The Fighter Pilot Who
Changed the Art of War.
By Robert Coram. Little, Brown.
485 pp. $27.95
In an age when forgettable (and forgotten) sitcom stars get their own Biography segments on A&E, it’s hard to believe that John Boyd hasn’t been the subject of a miniseries. A bombastic fighter jock turned controversial strategist, Boyd (1927–97) was arguably the most influential military thinker of the past half-century—and maybe, his supporters claim, the greatest since Sun Tzu. Yet Boyd was virtually unknown outside the military during his lifetime. Even in the air force, he was marginalized as the Mad Colonel.
But Boyd hasn’t just faded away. Although he mostly remains persona non grata to the air force, his concepts have been adopted by the Marine Corps and, to a lesser degree, the army. His principles of time-based strategic thinking, codified as OODA (for observe-orient-decide-act), have become a mantra for new-millennium business consultants. Now comes Robert Coram, a journalist and novelist, with an entertaining biography—the second book on Boyd to appear in two years. More are sure to follow.
Coram meticulously traces Boyd’s painful rise from hardscrabble roots to duty flying an F-86 in MiG Alley in Korea. Although Boyd didn’t score any kills there, he later earned a reputation at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base as America’s top fighter pilot. He boasted that he could defeat all comers in mock aerial combat within 40 seconds, and, according to Coram, he was never beaten. As an instructor at Nellis, he produced the nation’s first rigorous study of dogfighting dos and don’ts, which the air force later adopted as its official tactics manual.
After earning an engineering degree in 1962, Boyd applied his new scientific knowledge to his dogfighting insights and achieved a revolutionary breakthrough: the first objective, quantitative tool for analyzing how and why one fighter plane is better than another in combat. Much to the chagrin of his superiors, Boyd’s Energy-Maneuverability Theory accurately forecast that the F-4 and the F-111 would be outflown in Vietnam by lower-tech MiGs.
At the Pentagon, Boyd was the godfather of the so-called Fighter Mafia, lobbying for small, nimble airplanes in place of the bigger, more complex, and more expensive models favored by the air force. He was the father of the F-16—still the world’s premier dogfighting machine—and a leader of the military reform movement of the 1970s and ’80s. In 1991, Boyd advised then-secretary of defense Dick Cheney about tactics for the war against Iraq. According to Coram, Boyd may have been an anonymous architect of the lightning strike that ended Operation Desert Storm.
Coram is particularly good on the bureaucratic battles fought by Boyd’s disciples—no surprise, perhaps, considering that these reformers were Coram’s principal sources. The book is also full of wonderful material about military culture, from the testosterone-laden ambience at Nellis to the protocols of official briefings. Unfortunately, Boyd himself comes off as something of a cartoon figure. Though Coram debunks some of the more outlandish claims, his Boyd is still scaled so much larger than life that it’s hard to take him seriously. Then again, maybe this age of instant celebrity has blinded us to the qualities of a true hero.