This is a story about success and failure. It is a story about Iraq, and of something much bigger than Iraq. It is, perhaps, a small look into what makes victory, and defeat. It is a tale of infantrymen, of brave soldiers in dusty alleys a world away. It is a story of generals and strategies, too.
But to understand our newfound success there, to know a little of how we achieved it and most importantly, how to keep it, we need to move away from that Mesopotamian desert and those boots on the ground, and back to a different desert on the other side of the world a half century ago. For there, a vision was vouchsafed to a most unlikely warrior priest… the kind of insight that comes once or twice in all of human history.
There are some diverse threads to connect here. But if you have the patience to take a walk with me, you may perhaps see things in a way you have not seen them before.
PART 1: POPE JOHN AND THE SUPERSONIC MONASTERY
About a hundred miles north of Las Vegas there is a clump of wild grass and cottonwood trees called “The Green Spot.” Not much to look at from the ground, but from thirty thousand feet above the brown Nevada desert it stands out for a hundred miles.
In the mid to late fifties, a fighter pilot could earn himself a quick forty bucks and perhaps a nice steak dinner in Vegas – not to mention everlasting renown, which is to fighter pilots what oxygen is to us lesser beings – by meeting over the Green Spot at thirty thousand feet and taking position just 500 feet behind an arrogant and unpleasant man with precisely zero air-to-air victories to his credit. From that perfect kill position, you would yell “Fight’s on!” and if that sitting duck in front of you was not on your tail with you in his gunsight in forty seconds flat then you would win the money, the dinner and best of all, the fame.
Tank commanders may be charging cavalrymen at heart; sub skippers may be deer hunters using patience and stealth. But fighter pilots are Musketeers. They are swordsmen whose survival depends on remaining on the offensive… that is to say, they are men who survive because they can (and have) initiated 16-to-1 fights because they possess the confidence – actually, the untrammeled ego – to know they will win.
To be challenged in such a manner is an irresistible red flag to men like this, and certainly no less of one because the challenger was a rude, loud, irreverent braggart who had never been victorious in actual air-to-air combat. And yet that forty dollars went uncollected, uncollected for many years against scores of the best fighter pilots in the world.
That is more than luck. That is more than skill. That is more than tactics. That level of supremacy is the result of the ability to see things in an entirely new way. It is the difference between escaping from a maze you are embedded in, versus finding the way out from one that you look down upon from above.
Having your ass handed to you in such a spectacular and repeated fashion causes some men to curse and mutter about ‘one trick ponies’ and so on. But for others, for those who are more invested in victory than in ego, it reveals a level of skill that instantly removes all swagger and competition and puts one in the place of a willing supplicant, eager for knowledge.
Taking a few moments to understand what this odd man learned about airplanes and aerial combat will pay rich dividends later. Because John Boyd – Pope John, The High Priest of the Fighter Mafia, the Mad Major, the Ghetto Colonel – Forty Second Boyd not only wrote the revolutionary tactics manuals that gave American pilots the keys to air-to-air victory… and with it the essential and undisputed control of the battlespace. Nor was his achievement limited to the design of the phenomenally successful F-15 and F-16 fighters. Nor was it merely the codifying of physics and thermodynamics to make a science out of an art form. That John Boyd saw all of these things for the first time would have made him a legend. But this was quite the lesser of his two great achievements. For Boyd not only saw how to perfect the sword. He saw too how to perfect the swordsman.
And for that, Forty Second Boyd may turn out to be one of the most important men of the Twenty-First Century. And he has lain at rest in Arlington National Cemetery since 1997.
To understand Boyd’s first breakthrough (and how it impacts the much larger and more relevant second one that runs the battlefield of today), a very short history lesson is in order.
The first jet combat took place in the skies over Korea in the early 1950’s. American pilots, flying the F-86 Sabre, are credited with at least a 10:1 kill ratio over the Soviet-designed MiG-15. It may have been as high as 14:1.
That is not a trivial success ratio, especially for two aircraft that appear virtually identical:
Now it didn’t take much to convince Pentagon procurement officers to assume that a good part of this edge was due to the ‘obvious’ American advantage in aeronautics. So it came as quite a surprise – not to say an embarrassment and a hell of shock – when it became known that in many important aspects the MiG-15 was the superior airplane. Much lighter, and with greater thrust to boot, it could climb far faster than the Sabre and fly higher – high enough to avoid a fight altogether, if the pilot so chose. And at most airspeeds and altitudes, the MiG had the great single fighter advantage: it could out-turn the F-86.
Certainly, the Sabre was nothing like ten times better than the MiG. The difference had to be in the pilots, in the flying skill and tactical superiority of the Americans.
This certainly was the case. Most of them were combat-hardened, experienced fighter pilots recalled to service after cutting their teeth in the skies over Germany and the Pacific a mere five years before. There too, American pilots flying Navy F4F Wildcats were horribly outmatched by the Japanese A6M Zero – which, like the Mig-15 was a light, maneuverable Katana in the hands of an experienced pilot. (Indeed, in the early months of the Pacific War, the Wildcats were so badly outclassed that it was only the tactical brilliance of another American fighter pilot, John S. Thach, who kept us in the fight by implementing the famous “Thach Weave.”)
But in the cold high air over Korea, the Americans had, in the F-86 Sabre, a weapon worthy of their skill.
This sadly did not last. For in the years following the Korean War, with the ascension of Curtis LeMay’s Strategic Air Command and the “Bomber Generals” in control of the Air Force, American fighter planes flew straight in the face of all of the painful experience won in WWII and Korea. The Pentagon started to procure “fighters” that got ever heavier, more sluggish and more expensive. Believing them to be little better than missile launching platforms, by the time Vietnam rolled around they no longer even carried guns… dogfights being considered a thing of the past by Whiz-Kid non-pilots like Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
So by the mid sixties, the two primary American fighter-bombers were the F-105 Thunderchief and the F-4 Phantom II, aircraft whose performance is best summed up by the nicknames given them by their own pilots: The Lead Sled or the Thud for the F-105 and The Smoking Thunderhog for the F-4.
And so, with appalling air-to-air missile performance and no dogfighting training (or the guns to use in one), the American air-to-air kill ratio fell from 10:1 in Korea down to nearly 1:1 – parity! — in Vietnam.
So much for the history.
Now: Imagine you are John Boyd, former Fighter Weapons School Instructor and now an Air Force desk jockey. You are watching good friends die in the skies over Southeast Asia because they are being sent into combat armed primarily with unreliable long-range missiles but under orders not to fire until they made visual contact! Visual contact with closure rates of 1,000 mph and more means you are in a close-range knife fight before you can see the red stars on the wings and tails. You lose a lot of sleep knowing good men are dying because of American tactical doctrine so convinced of its own technical superiority that it simply flat-out refused to see that our pilots were being shot down by light, agile, gunfighters which – despite the Pentagon line – are in just about every meaningful way superior to those of the USAF, USN and USMC.
Those old fighter jocks in nimble little rapiers like the Mustang, the Corsair and the Sabre are long gone. Now Bomber Generals are sending fighter pilots off to die in Lead Sleds with no guns, no training and useless missiles, and to Forty Second Boyd this looks perilously close to flat-out treason.
And so Boyd went back to college, and bootstrapped himself from Fighter Jock to Aeronautical Engineer to try and find a theory that would show exactly at which airspeeds and altitudes enemy planes were superior.
The result was a series of briefing slides that showed, on an aircraft-by-aircraft basis, where the Soviet fighters were superior (in red) and conversely, at which airspeeds and altitudes the American designs (in blue) had the advantage.
Practically every slide was almost pure red. It was only in very narrow speed ranges, at specific altitudes, that American fighters had the advantage.
Boyd called these Energy-Maneuverability graphs, and in the process of producing them, Boyd developed the first of his two Earth-shattering breakthroughs: E-M Theory.
Boyd realized – through years of intense and lonely study on his own time and often in direct contravention of orders – that the key to the Perfect Sword lay not in speed, or service ceiling, or rate of climb, or even turning ability. All of these were red herrings that had been chased for decades.
Boyd’s first breakthrough was that the perfect fighter plane’s key characteristic was agility.
Agility. The ability to change its energy state rapidly. To turn, or climb, or accelerate faster than its opponent. And most importantly, to keep up that high energy state in the grueling, high-G turns that rapidly bled out speed and options.
Let’s say two aircraft are in a turning fight, each trying to get behind the other for a gun or missile shot. Due to many design differences between the two adversaries (but primarily due to wing loading) one aircraft may have its best rate of turn at 250 kts, while its opponent’s best turn is at 400 kts. Boyd realized that the ideal fighter was one that could accelerate, climb or turn the quickest, to move the fight into the airspeed (and altitude) where it has the advantage.
Quickness in the roll was one element. Lots of thrust to get up to best speed and stay there in a high-drag turn was another. Low weight meant that it could accelerate and decelerate faster, and above all, because a banked aircraft is essentially ‘climbing’ into its turn, the perfect fighter needed a big wing with lots of reserve lift. This big wing area meant that it would own the turning fight in just about every regime.
Believe it or not, Boyd’s Energy-Maneuverability Theory was the first to give aircraft designers a real victory target: an aircraft that would own the skies; the light, swift and deadly rapier that would be unbeatable in air-to-air combat. And remember: he who wins in air-to-air owns the skies. He who owns the skies owns the battlefield. Air Supremacy is the one great, single, essential requirement for victory on the modern battlefield. You can still lose if you have it, but you have no chance to win if you do not.
The Pentagon Brass – with precious few exceptions – fought him tooth and nail. The only reason Boyd was able to gain the credibility to force his ideas upon the next generation of fighters was because he was getting results. Boyd’s E-M Theory showed American pilots how to move the fight into those narrow and rare regimens where E-M numbers showed an American advantage, and to avoid like the plague those vast red swatches where dogfights were likely to be fatal. And it gave him that above-the-maze perspective to produce a fighter design the likes of which the world had never seen before.
Boyd’s E-M theory – this being the lesser of his two breakthrough ideas – would eventually lead, through many pitched bureaucratic battles, to the design of the F-15 Eagle – which, depending on your source, has exceeded the Vietnam era fighters 1:1 kill ratio somewhat spectacularly, it’s current record being in the vicinity of 105 wins against zero air-to-air losses. Boyd demanded a big wing on the F-15, a wing big enough to provide the lift it needed to win in the turning fight at any airspeed or altitude. In this he succeeded rather more than he could have imagined. He gave the F-15 Eagle so much reserve lift that after a mid-air collision an Israeli pilot flew an Eagle home and landed it with one entire wing torn off!
But Boyd found even the F-15 compromised. His fondest achievement was the F-16 Falcon, a nimble little beauty bearing more than a passing resemblance to the P-51 Mustang, and like it, fast, agile and lethal. It had the additional advantage of being relatively cheap, which means you can buy a lot of them. The Soviets listened to Stalin when he said “quantity has a quality all its own.”
Boyd listened too.
Pope John and his Fighter Mafia saw that the ultimate weapon was not a bludgeon or an iron mace, not the Lead Sled at all, but in fact just the opposite: light, fast, precise, agile and deadly.
Now you hold that thought! You hold that thought because Boyd held it for many, many years. He held it and worked it and then began to realize that what worked for fighter aircraft may work for entire armies as well.
And here is where things get really interesting, because out of Boyd’s quest for the perfect Sword came his understanding of the perfect Swordsman.
Agility. Agility. The ability to inflict damage and get out of the way of the counterstroke. But the light, strong, sharp weapon is only as good as the arm that wields it. In more or less even airplanes, the USAF outscored the North Korean, Chinese and Russian pilots by at least ten to one. Why? What had they learned in those deadly laboratories over Germany and the Pacific? And could it be taught?
Now the fighter jock who had trained himself to become an engineer spent his entire pay – pay that did not go to his long-suffering family and instead earned him the title of The Ghetto Colonel – on books. And not technical books either, but history books, philosophy, tactics… he devoured entire disciplines with the same brutal efficiency that caused him to finish his meal before his companions had placed their napkins on their laps. This loud, self-aggrandizing man, lost in his own time and place, the man who chewed his fingers to pulps and wiped his nose on the blue sleeve of his Air Force tunic went on a journey as profound and transformational as any trek through the Himalayas.
He walked with the Spartan army at Thermopylae, and stood on a hilltop as Hannibal crushed the Romans at Cannae. Boyd rode with Grant down the Mississippi to capture Vicksburg and followed Guderian and Rommel in Panzer attacks across France and Africa, where he learned concepts like Fingerspitzengefuhl – “fingertip feel” – the subtle control of the point of the rapier. Boyd read Homer and Machiavelli, he read von Clausewitz and found to his amazement that he could see where he was right and where he was wrong. And most of all, he read – and understood on a level that surpasses mere mastery – the Chinese military genius Sun Tzu.
Boyd studied war because he was in the war business. Boyd studied war because he loved America and wanted to see her prevail on the battlefield. Boyd studied war in a way that surpassed in depth and breadth everything being learned or taught in every military academy in the world.
Here is what Boyd learned:
Let’s start with what he knew best. Picture two pilots in identical airplanes: two physically identical swordsmen wielding physically identical swords.
Picture the Red Pilot closing head-to-head with the Blue Pilot, over the desert at 30,000 feet and each at 500 miles an hour. The aircraft blow past each other in a blur.
Both pilots nearly snap their necks on the break, literally turning in their chairs under the G-load of the initial turn. Each must keep sight of the other. To lose visual on the opponent almost certainly is to lose your life, and this is the only life you’ve been issued. Each pilot observes the other. That’s step one.
Now, Red breaks one way and Blue the other. Their relative positions allow some options and remove others. Each pilot must assess where he is, where the other man is, where he is heading and at what speed, and likewise where the other guy is heading and how fast. From this he builds a mental picture of the three-dimensional battle. Pilots call this Situational Awareness, or SA. SA is powerful Kung-Fu. Good SA will keep you alive. Bad SA is rapidly fatal. So each pilot must orient himself. That’s step two.
Next, each pilot must make a near instantaneous decision as to what he will do next. Will their relative positions allow an offensive move, or is the situation so desperate that he is forced into the defensive? Each has observed, each has oriented…now each must decide what to do next. That’s three.
Once that decision has been made, there is nothing left to do but carry out that decision. Each of the pilots must act. Action in this case may mean a climbing roll – the high-G yo-yo – to increase the separation for the shot. Perhaps the only answer is a Split-S out of the fight to recover lost airspeed, or a desperate Break in the opposite direction to avoid the gunsights.
Whatever the action is, whether thrust or parry, Boyd realized that it is only here, in the fourth step – Observe-Orient-Decide-Act – that physical combat occurs. Being “a good stick” will help you here, yes. But Boyd’s breakthrough was to realize that there are three mental steps that precede the physical application of a warrior’s skill, and that these mental steps are not as important as the physical talent. They are far, far more important.
It’s a cycle. It’s a loop. It’s called by its inelegant acronym: The OODA loop.
Now here’s what blew my mind, as I am sure it blew John Boyd’s mind on a level I can not and will never fully comprehend:
The winner of these battles is not necessarily the fellow who makes the best decisions. More often than not, it’s the guy who makes the fastest decisions.
Agility. Speed. Precision. Lethality. Fingerspitzengefuhl: fingertip control.
It seems counter-intuitive. So let’s first go back to the Green Spot.
Red and Blue are closing at 1000 miles an hour. Fight’s on!
Blue breaks left. Red does too. Both pilots observe, orient, decide, act. But Blue is faster. While Red is still orienting himself, building the situational awareness he needs to decide and plan his action, Blue has already chosen a maneuver and executed it. This renders Red’s previous orientation useless: Blue is no longer where he was a moment before.
Red must re-orient so he can make a new decision. Blue sees the confusion and delay. He’s already oriented. He decides and acts again. His advantage increases.
Now Red is confused and at 500kts he is flying pretty God-damned quickly into full-on fear. This confusion and fear cause him more hesitation. Out of rising panic he commits to an action that may have been appropriate two Blue cycles ago, but which is now – no other word for it – obsolete. Blue is now cycling so fast that he maneuvers for a position where any course of action Red may take will result in his fiery demise. He’s below and behind him – out of sight – not anywhere near where Red expected him because he has been observing, orienting, deciding and acting at a much faster pace.
Should Blue make a mistake he will observe it before Red can, re-orient himself, make a decision to correct the mistake and commit to the new action all before Red is even aware that Blue has blundered. Red, on the other hand, may be making superior judgments… hell, Red may be making a string of perfect judgments, but that won’t save him because his perfect moves are in response to a situation that no longer exists. He’s doomed.
Blue is cycling faster, correcting any errors before they cost him anything, re-adjusting and re-calculating at a much higher tempo than Red. And every second he gets further ahead.
Boyd would say, “he’s inside Red’s decision loop.”
Think about that for a second! Inside his decision loop. To Red, Blue appears psychic, magical, demonic: able to read his mind, anticipate his every move. Blue owns the initiative, and he will never give it back. The more this goes on the more rattled, confused and demoralized Red becomes. This slows his ability to orient, it clouds his decisions with fear, it paralyzes his actions with second-guessing and ultimately reduces Red from being a deadly man in a deadly machine to a floating tumbleweed with no SA: out of airspeed, out of altitude and out of ideas.
And out of the fight too, because that fight is over.
The OODA loop works. And not just if you happen to be a supersonic fighter pilot battling for your life. OODA works if you are a businessman who wants to corner the market from his competition. OODA works in the same way science works, because it is nothing more or less than a superior way of thinking about a problem.
Now let’s get out of the air and back on the ground.
In the days leading up to the ground war in Operation Desert Storm, Gen. Schwarzkopf had planned his attack using conventional Army wisdom: a frontal attack against the enemy’s strong point, where the traditional American strength of overwhelming firepower could be brought to bear.
Firepower. Got a nice ring to it! Certainly sounds more American than Fingerspitzengefuhl. You put our guys and their guys toe-to-toe and slug it out.
Boyd had been preaching to largely deaf ears all his professional life. It was a fight to get E-M Theory accepted because no general in the Pentagon wanted to face the fact that all of the expensive American aircraft up until that point were – as dogfighters, anyway – actually inferior to the widely disdained Soviet models. Boyd and his Acolytes (men like Thomas Christie, Ray Leopold, Chuck Spinney, James Burton and Pierre Sprey – brilliant patriots all) fought tooth and nail, for years, against almost unbelievable bureaucratic resistance to bring war-winning aircraft like the F-15, F-16 and Sprey’s A-10 Warthog to the battlefield.
But this was a fight over weapons. The real war was over doctrine. Top Brass had – with good reason – been raised on the idea of overwhelming firepower as a way to win war, and to be fair, the original plan would have resulted in victory.
It just would have been a much bloodier one.
But Boyd and his reformers had an ace in their pocket in the person of then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who read and believed in Boyd’s ideas of maneuver rather than attrition. How would OODA perform, not in air-to-air combat but rather in a clash of entire armies on the battlefield?
Conventional wisdom called for massive force applied to key areas of the enemy front line. But Boyd had read of Patton and Guderian, of armored thrusts that moved so quickly that counterattacks converged on a vacuum. Boyd saw how speed and agility might sow so much confusion in the enemy – who had, after all, a very sclerotic command structure – that they would be swinging at shadows. Boyd summoned Sun Tzu and his idea of water flowing downhill, forces taking the paths of least resistance, hitting the enemy not where he was strongest, or even where he was weakest, but rather hitting him where he least expected it.
Surprise would substitute for firepower, and speed and the enemy’s confusion would be the defense. They would get inside Saddam’s decision loop. Each cycle would find him more out of touch, more reacting to obsolete intelligence, more demoralized, more desperate.
And so a new plan was devised. Using the Marines as a feint, Schwarzkopf swung his entire army off the map, to reappear like a mirage in the enemy’s rear, a resurrected Stonewall Jackson: unexpected, brutal, deadly… and then gone.
They would have bagged the entire lot, too: the whole Republican Guard, likely, if they had not stopped to protect their flanks, Old Army style, against an enemy that no more expected them to be in that desert as to be on the moon.
Still, it worked. It worked spectacularly. It worked even better in 2003, where, without warning or aerial assault, US armored columns moved with exquisite Fingerspitzengefuhl, bypassing pockets of resistance, moving around and past them like water flowing downhill.
Tanks are fatally vulnerable in cities. It’s suicide to place them there. Ask anyone.
But that’s what US commanders did. They marched an entire armored column right through the heart of Baghdad so quickly and unexpectedly that their guns could be heard over Baghdad Bob’s televised assurances that the Americans had been held at the border hundreds of miles away. To the Iraqi command American armor seemed to materialize out of thin air, and to disappear as quickly. That is a terrifying quality for such a deadly foe.
They went where they were least expected, where their presence threw the enemy commanders into a paralysis of confusion and fear. Gen. Tommy Franks, that old-school artilleryman who had taken in firepower and attrition with his mother’s milk, put on a show of precision fingertip control that will be studied throughout history. He got inside their decision loop. And the worst-case – 10,000 casualties we feared we might lose taking Baghdad – evaporated away in the mist of the following morning.
No one will ever know how many American lives John Boyd has saved in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. But it is a large number. And it is perhaps the most fitting monument to a man who is all but unknown among the nations whose children – on both sides – were saved from attrition warfare.
Well, now you’re loaded. Now you’re briefed. That was preamble. Let’s get to the point.
(Part 2 continues below, or may be found here