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

25 October, 2022 - 6 min read


I. Brief Summary

John Boyd was a pilot fighter who codified the art of aerial attack and created the concept of energy maneuverability. He was a thinking fighter pilot. Boyd had an outsized effect on military tactics and equipment design throughout all branches of the military by challenging old paradigms.

I. Big Ideas

  • There is some tragedy in in Boyd’s life. He came from a family of 5 children. They were not poor when he was born in 1927, in Erie, Pennsylvania. Sadly, Boyd’s father passed away early and that left them in serious trouble and poverty.
  • What never changed was his late-night or even early-morning (for him, very late night) phone calls. He had an idea, a “breakthrough” and he called his “Acolytes”, his faithful followers—no matter when. Probably he didn’t even realize it was 1 AM or even 4 AM. Or he just didn’t care. These late-night phone calls were often not discussions, but monologues. He shared his thoughts, he listened to himself and then he found the missing points and went on working. Essentially he used the others to brainstorm his ideas and discover shortcomings in his solutions.
  • The OODA loop (Boyd Cycle):

    • Observe
    • Orient
    • Decide
    • Act
  • Boyd applied the concept to the combat operations process, often at the operational level during military campaigns. It is now also often applied to understand commercial operations and learning processes. The approach explains how agility can overcome raw power in dealing with human opponents. The technique is now also widely used in the business world and technology teams (scrum teams).
  • Whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives.
  • Knowing your most important goal at a time and concentrate your resources on that can make the difference between average and success.
  • Boyd kept telling his associates that one has to choose between being someone and doing something. It was his famous “to be or to do” speech. He never became a general, but his results, his legacy are still with us, not even in the military but in the business world too. He decided “to do.”
  • Boyd, borrowing from Sun Tzu, said the best commander is the one who wins while avoiding battle. The intent is to shatter cohesion, produce paralysis, and bring about collapse of the adversary by generating confusion, disorder, panic, and chaos.
  • Boyd, like Sun Tzu and Napoléon, believed in attacking with “moral conflict”—using actions that increase menace, uncertainty, and mistrust in the enemy while increasing initiative, adaptability, and harmony within friendly forces.

III. Quotes

  • If you want to understand something, take it to the extremes or examine its opposites.
  • If our mental processes become focused on our internal dogmas and isolated from the unfolding, constantly dynamic outside world, we experience mismatches between our mental images and reality. Then confusion and disorder and uncertainty not only result but continue to increase. Ultimately, as disorder increases, chaos can result. Boyd showed why this is a natural process and why the only alternative is to do a destructive deduction and rebuild one’s mental image to correspond to the new reality.
  • If a man can reduce his needs to zero, he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him.
  • Boyd dove deeper and deeper into the study of war. He realized that while wars take place between nations, every person experiences some form of war; conflict is a fundamental part of human nature. To prevail in personal and business relations, and especially war, we must understand what takes place in a person’s mind.
  • Judge people by what they do and not what they say they will do.
  • Thinking about operating at a quicker tempo - not just moving faster - than the adversary was a new concept in waging war. Generating a rapidly changing environment - that is, engaging in activity that is quick it is disorienting and appears uncertain or ambiguous to the enemy - inhibits the adversary's ability to adapt and causes confusion and disorder that, in turn, causes an adversary to overreact or underreact. Boyd closed the briefing by saying the message is that whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives.
  • Often, when a man is young and idealistic, he believes that if he works hard and does the right thing, success will follow.
  • The OODA Loop is often seen as a simple one-dimensional cycle, where one observes what the enemy is doing, becomes oriented to the enemy action, makes a decision, and then takes an action. This “dumbing down” of a highly complex concept is especially prevalent in the military, where only the explicit part of the Loop is understood. The military believes speed is the most important element of the cycle, that whoever can go through the cycle the fastest will prevail. It is true that speed is crucial, but not the speed of simply cycling through the Loop. By simplifying the cycle in this way, the military can make computer models. But computer models do not take into account the single most important part of the cycle—the orientation phase, especially the implicit part of the orientation phase.
  • Here Boyd says that to shape the environment, one must manifest four qualities: variety, rapidity, harmony, and initiative. A commander must have a series of responses that can be applied rapidly; he must harmonize his efforts and never be passive. To understand the briefing, one must keep these four qualities in mind.
  • Generating a rapidly changing environment--that is, engaging in actively that is so quick it is disorienting and appears uncertain or ambiguous to the enemy--inhibits the adversary's ability to adapt and causes confusion and disorder that, in turn, causes an adversary to overreact or underreact. Boyd closed the briefing by saying the message is that whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives.