of the most important books on airpower theory, strategy, technology, organization,
and history to come out this year is Grant Hammond’s biography of Col John
Boyd, USAF. Appropriately, it is larger than life—Boyd’s life—for the United
States Air Force of today reflects the impact of many of Boyd’s ideas.
Boyd is not that well known outside either the circle of people with whom
he worked or students of his art of thinking—most notably exemplified by
his concept of the "OODA loop" (observe, orient, decide, and act). Such
relative anonymity is about to change. Hammond’s biographical study, which
also addresses numerous important facets of airpower and the Air Force,
will definitely attract wide attention.
of the great challenges of biography is to understand and portray the true
person and not the superhero. Certainly, some readers might accuse Hammond
of overselling his champion. Yet, had Boyd never lived, what would have
been the historical difference? Counterfactual speculation is ahistorical
and antischolarly, but one is forced to conclude that Boyd truly made a
difference to the Air Force as well as to its sister services. In most
positions, including those in high-level leadership, others likely would
have filled the gap and produced a similar result. In Boyd’s case, however,
his contribution was genius that rarely comes along. That, combined with
his selfless ambition to improve the nation’s war-fighting capability,
allowed Boyd to have the kind of fundamental impact that made him truly
pointed out in this solid biography, Boyd’s fingerprints were everywhere—evidence
of a true Renaissance man whose interests ranged from aerodynamics to economics
to cosmology. Hence, this biographical study covers a wide range of topics
not only interesting to a variety of readers, but also invaluable to the
general story of military aeronautical progress during the past 40 years.
Boyd’s most significant contributions were in the areas of aerial tactics
and combat aircraft. He authored the first and only real tactics manual
of his time, the "Aerial Attack Study," which trained a cadre of air-to-air
experts and had a substantial impact on generations of Air Force pilots.
He invented an "energy maneuverability theory" that utilized modern comparative
analysis to ascertain the optimal aircraft and maneuvers needed to achieve
air superiority. Furthermore, his massive 327-slide briefing "A Discourse
on Winning and Losing" has influenced military and industry audiences far
and wide. In many respects, Boyd might be considered the father of modern
aerial combat, both as fighter-pilot practitioner and theorist. At the
least, he exerted the single most important influence on the design of
two critical combat platforms—the F-15 and F-16 air superiority fighters.
how Boyd went about all this both led to his success and became his tragic
flaw. He was the quintessential intellectual maverick—a man who thrived
on bending the rules and violating the regulations. Whether stealing computer
time, jumping the chain of command, or risking his reputation and career,
he did what he thought was necessary, regardless of who or what got in
the way. Such proclivities made Boyd both famous and infamous. He was loved
or hated, revered as a genius or despised as a loose cannon. In a way,
he lacked common sense but at the same time had uncommon sense—which made
him the ideal subject for Hammond, who has a passion for challenging orthodoxy.
True to form, Hammond uses this biography to upbraid the Air Force for
not granting Boyd the recognition he deserved and to criticize the service’s
systemic detractors who reward company people over critical thinkers. Very
likely, this biography would have pleased Boyd.
his assessment of Boyd’s thinking process, Hammond engages in extensive
psychoanalysis—perhaps to excess. But Boyd was a very deep thinker, and
his cognitive process affected people just as profoundly as did the product
of his mind. Certainly, the OODA loop is just such an example. Hammond’s
study, therefore, is more a biographical case study of how someone thought
than it is a chronology of a person’s life.
reading this gripping biography—so well researched, crafted, and effective
in bringing the reader into Boyd’s life—I can only regret never having
met Boyd and having missed the opportunity to publish his writing in Aerospace
Power Journal. As Hammond points out, however, Boyd most likely would
have rejected that opportunity. He didn’t write much, and what he did write
wasn’t for publication. Boyd preferred briefings, which he constantly revised.
Fortunately for the public, he had a dedicated biographer who understands
the importance of publications. Now the name John Boyd will become much
more widely recognized in Air Force and Department of Defense circles—as
well it should be.
Col Eric Ash, USAF
and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated
in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They
do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department
of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.