John Boyd’s Art of War Why our greatest military theorist only made colonel. By William S. Lind

John Boyd during the Korean War

John Boyd during the Korean War

A great piece on Col John Boyd and his ideas that evolved military thinking towards maneuver and leadership methodology towards the adaptive. The piece was written by William Lind author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook.

Stay Oriented! Fred

Off and on for about 20 years, I had the honor of working with the greatest military theorist America ever produced, Col. John Boyd, USAF. As a junior officer, Boyd developed the energy-management tactics now used by every fighter pilot in the world. Later, he influenced the designs of the F-15 and F-16, saving the former from becoming the turkey we are now buying in the F-35 and making the latter the best fighter aircraft on the planet. His magnum opus, a 12-hour briefing titled “Patterns of Conflict,” remains a vast mine of military wisdom, one unlikely to be exhausted in this century.

Boyd is best known for coming up with the OODA Loop or Boyd Cycle. He posited that all conflict is composed of repeated, time-competitive cycles of observing, orienting, deciding, and acting. The most important element is orientation: whoever can orient more quickly to a rapidly changing situation acquires a decisive advantage because his slower opponent’s actions are too late and therefore irrelevant—as he desperately seeks convergence, he gets ever increasing divergence. At some point, he realizes he can do nothing that works. That usually leads him either to panic or to give up, often while still physically largely intact.

The OODA Loop explains how and why Third Generation maneuver warfare, such as the German Blitzkrieg method, works. It describes exactly what happened to the French in 1940, when Germany defeated what was considered the strongest army on earth in six weeks with only about 27,000 German dead, trifling casualties by World War I standards. The French actually had more and better tanks than the Germans.

It is also a partial explanation for our repeated defeats by Fourth Generation non-state entities. Our many layers of headquarters, large staffs, and centralized decision-making give us a slow OODA Loop compared to opponents whose small size and decentralized command enable a fast one. A Marine officer stationed with our counter-drug traffic effort in Bolivia told me the traffickers went through the Loop 12 times in the time it took us to go through it once. I mentioned that to Colonel Boyd, and he replied, “Then we’re not even in the game.”

Another of Boyd’s contributions to military theory explains more of our failure in recent conflicts. To the traditional levels of war—tactical, operational, and strategic—Boyd added three new ones: physical, mental, and moral. It is useful to think of these as forming a nine-box grid, with tactical, operational, and strategic on one axis and physical, mental, and moral on the other. Our armed forces focus on the single box defined by tactical and physical, where we are vastly superior. But non-state forces focus on the strategic and the moral, where they are often stronger, in part because they represent David confronting Goliath. In war, a higher level trumps a lower, so our repeated victories at the tactical, physical level are negated by our enemies’ successes on the strategic and moral levels, and we lose.

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