Rick's Reviews > Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

Boyd by Robert Coram
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Jul 16, 2012

it was amazing

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War is the engaging story of a military figure you probably never heard of but to whom we all owe a great deal. Coram’s theme is that Boyd was “the greatest military theoretician since Sun Tzu” (p. 445 of 484) and literally changed the way we fight our wars. Since he also was an in-your-face, unrepentant individualist who refused to bend, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone in the military from his generation who gives him credit…but they all use his ideas.

After WWII the Air Force was controlled by the “bomber generals” and that led to a dumbing-down of the fighter capability. In this early period, Boyd saw and experienced the change from a high success rate (downing 8 of their aircraft to 1 of ours) in Korea to a terrible record (almost parity) in Vietnam. He developed new theories on fighter tactics at the Air Force Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB and proved that the aircraft of the day (F-4, F-105, etc) could compete – this was his 40-second Boyd period where he challenged all comers to evade him in simulated combat over the deserts of Nevada...he never lost.

Boyd’s next focus was in changing the hardware. He was essentially the design inspiration behind the 4th generation jet fighter fleet (F-15, F-16, A-10, and F-18) and the follow on 5th generation (F-22 and F-35). His theories on energy-maneuverability (EM-theory) proved that being agile was more important than simply being fast. His OODA loop formed the basis for a novel decision cycle. He also proved that the aircraft had to be maneuverable, not the missile weapons.

Boyd’s work did not shine a spotlight solely on the air portion of a theater as his concepts also changed the way we fight land battles, as would be proved in the Gulf War. Working with the Secretary of Defense in planning the first invasion of Iraq, his theories were behind the great left hook that made the Gulf War a 100 hour affair.

Every once in a while a truly unique person comes along who rewrites the book on a field…Boyd was just such a case. He also had the ability to teach his theories and concepts to others…much like the physics genius Richard Feynman. In Boyd’s case though, he taught (briefed) extensively throughout the country but rarely wrote scholarly papers codifying his work. Because of this he has been marginalized and largely forgotten.

Coram has done a fine job digging out the details – first of Boyd and second of his followers, the Fighter Mafia and the Acolytes. Biographers have a weakness in that they often worship their subjects, and Coram is no exception. He sometimes makes his point in a one-sided fashion, and often makes out all the generals and leaders in the Pentagon to be buffoons. A bit more balance in this area might have been helpful.

This biography remains an absorbing read, especially for those interested in the military, in general, and the Air Force, in particular. It also delves into the politics of the Pentagon and its interaction with Congress. This is good stuff.
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