Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

“Goddamn airplane is made out of balonium.”  Fighter pilot John Boyd had an extremely low tolerance for bullshit.  In a remarkable three decade career of military service, Boyd exhibited near-mythical talent, range, and insight.  As a tragic genius, he has few parallels in American history.

He began as an unbeatable fighter pilot and became a legendary instructor at the Air Force's Fighter Weapons School.  In civilian life, we often scoff and say, "those who can't do, teach."  Quite the opposite at FWS:

In most places of higher learning, an instructor is at the bottom of the academic pecking order. But at Nellis there is no more prestigious title. An FWS instructor may go on to become a general; many have. But ask him what gave him the most pride — becoming an FWS instructor or being promoted to general — and he will not hesitate. A general wears stars. But an FWS instructor wears the patch.

Then Boyd invented a whole new theory of aerodynamics to explain and quantify the performance characteristics of fighter jets.  Putting this into practice, he recruited the "Fighter Mafia" to subvert the gold-plated Pentagon procurement process and became the father of the iconic F-16 fighter jet.  And he did it with flair:

The closest Boyd came to defining a specific technical solution was when he said the aircraft should pull enough Gs at 30,000 feet to “roll down your goddamn socks.”

According to Wikipedia, the F-16 remains the "most numerous fixed-wing aircraft in military service."

But wait, there's more.  Boyd's battles with the Pentagon sparked the "defense reform movement" of the 1980's.  As peeved Pentagon staffers denied him further promotion from his rank of Colonel, Boyd developed a series of theories that reshaped modern warfare.  He literally wrote the book on tactics for fighter aircraft in his "Aerial Attack Study."  Today, he is most famous for his "OODA loop" decision cycle theory.  But it was his legendary "Discourse on Winning & Losing" briefing that really cemented his position as a master of Grand Strategy.  

The academics who know of Boyd agree he was one of the premier military strategists of the twentieth century and the only strategist to put time at the center of his thinking. That is as far as they will go. But Boyd was the greatest military theoretician since Sun Tzu. Academics snort in derision at such a claim. Von Clausewitz remains their favorite even though those who know the work of both Boyd and von Clausewitz agree that Boyd revealed the gaping flaws of von Clausewitzian theory.

Boyd's insight was that the key mechanism behind victory is to get within your enemy's decision cycle.  It sounds really simple, but this is not historically how America fights wars - think of our brutal wars of attrition like the Civil War or WWII.  His insight is captured in the popular idiom of "running circles around someone," where you are able to operate at such a high tempo that your opponent just completely collapses:

A commander can use this temporal discrepancy (a form of fast transient) to select the least-expected action rather than what is predicted to be the most-effective action. The enemy can also figure out what might be the most effective. To take the least-expected action disorients the enemy. It causes him to pause, to wonder, to question. This means that as the commander compresses his own time, he causes time to be stretched out for his opponent. The enemy falls farther and farther behind in making relevant decisions. It hastens the unraveling process.

Now if this is all sounding a bit abstract to you, do you remember how America absolutely curb-stomped Saddam in the first Gulf War?  SecDef Cheney called Boyd out of retirement and up to Washington for the (short) duration of the conflict.  In contrast to the traditional US military strategy of "high diddle up the middle," Boyd's theories were front and center:

He called Boyd and said, “John, they’re using your words to describe how we won the war. Everything about the war was yours. It’s all right out of ‘Patterns.’” He was right. Everything successful about the Gulf War is a direct reflection of Boyd’s “Patterns of Conflict” — multiple thrusts and deception operations that created ambiguity and caused the enemy to surrender by the thousands. America (and the coalition forces) won without resorting to a prolonged ground war. America not only picked when and where it would fight, but also when and where it would not fight. Coalition forces operated at a much higher tempo than the enemy. The resulting crises happened so fast that opposing forces could not keep pace with them. The one-hundred-hour ground war blitz against Iraq is a splendid example of maneuver warfare, a first-rate instance of cheng/ch’i, the conventional and the unconventional, all done so quickly the enemy was disoriented and collapsed from within.

Other US SecDefs have also been influenced by Boyd's theories.  General Mattis (former SecDef) says that his own method of military management originates from Boyd's strategic thinking.  I know this for a fact because I asked him in-person at an event at Stanford's Hoover Institution (see 1:07:40).  Admiral Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy (and founder of RSI), was also a Boyd fan.

How on earth did a single man accomplish so much?  For one thing, he read a TON and loved books - "It was obvious from Boyd’s phone calls that he was not only spending a disproportionately large amount of his retirement pay on books but was reading them all."  Boyd actually created the very first reading list for the US Marine Corps - a tradition that has carried on to this day.

Although Boyd was an autodidact without much formal education, he cultivated a smaller number of like-minded individuals to cover some of his blind spots.  These "Acolytes," as they became to be known, got roped into all sorts of Boyd's schemes and were on the receiving end of many late-night surprise phone calls from him.  Boyd was notoriously difficult to work with, from his grueling work hours to his abrasive personality.  Yet his vision somehow attracted a small circle of men who became absolutely devoted to him professionally.

Boyd's less attractive personal traits also spilled over into his family life, or rather, his complete neglect thereof.  Boyd's near complete disengagement with his wife and children is one of the uglier elements of his story.  Truly a tragic family life.  Worst Dad of the Year award winner for a solid two decades.

Many of the impositions that Boyd forced upon his family were driven by his foundational drive for independence.  As Coram relates, "Boyd knew he had to be independent and he saw only two ways for a man to do this: he can either achieve great wealth or reduce his needs to zero."  Maybe Boyd really was ahead of his time - this sounds suspiciously like the "Mr. Money Mustache" philosophy on financial independence to me.

Yet Boyd's obstinacy and devotion to his principles was also the wellspring of one of his best features - his integrity.  Part of the reason other people in the Air Force thought he was such an ass is that he refused to compromise on what he believed was right.  Normally in society we pay a lot of lip service to "standing up for what you believe in," but then expect people to compromise and "get along" in practice.  Boyd refused to do so and encouraged his subordinates to do the same.  In fact, one of his greatest legacies is a brief talk informally known as his "To Be or To Do" speech:

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He 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 his 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 you want 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 into Leopold’s eyes and heart. “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?”

Yet, Boyd's legacy remains disputed.  Part of this is due to his own lack of concern for his image.  He shunned the spotlight and most people in the military thought of him as a real pain in the neck.  He never officially published his work (but you can find most of his written work here).  Boyd was focused on getting things done and said himself that, "If you insist on getting credit for the work you do, you’ll never get far in life. Don’t confuse yourself with the idea of getting credit."  (Sounds like Robert Moses to me)

I personally had difficulty assessing whether Boyd was a genius or completely nuts.  His approach to strategy is very abstract and theoretical.  He doesn't give you much to really hang your hat on and he certainly avoids making concrete prescriptions.  Yet I could say the same thing about the professors in my Grand Strategy class at Yale.  Did I learn a ton and did it change the way I think?  Absolutely.  Could I explicitly tell you what I learned and how it changed my mind?  Not really... it's more of a "feel" thing.  Of course, other people tend to get quite frustrated when I tell them this!

The Air Force remains ambivalent on John Boyd.  In 2016, the Air Force Historical Foundation's Air Power History magazine published an article titled, "Boyd Revisited: A Great Mind with a Touch of Madness."  

The author contrasts Boyd with John Warden, another Air Force strategic theorist famous for his "Five Rings" framework.  He claims that it is really Warden's thinking that shaped the strategy in the First Gulf War.  Boyd is abstract while Warden is concrete.  Boyd aims for "implosion" while Warden targets "explosion" -  "Both focus on the disruption of the enemy's leadership, but Boyd attempts to influence the leaders' reasoning processes, thereby forcing mistakes, where Warden emphasizes using force to break the tangible connections between the leaders and the levers of power they wish to employ."

The author essentially dismisses Boyd as a dreamer and it's hard for me to know whether this is legitimate criticism or just a hit-piece run by the higher-ups at the Air Force trying to rewrite history.  One solid criticism of Boyd that I did agree with was the author's comment that, "...Boyd's strong emphasis on speed and tempo; at the tactical level they are all-important and key to success, but at the grand strategic level patience may indeed be a virtue."

In any case, this book is a must-read.  It's got big ideas, camaraderie and enmity, fighter jets, personal triumph and tragedy, and a heavy dose of "how the world works."  It's one of my favorites from 2019 for sure.

A big thanks to Ryan Holiday for originally recommending this book.

My highlights below.


It is a measure of the respect Boyd evoked that Vice President Dick Cheney took time to talk about his old friend. The generosity of his comments added much to the book.


And while Boyd’s life was marked by a series of enormous accomplishments and lasting achievements, the thing that meant the most to him over the longest period of time was the simple title he had in the beginning. He was first, last, and always a fighter pilot — a loud-talking, cigar-smoking, bigger-than-life fighter pilot. There is no such thing as an ex–fighter pilot. Once a young man straps on a jet aircraft and climbs into the heavens to do battle, it sears his psyche forever.

He remembers the days when he sky-danced through the heavens, when he could press a button and summon the lightning and invoke the thunder, the days when he was a prince of the earth and a lord of the heavens. He remembers his glory days and he is young again.

Suddenly what he had learned in thermodynamics meshed with all that he had learned as a fighter pilot and Boyd had the epiphany that became his Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) Theory. Tom Christie smiled and nodded as he remembered. He was the man who steadied the soapbox for the rambunctious and confrontational Boyd in those tumultuous years of presenting the E-M Theory to the Air Force, the years when Boyd became known as the “Mad Major.” After E-M, nothing was ever the same in aviation. E-M was as clear a line of demarcation between the old and the new as was the shift from the Copernican world to the Newtonian world. Knowledge gained from E-M made the F-15 and F-16 the finest aircraft of their type in the world. Boyd is acknowledged as the father of those two aircraft.

After he retired from the Air Force in 1975, Boyd became the founder, leader, and spiritual center of the Military Reform Movement — a guerrilla movement that affected the monolithic and seemingly omnipotent Pentagon as few things in history have done. For a few years he was one of the most powerful men in Washington.

Then he went into a self-imposed exile and immersed himself in a daunting study of philosophy, the theory of science, military history, psychology, and a dozen other seemingly unrelated disciplines. He had evolved from being a warrior to a warrior-engineer, and now he was about to move into the rarefied atmosphere of the pure intellectual. He synthesized all that he studied into all that he knew about aerial combat, expanded it to include all forms of conflict, and gave birth to a dazzling briefing titled “Patterns of Conflict.”

The results of what he taught were manifested in the crucible of the Gulf War. Everything about the startling speed and decisive victory of that conflict can be attributed not to the media heroes, not to strutting and bombastic generals, but to a lonely old man in south Florida who thought he had been forgotten.

The only things he ever published were a few articles in specialized Air Force magazines and an eleven-page study. His most important work was a six-hour briefing. Thus, there is almost nothing for academics to pore over and expound upon. That is why today both Boyd and his work remain largely unknown outside the military.

His motivation was simple: to get as close as possible to the truth. He would have been the first to admit there is no absolute truth. But he continued chasing something that was always receding from his grasp. And in the pursuit he came far closer to the unattainable than do most men.

Placing the symbol of the U.S. Marine Corps on a grave is the highest honor a Marine can bestow. It is rarely seen, even at the funeral of decorated combat Marines, and it may have been the first time in history an Air Force pilot received the honor.


Chapter One - Haunted Beginnings

Hubert Boyd was a traveling salesman for HammerMill Paper Company, and a job at the “HammerMill” was both prestigious and well-paying.

She taught all her children, but especially John since he was at his most malleable age, that they had principles and integrity often lacking in those with money and social position. She hammered into John that as long as he held on to his sense of what was right, and as long as his integrity was inviolate, he was superior to those who had only rank or money. She also taught him that a man of principle frightened other people and that he would be attacked for his beliefs, but he must always keep the faith. “If you’re right, you’re right,” she said.

This was not the last time Elsie was to demonstrate her willingness to sever a relationship with any person or any institution that offended her. She could do it without a second thought, without looking back, without any willingness to discuss the issue. Once she shut the door it was closed forever. John warned by her example, and it was a lesson he would remember.

John grew up not attending church and without any religious affiliation. On Air Force records he would later list his religion as Presbyterian, but that was only a word to fill in a blank space.

Many years later Boyd was interviewed by the Office of Air Force History as part of the Air Force Oral History Program. He said, “… my mother had to spread herself thin among all of us children. As a result, I did not get a lot of attention.” He said this gave him “more freedom” as a child than most. Even then, he remembered his mother’s admonition about family matters, and throughout the lengthy interview never explained that the reason his mother had so little time was that she worked three jobs and that Ann had polio.

He was particularly gifted in math.

Chapter Two - The Big Jock and the Presbytreian

Fed up with this situation, Boyd led a revolt. He and his fellow soldiers tore down two hangars and used the wood to build fires so they could stay warm. Soon after, the Army inventoried base property and discovered the hangars had gone missing. Boyd was identified as the leader of the perpetrators and brought up on charges. A court-martial loomed. Officers believed this would be the quick and uncontested trial of an enlisted man who clearly was guilty. But Private Boyd went on the attack and turned the pending court-martial into a referendum on officer leadership and responsibility. He asked the investigating officer if the Army’s general orders were in effect at the time he used wood from the hangars to build fires. When he was told that of course the general orders were in effect, he said one of the general orders stated that the first responsibility of an officer was to take care of his men. Officers were not doing that, not if enlisted personnel were sleeping on the ground while suitable quarters stood empty. Boyd said that if the court-martial proceeded, he would raise the issue of officer responsibility with higher authorities. The charges were dropped. The U.S. military had lost its first runin with Boyd.

He said in his Air Force Oral History interview that he knew bomber pilots were “a bunch of truck drivers” and “I did not want to be in a crowded bus and have a bunch of people continually telling me what to do.”

After World War II, both the Soviets and Americans had access to Germany’s research on jet fighters, and both countries went into production on jets based in large part on the German research. The Soviet MiG-15 and the American F-86 Sabre were remarkably similar. Both had swept wings and were about the same size, the MiG being slightly smaller.

Boyd was ordered to Albuquerque, New Mexico, until the next flight training class opened,

Chapter - Three Fledgling

If there is any group on Earth with healthier egos than fighter pilots, they have yet to be discovered.

If the book said the aircraft should never exceed 260 mph, Boyd pushed it to 265 or 270 or 280. He knew intuitively by the sound of the aircraft when it was approaching not the book limits but the true limits, which, for those bold enough to search for them, always are slightly greater.

Many civilians and those who have never looked through the gun sight — then called a pipper — at an enemy aircraft have a romantic perception, no doubt influenced by books and movies about World War I, that pilots are knights of the air, chivalrous men who salute their opponents before engaging in a fight that always is fair. They believe that elaborate rules of aerial courtesy prevail and that battle in the clear pure upper regions somehow is different, more glorified and rarefied, than battle in the mud. This is arrant nonsense. If anything, aerial combat is far meaner and grittier than ground combat. It is a primitive form of battle that happens to take place in the air. Fighter pilots — that is, the ones who survive air combat — are not gentlemen; they are back-stabbing assassins. They come out of the sun and attack an enemy when he is blind. They sneak up behind or underneath or “bounce” the enemy from above or flop into position on his tail — his sixo’clock position — and “tap” him before he knows they are there.

Thus, aerial combat favors the bold, those who are not afraid to use the airplane for its true purpose: a gun platform.

A wing consists of three squadrons, each theoretically comprised of twenty-four to thirty-two aircraft. A fighter wing has about ninety-six aircraft. Thus, these six wings had a theoretical maximum of 500–600 aircraft, although the actual number was about half that.

He manifested both the macho nature of a fighter pilot and the thinking of fighter aviation at the time when he replied, “I had to bend the shit out of that airplane” and “hose” the opponent. To “bend” an airplane was to pull more Gs than the enemy, to put one’s aircraft on the inside of the pursuit curve and gain the advantage from which he could fire. When a jet fires its guns, tracers allow the pilot to correct his aim. If the jet is pulling Gs, the stream of tracers bends and looks like the stream of water from a hose that is moved quickly. Thus, to “hose” an enemy is to get him in the pipper, follow him with tracers, and — as pilots say — wax his ass.

Chapter Four - K-13 and Mig Alley

Under no circumstances could an American pilot cross the Yalu River and go into Manchuria, where North Korean aircraft were based. American pilots most often encountered enemy aircraft in “MiG Alley,” the thirty-mile-wide stretch south of the Yalu where MiGs patrolled. If an F-86 pilot had a MiG in his pipper and the MiG fled across the Yalu, the F-86 pilot had to disengage. Manchuria was a sanctuary that America would not violate.

At the end of the war, the MiG was on the losing end of a kill ratio that had been as high as fourteen to one and finally settled at ten to one. The official count for the war was 792 MiGs shot down and 78 F-86s shot down.

The Air Force was only seven years old, but it was fast becoming not only a bureaucracy, but a technocracy that worshiped equipment and gadgets more than any other branch of the military. It was becoming hardware oriented and the goals for its hardware were simple: Bigger-Faster-Higher-Farther.

Chapter Five - High Priest

In 1954 the biggest slice of the Pentagon budget — $12 billion — went to the Air Force. (The Army received $9.9 billion and the Navy $8.1 billion. The Air Force continued to receive the largest amount of the Pentagon budget through 1961.) Within the Air Force, most of the money went to the Strategic Air Command. SAC was led by General Curtis LeMay.

“Peace is Our Profession” was the SAC motto as it prepared for Armageddon.

The Atomic Energy Commission began using Frenchman’s Flat, part of the Nellis bombing range, to detonate nuclear weapons. (The explosions always were announced in advance and one of the most popular pastimes in nearby Las Vegas was watching the mushroom clouds climb high into the clear desert air.)

The motto at Nellis was “Every Man a Tiger” and to be called a tiger by a senior fighter pilot was the ultimate accolade. Confident and intelligent men would damn near pop the rivets out of their aircraft during air-to-air combat training just to have one of the Nellis cadre nod approvingly and call them “Tiger.” To be called a tiger meant you had stainless-steel testicles that dragged the ground and struck sparks when you walked. To be called a tiger meant you were a pure fighter pilot and that you would not hesitate to tell a bird colonel to get fucked.

Rarely did a week go by that a fighter pilot did not crash. And when a fighter crashed at 400 knots, it was for keeps. When a pilot augered in, screwed the pooch, fucked the duck, and bought the farm, then the base siren wailed and the blue car drove slowly and wives stood in the windows and the chaplain consoled and the flag hung at half staff. But it always happened to someone else, never to the best fighter pilot in the world. And if you have to ask who the best is, it sure as hell ain’t you. Fighter pilots fly with their fangs out and their hair on fire and they look death in the face every day and you ain’t shit if you ain’t done it.

He found solace in an unusual place: the music of Wagner. His favorite was “Ride of the Valkyries,” which he played over and over at high volume.

The summer of 1954, when Stephen contracted polio, was the last summer America experienced a polio epidemic. Dr. Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine that year. In 1955 the U.S. government approved polio vaccinations, and for all practical purposes polio disappeared from America. It was good news for America and for the world, but what was even more important news to Boyd was that Dr. Salk said polio was a virus — the disease was not hereditary. Boyd was not responsible. But Stephen would never walk.

German pilots in World War I developed the technique of diving with the sun at their backs and firing at blinded American pilots. This maneuver led to the expression, “Beware of the Hun in the sun.” American pilots copied the maneuver.

Eric Hartman, the famous German pilot of World War II, simply pounced on slow bombers, unsuspecting fighters, or any crippled aircraft from behind. He was a back-shooter who shot down 352 airplanes and became the leading ace of all time.

In most places of higher learning, an instructor is at the bottom of the academic pecking order. But at Nellis there is no more prestigious title. An FWS instructor may go on to become a general; many have. But ask him what gave him the most pride — becoming an FWS instructor or being promoted to general — and he will not hesitate. A general wears stars. But an FWS instructor wears the patch.

Once in a great while there came along a pilot whose knowledge of air-to-air combat was so great and whose skills were so exemplary that he did not go back to his squadron to await the call. Upon graduation he was asked to stay on as an instructor. These men were seen as the most gifted of the gifted, the ultimate fighter pilots, the pure warriors.

Chapter Six - Pope John Goes Severely Supersonic

What he was teaching was how to think—not just of the maneuver, but of the effect each maneuver had on airspeed, what counter-moves were available to an enemy pilot, how to anticipate those counters, and how to keep enough airspeed to counter the counter-move. Airspeed preservation enabled a pilot to maintain or to regain the offensive. It was radical, heady stuff, the first effort ever to make air combat a science rather than an art.

Boyd’s fame as a fighter pilot came on the wings of one of the most quirky and treacherous fighter planes in the history of the Air Force, the F-100—the first operational aircraft to reach the speed of sound in level flight.

The Hun, particularly the A model, was a lieutenant-killer, a widow-maker with a fearsome reputation. One quarter of all the F-100s ever produced were lost in accidents.

Simply put, at low airspeeds and high angle of attack, the down aileron produced more drag than it did lift. As one F-100 pilot said, “If you wanted to go right and the aircraft wanted to go left, the aircraft always won.” Suddenly the pilot was out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas — all at the same time. At low altitude, where FWS pilots worked much of the time, there was no room to recover. It was adverse yaw that killed so many pilots and gave the F-100 its fearsome reputation. Boyd loved the airplane’s evil quirks. “It bites back,” he said. He thought the F-100 was a great aircraft for students; if they could fly the Hun, they could fly anything.

“There I was, going severely supersonic” became the new phrase among Hun drivers. (No Hun pilot was happy simply announcing he had been going supersonic; it had to be “severely supersonic.”) The comment was delivered casually because Hun drivers knew no other pilots in the Air Force could say the same thing and there was no need to remind those lesser mortals of where they fit into the cosmic scheme of things.

Chapter Seven - Rat-Racing

Two hours was the maximum time Boyd allowed for these brunches. His name for the government was “Uncle,” as in “Uncle Sam,” and he believed that he owed Uncle a solid day’s work. It might be Friday afternoon and fighter pilots might be gathering at the Stag Bar, but the pilots who worked for Boyd would return to the office and stay there until 4:30 P.M

Boyd turned to Spradling and his voice was low and urgent and intense. “Sprad, goddammit, he’s going. We’re going down there as a group and if they kick us out they’ll have to kick out the whole base. They’ll have to kick out the fucking U.S. Air Force.” “But, John, I was just—” “Sprad, if they object to Oscar, they have to object to all of us. The Air Force is integrated. We have been for years. We don’t have a problem. It’s their goddamn problem.” A fighter pilot is a fighter pilot is a fighter pilot. If a man can drive a Hun it doesn’t matter what color he is.

the 555th Fighter Squadron — the famed “Triple Nickel”

Boyd enjoyed these late-afternoon sessions with young pilots. Their adulation was the fuel that kept him going.

Chapter Eight - Forty-Second Boyd and the Tactics Manual

BY 1959 Nellis was the largest Air Force base in the world. The airspace over one-tenth of Nevada, more than 3 million acres of gunnery and bombing and air-to-air ranges, was devoted to Air Force use.

The Corvette was the car of choice for fighter pilots in the 1950s. It would not go severely supersonic but it could get close enough, and from the way this one was being driven, it was obvious a fighter pilot was at the wheel.

After all, Boyd had enormous compassion for the underdog, having been one most of his life. When he saw the instructors and students at the FWS arrayed against Catton, he had to defend the young officer. He saw promise in Catton, just as Frank Pettinato had seen promise in him, and he liked the idea of a man fighting against impossible odds. Plus, he had an old-fashioned belief, instilled in him by Art Weibel and Frank Pettinato, that hard work can overcome all obstacles.

In his Oral History interview, Boyd recounts that he told Newman, “You ought to be glad. This way you are ending up with the better book. It is a better reflection on you as the commander. Why are you protecting a bunch of goddamn losers over there who cannot even do their homework? You know they did not do as good of a job as me. They are losers.” “Get out,” the colonel ordered. But the next day the colonel called Boyd to his office. “I want to apologize to you,” Boyd quotes him. “I really never read your manual before last night. Yours really is much better than the one from TR&D.” Boyd said the colonel then called TR&D and “ate their ass out” for doing such shabby work.

Everything a fighter pilot needed to know was in the “Aerial Attack Study.” The most prescient part was called “Basic Limitation of AIM-9 Against Maneuvering Targets.” Even though the Air Force had an unshakeable belief in the omnipotence of missiles, Boyd showed — and he was the first to do so — that missiles could be out-maneuvered by a maneuvering target (i.e., another fighter). His specific reasons for why they could be outmaneuvered was why the “Aerial Attack Study” was classified. The fact missiles could be defeated was of crucial importance; it meant the dogfight was not dead, as SAC generals believed.

For the “Aerial Attack Study” Boyd received the Legion of Merit, an award usually given to senior officers. The commendation said the “Aerial Attack Study” was the “first instance in the history of fighter aviation in which tactics have been reduced to an objective state.”


Chapter Nine - Thermo, Entropy, and the Breakthrough

The 1960s were years of protests and demonstrations on college campuses across America. But not at Georgia Tech. In 1961 the president of Tech called a mandatory all-student meeting and announced that the first black students had been accepted, that all students would welcome them in friendship and cordiality, and any student who behaved otherwise would be dismissed and there would be no appeal. Thus, Tech became the first major state university in the South to desegregate peacefully and without being forced to do so by court order. Tech and its students were too serious about academics to become sidetracked by such issues.

Chapter Ten

Eglin has hundreds of thousands of sandy acres covered in pine trees to the north and west of the base. To the south is the Gulf of Mexico. The remoteness of the base made it the perfect place to test guns, bombs, and rockets. Some of the most secret missions of the American military have been practiced at Eglin and the little ancillary bases squirreled away in the pine forests.

During Boyd’s life he became close friends with six men. They were his Acolytes. In many ways these six men are quite different. What they share is that all are extraordinarily bright, all have an almost messianic desire to make a contribution to the world in which they live, all are men of probity and rectitude, and all — while independent in the extreme — are devoted followers of Boyd. They are important because they were so close to Boyd that oftentimes their work cannot be distinguished from his. The story of Boyd’s life is by necessity the story of their lives.

It is impossible to separate the contributions of the two men to the work they were about to do — work that would, in the end, do just what Boyd predicted: change people’s fundamental understanding of aviation. The idea was Boyd’s. But Christie’s background in advanced math and his skill with computers, along with his skills in handling the bureaucracy, made possible Boyd’s great and lasting contribution to aviation. Boyd simply could not have done what he did had it not been for Christie — not at that time and not at that place.

Reduced to its basics, Boyd’s work hinged on thrust and drag ratios. An airplane at a given altitude, given G, and given speed has a defined drag. The engine has a maximum potential thrust at that altitude and that temperature. If the engine puts out enough energy to match the drag, the aircraft’s total energy is unchanging — the energy rate is zero. All is balanced. But Boyd wanted to know how fast a pilot could gain energy when he fire walled the throttle. At a given altitude, given speed, and pulling a given amount of Gs, how much ooomph did he have in reserve? And the answer he sought had to be normalized so every aircraft could be seen in an equal light, independent of its weight. That is why Boyd chose to look at how fast a fighter gained or lost specific energy, not total energy.

The E-M Theory, at its simplest, is a method to determine the specific energy rate of an aircraft. This is what every fighter pilot wants to know. If I am at 30,000 feet and 450 knots and pull six Gs, how fast am I gaining or losing energy? Can my adversary gain or lose energy faster than I can?

There was talk of submitting his name to the Guinness Book of World Records after he was clocked downing two eggs, a slice of ham, two pieces of toast, and a cup of coffee in twenty-two seconds. And for such a profane man he had a paradoxical streak of the puritan. He once attended a bachelor party, and the sexually suggestive language, the gag gifts, and the gyrations of a nude female dancer so embarrassed him that he left.

Second, he had to find a way to translate pages and pages of complex mathematics into something that was informative, persuasive, and interesting — something that, as he kept saying, “even a goddamn general can understand.”

While the denizens of Wright-Pat have always had a very high opinion of themselves, that opinion is not universally shared. A story is told of how a group of former high-ranking German officers was touring military facilities in America and was taken to Wright-Pat. The officers saw the labs and talked with professorial officers and experienced the lofty mustiness of the base, and then one of the German officers turned to his host and quietly said, “Now I know why we lost the war.” His host from Wright-Pat smiled and waited. “We had two bases like this.”

Chapter Eleven - The Sugarplum Fairy Spreads the Gospel

But the F-111 was a high-tech wonder with two bold innovations, both of which were later to cause enormous problems. The F-111 was the first combat airplane to have an afterburning turbofan engine.

The second innovation was the wing. The F-111 was the first combat aircraft to have a variable-geometry wing, commonly called the “swing wing.” The small narrow wings extended straight out for takeoff and slow-speed flight, then folded back for high-speed runs.

Hillaker was supervising construction of what would turn out to be one of the most scandal-ridden aircraft in U.S. history. Boyd was the first to publicly say what in a few years everyone would know. The Air Force was seduced by swing-wing technology, a technology that ultimately would ruin two generations of airplanes.

Hillaker was a company man who hewed to the company line. But that did not mean he did not have a dream of his own. A few years later he and Boyd would have their chance to build the ideal fighter aircraft. They would join together in the most audacious plot ever conceived against the U.S. Air Force.

Then one day he stopped twirling and tossed the pencil on the desk. He had the answer; he knew how to translate the reams of charts and formulas and engineering data from Wright-Pat into a simple form. He would show graphs of the differences between each American fighter’s energy rate and the energy rate of its Soviet counterpart. Blue areas represented where the differences favored the American fighter, red where the Soviet fighter had the advantage. Blue is good. Red is bad. Even a goddamn general can understand that.

As had happened again and again in Boyd’s career, his immediate supervisor gave him a poor or mediocre rating, one that signaled it was time to get out of the Air Force, and again and again a general officer rescued him.

Fighter pilots called the B-52 the “BUFF” — big ugly fat fucker.

A military briefing is a slow, antiquated, and terribly inefficient way to present information. Nevertheless, it is an art form upon which an officer’s career can rise or fall. Many men have risen to high rank on their ability to, as the military says, “give a good brief.”

It is obvious that most people can read and assimilate information faster than they can learn something by listening to a dog and pony show. But the U.S. military culture is an oral culture and the bedrock of that culture is the briefing.

Christie had great admiration for Boyd’s briefing technique, except for one thing: Boyd roamed the stage and bounced on his toes and waved his arms about with such passion that he reminded Christie of a ballet dancer. “Stand still, John,” he said again and again. But Boyd could not. Christie began calling him the “Sugarplum Fairy,” a nickname soon shortened to the “Plum,” which is how Boyd was thereafter known to his friends at Eglin.

He even briefed Chuck Yeager.

Boyd and Christie used E-M data to run computer simulations and discovered that the reality was far different. Performance of U.S. missiles was nowhere near what it was advertised to be, and Boyd and Christie became the first two men in the defense industry to talk about the limitations of missiles.

And the F-111 chart was one that would cause serious heartburn to any general who saw it — the chart was solid red: Soviet aircraft could defeat the F-111 at any altitude, at any airspeed, in any part of the flight envelope.

Boyd’s second ER at Eglin is dated September 7, 1964, and is nothing short of phenomenal. This is one of the few times in Air Force history, perhaps the only time, when an officer has created a radical new theory and then been told his job was to develop that theory.

Kan was shot down in Vietnam, and when the rescue helicopter came to pick him up, the crew saw his Asian features and thought a North Vietnamese was trying to get aboard. The helicopter quickly departed. Kan released such a stream of creative profanity over the radio that the helicopter crew knew the man on the ground had to be an American and returned to pick him up.

People in the Flight Dynamics Lab at Wright-Pat heard of Boyd’s work and were working day and night to disprove the E-M Theory. It was embarrassing in the extreme to have a fighter pilot from Eglin develop a theory that should have been developed there at WrightPat.

Chapter Twelve - Pull the Wings off and Paint It Yellow

The general thought for a moment. Maybe there was something the charts did not reveal, something he could salvage. “Major, based on your extensive research, do you have any recommendations regarding this aircraft?” Boyd did not miss a beat. “General, I’d pull the wings off, install benches in the bomb bay, paint the goddamn thing yellow, and turn it into a high-speed line taxi.”

When he briefed the Air Force Science and Engineering Symposium, a convocation that lasted almost a week and included dozens of the best briefers in the Air Force, he was given the award for having the best presentation.

But to be right was not enough. He had to have a redress of grievances and he had to publicly embarrass the person who wronged him. He had to be the last man standing. “People did things to me when we were young,” he once told Mary. “They did it because we were poor. But they’re not going to do it now.”

The Air Force is a collection of coalitions, and by late 1965 there were strong anti-Boyd coalitions at Eglin, at Wright-Pat, and in scattered pockets around the Air Force.

It was clear to Boyd’s friends what had happened. Those whom Boyd had belittled and denigrated had sent out the word, and the word had percolated among various coalitions until it reached the promotion board: sure, Boyd has done some good things for the Air Force, but he is unprofessional, lacks basic military courtesies, and is unfit for rapid promotion. These people had lost battles with Boyd, but they won the war. They affected his career and his life in the most hurtful way possible.

Boyd had established a pattern: no matter what his contributions to the Air Force or to national defense might be — and there were significant contributions yet to come — his outspoken nature, his lack of reluctance to criticize his superiors, and his love of conflict with others would hinder his promotion throughout his career.

Chapter Thirteen - “I’ve Never Designed a Fighter Plane Before”

A warrior wants his country to be prepared for war, to win against all enemies, to prevail at all costs. Duty and patriotism and honor are not buzz words to a warrior; they are his creed. A warrior speaks the truth to generals and congressmen. Being promoted is not the top priority of a warrior. Thus, warriors do not fare well in the Pentagon. But then, there are few true warriors in the Air Force.

The host of troubles facing the Air Force allowed Boyd to take over the F-X project. His takeover was de facto rather than de jure, as he was far junior in rank to people who made design and acquisition decisions and to those who, on organization charts, led the F-X program.

In addition, Boyd had support from the top, invaluable in a bureaucracy. Few in the Building knew that Air Force Chief of Staff John McConnell was a Boyd fan. It was General McConnell who cancelled Boyd’s Vietnam tour and brought him to the Pentagon. He knew of Boyd, the legend: fighter pilot and creator of the E-M Theory. But he needed Boyd, the maverick: the obstreperous and independent officer who cared more for his work than for his career. Only such a man could save the F-X from being cancelled and prevent the Air Force from being outmaneuvered by the Navy. Only such a man could save the Air Force from itself.

“You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after.”

Pierre Sprey stood out. Some Whiz Kids traveled on their reputations. Not Sprey. He entered Yale at fifteen and graduated four years later with a curious double major: French literature and mechanical engineering.

Sprey was not the sort of man who followed other men, but he could follow Boyd. Boyd had met the second of the Acolytes.

Sprey realized, as had Christie before him, that being Boyd’s friend meant dedicating one’s life to Boyd’s causes. Very few men were ever invited by Boyd to join forces with him. None ever refused. Each sensed intuitively that he was being offered a rare gift. Each was to pay a terrible price for his friendship with Boyd. Each would have paid more.

Boyd and Sprey formed the nucleus of what in a few years would be the most famous, most detested, and most reluctantly respected ad hoc group in the Building, a group that history would know as the “Fighter Mafia.”

Chapter Fourteen - Bigger-Higher-Faster-Farther

Incredible as it may seem, the F-X was the first fighter in U.S. history designed with any maneuvering specifications, much less E-M specifications.

The closest Boyd came to defining a specific technical solution was when he said the aircraft should pull enough Gs at 30,000 feet to “roll down your goddamn socks.”

When the war finally ended, one Air Force pilot would be an ace. North Vietnam would have sixteen.

Wolfpack pilots shot down seven MiGs that day, plus two probables (MiGs that disappeared into an overcast with missiles tracking strong and true). January 2, 1967, was the greatest day the Air Force had during the Vietnam War. Bolo went into the history books. But what Razz remembers is that six of the seven kills that day were done by pilots who used John Boyd’s outside roll at some point in the engagement. Razz says Boyd was the father of that great victory as surely as if he had led the mission.

During the summer of 1967, the Soviets introduced two new fighters: the swing-wing MiG-23 and the MiG-25. American fighter pilots laughed at the MiG-23 and said the only good thing about the F-111 was that the Soviets had copied it and thereby lost at least one generation of aircraft to bad technology.

Missiles could be evaded by the simplest of countermeasures. There was no countermeasure for a gun. Signs began showing up on the walls in the Pentagon: “It takes a fighter with a gun to kill a MiG-21.”

Then in the fall of 1967 there came to the Building one Mordecai Hod, head of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). He came to buy F-4 Phantoms. And he came wearing the aura of a man who was an icon in the fighter-pilot community. Under his leadership the IAF had done three things that got the attention of the U.S. Air Force. First, in the Six Day War of June, the Israeli Air Force shot down sixty Arab jets while losing only ten fighters — an exchange ratio of six to one. Second, every Israeli kill was a gun kill. And third, the Israelis — as the name of the war indicates — had moved quickly, decisively, and thoroughly at a time when the Americans had been at war in Vietnam for several years, and the war was escalating with no end in sight.

Chapter Fifteen - Saving the F-15

And all the children say today that their anger toward their father is rooted in his insistence on living in the tiny apartment.

Boyd won battles not only in the open and more or less public arenas, such as briefings, but also in the corridors and offices of the Pentagon, where politics is both byzantine and deadly. Here, one of his greatest weapons was his secret back-channel communication to the Air Force chief of staff. The chief often followed the Franklin Roosevelt theory of management, bypassing sycophantic generals and seeking out from among relatively junior officers a few men who would tell him the truth. The chief knew the culture of the Building and knew that, in many ways, he was the most ignorant man in the Air Force. Dozens of high-ranking officers put their fingers in the wind before they talked to him. Then they told him what they thought he wanted to hear. Boyd, and presumably a very few others, told him what he needed to know. Occasionally a colonel from the chief’s office dropped into Boyd’s office and said, “Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” And the two men sat in a corner of the cafeteria and the colonel said, “The chief wants to know…” And because Boyd gave him straight answers, the chief came to him again and again.

If a superior gave Boyd an order and Boyd believed that order had implications deleterious to the F-X, he smiled and said, “Sir, I’ll be happy to follow that order. But I want you to put it in writing.” Generals like to issue verbal orders. That way if the results are not what the general expected, he can always deny he issued the order. While Boyd was within his rights to ask for written orders, his doing so infuriated generals. It clearly indicated he thought the general was wrong.

A member of the subcommittee scratched his head and in a noncommittal tone, almost as an aside, asked the general if the Air Force had made a decision about the wing design. The general paused. Boyd knew that the future of the nonnuclear Air Force hung in the balance; all the work he had done on the F-X was crystallized in that one frozen moment. He leaped into the breach. “Yes, Sir, we have. The Air Force does not believe a variable-geometry wing is the answer. In fact, we believe the fixed-wing aircraft is a superior design. The F-X will be a fixed-wing aircraft.” It is difficult to know who was the most surprised — the general or the members of the subcommittee. The general stared at Boyd in disbelief. No decision had been made on the wing design. And now a lieutenant colonel on his own initiative had made a decision that was the prerogative of a four-star general.

Chapter Sixteen - Ride of the Valkyries

Usually there are no cost constraints on an aircraft-design program. Politically there are often many reasons to maximize costs. In all the history of the Air Force, the A-X was the single exception. It had to be cheap. It had to cost less than the Cheyenne.

Sprey was fascinated by Hans Rudel, the legendary tank-killing German pilot of World War II who still is considered the greatest CAS pilot of all time. Sprey insisted that everyone on the A-X project read Stuka Pilot, Rudel’s wartime biography that told how he flew 2,530 missions and destroyed 511 tanks.

The Air Force loathed everything about the A-X, which soon would be known as the A-10. Jokes were made that it was so slow that it suffered bird strikes — from the rear — and that instead of carrying a clock, the cockpit had a calendar. The aircraft was so ugly it was called the “Warthog.” Many in the Air Force said no airplane could perform or survive in combat as this airplane was supposed to perform. It would be almost twenty years before the A-10 had the chance to demonstrate just how wrong its detractors were.

Boyd laughed. “We don’t care what the Russians are doing. We only care about what the Navy is doing.”

Chapter Seventeen - The Fighter Mafia Does the Lord’s Work

On the other hand, the lightweight fighter he secretly was working on was a rapier that embodied all the concepts of his updated E-M Theory. It was simple and small, with less drag, less weight, less visibility, and with much greater performance than the F-15, a day fighter that would not even carry a radar. It was a pure fighter with no bomb racks. It would be a 20,000-pound airplane, half the weight of the F-15; in fact, it was the aircraft the F-15 could have been. The design requirements Boyd set up meant he knew what would come from the contractors even before they set pen to paper. He knew the turning capability, the specific energy rate at every altitude, the rate of climb, and the range. And best of all, the aircraft would be so inexpensive that the Air Force could build several thousand, enough to flood a future battlefield. This was what he called his “Grand Strategy.” Reduced to its basics, the Grand Strategy was to take on the U.S. Air Force, develop the new lightweight fighter in secret, build a prototype, then force the Air Force to adopt the aircraft.

He told Sprey and Riccioni they should never make a reference, on the phone or even in private conversation, to the fighter they were designing. Anything and everything to do with the lightweight fighter should be referred to as the “Lord’s work.”

And every time his boss asked why he was late, Boyd said, “I was doing the Lord’s work last night.” Then he took a big drink of coffee, lit a Dutch Master, looked around, and said, “And goddamned good work it was.”

One day Boyd went to him and said, “If you insist on getting credit for the work you do, you’ll never get far in life. Don’t confuse yourself with the idea of getting credit.”

Boyd shoved the papers across the desk. “Goddamn airplane is made out of balonium.” According to Boyd, the designer called the next day and invited him to lunch and asked him not to tell his superiors about the spurious design. “I have to tell them,” Boyd said. Then the engineer made an offer that, stripped of all the circumlocutions and delicate language, amounted to a bribe for Boyd to keep silent. “That won’t take,” Boyd responded. Then came an open threat that the designer would use his company’s considerable clout with the Department of Defense to have Boyd fired. “Take your best shot, you son of a bitch,” Boyd said. A week later the famous designer and his company withdrew their design from consideration.

In the end he came up with two significant advantages the F-86 had over the MiG. First, the F-86 had a bubble canopy that gave the pilot a 360-degree field of vision, while the MiG pilot’s view to the rear was blocked. Thus, the F-86 pilot had a much easier time observing his enemy than the enemy had observing him. Second, the F-86 had full hydraulic controls, while the MiG did not. This meant that the F-86 pilot could control his aircraft with one finger, while controlling the MiG was so difficult that MiG pilots often lifted weights between flights in order to gain strength. The unboosted controls of the MiG meant that its pilot grew fatigued more quickly than the F-86 pilot but, far more importantly, the F-86 driver could go from one maneuver to another more quickly than the MiG driver. In a practical sense this meant the F-86 pilot could go through a series of either offensive or defensive maneuvers quicker than could his adversary. And with each maneuver he gained a half second or a second on his enemy until he could either break for separation or be in position for a kill.

Chapter Eighteen - A Short-Legged Bird

This was not a new idea. Before World War II most new fighters appeared first as prototypes. It made sense to test a design, decide whether it was good or bad, make modifications, redesign it, and then put it on the production line. But then came jet engines and swept wings and ever more exotic avionics, all of which caused larger Air Force and contractor bureaucracies. The development staff of an airplane went from maybe a hundred people to a thousand or more. Defense contractors said the business had become too complex and too expensive to make prototypes. Air Force bureaucracies agreed. They did not want tests that might cancel their projects. McNamara played into their hands when he brought to the Pentagon something called “Total Package Procurement Concept.” He thought all the analysis and quantification could be done on paper. Design teams grew to two thousand people, then three thousand. And the cost of developing a new fighter rose to around $1 billion.

The fuel fraction is derived by considering the weight of the fuel relative to the combat weight of the aircraft. The crucial thing about understanding fuel fraction is that it is the relative fuel and not the absolute fuel that is important in determining how far an airplane flies. That is, the percentage of fuel relative to the weight of the aircraft is more important than the absolute gallons of fuel carried. Boyd was adamant that the fuel fraction for the lightweight fighter not go below 30 percent.

There is a hummingbird that can fly across the Gulf of Mexico, while birds many times its size can fly only a few miles. The hummingbird has a high fuel fraction.

Keeping secret the range of the lightweight fighter was one of Boyd’s greatest cape jobs.

Boyd looked at Sprey and said, “That was me on the line. I wondered why the phone went dead.” Afterward the incident became known as the “air-to-rug maneuver,” and the Acolytes shook their heads in amazement that even on the telephone Boyd could cause a Blue Suiter to fall out of his chair. The story of the air-to-rug maneuver became a favorite at happy hour, especially after the colonel became a four-star and then the Air Force chief of staff.

This meant that, for the first time since World War II, the U.S. Air Force had three new tactical aircraft in production at the same time — the F-15, the lightweight fighter, and the A-10. All were from Air Force designs and not foisted off by the Navy. Boyd was largely responsible for two of them and Sprey the other.

Chapter Nineteen - Spook Base

Taking up much of the base was an enormous complex surrounded by two security fences topped with razor wire. Earth-filled revetments bordered the complex. Security police stood in towers and walked patrol along the fences. Admittance to the complex was tightly controlled. The main building, when constructed in 1968, was the largest single building in all of Southeast Asia. But most of the facility was underground, protected by thick concrete walls and operating inside a positive pressurized atmosphere to keep out dust and protect an enormous array of computers. Around NKP the complex was known simply as the “Project.” The official name was Task Force Alpha. Various other code names were associated with the complex: Igloo White, Dutch Mill, and Muscle Shoals.

Seeding the trail with sensors had been the idea of Defense Secretary McNamara’s R&D technocrats, and the project became known as the “McNamara Line.” The $2.5 billion operation was a huge windfall for IBM. The technocrats convinced McNamara that if the trail were wired — as one Task Force Alpha worker said, like a “pinball machine” — the supply chain could be broken and America could win the war. This was America’s first electronic battlefield. It was one of the most highly classified operations of the Vietnam War.

What Boyd was obsessing about — and that is not too strong a word — was trying to understand the nature of creativity. This had actually begun several years earlier as he wondered how he came up with the E-M Theory. E-M is at heart such a simple thing; why had no one else discovered it? What was there about his thinking that enabled him to be the first? His search ranged far afield. From the base library he checked out every available book on philosophy and physics and math and economics and science and Taoism and a half dozen other disciplines. He was all over the map, searching but not quite knowing for what.

In his new job, Boyd saw problems that needed immediate attention everywhere he looked. But 7th Air Force sent down paperwork daily that took hours to answer. Boyd thought Air Force bureaucracy was keeping him from the job at hand. His solution was to respond but to add material that caused 7th Air Force more paperwork than 7th Air Force caused him. “Pain goes both ways,” he said. In only a few weeks the time-consuming requests from 7th Air Force shrank to almost nothing.

Thai women are extraordinarily beautiful and many American officers formed close relationships with them. But this particular officer was married and soon was overcome with guilt. He broke off the relationship. The woman in question was the daughter of an influential village official who felt his family lost face when his daughter was spurned. He was about to charge the young officer with rape. Boyd said he called in the young officer and gave him the big picture of how many base activities depended on the good will of Thai officials. He ordered the young officer, guilty or not, to continue the relationship. “I’m giving you a direct order to screw her every night until you are transferred out of here,” Boyd said he told the officer. “Sir, I don’t believe that is a lawful order,” the officer said. “Goddammit, I issued it and you better obey it. We’re at war and bigger things are at stake here than your guilt. Your dick can cause you problems but it is not going to cause problems for America. You do as I say or I will make your life a living hell for as long as you are in the Air Force.”

Boyd also dealt with situations of great consequence. He said the McNamara Line was an expensive failure and shut it down. He claimed that a four-star general later told him he was sent to NKP solely because Pentagon generals knew he was the only man in the Air Force with the guts to close down the boondoggle.

It would be almost five years before this search culminated in one of the few things Boyd ever wrote, an eleven-page paper he called “Destruction and Creation,” an unpublished work that some think is his most significant intellectual achievement.

NKP was a pivot point in Boyd’s career. For him the Vietnam War served almost as a vacation from the Pentagon war.

He had begun a voracious reading program and an obsessive search for the nature of creativity, both of which laid the foundation for what soon would become the major focus of his life.

It is worth noting that in the cauldron of a combat environment, a place where men reveal what they are made of, and a place where — as his predecessor as base commander proved — some men collapse from stress, Boyd performed flawlessly.

Chapter Twenty - Take a Look at the B-I

James Schlesinger was the new secretary of defense — the “SecDef” in Building speak — and, like most secretaries, wanted to leave a legacy. To find out how to do that, he sought counsel with a man whose understanding of the military he deeply respected, Richard Hallock. Colonel Hallock was a paratrooper, a highly-decorated combat hero who also was a close friend of the redoubtable Pierre Sprey. In fact, when Sprey first came to the Building, Hallock was his mentor.

He stalked the office, staring at his underlings, then suddenly walking up to them, sticking a bony finger into their chest, and saying things such as, “If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. But if he demands integrity, then give him loyalty.”

There was nothing Boyd loved more than a good skunk fight. It kept the juices flowing. It kept him at a combat edge. Without a skunk fight, life was boring.

Then Boyd delivered what was to be called his “To Be or to Do” speech. Leopold was the first person known to receive the speech, probably because Boyd, based on his experiences over the years, was solidifying certain conclusions about the promotion system within the military.

In the meantime Leopold discovered, as had others, that Boyd had little perception of time. Leopold might work at the Pentagon until midnight and then, as he wearily walked into his house in Dale City some thirty miles south, the phone was ringing. Boyd had calculated to the minute the time it took Leopold to get home. And he would have more questions, more directions for the B-1 study.

Chapter Twenty-One - “This Briefing is for Information Purposes Only”

It had never occurred to Christie’s boss or to Air Force generals that the new civilian from Eglin had access to Schlesinger. The generals did not know that, through Colonel Richard Hallock, Sprey had introduced Boyd to Schlesinger and that he, too, was meeting privately with the SecDef. The generals did not know that Sprey was a special advisor to Schlesinger. And the generals did not know that Schlesinger was committed to making the lightweight fighter part of his legacy.

Christie and Spinney and Leopold soon heard of the testimony. Leopold called Boyd and told him what happened and then grew silent as Boyd began talking. Leopold’s eyes grew wider and wider. He put down the phone and turned to Spinney. “You won’t believe what Boyd just said.” “What’s that?” “He said he was going to have to fire his first general.” The two young captains stared at each other. The idea of a colonel firing a two-star simply could not be assimilated. Such things do not happen in the military. But then the SecDef called the chief of staff and asked him whether or not he was in charge of the Air Force. A few days later the two-star was given twenty-four hours to clean out his desk and leave the Pentagon. Other Pentagon generals saw what happened to the two-star. The Fighter Mafia had struck back and the generals could read the tea leaves. There could be no more obstacles for the lightweight fighter. It was cleared to go into production.

In August, Boyd finished a six-and-one-half-page draft of the Development Planning Report. It is significant in two respects. First, astonishingly, it marks the first time the Air Force ever had guidelines about matching planning needs with available budgets. Second, the report says if combat tasks are to be of any use to planners, the tasks should be related to needed hardware.

“Colonel, for your information, I am talking about a different kind of missile, a missile whose performance is such that it doesn’t matter about the capabilities of the delivery aircraft.” “Oh, and what kind of missile would that be, Professor?” “I’m talking about a lenticular missile.” “Sir, I’m just a dumb fighter pilot. I have to ask you what a “lenticular missile” is.” The professor’s disdain for this slow-witted fighter pilot was obvious when he said, “It’s shaped like a lens, like a saucer.” Boyd nodded and said, “Oh, I get it.” He appeared to be thinking for a moment. Then he said, “You know, Professor, you have a pretty good idea there. Might I offer an idea for a modification?” “Of course.” “Instead of saucer shaped, why don’t you make it boomerang shaped? That way, you can fling the goddamn thing out there and if it misses it will come back and you can fling it again.” Members of the board laughed so hard the chairman had to call a recess. For months afterward Boyd was known as “Boomerang Boyd” in honor of his latest cape job. The lenticular missile was never heard of again, except at happy hour on Wednesday nights.

But the Air Force does not kill its young in public. Someone else has to do it. The official position of the Air Force remained that the B-1 cost $25 million each. In early 1977, when Jimmy Carter assumed the presidency, one of his first acts would be to kill the B-1.

Chapter Twenty-Two - The Buttonhook Turn

They preferred the YF-16 because it could perform what they called a “buttonhook turn.” It could flick from one maneuver to another faster than any aircraft they ever flew. It was born to turn and burn—the most nimble little banking and yanking aircraft the world had ever seen.

On August 31, 1975, John Richard Boyd retired after twenty-four years in the Air Force. He was forty-eight years old.

Part Three - SCHOLAR

Chapter Twenty - Three Destruction and Creation

Boyd knew he had to be independent and he saw only two ways for a man to do this: he can either achieve great wealth or reduce his needs to zero. Boyd said 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.

It was obvious from Boyd’s phone calls that he was not only spending a disproportionately large amount of his retirement pay on books but was reading them all.

Boyd was charging into esoteric and arcane areas of knowledge. And the Acolytes were far too proud to simply agree with Boyd on everything he said. If they were going to hold up their end of the conversation they had to buy whatever book Boyd was reading. They read and when Boyd called they were ready. And while the Acolytes did not discuss it with each other, they knew that Boyd was fortune’s child, that he had passed beyond the E-M Theory and was venturing into more rarefied heights. They sensed he was about to give birth to his greatest work. But they wished the birth were not so painful and protracted.

Boyd had less formal education than did any of the Acolytes. But he was their intellectual leader — not only in the number and substance of the books he had them read, but in his passion and his obsession and his iron discipline about getting to the truth.

The Acolytes reeled when Boyd said his work would link Godel’s Proof, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the second law of thermodynamics.

Now Boyd showed how synthesis was the basis of creativity.

The danger — and this is a danger neither seen nor understood by many people who profess a knowledge of Boyd’s work — is that 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.

Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science, and Joseph Schumpeter, an economist, recognized the destructive side of creativity. But Boyd was unique in his explanation of how the process is grounded in fundamentals discovered by Godel and Heisenberg and by entropy.

Chapter Twenty-Four - OODA Loop

The fast transients brief is dated August 4, 1976. It is the application of “Destruction and Creation” to an operational issue — that is, a better and more thorough definition of “maneuverability.” The ability of an aircraft to perform fast transients does two things, one defensive and one offensive: it can force an attacking aircraft out of a favorable firing position, and it can enable a pursuing pilot to gain a favorable firing position. The advantage gained from the fast transient suggests that to win in battle a pilot needs to operate at a faster tempo than his enemy. It suggests that he must stay one or two steps ahead of his adversary; he must operate inside his adversary’s time scale.

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 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.

A decade later, when Boyd put all his work into a collection titled “A Discourse on Winning and Losing,” he took about fourteen hours — two days — to deliver it.

“Patterns” is one of the most monumental snowmobiles ever constructed, one of the most influential briefings ever to come from a military mind.

As Boyd studied the Blitzkrieg, he found historical references he did not understand, especially in his readings on the tactics of Tank Commander Heinz Guderian and in the book Lost Victories by Erich von Manstein. He had to begin at the beginning, go back to the earliest recorded Greek and Persian battles, and march through history to properly understand the Blitzkrieg. Four areas drew most of his attention: general theories of war, the Blitzkrieg, guerrilla warfare, and the use of deception by great commanders.

The Art of War became Boyd’s Rosetta stone, the work he returned to again and again. It is the only theoretical book on war that Boyd did not find fundamentally flawed. He eventually owned seven translations, each with long passages underlined and with copious marginalia. The translations of Samuel Griffith and, later, Thomas Cleary were his favorites. He insisted the Acolytes read and reread the book.

From Sun Tzu, Boyd moved to the campaigns of Alexander the Great around 300 B.C., Hannibal around 200 B.C., Belisarius around 500 A.D., Genghis Khan around 1200 A.D., Tamerlane around 1400 A.D., then Napoléon and von Clausewitz and on through World War I and World War II. He found that the campaigns of many of these great commanders, particularly the Eastern commanders such as Genghis Khan, demonstrated an understanding of Sun Tzu.

For example, Boyd was fascinated by how a vastly superior Roman Army lost to Hannibal and the Carthaginians at the Battle of Cannae.

Von Clausewitz is often acknowledged as the greatest of military theoreticians. Rarely has his book been studied as Boyd studied it.

Boyd called Spinney late one night and said he had a breakthrough. He began reading passages and explaining two crucial differences between von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. First, von Clausewitz wants to bring the enemy to a big “decisive battle,” while Sun Tzu wants to unravel the enemy before a battle. Put another way, von Clausewitz believes wars are decided by set piece battles more than by strategy, deception, and guerrillalike tactics. This means that even if he wins, there is a bloodbath. Boyd said von Clausewitz’s second major flaw is that he spends a lot of time talking about how a commander must minimize “friction” — that is, the uncertainty or chance that always appear in the “fog of war.” He does not deal with maximizing the enemy’s friction — as does Sun Tzu — but only with minimizing his own. As Boyd said to Spinney, “Sun Tzu tried to drive his adversary bananas while Clausewitz tried to keep himself from being driven bananas.”

Boyd said the strategies and bloodbaths of World War I were the natural consequence of both the von Clausewitzian battle philosophy and the inability of generals to adapt new tactics to nineteenth-century technology: line abreast, mass against mass, and linear defenses against machine guns and quick-firing artillery.

Hitler took Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, and France with about two hundred thousand casualties. The Allies had about three point five million losses, almost three million of whom were prisoners.

The briefing begins with what was to become Boyd’s most famous — and least understood — legacy: the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act cycle, or O-O-D-A Loop.

The most amazing aspect of the OODA Loop is that the losing side rarely understands what happened.

Note that Boyd includes the “Implicit Guidance & Control” from “Orientation” with both “Observations” and “Action.” This is his way of pointing out that when one has developed the proper Fingerspitzengefuhl for a changing situation, the tempo picks up and it seems one is then able to bypass the explicit “Orientation” and “Decision” part of the loop, to “Observe” and “Act” almost simultaneously.

A commander can use this temporal discrepancy (a form of fast transient) to select the least-expected action rather than what is predicted to be the most-effective action. The enemy can also figure out what might be the most effective. To take the least-expected action disorients the enemy. It causes him to pause, to wonder, to question. This means that as the commander compresses his own time, he causes time to be stretched out for his opponent. The enemy falls farther and farther behind in making relevant decisions. It hastens the unraveling process.

Here Boyd says that to shape the environment, one must manifest four qualities: variety, rapidity, harmony, and initiative.

The mental and moral aspects of maneuver conflict do not sit well with most military minds, particularly those who use a managerial approach or those who prefer the slugfest of attrition warfare. They don’t like the mental agility, the intellectual innovation, the placing trust in subordinates. They don’t like the rapidly changing, free-form tactics of probing for weak spots rather than concentrating more fire-power on selected targets. Why tiptoe through the tulips, the conventional mind asks, when war is blood and guts?

Boyd showed that maneuver tactics brought victory. To attack the mind of the opponent, to unravel the commander before a battle even begins, is the essence of fighting smart.

disorient the enemy, then follow with the unexpected lightning thrust.

Boyd’s briefing, then, is an updating and affirmation of Sun Tzu and a repudiation of von Clausewitz.

He remembered what Boyd often said: “There are only so many ulcers in the world and it is your job to see that other people get them.”

Chapter Twenty-Five - Reform

BY 1978, both officers and enlisted personnel were leaving the military services in large numbers. They left not because of pay, as military leaders had said for the past few years, but because they were displeased with what they saw as a lack of integrity among their leaders. They thought careerism inhibited professionalism in the officer corps. The military also was having readiness problems; expensive and highly complex weapons systems were fielded before being fully tested. These systems were not only expensive to buy but expensive to maintain, and they rarely performed as advertised. Stories began to appear in the media of America’s “hollow military.”

There is nothing in the past to compare with the Spinney Report. For that reason alone, it is arguably one of the most important documents ever to come out of the Pentagon. Spinney’s basic point was that the unnecessary complexity of major weapons systems was wrecking the military budget.

(Boyd’s belief in using the adversary’s information against him is the practical application of Asian writings, particularly The Japanese Art of War, in which translator Thomas Cleary talks of “swordlessness,” or the ability to defend oneself without a weapon, a concept that by implication means using the enemy’s weapon against him. Cleary says this technique can be used in debate, negotiations, and all other forms of competition. He says swordlessness is the “crowning achievement of the warrior’s way.”)

The Atlantic published “The Muscle-Bound Superpower” in the October 2, 1979, issue. It was the first of three events that launched the reform movement onto a national stage.

Much of Fallows’s fourteen-page story revolved around Boyd and “Patterns of Conflict.”

Now for the first time in history, Pentagon insiders, men who had the keys to the kingdom, men who knew the budgets and the issues as well as anyone in the Air Force, were attacking the Building. And they were building alliances with Congress and the media, the two institutions that can cause heart-burn in generals.

One quiet congressman from Wyoming, Dick Cheney, heard the “Patterns” briefing and then Boyd’s other briefings—an investment of some twelve hours. He asked Boyd to come by his office for numerous private sessions to talk of tactics and strategy and how America might best conduct itself in the next war. “I was intrigued by the concepts he was working on,” Cheney would later say. “He was a creative and innovative thinker with respect to the military.” Cheney added that the Reformers had “great ideas” that were “a part of my education.”

The Acolytes sometimes had little respect for congressmen and senators, but even Pierre Sprey was impressed with Dick Cheney. He accompanied Boyd on some of the visits to Cheney’s office and knew the congressman did his homework. Cheney studied deeply the intricacies of Boyd’s approach to strategy. He was one of the founders of the Reform Caucus on Capitol Hill, a group that soon numbered more than one hundred congressmen and senators.

One day Boyd said to Spinney, “You know, I like the Pentagon more than I liked Nellis.” Spinney waited. That feral grin sliced Boyd’s face and he held a clenched fist in the air, then jerked it sharply downward and said, “More targets.” His booming cackle filled the office; he was ready to do battle.

In early 1981, the Reform Movement received another big boost, both in public awareness and credibility, when Jim Fallows published his first book, National Defense, to an extraordinary reception. The book was an elaboration of the articles he published in the Atlantic Monthly.

Chapter Twenty-Six - The Great Wheel of Conspiracy

In the meantime, Boyd continued to research and amend and add to “Patterns,” briefing it often. Story after story about Boyd appeared in newspapers around the country. No one could counter Boyd’s briefing because no one in the Building was doing similar work; the Pentagon had no military theorists. Boyd was out there all alone and gaining converts by the day. The Pentagon was under siege from reporters. Paranoia was a palpable presence in the Building.

Boyd was busy during those months. Not only was he a primary point of contact for the Time reporters but he was showing Spinney how to work within the bureaucracy to affect change in the Pentagon.

Boyd knew that when Pentagon bureaucrats seek vengeance the best strategy is not — as many believe — to keep a low profile but rather to become so prominent that any retribution will be seen for what it is.

A story about Spinney appeared in the New York Times the week before the hearing. The next Sunday morning, Spinney’s phone rang and a voice identified itself as Bosuns Mate somebody and said, “Admiral Rickover would like to speak with you.” A moment later Admiral Hyman Rickover was congratulating Spinney about what great work he was doing. He wanted to see Spinney’s latest study. “I will send it over, Admiral, but I have to tell you it will take several hours to read.” “I don’t read anything but executive summaries.” “I don’t have an executive summary.” Spinney sent copies of his work and a few days later the admiral called and again congratulated Spinney. Then he mentioned the upcoming hearings and said, “Son, you are not going to win. But it will make a man out of you.”

Years later, after John Boyd died, the Army would deny he had ever been involved in that service’s effort at reform. The Marine Corps would claim Boyd as one of its own.

Chapter Twenty-Seven - Boyd Joins the Marines

THE Air Force has never made a serious study of warfare because every historically based effort to do so has come to the inescapable conclusion that the use of air power should be consistent with or — better yet — subordinate to the ground commander’s battle plans, a conclusion that argues against the existence of an independent Air Force.

After the Air Force, Navy, and Army came the Marine Corps. What happened to the Marine Corps as a result of John Boyd is one of the great untold stories of modern military history. To understand the enormity of the changes Boyd wrought, one must know something about the Marines.

The Marines are more than a military organization; they are a national institution. No two branches of the American military are farther apart than the Air Force and the Marines.

Belleau Wood became a hallowed name in Marine Corps history because that is where more Marines died than on any other day in Marine Corps history and because that is where Marines stopped the German advance. That is also where they acquired one of their most treasured nicknames: teufelhunden—“devil dogs.”

Wyly went to jump school, to psychological-warfare school, and to special-warfare school, and he trained often with the Army. He read Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy, the classic book on the French in Vietnam, and stood on a platform and told Marines passing through Pendleton, “If we go to Vietnam, we are not going to make the mistakes the French made.”

Amphibious warfare is unique to the Marine Corps; it is all that keeps the Marines from being swallowed by the Army or Navy.

Mike Wyly had become the sixth Acolyte. He and John Boyd were about to take on the U.S. Marine Corps.

Chapter Twenty-Eight - Semper Fi

Boyd and Wyly decided the AWS was fundamentally an educational institution, and educational institutions are places where students consider all ideas. One of the best ways to do that is to have students read. So Wyly and Boyd put together a reading list. This was a radical step for the Marine Corps, the least-intellectual branch of the U.S. military. But General Trainor, by now widely recognized as Wyly’s protector, blessed the concept and soon the young captains were reading Victory at High Tide and Guerrilla and White Death and Strategy and even books by World War II German officers such as Attacks by Rommel and Panzer Battles by von Mellenthin. Boyd and Wyly were both combat veterans, so when they claimed there was a connection between books and the ability to lead men into battle, students listened. In fact, students began coming to class early so they could debate the ideas they had been reading. Soon students were recommending additional books for the reading list.

Wyly was leading a guerrilla movement within the Corps, and sometimes he recalled a line from his lectures: “Guerrillas win wars but they don’t march home to victory parades.”

General Gray told Wyly he wanted to put together a list of books for Marines to read. Wyly took the reading list he compiled years earlier at the AWS, added books that Boyd recommended, solicited recommendations from others, and presto, the Marine Corps had its first Commandant’s Reading List, a compilation that, while not mandatory, is read by most officers and enlisted personnel.

It was also a matter of considerable pride to Wyly that during the 1980s the Marine Corps evolved from being knuckle draggers who take the hill to the most intellectual branch of the U.S. military; even enlisted men were reading Sun Tzu.

Chapter Twenty-Nine - Water-Walker

The real business of the Pentagon is buying weapons. And the military has a pathological aversion to rigorous testing procedures because in almost every instance the performance of the weapon or weapons system is far below what it is advertised to be and, thus, far below the performance used to sell Congress on the idea in the first place.

Several years earlier the Congressional Reform Caucus had created what was to be the single lasting legacy of the reform movement, a new job in the Pentagon that supervised the testing of all military weapons. The Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, or “DOT&E,” was unusual in that he reported directly to the secretary of defense and to Congress. The purpose of the job was to act as a counterweight to the weapons advocacy system in the Pentagon.

Pierre Sprey testified at the hearings against the Army. Sprey’s specialty is statistics and the report he presented to Congress was one of the most devastating indictments of a military service — its chicanery, its outright lying, its lack of concern for its troops — that the Congress has ever heard.

Chapter Thirty-One - The Ghetto Colonel and the SecDef

Until Dick Cheney later spoke of that period, all the evidence was anecdotal and pieced together after the fact. The anecdotes pointed inexorably toward the idea that Boyd played a crucial role in the top-secret planning of what would become America’s strategy for prosecuting the Gulf War. Several weeks after Desert Shield began, Boyd suddenly was flying back and forth to Washington.

In The Generals’ War, a book written by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard Trainor after the war, Cheney is quoted as saying to Powell, “I can’t let Norm do this high diddle up the middle plan.” Not only did Cheney reject Schwarzkopf’s plan but he used Boyd’s language to do so.

But in Dick Cheney the Pentagon had a rare SecDef. Cheney had enough one-on-one sessions with Boyd to give him the knowledge and self-confidence to second-guess even a headstrong four-star general such as Norman Schwarzkopf. Simply put, Cheney knew more about strategy than did his generals.

Nevertheless, it has become an article of faith that Cheney developed his own plan for fighting the Gulf War. The Marines would feint an amphibious assault while the Army made a wide sweep through the western desert and then swung north to cut off the Iraqi Army.

Nowhere can be found a better example of Boyd’s ideas on “folding the enemy in on himself” than in the fact that some fifteen Iraqi divisions surrendered to two divisions of Marines.

He called Boyd and said, “John, they’re using your words to describe how we won the war. Everything about the war was yours. It’s all right out of ‘Patterns.’” He was right. Everything successful about the Gulf War is a direct reflection of Boyd’s “Patterns of Conflict” — multiple thrusts and deception operations that created ambiguity and caused the enemy to surrender by the thousands. America (and the coalition forces) won without resorting to a prolonged ground war. America not only picked when and where it would fight, but also when and where it would not fight. Coalition forces operated at a much higher tempo than the enemy. The resulting crises happened so fast that opposing forces could not keep pace with them. The one-hundred-hour ground war blitz against Iraq is a splendid example of maneuver warfare, a first-rate instance of cheng/ch’i, the conventional and the unconventional, all done so quickly the enemy was disoriented and collapsed from within.

(Belisarius, the Byzantine commander, was one of Boyd’s favorite generals and was an early practitioner of maneuver conflict; he always fought outnumbered, never lost a battle, and understood the moral dimension of war.)

Hammond’s book The Mind of War was published in the spring of 2001. It is a study of Boyd’s ideas and is written for an academic audience or for an audience interested in military affairs.

One of the few times Mary, Jeff, or Kathy saw Boyd display any emotion was when he saw Legends of the Fall, a movie about the relationship of a father to his three sons. Boyd wept with such grief that his shoulders shook and he cried aloud.

Epilogue - El Cid Rides On

Sprey’s son, John, is growing up hearing stories of the man for whom he is named.

But the A-10 had a bigger effect on the campaign than any other aircraft. It was the aircraft most feared by Iraqi troops. They called it “Black Death.” Iraqi POWs said other aircraft came in, made a quick strike, and were gone. But the A-10 lingered over the battlefield, and when the pilot sighted a target, the deadly thirty-millimeter cannon released destruction such as ground troops had never seen. General Horner said, “I take back all the bad things I have ever said about the A-10. I love them. They’re saving our asses.”

Boyd’s Energy-Maneuverability Theory did four things for aviation: it provided a quantitative basis for teaching aerial tactics, it forever changed the way aircraft are flown in combat, it provided a scientific means by which the maneuverability of an aircraft could be evaluated and tactics designed both to overcome the design flaws of one’s own aircraft and to minimize or negate the superiority of the opponent’s aircraft, and, finally, it became a fundamental tool in designing fighter aircraft.

The academics who know of Boyd agree he was one of the premier military strategists of the twentieth century and the only strategist to put time at the center of his thinking. That is as far as they will go. But Boyd was the greatest military theoretician since Sun Tzu. Academics snort in derision at such a claim. Von Clausewitz remains their favorite even though those who know the work of both Boyd and von Clausewitz agree that Boyd revealed the gaping flaws of von Clausewitzian theory.

Vice President Cheney has his own ideas about Boyd’s place in military history. “We could use him again now. I wish he was around now. I’d love to turn him loose on our current defense establishment and see what he could come up with. We are still oriented toward the past. We need to think about the next one hundred years rather than the last one hundred years.”

At the Air Force Academy, seniors take an advanced course in aeronautical engineering. The textbook is primarily an explication of the E-M Theory. Boyd’s name is not in the book and those who teach the course do not give Boyd credit. When a group of graduating seniors was polled, not one cadet knew the name of Colonel John Boyd.