Skip to comments.How Col. John Boyd Beat The Generals(Saga of a Pentagon Revolutionary)
Posted on 08/13/2002 6:42:42 AM PDT by TADSLOS
For nearly 40 years a group of Washington's best minds on defense issues has met each Wednesday at the end of the day for a midweek happy hour in the basement of the Officers Club at spacious Fort Myer in Virginia, overlooking the Potomac River and the federal capital beyond. Participants on any given evening might include a French liaison officer, a Russian intellectual, several retired colonels, a former assistant secretary of defense and a budding journalist needing to be schooled in the intricacies of one of the Pentagon's newest weapons systems.
As the beer flows, one knot of guests is talking about the latest news from the budget wars on Capitol Hill; another, sitting at an adjoining table, the applicability of Sun Tzu's theories to the war in Afghanistan. High-powered debate is laced with testosterone-fueled war stories and sometimes-raucous humor. The median age of the group gathered at the club is older now, but its purpose remains pure: to make sure that the Pentagon offers America's troops the best-tested and most developed weapons. Their collective record in doing so is fearsome.
The largest presence at the club, however, is not seated there in the Old Guard Room but buried a mile away at Arlington National Cemetery. In March 1997, Col. John Boyd was interred with full military honors from the U.S. Air Force he served for 24 years, as well as with the highest accolade the U.S. Marine Corps can bestow. "Forty-Second" Boyd, the man remembered for defeating every opponent in aerial combat at the Air Force's premier dog-fighting academy in two-thirds of a minute, helped found the Fort Myer get-togethers at the end of his Air Force career.
But these weekly gatherings are in some ways merely a grace note in the long and often painful saga of a man who, as a full colonel, went toe to toe, time after time, with a phalanx of two-and three-star generals for the good of the country, winning most of his battles and surviving long enough to help provide secretary of defense Richard Cheney the ideas needed for swift and decisive victory in the Persian Gulf War. ("Keep it simple so that the generals will understand it," Boyd frequently told his small band of fellow guerrillas, known collectively as "The Acolytes.") Boyd was, in the words of Pierre Sprey a Pentagon "Whiz Kid" who became a close friend and advocate of the colonel and eulogized him that wintry morning five years ago one of the rare few who were "defined by the courts-martial and investigations they faced." He also was, biographer Robert Coram tells Insight, "the most important unknown man of his time and the most remarkable unsung hero in American military history."
From hardscrabble beginnings in Erie, Pa., where he grew up without a father, Boyd first achieved fame at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where he became an instructor upon returning from a combat tour in Korea. (He had just missed action in World War II, serving in Japan as part of the occupation force.)
A thinking fighter pilot, Boyd while still a junior officer became the first person ever to codify air-to-air combat techniques. His "Aerial Attack Study" eventually became official Air Force doctrine and a foundational text for air forces around the globe. After studying thermodynamics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Boyd applied his knowledge as a fighter pilot to create his energy-maneuverability (E-M) theory. The contribution was so significant that the "Mad Major" went on to play a key role, through the application of E-M to the aerodynamic configuration of the planes, in making the F-15 and the F-16 the finest aircraft of their class in the world. In fact, the Soviets also used Boyd's ideas in designing both the MiG-29 and the SU-27 fighters.
Loud and profane, Boyd's intellectual achievements were matched by his relentless guerrilla warfare against hidebound "careerists" then running the Air Force. These careerists believed that big bombers and equally large budgets were both the wave of the future and their ride to advancement in the service and in the wild blue yonder of lucrative "retirement." Shrewd and aggressive, Boyd took profound delight as he repeatedly "hosed" squadrons of two- and three-star careerists from the general staff. Throughout his career, Boyd's own professional advancement appeared in jeopardy as his string of bureaucratic victories left rivals seething for revenge. Only the repeated intervention of the most senior officers impressed by Boyd's intellect, single-minded dedication and devotion to the service and its men allowed him to rise to the rank of colonel.
Boyd's service in Indochina came not as a fighter pilot but as commander of a top-secret intelligence center in Thailand, a base whose activities were so sensitive that for the first three years of its operation it did not officially exist. His performance there was "absolutely superior," one rating official remarked, and Boyd's leadership on the ground was matched by his pilots' equally outstanding efforts in the air, where they employed the devastating panoply of aerial-warfare techniques that Boyd himself developed. Once back in Washington, Boyd succeeded through a back channel to then-secretary of defense James Schlesinger in developing off the books a prototype of an ultralight fighter (which later became the F-16) that was opposed vigorously by the Air Force brass.
At the same time, Boyd and two of his growing coterie of Acolytes, Capts. Raymond Leopold and Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, successfully challenged the generals over the cost of the B-1 bomber, a contractors' boondoggle whose price ballooned far beyond what the Air Force would admit. Boyd even advised Schlesinger and (through him) Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about the true capabilities of the Soviet Backfire bomber, allowing for a more realistic threat analysis during delicate SALT arms negotiations. ("The Backfire," Boyd appraised, "is a piece of s***, a glorified F-111.")
It was Boyd's retirement in 1975, Coram tells us in his stunning new biography Boyd The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War that marked his emergence as one of the world's most important military strategists. An autodidact, Boyd set upon a dervish-paced study of warfare from the beginning of time, engaging history's strategists such as Hannibal, Belisarius, Genghis Khan and von Clausewitz as if in a dogfight, probing the perimeters of their thought to "find the six" (identify the vulnerabilities) of their ideas. The only theoretician Boyd did not attack was Sun Tzu, author of the oldest book on war, instead using contemporary ideas from diverse disciplines such as math, physics, anthropology, biology, economics and philosophy to update and reaffirm the work of the Chinese master.
It was during this period, Coram tells us, that Boyd "became the founder, leader and spiritual center of the Military Reform Movement a guerrilla movement that affected the monolithic and seemingly omnipotent Pentagon as few things in history have done. For a few years he was one of the most powerful men in Washington."
Boyd's followers, too, began to have their own singular impact on the military. Spinney would become famous featured on the cover of Time magazine for a briefing he prepared called "The Plans/Reality Mismatch," a superbly researched paper in which he showed how unnecessarily complex weapons systems career builders for many rising officers were in fact wrecking the Pentagon budget. Another Acolyte, Jim Burton, successfully took on the entire Pentagon over safety failures covered up by the Army in the Bradley fighting vehicle imperfections that made them virtual deathtraps in war conditions.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nongovernmental watchdog group, who worked with Boyd during the battle over the Bradley. She says Boyd "inspired people to challenge assumptions, to think things through and to fight like hell those who get in your way." Said Spinney: "He was a creative genius ... who inspired a generation."
Perhaps Boyd's most important contribution to modern warfare and the management ideas pioneered by guru Chet Richards was the "Observe-Orient-Decide-Act" cycle, commonly known as the "OODA loop." Simply rendered, the OODA loop is a blueprint for the maneuver tactics that allow one to attack the mind of an opponent, to unravel its commander even before a battle begins. Boyd's ideas spread like wildfire among the Marine Corps, where a new breed of restless young officers, led by Gen. Al Gray and Col. Mike Wyly, were tired of their image as knuckle-dragging infantrymen and sought glory in matching toughness with intellect. In one of the greatest ironies of U.S. military history, a pilot from a military culture so unlike their own taught the Marines how to fight a ground war using tactics evolved from the OODA loop.
Coram traces how Boyd's ideas percolated into key centers of civilian and military decisionmaking and led to a swift and decisive victory in Operation Desert Storm, and how his maneuverist doctrine foretold the type of terrorist tactics used on Sept. 11. In an interview Coram conducted with now Vice President Cheney, the former defense secretary acknowledged that Boyd, whom he met with repeatedly during the planning stages of the Iraqi campaign, was "clearly a factor in my thinking" on the strategy to pursue. When Boyd died, Marine Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak praised him as one of the premier influences on the thinking that led to victory in the Persian Gulf, where Marines schooled in his ideas on maneuverability outperformed other U.S. forces arrayed against Saddam Hussein.
As Cheney remarked to Coram, a comment all the more poignant as America again prepares for war with Iraq: "We could use him now. I'd love to turn him on our current defense establishment and see what he could come up with. We are still oriented toward the past. We need to think about the next 100 years rather than the last 100 years."
The Colonel's Universal Teaching
Col. John Boyd, his biographer Robert Coram reports in his well-written book, had a speech he often gave to those who, like the fighter pilot himself, found that doing right did not always mean doing well. Known as the "To Be or To Do" speech, Boyd used it to rally flagging spirits of apprentices who, until they became involved as one of his Acolytes, had appeared fated to climb the highest rungs of conventional success. The tenets of this speech reflected both his spirit and values:
"One day you will come to a fork in the road. And you're going to have to make a decision about what direction you want to go." [Boyd] raised his hand and pointed. "If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments." Then Boyd raised the other hand and pointed another direction. "Or you can go that way and you can do something something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won't have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference." He paused and stared. "To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That's when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?"
You can guarantee that weapons systems are going to become a thousand times more complex, more costly, and more reliant on defense contractors for support. The reliance of Rumsfeld on precision, long-range, complex airborne systems is a clear indication of that.
I remember right after the Gulf War, I read and heard that the plan submitted by Powell was thrown back in his face twice by Cheney. Now I know why. Powell, and to a lesser extent, Schwarzkopf (sp), are the TO BE people. I read both their autobio's and was not impressed. Compared to other military leaders of our past, they do not rate up there with Ike, Bradley, Patton, MacArthur, Nimitz, Halsey, Grant, Washington, Sherman, etc.
Reading about Boyd, I am reminded of what Adm. King said at the beginning of WW II. "When the s**t hits the fan, they call for the sons of B***hes." Unfortunately, the United States spent most of the 90's getting rid of the SOB's with drummed up sexual harrassment charges. But there are still SOB's out there who will get the job done.
The Marine Corps was already experimenting with the idea of 'network-centric', long-range precision based fires some 5-6 years ago. During the exercise, Hunter Warrior, we had squad-sized and smaller teams of Marines and communicators scattered throughout the battlefield, engaging the enemy with long range precision artillery and air assets. The conclusion was that this 'new style' of warfare fared as well as any other attrition-based warfare scheme to be.
Rumsfeld's stated goal is that the money from Crusader will be used to fund long-range precision weapons via air or satellite. Once again, the 'transformation' is to an armed force which essentially attrites the enemy through long range bombing. And as the whole 'network-centric' approach shows, this is a throwback to the days of centralized command and control. Instead of a line of infantry men commanded by a single bugle and a flag, we have an array of satellites, sensors, and aircraft, all controlled to the minute level from a long-distance central command post. I am not saying this is necessarily bad. But what we need to be clear on is that this 'transformation' is bringing us back to attrition-based warfare.
From a contemporary press report [Source is probably Air Force Magazine]:
WASHINGTON -- It was a cloudy, steel-gray day in the nation's capital when the designer of the Air Force's premier combat training exercise -- Red Flag -- was buried at Arlington National Cemetery January 19, 1996.
Colonel Richard "Moody" Suter died January 11, 1996 in Carefree, Arizona, after a sudden illness. Suter was mourned by Air Force leaders of the past and present, who formed together as honorary pallbearers.
Lieutenant General James F. Record, commander, 12th Air Force and U.S. Southern Command Air Forces, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, said, "Red Flag has affected almost every pilot who takes to the skies in defense of their country ... if not directly ... then indirectly by the individual pilots taking back to their home base what they've learned."
Today, Red Flag includes the air forces of the United States and its allies. Most of the people deployed are part of the "Blue" forces. These forces participate in attacks on mock airfields, vehicle convoys, and missile sites.
The "Red" -- or aggressor -- forces' threats include electronically simulated surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery, as well as an opposing enemy force composed of pilots trained to fly the F-16C to duplicate the tactics and techniques of potential adversaries.
Another Suter legacy is his driving force behind setting up Checkmate, which Air Force officials have described as a "think tank" for wartime scenarios, and the Warrior Preparation Center, Einsiedlerhof Air Station, Germany, which is used for training senior battle commanders in the art of war.
"Suter based his plan for Red Flag on lessons learned from Vietnam," Record said. "Young pilots and crew members were either shot down or had an accident during their first 10 sorties. His plan was to get those young pilots into a combat-structured environment, where those first 10 missions could be performed in the controlled arena of an exercise."
Lieutenant Colonel James G. "Snake" Clark, one of the honorary pallbearers and Suter's friend for 14 years, said, "Moody was a visionary, but also he had a unique ability to persuade others in the system to support his unique ideas. He worked on both the funding and the building of Red Flag."
"We can credit a lot of our success in Desert Shield/Desert Storm to these programs that he established in the mid-70s," Record said. "Red Flag, Checkmate and the Aggressor squadrons have saved many lives."
To honor Suter's achievements, Clark said the Warrior Preparation Center command section building and Red Flag building 201 at Nellis AFB, Nev., will be dedicated later this year in his name as a lasting memorial for future Air Force aviators.
Patriot Dreams: The Murder of Col. Rich Higgins
by his wife, Lt. Col. Robin Higgins, U.S.M.C. (ret.)