Book Notes – Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

Book Cover of Boyd

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 period of time was the simple title he had in the beginning. He was first, last, and always a fighter pilot.

Like any gun-slinger with a nickname and a reputation, Boyd was called out.

Part One: Fighter Pilot

Over and over again she said if people knew too much about the Boyd family they would use the knowledge in a critical manner. Never tell people what you don’t want repeated, she preached. People will seek out your weaknesses and faults, so tell them only of your strong points. No family matters must ever be mentioned beyond the front door.

…as long as his integrity was inviolate, he was superior to those who had only rank or money… a man of principle frightened other people and that he would be attacked for his beliefs, but he must always keep the faith.

He said he took a series of tests, one of which showed he had an IQ of only ninety. When offered the chance to retake the test, he refused. The test gave John what he later said was a great tactical advantage in dealing with bureaucrats – when he told them he had an IQ of only ninety, the always underestimated him.

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.

But he was ready to move on. Boyd decided to leave at a time when his career was riding a wave of approval from his superiors.

Part Two: Engineer

This was a war story m an instance of Boyd laying it on thick when talking to civilians – but this does not mean it was a lie, as most people define the word. Cooper as a southerner understood this. Southerners and fighter pilots know the story is more important than the facts. If a story is not true it can become true in the telling.

He added more notes, more thoughts, more equations. And then he put it away and went into what he called his “draw-down period”, thinking “Oh, hell. Somebody has already done this.”

About this time the first copy machine came to Eglin. Until then, in order to make multiple copies of a document, secretaries cut a stencil and ran it through a mimeograph machine. Now, a document could be placed in the new machine, a button pressed, and out came numerous copies. When Boyd first saw the new machine, he stared, thought for a moment, then said, “What do you call this machine?” This is a copy machine, he was told.He shook his head and said, “No, that‘s an antisecurity machine.” Boyd instantly sensed that people who would not go to the trouble to cut a stencil to make copies of a document could now easily make copies, or, as Boyd called them, “little brothers and sisters.” And he was right. Ultimately the copy machine had more to do with opening up government than did the Freedom of Information Act.

The more he talked, the more he understod about what he was trying to do.

He was the adult child of an alcoholic and he knew how to operate below the radar of those who could shoot down his projects. While older and senior Air Force officers fumed at their failures, Christie quietly achieved his goals.

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 favoured the American fighter, red where the Soviet fighter had the advantage. Blue is good. Red is bad. Even a goddam 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.

Boyd’s briefing charts were things of beauty, pieces of art, clean and elegant and simple; they had enough data to inform but not enough to overwhelm, and were creative in appearance but not so creative as to detract from the information being presented.

The briefing was winding down, but Sweeney had one more question. “Major, yesterday you said you had run the numbers on all U.S. aircraft. But nowhere did you mention the F-111. Did your research cover that aircraft? If so, what conclusions did you draw?” Boyd clicked the slide projector. His final slide was an E-M diagram of the F-111. Boyd did not speak. THe general and his staff had seen enough E-M diagrams in the past two days to grasp the implications of the F-111 display.

Anything new and different is feared by a bureaucracy.

Boyd growled, trying with little success to explain the term growth factor. A twenty-pound maintenance ladder does not simply add twenty pounds to the aircraft – not if the aircraft is to maintain the same performance. Dozens of subtle additions are caused by the ladder until finally the ladder adds not twenty pounds but perhaps two hundred.

“Tiger, I’ve got to have accurate information”, Boyd responded. “There is no such thing as being too careful about information. I need the right information to separate the wheat from the chaff. Those who can’t separate the wheat from the chaff don’t matter.”

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 butt 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.

“You must understand that if you want to leave a legacy it is vital for you to make a quick decision about what you want that legacy to be. If you don’t make a quick decision, you will have no legacy. Because after several months you become so caught up in the business of the Pentagon, so enmeshed with the generals, so overwhelmed with the scope and enormity of the job that it will be too late. Pick a few projects and put the full weight of your office behind them. Guide the projects. Nurture them. Know from the very beginning that they will be your legacy. Force them through the bureaucracy.”

“If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. But if he demands integrity then give him loyalty.”

The fourth Acolyte was now onstage. He would stay in the battle long after the others moved on. And he would become the best known of them all.

It is the nature of a careerist to mould and fit himself to his commanding officer.

Part Three: Scholar

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.

As with most of Boyd’s work, the building blocks for “Patterns” are mostly well-known ideas. But the synthesis of these ideas produced a reality new to the U.S. military.

“Patterns” is also an example of how Boyd thought by analogy, a process that Sprey, ever the pragmatist, found extremely unsettling. Reasoning by analogy not only is backward from the way most people think but is dangerous; one misstep, especially in the beginning, and the entire process can go careening off into idiocy. Sprey found it even more unsettling that Boyd was always right.

Schwerpunkt: the underlying goal; the glue that holds together various units.

Fingerspitzengefuhl: fingertip feel; an instinctive and intuitive sense of what is going on or what is needed in a conflict.

RE: the OODA Loop: The phrase has become a buzz-word in the military and among business consultants who preach a time-based strategy.

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

The key thing to understand about Boyd’s version is not the mechanical cycle itself, but rather the need to execute the cycle in such fashion as to get inside the mind and the decision cycle of the adversary. This means the adversary is dealing with outdated or irrelevant information and thus becomes confused and disoriented and can’t function.

Trust emphasises implicit over explicit communications. Trust is the unifying concept. This gives the subordinate great freedom of action.

A crucial part of the OODA Loop … is that once the process begins, it must not slow. It must continue and it must accelerate. Success is the greatest trap for the novice who properly implements the OODA Loop. He is so amazed at what he has done that he pauses and looks around and waits for reinforcements. But this is the time to exploit the confusion and to press on.

One of Boyd’s fundamental dictums when waging bureaucratic war was to use the other person’s information against him. Spinney’s brief was built on Pentagon documents. He understood everything so that any revisions would only make his conclusions more damning.

…the Reformers argued not so much against technology as against the improper use of technology. One of the most valuable aspects of “Patterns of Conflict” was that it laid out a framework for assessing different technological approaches. It promoted the application of scientific and engineering knowledge to human needs. “Patterns” is about the mental and moral aspects of human behaviour in war. That technology should reinforce that behaviour, not drive it, was the argument of the Reformers. Boyd’s mantra was “Machines don’t fight wars, people do, and they use their minds.” He also preached, “People, ideas, hardware – in that order.” Thus, machines and technology must serve the larger purpose.

The Pentagon has long dealt with the complaints of various organisations. But those groups often are single-issue groups whose members have no more than a surface knowledge of the military or of defence matters. Because their concerns are frivolous or tangential, they are easily dismissed. 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.

…the moral element of conflict is a crucial part of “Patterns”. Boyd realised the Army was doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, guarding a program worth billions of dollars, “protecting the farm” in Boyd’s words, while Burton wanted to protect the lives of American soldiers. The Army would try to steamroll Burton, to use the sheer mass of U.S. Army resources to crush him. It would be the crudest form of attrition warfare. Burton would have only his wits and the techniques of manoeuvre conflict. Boyd saw this as a chance for Burton to get inside the mind of the Army, to put the OODA Loop into action, to cause confusion and disorientation.

Boyd gave Burton three guiding principles:

  1. “…you can never be wrong. You have to do your homework. If you make a technical statement, you better be right… if once you lose credibility and you are no longer a threat, no one will pay attention to what you say.”
  2. …not to criticise the Bradley itself. “If you do, you are lumped in with all the other Bradley critics. It is the testing process you are concerned with.” By staying focused on the testing methodology, Burton was protecting the lives of American soldiers; he held the mental and moral high ground.
  3. Finally, Boyd counselled Burton not to talk to the media or to Congress, to stay inside the system. If you go outside the system, he said, you will be viewed as just another whistle blower. And whistle blowers get no respect; they get others to help them do something they can’t do themselves.

“Jim, part of working within the system means that everyone who has a right to know what’s going on has a copy of all the paperwork.” … “If something needs to leak outside the Building, God will take care of it.”

Burton knew the military was building a file, the sole purpose of which was to justify firing him. Boyd was elated. He saw this as a chance for Burton to wield great influence with the Army leaders behind the plan. He told Burton to keep in mind that when he wrote a memo, it was not for the person to whom it was addressed, but rather to the generals.

Richards found that a famous observation by Taiichi Ono … held true: companies performing reasonably well will not adopt the Toyota system, although they may showcase isolated elements of lean production. Boyd put it more succinctly: “You can’t change big bureaucracies until they have a disaster.”