Sunday, January 27, 2008

Book Review: Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

It has taken me five years to get around to reading this book, and shame on me for neglecting my uncle's recommendation for so long. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War investigates the life of one of the U.S. military's most unsung, complicated, frustrating, and brilliant warriors.

A child of the Depression, John Boyd's early childhood and youth give no hints to his eventual influence. Brought up in a family of five by a stern mother, Boyd received mentoring assistance at critical points in his life, channeling first his physical prowess as an athlete and later as a thinker in the military. He joined the Army Air Force in 1944, and missed out on combat in World War II. Eligible for the G.I. Bill, he went to the University of Iowa to study economics to get a better grounding in mathematics. There he met his wife, Mary, who had hoped for a quiet future in Iowa somewhere. Her wishes were not to be met, though, and despite giving birth to five children and hanging on through all of her husband's later travails, the narrative and the pattern of Boyd's life would clearly show where the man's true love was to be found: his career.

Boyd comes across as a "typical fighter jock"--loud, brash, egotistical, and firmly convinced of his own invulnerability. Returning to the Air Force during the Korean War, he again missed any opportunity for combat, but began flying jets more impressively and aggressively than any of his peers, and so received additional training, including the USAF's Fighter Weapons School (the original "Top Gun").

What made Boyd unique early in his career, aside from his proficiency as a pilot (he was known as "Forty Second Boyd" for his ability to beat anyone in air-to-air combat within 40 seconds), was his intense desire to codify and quantify his theories about aerial combat tactics. In the first of several critical relationships, Boyd found friends and superiors willing to support first an aerial tactics manual and then a mathematical method of explaining how to win dogfights. This work Boyd undertook at a time when Strategic Air Command--heavy bombers and the generals who flew them in World War II--were ruling the USAF. As a result, Boyd ended up engaging in a series of aggressive and sometimes underhanded personal wars with the Air Force bureaucracy. Boyd was hardly subtle, either: he got into arguments with superior officers, contractors, and civil servants, sometimes absconding with then-restricted computer time to confirm his equations. He eventually succeeded in developing what he called the "Energy-Maneuverability Theory," and codified it into an equation:

[ T-D ]
--------- V = Ps

Where the specific energy of an aircraft in flight (P sub s) is defined as thrust minus drag over weight, multiplied by velocity. This might not seem like a big deal, but this equation allows a pilot to calculate the amount of energy the aircraft has at a given moment, how much an opponent has, and what the mathematically correct maneuver should be to gain an advantage over the opponent's aircraft. This equation revolutionized aerial combat because now there was a science to dogfighting, not just "art," as had been practiced from World War I through Korea.

That might have been enough, and most people could be satisfied with such a contribution to aeronautics. However, Boyd was not satisfied. Through the assistance of a variety of "Acolytes" (the name is capitalized throughout the book), Boyd would then try to make certain that his air combat tactics were made the law of the land in the Air Force. Boyd's work was not accepted by most of the Air Force generals, and American pilots paid dearly for it in Vietnam. And it wasn't just a matter of tactics needing to improved. While several of Boyd's students put his theories into practice in combat over Vietnam, Boyd wanted to improve America's jet fighter designs as well.

This is the part of the book that would most have benefitted from additional illustrations--if only some comparisons between Boyd's ideas and the actual aircraft that eventually rolled off the drawing boards: the F-15, F-16, F/A-18, and (through one of Boyd's Acolytes) A-10. These planes did not come out quite like Boyd wanted, but close enough that they have allowed American designs to rule the air for the last 30 years--and to be decisive in both Gulf Wars. A great deal of Boyd's time from the 1960s to the 1980s was spent bucking the Pentagon bureaucracy. More concerned with "doing something than being somebody (i.e. promoted)" kept Boyd hard at work fighting the design and procurement processes at the Pentagon.

Boyd's story is a case study in how to not win friends or influence people in Washington, DC. Loud, profane, animated, cigar-chewing, blunt to an unfailing degree, and willing to go over the heads of people in his way, Boyd more than once found himself the target of bureaucratic sabotage, only to avoid court-martial through a higher-ranking protector. He was also a pain to his Acolytes, who he would call at all hours of the night to discuss his latest "breakthrough." Most of Boyd's Acolytes were people of like mind or temperament, with rebellious, reform-minded, or stubborn streaks that often resulted in similar attacks. However, they were also right in their assessments of misconduct, which further infuriated the generals. Boyd and his acolytes suffered professionally thanks to their single-mindedness.

Retirement did not end Boyd's battles. He waged war through hundreds of long briefings on procurement, aircraft design, and eventually strategic doctrine. It was in this last incarnation as a scholar that Boyd and his Acolytes made their most important contributions to the Department of Defense. While Boyd began developing theories of creativity and military strategy, his Acolytes remained in the ranks, determined to fight the good fight in a variety of bureaucratic battles. Boyd's fingerprints can be found on the doctrine of "Fourth Generation Warfare," the Marine Corps' Amphibious Warfare School, business practices like the OODA Loop, and the strategies of Gulf Wars I and II.

This book is worth reading, both as an insight into the defense establishment and as a testament to the relentless pursuit of ideas by a handful of dedicated military officers. It is also amazing and entertaining to see how Boyd managed to escape scrape after scrape with the bureaucracy and managed to triumph. The professional and personal costs to those who fight these types of wars is instructive as well for anyone seeking to "do something instead of being somebody" in the military establishment. The Pentagon is not the only hidebound bureaucracy in our government, it is merely the most visible. Given all the Boyd was able to accomplish within that bureaucracy, he is truly someone worth knowing about. Few men can lay credit to such a wide-ranging influence.

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