Boyd, and Patterns of Conflict, Now with Video!

To say that John Boyd has a following would be an understatement. There’s the followers, and then there’s the cult. I’m a follower.

Jason Brown, studying Boyd during his professional military education, not only read everything he could find on Boyd, he also uncovered video of his Patterns of Conflict briefing. For you who aren’t terribly familiar with him, Boyd didn’t write essays or white papers, or books. He gave presentations. That had a great impact on the audience, and was of immediate impact. But it also meant the written record of Boyd’s thinking was somewhat lacking.

Several years ago, I tracked down a rare video of Boyd delivering “Patterns of Conflict,” the famous (and lengthy) briefing that framed his theory of warfare. At the urging of some junior officers (and a little technical coaching), I recently uploaded the video to YouTube. While my views on Boyd have matured over the years, the videos reveal the sage discourse I sought from him, as well as prudent counsel appropriate for today.


I think it would be fair to say the Marine Corps bought into Boydian concepts, most importantly the OODA Loop, more than any other service. And that’s fine.

My frustration has been that over the years, not a few cult members have chided the Army for failing to simply rewrite all its doctrine based on Boyd’s OODA Loop briefing.  Mind you, this was back in the day when AirLand Battle was still, essentially, the operative doctrine guiding the US Army.

Almost invariably, further questioning of the cultist would reveal that while they could say the words Observe, Orient, Decide and Act, they knew little or nothing of AirLand Battle (ALB), or its evolution from the previous doctrine, Active Defense.

There is little evidence that Boyd had anything to do, even indirectly, with the genesis of ALB. Interestingly, though, we can see some very clear parallels between the OODA Loop and the fundamentals of ALB. The fundamental concepts of Initiative, Depth, Agility, and Synchronization easily harmonize with the concepts of the OODA Loop.

That’s not to say OODA Loop and ALB were competing, but rather that a grounded understanding of the OODA Loop and Patterns of Conflict made grasping the true precepts of ALB much easier, and led to better implementation.

John Boyd and the Reformers

No, not a band.

COL John Boyd is famous for his his OODA Loop theory. But the OODA Loop didn’t spring fully formed from his mind one day. It was the evolution of his thinking on air combat that lead to his E/M theory, which laid the intellectual groundwork for OODA Loop.

Nor was Boyd alone. He’s part of the famous Fighter Mafia. Air Force Magazine has a nice overview of the Fighter Mafia, and how they led the reform movement of the 1970s and 80s.

The Military Reformers were an obscure lot when they first emerged on the national stage around 1980. There were only about a dozen of them, mostly retired officers and midlevel systems analysts from the Pentagon and the defense industry. The outside world had never heard of them. They were not even called “Reformers” yet.

Their basic message was that the US armed forces were addicted to high technology and complex weapon systems. Such weapons were so costly that relatively few could be bought. Complexity made them hard to use and maintain, leading to readiness problems and reduced sortie rates. Even worse, the Reformers said, these complicated weapons were not as effective in combat as simpler, cheaper ones.

The Reformers took on tanks, missiles, and ships, but their primary target was tactical aircraft. In 1980, their home base was the Tactical Airpower division of the Program Analysis and Evaluation section of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. At the center of the movement were three individuals:

  • John R. Boyd, retired Air Force colonel, air combat theorist, consultant to PA&E, and the spiritual leader of the Reformers.
  • Pierre M. Sprey, engineer and PA&E systems analyst, who, along with Boyd, had been a key instigator of the Lightweight Fighter program in the 1970s.
  • Franklin C. “Chuck” Spinney, who had worked for Boyd as a captain and followed him to PA&E. His briefing, “Defense Facts of Life,” became the manifesto of the reform movement.

These three were protected and supported by Thomas P. Christie, head of the Tac Air division. He was an ally of Boyd’s from previous days and had recruited him for PA&E.

Read the whole thing. In the closing paragraphs, you’ll see a well intentioned group with a good cause go off the rails.

Here’s the thing about most complex weapon systems- they’re complex for a reason. While there are notable exceptions (say, F-35, F-111, LCS), most of the time complexity in a weapon system is driven  by a perceived need to counter a specific threat or provide a specific capability.

Why was the F-15 so big? Because the Air Force in Vietnam had been frustrated by the relatively short range of the Phantom, and the need for a long range powerful radar. Long range drives up the size of an airplane. And a long range radar requires a large radar antennae, which dictates to a certain degree the size of the airplane. It was specifically to address shortcomings that the Air Force accepted the cost and complexity that came with those capabilities.

And speaking of John Boyd, how about John Boyd speaking?