John Boyd

The most impactful book in my life of the past 5 years

I would not have believed it if you had told me that the most impactful book on my life would be a biography of a retired American fighter pilot who died in relative obscurity in 1997 (when I was the grand age of 3).

But after reading this book (twice!) I have come away with so many things that I have learnt: ideas or concepts that I have had floating around the back of my mind – that have been expressed better or crystallised in this book.

This post will be different, as I will be quoting extensively from the book which will mean the resulting blog post will be very long. 

I will be updating this post as I finish organising my thoughts for each section below.

  • Organisations and their thinking ✅
  • Design Process and Complexifiers ✅
  • Dogma and Rules of Thumb ✅
  • Life Philosophy ✅
  • Military-Industrial Complex ✅
  • Patterns of Conflict and War ✅
  • Learning and Execution ✅

Introduction to Boyd

Here is a short summary of John Boyd’s achievements below. You can read more about it on his Wikipedia page.

  1. He graduated as the best fighter pilot in the Fighter Weapons School and was asked to return as an instructor upon graduating. He gained the nickname ‘40 second Boyd’ from his standing invitation that he could defeat any pilot in simulated air combat in under 40 seconds. 
  2. He developed Energy-maneuverability theory – a mathematical tool to conceptualise the design and performance of fighter jets
  3. Warfare and Conflict theory – OODA loops which has gained popularity in business, litigation, law enforcement and military strategy. He also popularised maneuver warfare which laid the successful strategy for the Gulf War.
  4. He led a group of disciples (‘Fighter Mafia’ or ‘Reform Movement’) who worked to reform the slow and expensive military technology development and procurement process.

These insights or achievements are all impressive on their own and only get deeper and more impressive the more you learn about his contributions in each area.

But besides achievements, I found that the biggest thing I took from the book was understanding organisational psychology – the specific behaviours that occur when you organise large amounts of people into a hierarchy (the Army, large corporations) etc.

Organisations and their thinking

  1. Bureaucracies inherently fear anything new or different.

“Even though both the Air Force and industry were enamored of E-M, not everyone yet grasped the full dimensions of what it could accomplish. It was new and different. And anything new and different is feared by a bureaucracy”

2. Incumbents who are performing ‘well enough’ have no incentive for change. Adopting a strategic change such as implementing a new production system isn’t just about changing physical or management processes but also depends on certain cultural assumptions. Only a crisis might force a bureaucracy to consider their dogmas. 

“Richards found that lean production had the same impact on American business that maneuver conflict had on the U.S. military. While the idea became a much-talked-about fad in business, very few companies actually put it into practice. Because lean production depends on a certain cultural foundation, businesses, like the military, are reluctant to make the radical changes demanded by a full commitment to the doctrine. McDonnell Douglas, for instance, was like the U.S. Army. With much fanfare it adopted what it called “lean production.” But just as the Army stopped in the desert because it clung to the idea of synchronization, McDonnell Douglas could not shake the adherence to top-down management and centrally controlled production, and the company wound up selling itself to Boeing.”

“Richards found that a famous observation by Taiichi Ono, the Toyota vice president who created the Toyota system, held true: companies performing reasonably well will not adopt the Toyota system, although they may showcase isolated elements of lean production. Boyd put it more succinctly: “You can’t change big bureaucracies until they have a disaster.”

3. Bureaucracies reinvent the same thing. They respond to hidden incentive programs or are reluctant to stray too far from their current dogmas. Ostensibly they may try to change their outlook but find it hard to let go of current or historical thinking. 

“The Army, on the other hand, made a serious effort to change. No branch of the U.S. military was harmed more by the Vietnam War than was the Army—widespread drug use, pervasive racial troubles, and the “fragging” of officers being obvious examples. Plus, the senior noncommissioned officer corps was virtually wiped out by the war. The Army had to reinvent itself. But no one quite knew how to go about it.

In 1976 the Army made an attempt to change its ancient doctrine of attrition warfare, but the effort showed how very difficult it is for the military to abandon an old doctrine and adopt a new one. The new Army field manual still placed heavy emphasis on centuries-old ideas of firepower and orderly frontal assaults. The Army continued to rely on the idea that whoever has the biggest guns and the most soldiers will win; it favored a toe-to-toe slugfest with heavy casualties in which the winner is the last man standing.

Boyd constantly ridiculed the Army for spending months developing a new doctrine only to come up with essentially the same thing they had when they started.”

4. It’s like corporate tourettes. It’s so hard for organisations to shed old dogmas. Even when they want to change, they involuntarily end up in the same place.

“ Wass de Czege told Boyd the new doctrine was about to be announced and that it stressed four tenets: initiative, agility, depth of operations, and synchronization. Boyd thought the first three were splendid, a sign that the Army was indeed serious about discarding the old heavy fire-power theories in favor of maneuver warfare. But what the hell was synchronization doing in the new Army doctrine? Synchronization is evening up the front line; it means an Army moves at the speed of its slowest unit. Synchronization is a fundamental part of the old doctrine of attrition warfare, and it obviates all the other changes. An army that relies on synchronization is not an army that practices maneuver warfare. “You synchronize watches,” Boyd shouted, “not people.”

5. Philosophy of reform. Go Hard. Go Early. Remain clear about your priorities.

“Hallock sat down with Schlesinger and said in effect, “You must understand that if you want to leave a legacy it is vital for you to make a quick decision about what you want that legacy to be. If you don’t make a quick decision, you will have no legacy. Because after several months you become so caught up in the business of the Pentagon, so enmeshed with the generals, so overwhelmed with the scope and enormity of the job that it will be too late. Pick a few projects and put the full weight of your office behind them. Guide the projects. Nurture them. Know from the very beginning that they will be your legacy. Force them through the bureaucracy.”

6. The higher you go in an organisation, the less likely you are to change it. Fallacy in believing that you will be successful in changing things “once you have the power”. You only get promoted if those above recognise and believe that you wont change the system once you are in power.

“All the things that make the Pentagon so prized by careerists make it loathed and detested by warriors. The self-promotion and sycophancy and backstabbing treachery are all anathema to a warrior. A warrior wants his country to be prepared for war, to win against all enemies, to prevail at all costs. Duty and patriotism and honor are not buzz words to a warrior; they are his creed. A warrior speaks the truth to generals and congressmen. Being promoted is not the top priority of a warrior. Thus, warriors do not fare well in the Pentagon. But then, there are few true warriors in the Air Force.

There are officers of great patriotism, however, who are appalled by what they see in the Pentagon. They say to themselves, “I’ll go along for now. But when I get to be colonel, I’m going to change things.” What they don’t realize is that they will be promoted to colonel only if their superiors think they won’t make changes. Study after study shows that the higher in rank a military officer ascends, the less likely he is to make change. It is sad indeed to look upon a patriot whose ideals have been destroyed by the Pentagon. But even sadder are those who simply stand aside and do or say nothing, allowing those who sold their souls to have their way.”

7. Careerists shift blame.

“The Vietnam War had humiliated America’s armed forces. The greatest superpower on earth used almost every arrow in its quiver, everything from multimillion-dollar airplanes to laser-guided bombs to electronic sensors to special-operations forces, and still was defeated by little men in black pajamas using rifles and bicycles.

Yet, there was little soul-searching among senior generals. They were managers rather than warriors. And when managers lead an army it is their nature to cast blame rather than to accept responsibility. The senior generals who prosecuted the war and the weathervane careerists under them never admitted their failure. They never admitted that their war-fighting strategy—both in the air and on the ground—was flawed. They never admitted they did not know how to fight a guerrilla war. Instead, they looked outside the military for scapegoats: politicians had stabbed them in the back or the media were out to get them. Then they put a fresh coat of paint on the strategy of the past, the strategy that failed in Vietnam, and they pressed on.”

Design Process & Complexifiers

This book has also taught me much about the design process, working as a learning designer, the experiences described in the book about the design of military aircraft were not that much different from designing online learning experiences (as unbelievable as that may sound).

Bad design process, design by committees, many stakeholders, people tends towards complexity

  1. Jack of all trades, master of none. A set of confused or contradictory design requirements will create a crappy product. Too often it is easy to add another feature to a product. It’s intellectually lazy to say “It will do everything”.

“The weight had been trimmed down to about 62,500 pounds, but the fighter was still overweight and underwinged, too complex and far too expensive. And because it was a multirole aircraft, Boyd knew it could do none of its jobs very well. A fighter is designed one way, a low-level nuclear bomber another, and an all-weather interdiction bomber still another. Put all these requirements inside the skin of one airplane and all you get is trouble. Imagine designing a high-performance sports car that must also haul gravel and take a family across country and you get the idea.”

2. The aircraft development process was literally designed by committees with different constituents, who have little shared understanding, each lobbying for some small aspect of the design. 

Growth factor. People think they are asking for 1 extra feature. But the complexity increases by n because each new feature must interact with all the existing features in a feedback loop e.g. one twenty pound maintenance ladder increases the fuel, which increases the fuel tank, which increases the fuselage required, and the armour required, which increases the fuel required etc etc. The total impact of an additional 20 pound ladder becomes 200 pounds in total.

When you are the one who has to combine all of these desired design additions into one coherent design there is a fundamental disconnect. Each of the people who petition you to add one extra thing to the design only think about their additional requirement in isolation (“but it’s just one little ladder”) but you see all of the follow-on impacts of each additional feature.

It can feel like being pecked to death by a thousand ducks.

“Boyd faced opposition at every step. He constantly took things off the airplane to lower the weight. He had no specific figure, but he wanted the F-X to weigh somewhere around thirty-five thousand pounds, maybe less. But while Boyd worked daily to remove things from the F-X, seemingly everyone else in the Air Force—the fire-control people, missile people, electronic-warfare people—wanted to add something. Maintenance people even insisted the aircraft carry a built-in maintenance ladder. They said the aircraft might operate in a forward area where there would be no ladders for mechanics.

“Tell them to get some goddamn orange crates and climb on those,” Boyd growled, trying with little success to explain the term growth factor. A twenty-pound maintenance ladder does not simply add twenty pounds to the aircraft—not if the aircraft is to maintain the same performance. Dozens of subtle additions are caused by the ladder until finally the ladder adds not twenty pounds but perhaps two hundred.

“Boyd wanted the F-X to carry a small radar. But electronics people wanted a radar that could acquire and track a MiG at forty nautical miles, a criterion that meant the aircraft must carry an enormous radar dish. The size of the dish was driving the size of the fuselage, which was driving the size of the F-X. Wright-Pat’s structural engineers also wanted a stronger wing, which meant more weight. The Tactical Air Command was calling for more fuel and a top speed of Mach 3. Because the Air Force had been flying the Navy F-4, which had a tail hook, someone decided the F-X, even though it had extraordinary short field landing performance, needed a tail hook. Boyd insisted the F-X have an internal gun, while Wright-Pat’s electronics gurus wanted only missiles. Boyd’s early design work indicated that while a swing-wing aircraft had certain aerodynamic benefits, the extra weight and drag inherent in the swing-wing design destroyed more performance than was gained. Still the Air Force insisted on the heavy swing-wing design.”

“Boyd was being pecked to death by a thousand ducks.”

3. Humans systematically favour adding things instead of removing things (this has been backed up scientific studies). The corollary to this idea is that there should be a systematic advantage to companies who systematically remove or reduce unneeded feature sets (Apple is one company who has shown elements of this).

“Sprey called the heavy and expensive additions “gold-plating.” He had no patience with those who wanted to add so many heavy items that had nothing to do with shooting down another airplane—everything from nose wheel steering to boarding ladders to tail hook. “If you take off all the nonkill horseshit—everything not necessary to kill another aircraft—you can’t believe how the performance goes up.”

4. When you have specific knowledge, you are able to offer a detailed critique. Bureaucracies are prone to chase whatever the current hot new trend is. 

“How much extra weight does that swing wing add to the airplane? Twenty percent?”

Boyd didn’t wait for an answer. He poked Hillaker in the chest again. “The entire weight of the wing goes through that pivot pin and you hide it all in that big glove. You’ll be getting fatigue and stress cracks in that fucker before it’s got five hundred hours on it. And the amount of drag you’ve created is aerodynamic bullshit. That pivot adds weight and degrades performance, plus you can’t sweep the wing back fast enough in combat to make a difference. The low-speed performance is lousy, the high-speed performance is worse, and the goddamn thing won’t maneuver.”

Hillaker stared at Boyd. Fighter pilots usually talk in generalities when they criticize an airplane; they say it is a “pig” or that it needs five miles of runway to get off the ground, but they don’t know enough to hone in on design specifics. An engineer trying to get hard information out of a fighter pilot is like a man trying to nail Jell-O to a tree. Thus, Hillaker was more than a little shocked to hear the loud-mouth pilot ask about the things that were only beginning to be whispered about in the back rooms of General Dynamics.Hillaker did not know he was looking at the only man in the world who knew more about the capabilities of the F-111 than he did. Boyd had done some preliminary E-M calculations on the F-111 and knew what a terrible mistake the Air Force was making. Boyd knew that, left to its own devices, the bureaucracy always came up with an aircraft such as the F-111. The Air Force looked at technology rather than the mission. And if they did consider the mission, it was always the fashionable mission of the day.

Good Design: Design discipline, testing in real use cases

1. Pierre Sprey exercised an extreme amount of design discipline whilst designing the A-10 Warthog – a close-in air support plane which has become legendary amongst ground troops. 

“Sprey exercised on the A-X perhaps the tightest design discipline that has ever existed on an Air Force project.”

2. A-10 proven design idea right. The best feeling in the world to see the most genuine display of affection. Unprompted criticism < Prompted criticism < Prompted praise < Unprompted praise. Having someone step out and kiss the aircraft that you designed is the highest praise.

“They called it “Black Death.” Iraqi POWs said other aircraft came in, made a quick strike, and were gone. But the A-10 lingered over the battlefield, and when the pilot sighted a target, the deadly thirty-millimeter cannon released destruction such as ground troops had never seen. General Horner said, “I take back all the bad things I have ever said about the A-10. I love them. They’re saving our asses.”

One day during the Gulf War, Sprey saw a TV clip of an A-10 landing. The aircraft had gaping holes in the fuselage. Half of the tail was shot away and sky could be seen through an enormous hole in the wing. The pilot crawled down from the smoking airplane, then turned and kissed it. Sprey laughed. It was one of the greatest moments of his life to see that the airplane whose design he influenced was the only aircraft in the theater that could have brought its pilot home after suffering such damage.”

3. The best design processes include tests in real or near-real situations. Open competitions are surprisingly rare in the military hardware procurement process. 

“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.”

Dogma and Rules of Thumb

  1. What is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever

“Everything prepared by generals and bureaucrats at Wright-Pat, everything from the generals of the Tactical Air Command and the Systems Command and their staffs—it all had to go. The Air Force simply was going about this the wrong way. As Boyd later explained, “You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after.”

2. Assumptions and dogma lead you to ridiculous assertions. In this case the predominant dogma within the air force was that big planes and total fuel determined the range of an aircraft. This was the school of ‘Bigger-Higher-Faster-Farther’. 

“Design studies showed the lightweight fighter would be superior in performance to the F-15, but this had to be kept secret. The Air Force would not allow even a prototype to outperform the F-15. But the biggest secret, the single most innovative and startling aspect of the design, was that the new fighter would have greater range than the F-15.”

“The fuel fraction is derived by considering the weight of the fuel relative to the combat weight of the aircraft. The crucial thing about understanding fuel fraction is that it is the relative fuel and not the absolute fuel that is important in determining how far an airplane flies”

… “As mind-boggling as it sounds, the Air Force looked at the total amount of fuel carried and never considered the fuel fraction. The school of Bigger-Higher-Faster-Farther was so firmly ingrained that it was almost genetic: big airplanes have more range than small airplanes. The MiG-21 was a small aircraft and notoriously short-legged. So was the F-5, another small fighter. If the Blue Suiters had considered birds, rather than airplanes, they might have found a better example. There is a hummingbird that can fly across the Gulf of Mexico, while birds many times its size can fly only a few miles. The hummingbird has a high fuel fraction”

“Boyd told Sprey, “Tiger, they are gonna use what they see as the lack of range to try to kill this airplane. Let ’em. Let that be their main focus. At the right time we will tell them otherwise and they will have nothing left. We will hose them.”

“Boyd was right. Air Force generals and congressional critics and reporters friendly to the Pentagon looked at the amount of fuel the lightweight fighter contained and began describing it as “short-legged,” a plane of such limited range it could defend only the airfield from which it took off, the “home drome.” The focus of criticism against the lightweight fighter became its limited range, as predicted. Boyd once delivered a briefing on the lightweight fighter and afterward a general looked around, smiled, and said, “That’s a short-legged little fucker, isn’t it, Colonel?” “Sir, it looks that way,” Boyd said, ignoring the derisive grins of those in the room.”

“It would be several years before the Air Force realized that the lightweight fighter not only had greater range than the F-15 but had greater range than any other fighter in the Air Force. That knowledge would cause more than a dozen generals to explode in anger. Keeping secret the range of the lightweight fighter was one of Boyd’s greatest cape jobs.”

Life Philosophy

  1. To be someone or to do something

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He 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 his 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 you want 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 into Leopold’s eyes and heart. “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?”

2. Only 2 ways to true freedom. Either become incredibly rich or spend extremely little. Either way, it means that money is no longer a problem. This offers incredible freedom in your actions. 

“Boyd knew he had to be independent and he saw only two ways for a man to do this: he can either achieve great wealth or reduce his needs to zero. Boyd said if a man can reduce his needs to zero, he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him. Boyd stopped buying clothes. The cars that he and Mary drove would, over the next decade, become rambling wrecks. He even refused to buy a case for his reading glasses; instead, he carried them around in an old sock”

3. Critique of Analysis and No Synthesis

“Boyd thought analysis could lead to understanding but not to creativity. Taken to the extreme, he thought analysis was an onanistic activity, gratifying only to the person doing the analyzing. He talked of “paralysis by analysis” and said Washington was a city of ten thousand analysts and no synthesizers. “They know more and more about less and less until eventually they know everything about nothing” is how he put it.”

4. The highest calling is to find a cause bigger than yourself

“Christie listened attentively. He knew nothing of air-to-air maneuvers. This could be the challenge he sought. The odds were insuperable, but that made it all the more interesting. And this Major John Boyd might be on to something. He appeared a wild man. His reputation was like the shock wave in front of an aircraft; it rode ahead of him and disturbed everyone it washed over. It left people rolling in its wake, confused and often angry. Boyd’s methods were the very antithesis of how Christie operated. And yet… there was something about him. Boyd was a man possessed. He had an idea bigger than himself—a cause. And that was what Christie wanted. A cause.”

5. Making mistakes is a sign of progress. No mistakes = No growth.

“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.

But safety was becoming paramount in the Air Force. A commander was more concerned with maintaining a good safety record than with improving the air-to-air skills of fighter pilots. Few commanders wanted to risk their careers over a little rat-racing. Dogfighting was becoming an arcane and almost lost art in the Air Force.”

6. As a manager you must get to the ground truth.The people around especially those dependent on you for their careers, have every incentive to lie or hide the truth from you. In many ways you are the most ignorant person. 

“The chief often followed the Franklin Roosevelt theory of management, bypassing sycophantic generals and seeking out from among relatively junior officers a few men who would tell him the truth.”

The chief knew the culture of the Building and knew that, in many ways, he was the most ignorant man in the Air Force. Dozens of high-ranking officers put their fingers in the wind before they talked to him. Then they told him what they thought he wanted to hear. Boyd, and presumably a very few others, told him what he needed to know. Occasionally a colonel from the chief’s office dropped into Boyd’s office and said, “Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” And the two men sat in a corner of the cafeteria and the colonel said, “The chief wants to know…” And because Boyd gave him straight answers, the chief came to him again and again.”

7. This is an example of Peter Thiel’s question – What thing do you believe that most people would disagree with you about? Contrarian truths are important! Everyone thought that air to air combat was no longer relevant for warfare but John Boyd knew that it was still going to be important.

“No one else in the Air Force was seeking to advance the art of airto-air combat. Everyone in government, up to and including the president, believed the next war would be a nuclear war. Thus Boyd soon knew more about what he was teaching than did any other person in the Air Force.”

Military-Industrial Complex

  1. True purpose of the military as seen by careerists

“Our job is to see that the flow of money to the contractor is not interrupted.”

2. The real purpose of the Pentagon is not to defend America, it is to get more money for your branch of service.

“The depth of these rivalries is difficult for civilians to understand. Even an Air Force officer who has never served in the Pentagon is amazed when he arrives and finds his primary job is to see that his branch of the service gets more money than any other branch of the service. He finds the real threat facing America is not a despotic foreign power or rogue terrorist groups; the real threat is that an officer from the Navy or Army or Marines might cut a deal with Congress that gives his branch of the service more money.”

3. There is a revolving door between the military and the defence contractors. Pentagon buys weapons. Officers get cushy jobs with defense industry companies they awarded contracts. There is an incentive to keep quiet and not hold the defence contractors accountable for things like product quality, design or costs. 

“To better understand why the generals thought this such a crucial issue, one needs a bit of background. Civilians unacquainted with the ways of the Building have only vague ideas about what it is the Pentagon does. They think the real business of the Pentagon has something to do with defending America. But it does not. The real business of the Pentagon is buying weapons. And the military has a pathological aversion to rigorous testing procedures because in almost every instance the performance of the weapon or weapons system is far below what it is advertised to be and, thus, far below the performance used to sell Congress on the idea in the first place. Weapons development is inherently risky and the costs can be difficult to predict. But the big problem is what Spinney calls “front-loading,” the practice of deliberately underestimating the costs in order for Congress to fund the program. The weapons-buying business has few checks and balances; from beginning to end it is an advocacy proceeding.

“Not only do military rewards and promotions go to the officer in charge of a major program but he almost always finds a high-level job in the defense industry upon retirement, often with the company whose project he ushered through the Pentagon. This is the true nature of the Building.”

4. Testing weapons with real life ammunition was considered a radical act! This honestly sounds like a Monty Python or Clarke and Dawes skit (for Australian audiences).

“Burton arrived at the OSD testing office in June 1982. From the time he walked in the door, Pierre Sprey besieged him to conduct tests showing how vulnerable American aircraft and armored vehicles were to Soviet weapons. Sprey was one of the most vocal critics of the Army’s new M1-A1 Abrams Tank, and especially of how the vulnerability testing of tanks and armored vehicles was done largely by computer modeling. And the models were never verified by field tests. Thus, to Sprey, the model-based tests had no validity. Subject our tanks and our infantry carriers to realistic battlefield tests, he said. The lives of American soldiers are at stake.

Burton, with Sprey in the background, came up with the idea for a live-fire test program—that is, actually shoot live Soviet rockets and cannons at U.S. tanks to test their vulnerability. Such a program seems to be common sense, but in fact it was a radical departure from current practice. Boyd predicted that the Army would rise up in opposition.”

5. Complete fraud by the Army.

“The Bradley was a tragedy waiting to happen. It was packed with ammunition, fuel, and people. The thinnest of aluminum armor surrounded it. So Burton sent the Army’s ballistic research laboratory $500,000 to test the Bradley, and he insisted the testing use real Soviet weapons.

The Army agreed. But the first of the “realistic” tests consisted of firing Rumanian-made rockets at the Bradley rather than Soviet-made ones. The Army buried the fact that the Rumanian weapons had warheads far smaller than those used by the Soviets. To further insure that the Bradley appeared impregnable, the Army filled the internal fuel tanks with water rather than with diesel fuel. This guaranteed that even if the underpowered Rumanian warheads penetrated the Bradley’s protective armor, no explosion would result. “What are you going to do about this, Jim?” Boyd asked. “If you let them get away with this, they will try something else.”

Burton still believed his job gave him the authority to force the Army to live up to its word. He tried to use persuasion and logic with Army officials, but to no avail.

“When early tests detected large amounts of toxic gases inside the Bradley, the Army simply stopped measuring the gas. They jammed pigs and sheep inside the Bradley to test the effects of fumes after a direct hit. But the fumes had hardly dissipated before the Army slaughtered the animals without examining them and without allowing them the time to develop lung lesions, as had happened in other tests. The Army surgeon general’s office then reported the animals had suffered no serious aftereffects.”

“Time after time the Army lied about the realism of its testing. But even the spurious tests were so damaging that the Army decided it wanted to postpone completing the live-fire tests for two years. This would insure that the contractor received a big portion of his money and would put the Bradley too far into its production run to discontinue, no matter what the tests revealed.”

“Civilian test personnel began calling Burton at home. Almost every man called to tell Burton the specifics of how he was ordered to influence test results.”

“…discovered that in the latest Bradley tests the Army had replaced internal ammunition boxes with cans of water in order to give false test results about what happened when a shell penetrated the inner compartment. An honest test would have destroyed the Bradley. Army officers were actually promoted for coming up with a way to provide better test results.”

6. Socrates was sentenced to death for polluting the young minds of Athenians. In the same way, if you are seen as a dissenting voice, the larger organisation will ostracise you.

“The Pentagon gave up trying to fire him and instead adopted an isolationist policy: ignore him, give him no duties, segregate him from his colleagues, and maybe he will resign. A wall was installed between his office and that of several young civilians. The purpose of the “Spinney Wall,” as it is called, is to keep Spinney from contaminating their minds. He has not been promoted since 1979. The last time he was assigned meaningful duties was 1989. He has received no awards or bonuses. Much of his time is spent writing insightful articles about the Pentagon, which he calls the “big green spending machine” or “Versailles on the Potomac.”

Patterns of Conflict and War

Whilst these principles may have been derived in a context of military conflict, these principles can be applied in a lot of areas: business, life, interpersonal relationships.

1. OODA loops and operating at a faster tempo. Speed of execution is an advantage in itself. Training brazilian jiu-jitsu also taught me this lesson – a lot of the success in BJJ is derived from chaining different moves together each building on from the previous move e.g. a simple push-pull results in a much stronger move than just a pull.

“In both instances the ability to transition quickly from one maneuver to another was a crucial factor in the victory. Thinking about operating at a quicker tempo—not just moving faster—than the adversary was a new concept in waging war. Generating a rapidly changing environment—that is, engaging in activity that is so quick it is disorienting and appears uncertain or ambiguous to the enemy—inhibits the adversary’s ability to adapt and causes confusion and disorder that, in turn, causes an adversary to overreact or underreact. ”

2. The only way to defeat a larger enemy is through Concentrated strength

“For example, Boyd was fascinated by how a vastly superior Roman Army lost to Hannibal and the Carthaginians at the Battle of Cannae. In that battle, one of the most famous in military history, Hannibal lost around three thousand men while the Romans lost around seventy thousand. Boyd found many such instances in history, and in these victories by numerically inferior forces he found a common thread: none of the victorious commanders threw their forces head-to-head against enemy forces. They usually did not fight what is known as a “war of attrition.” Rather, they used deception, speed, fluidity of action, and strength against weakness. They used tactics that disoriented and confused—tactics that, in Boyd’s words, caused the enemy “to unravel before the fight.”

3. The theoretical basis for Blitzkrieg is moving past strength, probing for weakness, overflowing once a weak point is found. It is interesting to see that the German army had already developed these ideas at the end of WW1. Also interesting to see that the allies countries ignored and didn’t try to learn from the German tactics because they lost the war. 

“Boyd said the strategies and bloodbaths of World War I were the natural consequence of both the von Clausewitzian battle philosophy and the inability of generals to adapt new tactics to nineteenth-century technology: line abreast, mass against mass, and linear defenses against machine guns and quick-firing artillery. The bankrupt nature of that doctrine was demonstrated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when the British suffered sixty thousand casualties.

After more than three years of this meat-grinder form of war, the Germans began engagements with a brief artillery barrage with smoke and gas obscuring their intentions, then sent in special infantry teams. These small groups looked for gaps in the defense and advanced along many paths. They did not hit strong points but instead went around them, pressing on, always going forward and not worrying about their flanks. They were like water going downhill, bypassing obstacles, always moving, probing, and then, when they found an opening, pouring through, pressing deeper and deeper. (These tactics ultimately failed because German leadership did not have faith in them, nor did they have the communication and logistics to make the tactics a decisive form of combat.

Also, because the Germans lost the war, the Allies failed to understand the significance of the new infiltration tactics. Then, between wars, the new German Army expanded the concept enormously.) In World War II German forces used the same tactics, but this time with massive tank forces. Journalists called it the “Blitzkrieg.” The Germans bypassed enemy strong points—such as the Maginot Line—and, with the use of airplanes and radio communications, punched through enemy weaknesses following the path of least resistance, driving deep into the enemy’s rear, cutting lines of communication, disrupting movement, and paralyzing the enemy’s command and control system. They moved so fast the enemy simply could not understand what was happening and became unglued.”

4. Fingertip feel. The intuitive sense of what to do and how to react. This can be seen amongst elite sportsmen who “just know where to be”, gamers who can predict where the enemy is or what the enemy is doing. 

“Fingerspitzengefuhl means a fingertip feel. Again, the fuller meaning applies to a leader’s instinctive and intuitive sense of what is going on or what is needed in a battle or, for that matter, in any conflict”

5. Description of the OODA Loop

“The briefing begins with what was to become Boyd’s most famous—and least understood—legacy: the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act cycle, or O-O-D-A Loop. Today, anyone can hook up to an Internet browser, type “OODA Loop,” and find more than one thousand references. The phrase has become a buzz word in the military and among business consultants who preach a time-based strategy. But few of those who speak so glibly about the OODA Loop have a true understanding of what it means and what it can do. (Boyd preferred “O-O-D-A Loop” but soon gave up and accepted “OODA” because most people wrote it that way.) For a time, Boyd and Spinney were reluctant to fully explain the OODA Loop; it was far too dangerous. If someone truly understands how to create menace and uncertainty and mistrust, then how to exploit and magnify the presence of these disconcerting elements, the Loop can be vicious, a terribly destructive force, virtually unstoppable in causing panic and confusion and—Boyd’s phrase is best—“unraveling the competition.”

“This is true whether the Loop is applied in combat, in competitive business practices, in sports, or in personal relationships. The most amazing aspect of the OODA Loop is that the losing side rarely understands what happened.”

“The OODA Loop is often seen as a simple one-dimensional cycle, where one observes what the enemy is doing, becomes oriented to the enemy action, makes a decision, and then takes an action. This “dumbing down” of a highly complex concept is especially prevalent in the military, where only the explicit part of the Loop is understood. The military believes speed is the most important element of the cycle, that whoever can go through the cycle the fastest will prevail. It is true that speed is crucial, but not the speed of simply cycling through the Loop. By simplifying the cycle in this way, the military can make computer models. But computer models do not take into account the single most important part of the cycle—the orientation phase, especially the implicit part of the orientation phase.”

“Before Boyd came along, others had proposed primitive versions of an OODA Loop. The key thing to understand about Boyd’s version is not the mechanical cycle itself, but rather the need to execute the cycle in such fashion as to get inside the mind and the decision cycle of the adversary. This means the adversary is dealing with outdated or irrelevant information and thus becomes confused and disoriented and can’t function.”

“Understanding the OODA Loop is difficult. First, even though it is called a loop, it is not. A drawing of the Loop shows thirty arrows connecting the various ingredients, which means hundreds of possible “loops” can be derived. The best drawing of the OODA Loop was done by Spinney for Boyd’s briefings. It shows a very large orientation part of the cycle. Becoming oriented to a competitive situation means bringing to bear the cultural traditions, genetic heritage, new information, previous experiences, and analysis / synthesis process of the person doing the orienting—a complex integration that each person does differently. These human differences make the Loop unpredictable. In addition, the orientation phase is a nonlinear feedback system, which, by its very nature, means this is a pathway into the unknown. The unpredictability is crucial to the success of the OODA Loop.”

“Only three arrows are on the main axis, and these are what most see when they look at the Observe > Orient > Decide > Act cycle. But this linear understanding and its common result—an attempt to use the Loop mechanically—is not at all what Boyd had in mind. Even Boyd’s Acolytes do not always agree on what Boyd meant with the OODA Loop. Understanding it can be helped by studying the illustration (see insert). Note that Boyd includes the “Implicit Guidance & Control” from “Orientation” with both “Observations” and “Action.” This is his way of pointing out that when one has developed the proper Fingerspitzengefuhl for a changing situation, the tempo picks up and it seems one is then able to bypass the explicit “Orientation” and “Decision” part of the loop, to “Observe” and “Act” almost simultaneously. The speed must come from a deep intuitive understanding of one’s relationship to the rapidly changing environment.”

“This is what enables a commander seemingly to bypass parts of the loop. It is this adaptability that gives the OODA Loop its awesome power. Understanding the OODA Loop enables a commander to compress time—that is, the time between observing a situation and taking an action. A commander can use this temporal discrepancy (a form of fast transient) to select the least-expected action rather than what is predicted to be the most-effective action. The enemy can also figure out what might be the most effective. To take the least-expected action disorients the enemy. It causes him to pause, to wonder, to question. This means that as the commander compresses his own time, he causes time to be stretched out for his opponent. The enemy falls farther and farther behind in making relevant decisions. It hastens the unraveling process.”

5. There are four qualities of Blitzkrieg – variety, rapidity, harmony, and initiative. 

“The OODA Loop briefing contains 185 slides. 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. To understand the briefing, one must keep these four qualities in mind.”

Blitzkrieg is a good example of OODA loops. High operational tempo and the rapid exploitation of opportunity. The thing that harmonizes the separate and autonomous commanders in a Blitzkrieg is the shared understanding of the intent and what part they individually play. This allows more agency and less micromanagement. They trust each other and trust the commander’s. This is extremely relevant to management and business today.

“Another important slide shows how the Blitzkrieg—or maneuver conflict—is the perfect tactical application of the OODA Loop. Boyd asks: How does a commander harmonize the numerous individual thrusts of a Blitzkrieg attack and maintain the cohesion of his larger effort? The answer is that the Blitzkrieg is far more than the lightning thrusts that most people think of when they hear the term; rather it was all about high operational tempo and the rapid exploitation of opportunity. In a Blitzkrieg situation, the commander is able to maintain a high operational tempo and rapidly exploit opportunity because he makes sure his subordinates know his intent, his Schwerpunkt. They are not micromanaged, that is, they are not told to seize and hold a certain hill; instead they are given “mission orders.” This means that they understand their commander’s overall intent and they know their job is to do whatever is necessary to fulfill that intent. The subordinate and the commander share a common outlook. They trust each other, and this trust is the glue that holds the apparently formless effort together. Trust emphasizes implicit over explicit communications. Trust is the unifying concept. This gives the subordinate great freedom of action. Trust is an example of a moral force that helps bind groups together in what Boyd called an “organic whole.”

6. There is always a Moral Element of Conflict. How a small nimble adversary can defeat a much larger opponent. Relevant given how America has failed to fight insurgency wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.

“But the moral element of conflict is a crucial part of “Patterns.” Boyd realized the Army was doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, guarding a program worth billions of dollars, “protecting the farm” in Boyd’s words, while Burton wanted to protect the lives of American soldiers. The Army would try to steamroll Burton, to use the sheer mass of U.S. Army resources to crush him. It would be the crudest form of attrition warfare. Burton would have only his wits and the techniques of maneuver conflict. Boyd saw this as a chance for Burton to get inside the mind of the Army, to put the OODA Loop into action, to cause confusion and disorientation.

Boyd believed Burton could defeat the U.S. Army.”

7. Three Guiding principles to fighting a larger enemy (in this case the US Army). 1- Never be wrong. 2- Never criticise the vehicle, criticise the testing process. 3. Never leak to the media or be seen as an outsider.

“Boyd gave Burton three guiding principles. The first was the most difficult and most familiar to anyone who had worked with Boyd. “Jim, you can never be wrong. You have to do your homework. If you make a technical statement, you better be right. If you are not, they will hose you. And if they hose you, you’ve had it. Because once you lose credibility and you are no longer a threat, no one will pay attention to what you say. They won’t respect you and they won’t pay attention to you.”

The second thing Boyd told Burton was not to criticize the Bradley itself. “If you do, you are lumped in with all the other Bradley critics. It is the testing process you are concerned with.” While Boyd and Burton might make such a distinction, the Army could not. To them, criticizing the testing process was the same as criticizing the Bradley. But the difference in the two approaches is not at all subtle. By staying focused on the testing methodology, Burton was protecting the lives of American soldiers; he held the mental and moral high ground.

Finally, Boyd counseled Burton not to talk to the media or to Congress, to stay inside the system. If you go outside the system, he said, you will be viewed as just another whistle blower. And whistle blowers get no respect; they get others to help them do something that they can’t do themselves.”

8. Millennium challenge 2002 was a series of war games where a retired US general Paul van Ryper, playing as an adversary to the US, managed to “destroy sixteen warships: one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five of Blue’s six amphibious ships. An equivalent success in a real conflict would have resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 service personnel. Soon after the cruise missile offensive, another significant portion of Blue’s navy was “sunk” by an armada of small Red boats, which carried out both conventional and suicide attacks that capitalized on Blue’s inability to detect them as well as expected.”

Van Ryper used unconventional and low tech tactics like bike messengers, WW2 era light signals to avoid Blue teams’ advanced surveillance network.

“During his research he talked almost daily with Boyd about using strength against weakness, about how an enemy might use a low-technology or even no-technology offense to defeat a high-tech adversary, and how an enemy might win without a major battle.”

Learning and Execution

  1. Building upon layers of muscle memory. You don’t know anything until you can just explain it off the top of your head

“This stuff has got to be implicit,” Boyd said. “If it is explicit, you can’t do it fast enough.” Boyd’s teaching methods were different from those of a university. He abhorred guidelines or lists or rules or deductive thinking; everything was intuitive. “You must have inductive thinking,” he said again and again to the Marines. “There is not just one solution to a problem,” he said. “There are two or three or five ways to solve a problem. Never commit to a single solution.”

Boyd never said, “This is how Marines should fight” or “This is how you should conduct an amphibious landing.” Instead he taught a new way to think about combat. His new way turned conventional military wisdom on its head. The military believes most of all in hardware. But Boyd said, “People should come first. Then ideas. And then hardware.”

2. People should come first, then ideas, then hardware. Completely inverted compared to military doctrine. Where hardware comes first, then ideas then the soldiers are just peons there to operate the hardware.

“People should come first. Then ideas. And then hardware.”

3. Make people think. Don’t tell them what to think.

“Boyd said, “Do not write it as a formula. Write it as a way to teach officers to think, to think in new ways about war. War is ever changing and men are ever fallible. Rigid rules simply won’t work. Teach men to think.” Boyd paused a moment and added a final thought. “And keep the goddamn thing simple so generals can understand it.”