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?

John Boyd And The OODA Loop

I was reminded today that Hugh Hewitt still hasn’t returned my biography of John Boyd that I loaned him a decade ago. I’m starting to think it won’t be forthcoming.

John Boyd went from  a brash young fighter pilot, to a tactical thinker who (with others) greatly changed the way the US thought about, and trained, fighter tactics. He also, based on his tactical thought, had a good deal of influence in the decision to design and purchase the F-16, a plane optimized to fight using his E/M(or Energy/Maneuverability) theory of fighter combat.

That alone would have made him a pretty memorable fellow. But building on his tactical thought, he leveraged that to an operational and strategic level theory that has been popular in both military and civilian circles for some time now. His theory became know as the “OODA Loop.”

Boyd posited that we respond to any situation or environment via a process with four elements.

  1. Observe
  2. Orient
  3. Decide
  4. Act

We observe a situation via our senses, or other methods of gathering information. We orient this information this information based on past experiences, culture, analysis, an our heritage. We make a decision based on this orientation, and then act to fulfill the decision.

But the process is not linear, as read above, but rather continuous, with each element generated feedback in the process, hence the term “loop.”

Click to greatly embiggenfy.

The goal of consciously using an OODA loop in combat is to speed up the process of making a decision. By running through the cycle faster than an opponent, his previous observations, orientations and decisions are rendered useless by the newest observations (that is, the results of your decisions and actions). By continuously operating inside an opponent’s decision cycle, his level of chaos and confusion is greatly increased, and the validity of his own OODA loop is degraded until such time as it is worthless.

The Army has never specifically, doctrinally endorsed the OODA loop, though virtually every field grade officer is familiar with the concept. In AirLand Battle, the term of art used was “agility” which, rather than a purely physical concept, was very much a mental one, sharing the same goal, the ability to adjust to conditions and make and execute decisions faster than the enemy.

The current Army capstone doctrine no longer lists agility as one of the tenets of warfare, but does list adaptability:

28. Army leaders accept that no prefabricated solutions to tactical or operational problems exist. Army leaders must adapt their thinking, their formations, and their employment techniques to the specific situation they face. This requires an adaptable mind, a willingness to accept prudent risk in unfamiliar or rapidly changing situations, and an ability to adjust based on continuous assessment. Perhaps equally important, Army leaders seek to deprive the enemy of the ability to adapt by disrupting communications, forcing the enemy to continually react to new U.S. operations, and
denying the enemy an uncontested sanctuary, in space or time, for reflection. Adaptability is essential to seizing, retaining, and exploiting the initiative based on relevant understanding of the specific situation. For example, Army leaders demonstrate adaptability while adjusting the balance of lethal and nonlethal actions necessary to achieve a position of relative advantage and set conditions for conflict resolution within their area of operations.
29. Adaptation requires an understanding of the operational environment. While impossible to have a perfect understanding, Army leaders make every effort to gain and maintain as thorough an understanding as possible given the time allowed. They also use the Army’s information networks to share their understanding. Understanding a specific situation requires interactive learning—intentionally and repeatedly interacting with the operational environment so to test and refine multiple hypotheses. Army leaders expand
their understanding of potential operational environments through broad education, training, personal study, and collaboration with interagency partners. Rapid learning while in combat depends on life-long education, consistent training, and study habits that leaders had prior to combat.

You don’t have to dig deep in those two paragraphs to find analogs to the four processes of Boyd’s loop.

For a theory first applied to the realm of jet fighter combat, where 90 seconds is an eternity, it actually found its greatest fanbase in the Marine Corps, where he is often credited with helping (along with a great many others) reviving Marine interest in maneuver warfare.

And while the OODA loop is a popular subject among many business managers, they tend to be the of the fad of the moment type presentations. Boyd, on the other hand, was very much a numbers guy. He and two other folks, dubbed the “Fighter Mafia” developed much of the theory while working on the LFX program, that later became the F-16 and eventually spawned the F-18. Of the two other members, one was a fighter pilot and the other was a civilian statistician. Boyd himself was an industrial engineer.  They approached the theory from a systems analysis point of view.

Interestingly, as one of the more influential strategists of the second half of the 20th Century, Boyd never wrote a book on strategy. Rather, he spread his gospel via a series of briefings. These slide decks are a good resource, but sadly, without the context of actually having Boyd brief them, much is lost.

Boyd died in 1997.

A collection of his briefings can be found here.