What does aerial combat, Marine Corps maneuver warfare tactics, Desert Storm battle plans, and the F-16 Fighting Falcon have in common? They all were either developed by, or trace their origins to, Colonel John Boyd, a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot.
He flew an F-86 Sabre in Korea, was an instructor at Fighter Weapons School, and was tasked by the Secretary of Defense to assist with the planning of Operation Desert Storm. His Energy-Maneuverability Theory resurrected a foundering F-15 program and greatly influenced the design of the F-16.
Colonel Boyd was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1927, and in 1944 enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a junior in high school. He served in Occupied Japan as a swimming instructor. However, his story takes flight after he graduated from the University of Iowa and was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Air Force in 1951:
10 Things you didn’t know about Col. John Boyd
- F-86 Sabre Pilot in Korea
In 1953, Boyd arrived in Korea as an F-86 Sabre pilot. He had a short tour, participating in only 22 missions instead of 100 missions necessary to complete a tour then. Boyd was never credited with an aerial kill, as he served as a wingman and never firing his gun.
- Weapons School Instructor
Shortly after returning from Korea, he was assigned to the USAF Weapons School as a student, where he graduated at the top of his class. He would be invited to stay on as an instructor and became head of the Academic Section, writing the school’s tactics manual.
- OODA Loop
During his time at the Weapons School, he developed his O.O.D.A. (observe, orient, decide, and act) concept, a development of the inherent decision-making process that every individual performs. Boyd instructed Weapons School pilots that the one who can cycle through their OODA process loop quicker than their opponent during combat would gain the tactical advantage. The OODA Loop enabled pilots to adapt quickly to rapidly changing situations.
- Aerial Attack Study
He also formulated the Aerial Attack Study, which would revolutionize aerial tactics. Part of this theory is that a pilot going into aerial combat should know what his enemy’s position and velocity are. With this information, a pilot can counter what the enemy was capable of doing and gain an advantage by quickly reacting. This study became everything the fighter pilot needed to know to be victorious and is now used for training around the world.
- Energy–maneuverability theory
Boyd, along with civilian mathematician Thomas Christie, developed the E-M Theory. The E-M Theory is a model of an aircraft’s performance. The theory stated, “an aircraft’s energy state and energy rate capabilities are directly related to operational maneuverability and efficiency in terms of energy-maneuverability theory.” Energy-Maneuverability – Mar 1966 Maj. John R. Boyd, USAF. E-M theory became the world standard for the design of fighter aircraft.
- “Forty Second Boyd”
Boyd was an excellent fighter pilot. He was so good that he had a $40 standing offer that he would pay to any pilot that could defeat him in aerial combat in less than 40 seconds. Boyd could start at a disadvantaged position, and in less than 40 seconds, defeat any opposing pilot. He never had to pay anyone the $40.
- Orders to Vietnam Cancelled
Like other Air Force pilots in the mid-1960s, Colonel Boyd would be ordered to Vietnam. However, his orders would be canceled before he deployed and he would be directed to go to Washington D.C. In DC, he was tasked with applying his Energy-maneuverability Theory to a floundering Air Force program, the FX Program. His work saved what would become the F-15 Eagle. Missing being deployed to Vietnam and with the lack of an enemy kill in Korea, Boyd became the most important air-to-air combat strategist with no combat kills.
- “Fighter Mafia”
With Colonel Everest Riccioni and Pierre Sprey, Boyd formed a small advocacy group within Headquarters USAF that dubbed itself the “Fighter Mafia”. Using his E-M Theory, Boyd spurred the USAF to explore a lightweight fighter (LFW) program. This led to the development of the YF-16, which would become the USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the YF-17, which would become the Navy’s F-18 Hornet.
- The Marine’s Maneuver Warfare
Boyd‘s study of historical military strategy, like Napoleon’s use of maneuver to defeat his enemy, led to his theory on Maneuver Warfare. This military strategy advocates attempting to defeat the enemy by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption. Applying this theory, he collaborated with the Marine Corps to create a new tactics manual, which became the Marine model of maneuver warfare.
- Desert Storm Planning
In 1981 after his retirement from the military, Boyd presented a briefing called “Patterns of Conflict” to US Congressman Dick Cheney. Nearly a decade later in 1990, John would be called back by Cheney, who was then Secretary of Defense, to help with the invasion planning of Iraq for Operation Desert Storm. Boyd was very influential for the ultimate left hook design of the plan that led coalition forces to maneuver around and behind the Iraqis.
Despite how important he was to the reform of military tactics for the U.S. and countries around the world, Colonel John Boyd is often referred to as the greatest military strategist in history that no one knows. His work on the development of a lightweight fighter for the U.S. Air Force based on his Energy–maneuverability theory delivered one of the most important fighter aircraft in history, the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
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