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?

Paralysis by Analysis

Robert Kozlowski, writing at the US Naval Institute’s USNIBlog has a good post that shows a startling graphic.

Open the graphic in a new tab to see the whole thing.

I’m curious what happened to the acquisition process in 1975 that lead to such a sharp increase in the time needed to field a weapon system.

But the key thing is, time is money. Lots and lots of money. Now, you’ll say, XBrad, the items like the B-2 and the F-22 are pretty cutting edge technology. And so they are. But so were things like the B-58, and the F-111. Notice also, the F-117, a cutting edge technology, had minimal oversight, and yet it reached IOC well below the trendline.

I’d expect to see some increase in the trendline of development times. But I’d expect to see something more like that commercial aircraft timeline, or even a little steeper. But clearly, something in the process of acquisition has changed. And Kozlowski argues that it is the intense oversight. I’m agree. And I’ll note that the purpose of the oversight was to ensure money spent was well spent. Oddly, the oversight, both within DoD and from outside, be it the GAO or Congress or whomever, has stretched the timelines to untenable lengths. We’ve already seen programs such as the RAH-66 Comanche that ran so long in development that they were obsolete before they were even ordered into production.  And I’d argue that the drawn out development and oversight costs more than simply mismanaging programs in the first place would have.

GAO Says NGJ Is OK- Or Paralysis By Analysis


This is the second story we’re lifting from USNI News today.

Since its introduction in 1970 aboard the EA-6B Prowler, the ALQ-99 jammer has been the premier airborne electronic warfare system for jamming air defense radar systems. Today, still aboard the EA-6B, it also forms the heart of the EF-18G Growler’s jamming capability.

Originally, the Q-99 had to counter technology such as the Fan Song and Fire Can radars. But over the years, the threat radar systems have become much more sophisticated, and far more resistant to jamming. Further, the sheer numbers of radars in contested airspace have grown. The Q-99 has evolved with those advances, keeping pace with the changing threat. But there is a limit to how far the basic architecture of any system can evolve. There comes a point where a fresh start is the better approach.

And so, about the time the US Navy decided the Prowler would be replaced with a variant of the two-seat SuperHornet, it also decided to begin work on a replacement for the venerable ALQ-99. The program became known as the Next Generation Jammer, or NGJ.

Now, sometimes, a program to replace a given piece of hardware just makes plain old sense. And NGJ is one of them. It became clear almost 20 years ago, a new jammer would be needed eventually to face sophisticated Russian air defense systems such as the S-300 and S-400 and their associated radars.

As it turns out, airborne jamming systems also can do some other pretty interesting stuff, such as jamming communications systems. But the primary mission is and will be jamming radars. So you’d think setting up a program to replace the ALQ-99 would be rather straighforward. You’d be wrong.

The procurement system today is set up so that the Office of the Secretary of Defense oversees virtually every major procurement program. And OSD and the acquisition system are set up so that traditional roles need not carry any real weight in the decision making process.  If a better, cheaper way to accomplish a traditional mission can be found via a non-traditional method, so be it.

The problem is, the only way to determine if that can be done is by in-depth analysis. And that analysis takes time. And it also operates on precepts given to the analysis team that may or may not be rooted in reality.

So here we are, a decade after the inception of the Next Generation Jammer program. And instead of designing, testing, and deploying the NGJ, what we’re dealing with today is a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that tells us what any sailor in a Prowler or Growler squadron could have told you off the top of their head.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has assessed whether the planned Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) program is duplicative using a variety of means, but none of them address all of the system’s planned roles or take into account the military services’ evolving airborne electronic attack investment plans.

DOD analyses support its conclusion that the NGJ meets a valid need and is not duplicative of existing capabilities in its primary role—suppressing enemy air defenses from outside the range of known surface-to-air missiles.

However, these analyses do not address all planned NGJ roles, such as communications jamming in irregular warfare environments, or take into account the military services’ evolving airborne electronic attack investment plans.

According to GAO’s analysis, none of the systems that have emerged since DOD completed its NGJ analyses duplicate its planned capabilities; however there is some overlap in the roles they are intended to perform.

Redundancy in some of these areas may, in fact, be desirable. However, pursuing multiple acquisition efforts to develop similar capabilities can result in the same capability gap being filled twice or more, lead to inefficient use of resources, and contribute to other warfighting needs going unfilled. Therefore, continued examination of potential overlap and duplication among these investments may be warranted.

It’s frightful enough that time has been wasted studying the issue for years, and arguing over just what NGJ must be capable of doing, all while the legacy ALQ-99 system becomes less and less capable of defeating enemy systems.

The fact is, time is money. NGJ has had a program office, with staff (and salaries and all the other related expenses) for years. And the program office has spent years letting contracts to various defense industries to study and define what NGJ should be, and what it shouldn’t. And GAO has spent time and money studying the issue, only to tell us what we already know- that yes, a replacement for Q-99 is a good idea.

Can we start printing circuit cards now?