Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram
Coram presents a light-hearted hagiography of the guy behind the US Air Force's Lightweight Fighter program and the OODA loop. In combat, the latter is somewhat reducible to one of Boyd's sayings:
“There are only so many ulcers in the world and it is your job to see that other people get them.”
As for the lightweight fighter program, the Pentagon has seen many a budget battle, and Coram paints his own interpretation of these just as he semi-renders his own verdict on Eisenhower:
Eisenhower did not understand this kind of conflict and, at the very moment of victory—egged on by jealous and conventional British officers—he grew afraid for Patton’s flanks and supply lines and ordered Patton to stop. The Germans were amazed at the respite. One school of thought says that Eisenhower’s timidity cost another six months of war and a million additional lives.
Coram's either weasel-wording or he fails to grasp that when you have the lead as the Allies did at that stage in WWII, piece-for-piece attrition is the correct strategy unless you are worried about the Germans buying time to develop nuclear weapons or some other game changer. Risking a possible bad attrition trade, e.g. 5 of my guys for 1 of yours, is exactly what you do not want to do.
So how is it that a student of conflict such as Boyd failed to conquer the Pentagon? Either the battles have been mischaracterized by Coram, or Boyd was a great tactician who did not appreciate the power of numerical superiority, or Boyd wasn't capable of creating and sustaining an army.
In as much as we can see through Coram's eyes, the last seems closest to a sensible reality.
American pilots copied the maneuver. Eric Hartman, the famous German pilot of World War II, simply pounced on slow bombers, unsuspecting fighters, or any crippled aircraft from behind. He was a back-shooter who shot down 352 airplanes and became the leading ace of all time.
In the months after the F-100 came to Nellis, it was not unusual for people in Las Vegas to be sitting quietly at home when suddenly the windows shattered and they were hammered by a sound wave that caused them to think it was the end of the world. One pilot—it was said he was traveling at 815 mph at an altitude of forty feet—boomed a small town out in the desert so vigorously that the main structural wall in the local hospital cracked and the base commander had to go out and apologize and the Air Force had to pay more than $20,000 in damages.
The Hun, particularly the A model, was a lieutenant-killer, a widow-maker with a fearsome reputation. One quarter of all the F-100s ever produced were lost in accidents. A forgiving aircraft tolerates mistakes by the pilot; it will not, as pilots say, “rise up and bite you in the ass.” The Hun was one of the most unforgiving airplanes ever built. It had to be flown every second; one wrong control move, one moment of inattention, and the F-100 would “depart flight”; that is, it quit flying and assumed the aeronautical attributes of a brick.
The senior test pilot at North American came to Nellis and Boyd put him in the front seat of an F-100F and took him up and proved his point. Thereafter it was written into the flight manuals and taught by every instructor pilot in the Air Force: when the Hun is at high angle of attack and low airspeed, don’t move the stick laterally. Use the rudders as the primary control for both roll and turn. Afterward, every time a pilot landed the Hun, he centered the stick and worked the rudders. It went against everything a pilot learned in flight training and in flying air-to-air combat, but it worked and became a way of life for Hun drivers. Almost overnight the number of crashes in the F-100 decreased.
Boyd then took an action that could have ended his career. He went over the colonel’s head and sent both the TR&D manual and his manual to a friend at the Tactical Air Command headquarters, a man who could overrule Newman on what was used to teach tactics. His friend preferred Boyd’s manual but said to avoid any impression of favoritism, both manuals would be submitted to an independent panel for review.
When a pilot goes into an aerial battle, he must have a three-dimensional picture of the battle in his head....
situation awareness boils down to two things: first, the pilot must know the enemy’s position, and second, he must know the enemy’s velocity. (Boyd would later change “velocity” to “energy state.”) The amount of airspeed or velocity or energy available to the enemy dictates what that enemy is able to do, which maneuvers he can perform. Boyd was the first to understand the cognitive aspect of aerial combat, that it was possible to isolate not only every maneuver a fighter pilot could perform but also the counters to those maneuvers.
Generals rarely become involved in ERs of majors. But, luckily for Boyd, Brigadier General A.T. Culbertson added an indorsement that contradicted the rating. Boyd, Culbertson said, “represents the sort of productive, creative thinker that is so critically needed in this Command and the Air Force. I rate him as truly outstanding and worthy of rapid promotion.” As had happened again and again in Boyd’s career, his immediate supervisor gave him a poor or mediocre rating, one that signaled it was time to get out of the Air Force, and again and again a general officer rescued him.
Boyd returned through Europe, where he briefed E-M to a group of wing commanders. Boyd said the outstanding safety records of the European wings showed they were not training hard enough; they were not preparing pilots for combat.
The long-boasted-about ten-to-one exchange ratio from Korea sank close to parity in North Vietnam; at one time it even favored the North Vietnamese. When the war finally ended, one Air Force pilot would be an ace. North Vietnam would have sixteen.
He was about to loose his considerable talents on developing another airplane, an airplane the Air Force did not want. To fully appreciate what Sprey did, one must remember that close air support—bombing missions that support ground troops—has never been a priority mission for the Air Force. Nevertheless, the Air Force officially owned the CAS mission, and no branch of the service wants to lose a mission, because losing a mission means losing money. The Air Force paid lip service to the CAS mission, making just enough effort to prevent the Army from taking it over. The best way to show how the Air Force looked upon CAS is that it never—not in World War II, not in Korea, and not in 1969—had an airplane dedicated to CAS. Air Force practice was to take one of the worst aircraft in its inventory and designate it a close air support airplane. The F-84 in Korea is an example. In Vietnam, the Air Force used a cast-off Navy airplane: the propeller-driven A-1, which was forced on the Air Force by Secretary of Defense McNamara. The Air Force was embarrassed by the A-1, never mind that it turned out to be one of the best CAS aircraft used in combat up to that time. But in 1969 the Air Force learned that the Army wanted to develop a new helicopter called the “Cheyenne.” The most startling thing about the Cheyenne was that it was so technologically complex that it cost more than an F-4. This frightened the Air Force. This meant the Army was going to make a run at taking over the CAS mission and the CAS money.
Few men are as methodical as Sprey. He began by wanting to know what functions were needed in a CAS airplane. To find out he sought out A-1 pilots who flew CAS missions in Vietnam. These young officers were energized by the chance to have their recent combat experience considered in designing the first designated CAS airplane the Air Force ever had. None of this “one pass, haul ass” stuff for these guys—to protect troops on the ground they needed loiter time over a target. They needed an airplane, they said, with long legs. Much of the time hard-to-see targets and the smoke and haze of the battlefield means a CAS pilot must work low and tight and slow, so they wanted maneuverability at slow speeds. When friendly forces are in dire straits, they need an airplane that can wreak hell, death, and destruction, an airplane the very sight of which will turn an enemy soldier’s bowels to water, so they wanted lethal weapons, preferably cannon. Working low and tight as a good CAS pilot must do means the “gomers” will shoot at them with everything from rifles to AAA to missiles, so they wanted an airplane that could take hits and still bring its pilot home. They wanted survivability.
In the RFP, Sprey told the contractors they could not respond with the usual two-foot-tall stack of documents. The response had to be limited to thirty pages and confined to pure design—no smoke and mirrors. Even more unprecedented, airplanes from two contractors would be picked and the Air Force would supervise a combat-type fly-off between two flying prototypes.
Then Boyd’s uncanny ability to look ahead and plan move and countermove gave him another thought. If high-tech equipment was not going to work on the F-15 and if performance criteria were not going to be met, wasn’t it possible that the Navy’s F-14 was facing the same problems? And if so, might not the Navy be thinking of an alternative to the F-14? Riccioni drafted a memo to a general in charge of Research and Development and dangled the threat of a small, high-performance Navy aircraft. Nothing galvanized an Air Force general more than being told the Navy was on his six. The general told Riccioni to press on. Boyd laughed. “We don’t care what the Russians are doing. We only care about what the Navy is doing.”
It was one of the most audacious plots ever hatched against a military service and it was done under the noses of men who, if they had the slightest idea what it was about, not only would have stopped it instantly, but would have orders cut reassigning Boyd to the other side of the globe. Boyd knew this. He told Sprey and Riccioni they should never make a reference, on the phone or even in private conversation, to the fighter they were designing. Anything and everything to do with the lightweight fighter should be referred to as the “Lord’s work.”
The development staff of an airplane went from maybe a hundred people to a thousand or more. Defense contractors said the business had become too complex and too expensive to make prototypes. Air Force bureaucracies agreed. They did not want tests that might cancel their projects. McNamara played into their hands when he brought to the Pentagon something called “Total Package Procurement Concept.” He thought all the analysis and quantification could be done on paper.
Sprey, ever the purist, wanted less fuel. Less fuel means less weight and less weight means better performance. Boyd, as always, had planned move and countermove, and he saw a way to have enough fuel to beat the F-15 in range. This knowledge gave him a big stick. Usually if a man in a bureaucracy has a big stick, he uses it. But Boyd decided to hide his. He knew there would come a time, perhaps in a year or even two years, when the stick could be used to greater advantage.
In his new job, Boyd saw problems that needed immediate attention everywhere he looked. But 7th Air Force sent down paperwork daily that took hours to answer. Boyd thought Air Force bureaucracy was keeping him from the job at hand. His solution was to respond but to add material that caused 7th Air Force more paperwork than 7th Air Force caused him. “Pain goes both ways,” he said. In only a few weeks the time-consuming requests from 7th Air Force shrank to almost nothing.
He said the McNamara Line was an expensive failure and shut it down. He claimed that a four-star general later told him he was sent to NKP solely because Pentagon generals knew he was the only man in the Air Force with the guts to close down the boondoggle. Boyd, as a senior officer, lived in a trailer. By all accounts he worked eighteen- and twenty-hour days. He bought a reel-to-reel tape deck, and every night as he did paperwork his trailer was filled with the ominous “Ride of the Valkyries” or the majestic “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.”
Boyd was usually late to work, was slovenly, and disobeyed orders. He referred to generals as “perfumed princes” or “weak dicks” who would put their lives on the line for their country but not their jobs.
“If you want to understand something, take it to the extremes or examine its opposites,” Boyd said.
Boyd, borrowing from Sun Tzu, said the best commander is the one who wins while avoiding battle. The intent is to shatter cohesion, produce paralysis, and bring about collapse of the adversary by generating confusion, disorder, panic, and chaos. Boyd said war is organic and compared his technique to clipping the nerves, muscles, and tendons of an enemy, thus reducing him to jelly.
Early in the briefing the slide “Impressions” gives the frame of reference for what is to come. Here Boyd says that to shape the environment, one must manifest four qualities: variety, rapidity, harmony, and initiative. A commander must have a series of responses that can be applied rapidly; he must harmonize his efforts and never be passive.
Boyd, like Sun Tzu and Napoléon, believed in attacking with “moral conflict”—that is, using actions that increase menace, uncertainty, and mistrust in the enemy while increasing initiative, adaptability, and harmony within friendly forces.
“You still have an opportunity to be promoted. But now you are at a fork in the road with your life. You have to decide if you really want that promotion and all the trappings that come with it. You can’t have a normal career and do the good work.”
"People, ideas, hardware -- in that order."
Spinney’s basic point was that the unnecessary complexity of major weapons systems was wrecking the military budget. He made public what only a few people in the Air Force knew: throughout the 1970s much of the Air Force budget went toward procuring tactical air fighters and weapons while nearly all other areas suffered. So much money was being spent on overly complex weapons such as the F-15 and the F-111D that there was little money to operate and maintain the aircraft. Training flights for pilots were being replaced by simulators. Maintenance skills required to keep the F-15 flying were so high that civilian contractors had to be hired. Electronics systems failed far more often and took far longer to repair than predicted. Spinney showed that supporting the F-15 was more expensive than supporting the ancient B-52. He showed that readiness was at an all-time low; in a full-scale war, supplies of the Air Force’s favorite munitions would last only a few days.
One of Boyd’s fundamental dictums when waging bureaucratic war was to use the other person’s information against him.
Leopold had a realistic understanding of how things worked in the Building (The Pentagon). A few days after he arrived, he was walking down a hall when he saw an open door. The office was empty. He went in and wrote on the blackboard, “Duty Honor Country.” Then he crossed out the words and under them wrote, “Pride Power Greed.”
As expected, the Time cover story caused still another flurry of stories in the national media about the Reagan budget and Pentagon spending and ineffective high-tech weapons. Not only that, but in the Möbius strip that is the congressional-media relationship, the House of Representatives and the Senate called for more hearings.
He and Burton spoke often of Churchill’s comment in World War II that the truth was too precious a commodity to travel alone—that it had to be protected by a “bodyguard of lies.”
(Belisarius, the Byzantine commander, was one of Boyd’s favorite generals and was an early practitioner of maneuver conflict; he always fought outnumbered, never lost a battle, and understood the moral dimension of war.)