in Strategy

Air Combat and Strategy

I just finished reading Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, a biography by Robert Coram. It’s a fantastic book, appealing in depth, in complexity, and in its treatment of Colonel John Boyd, one of the finest unsung heroes of contemporary military science.

In the truest sense of the word, John Boyd was a genius. Taking just a brief tour of his accomplishments, we discover he wrote the manual on air-to-air combat. Before Boyd, dog-fighting was seen as some interpretative art–like ice dancing–and beyond the realm of science.

Boyd served as an instructor at the Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School (the nomenclature and design were later copied by the Navy, hence “Top Gun,” however Boyd’s Air Force institution was the original and the real deal). At age 33, he wrote a booklet on air superiority titled “Aerial  Attack Study.” It was so revolutionary that, since the time of its release, no further advances have been made in aerial combat strategy. Boyd’s booklet was the first and last word on tactical piloting and weapons use.

Boyd later developed the Energy-Maneuverability Theory. The E-M Theory gave fighter pilots for the first time a rubric to determine the energy potential of any given maneuver at any altitude for any aircraft, whether it be their own or their enemies. Before the acceptance of Boyd’s E-M Theory, fighter jets were designed to fly fast in a straight line or fly high. The F-15 was the first to be developed with maneuverability in mind. Boyd played a critical role in its construction and design.

Later Boyd and the “Fighter Mafia,” as they were dubbed, became the most influential ad hoc group the Pentagon had ever known, and in time fathered the F-16 and the F-18. Boyd’s later works like Patterns of Conflict and The Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action Loop helped form the bedrock of the Defense Reform Movement and led to much of the strategy behind the first Gulf War.

We on occasion run into similar quandaries in our daily lives as a fighter pilot does in the sky. At times the stakes can be just as serious. So what of it? How could a fighter pilot trying to jockey a $20 million aircraft apply to such mundane matters as politics?

First, it’s important to recognize that we are all complicit in politics, whether it be the public governance type or just what happens in our family lives. Politics has come to be used as a pejorative and that proves unfortunate. If you head to Definr, my favorite online dictionary,  and search for politics, the first definition you’ll come up against is this:

politics (

n 1: social relations involving authority or power [syn: {political

Read that one carefully. First, “social relations.” By design, humans are social creatures. There are macro-sociological arguments abound that titrate from our inherently social nature our improved chances for survival and hence the broader evolutionary process. The final segment of the definition, which reads “involving authority or power,” is the crux of this deceptively simple definition.

All relations involve authority or power whether we like it our not. Relations with girlfriends, boyfriends or spouses, children, parents, pets (okay, maybe the goldfish gets a pass), trolls on the internet, or the barista at Starbucks (I need my latte now!). Politics is power.

When John Boyd developed the OODA Loop, he found a means to power for the fighter pilot. Later the OODA Loop would find its way into business and government. In aerial combat, a pilot cycles through the steps of Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action ad infinum. He scans the airspace for enemies and, upon recognizing a threat, orients the enemy into the broader context of the air battle. Based on this synthesis, the pilot decides and acts in accordance with the provided information.

The idea  is to see what your enemy sees and get inside his OODA Loop. To be able to feint and counter-attack, to anticipate, this delineates an effective usage of the OODA Loop.

For example, let’s presume Pilot A is tailing Pilot B. Pilot B, in an attempt to lose Pilot A from his six, applies hard rudder, angles to starboard and pulls high Gs in a sharp turn that orients him perpendicular to the earth. Pilot A is in a slower aircraft and won’t be able to keep up. But Pilot A, tactically, is inside Pilot B’s OODA Loop, and through a series of quick observations and decisions, he chooses to pull hard to port to intercept Pilot B’s flight line and go for the kill.

The OODA Loop has since been expanded beyond what Boyd originally intended, and has made headway into business and manufacturing circles, amongst other trades. In power conflict, the mind is critical. More specifically, the ability the mind has to adapt and maneuver in congruency with whatever structure, ambiguity, or chaos may surround it. Boyd refers to maneuvers that disorient an opponent–those acts that innervate an opponent’s OODA Loop–as fast transients. The quicker a pilot can cycle through these loops in combat, or the faster a business can recognize and act to solve problems, the more successful each will prove to be.

In life we are forever confronted with challenges, with conflict, with social relations that demand we act. The game grows more difficult as the number of variables increase. By observing and orienting ourselves to the actions of others, we can come to a better understanding of the realities that surround us, and loose ourselves from the placid and comfortable narratives that conceal truth.

And here, it’s important to note that it is action that is what matters. Not words, but actions and the results of those actions. It’s important to make this distinction and not lull oneself into complacency through a susceptibility to outward poses. When confronted with conflict, learn to take action, and decisive action at that. As Boyd said, don’t worry about your own flanks. Instead, make your opponents worry about theirs.

Write a Comment