels. Anyone familiar with American strategic history knows just how rare such synthesizers are.

The leading task for future generations of American strategists is to produce another grand vision for continued success and survival. Many have attempted this great challenge. Only time will tell which dreamer proves to be Boyd’s intellectual heir.

Originally posted at Rethinking Security.

Download Dr. Osinga’s Dissertation on Colonel John Boyd here (1.7 MB pdf).

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Previous Roundtable Posts


Wilf Owen

Dan tdaxp

Dr. Chet Richards

Shane Deichman



Lexington Green

Author’s reply by Colonel Frans Osinga.

Click here to view all posts in the discussion.


I’d like to take a moment and thank Dr. Osinga and our reviewers – Wilf Owen, Dan of tdaxp, Dr. Chet Richards, Shane Deichman, Historyguy99, Lexington Green and Adam Elkus along with Jonathan, the site administrator of Chicago Boyz who was always at the ready with technical assistance. The roundtable was a great success because of your efforts and participation and I’ll count the experience as one of the high points of my time blogging. I would like to close this with words of wisdom from Colonel John Boyd, as recounted by Martin Edwin Anderson:

“One day you will come to a fork in the road. And you’re going to have to make a decision about what direction you want to go.” [Boyd] raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised the other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” He paused and stared. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

1 thought on “Osinga Roundtable on Science, Strategy and War – Applying Boyd: Adam Elkus”

  1. “Their networks have had tremendous success in targeting both Iraqi and American physical, mental, and moral centers of gravity with sophisticated military and psychological operations. Why is this?”

    Because the Democrat party and the Mainstream Media are committed to a philosophy of rule or ruin. After they lost the 2000 election, they decided George Bush was the real enemy, and that he had to be destroyed no matter what the cost to the country. They have therefor aligned themselves with Al-Qaeda and Islamism, as is witnessed by their commitment bug out of Iraq instantly if they are elected.

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