Heros of agility: Colonel John R. Boyd

Many people have contributed to our understanding of agility, but few have contributed more than John Boyd. My last post described how U.S. fighter pilots dominated their adversaries during the Korean War despite inferior planes, fewer of them, and less secure bases. The secret of their success remained poorly understood until US Air Force Colonel John Boyd studied the Sabres several years later, while developing a next generation fighter plane.  Boyd, it turns out, was ideal for the job.  By the end he not only cracked the mystery of the Sabres’ success and designed the new plane, but also re-conceptualized combat in a way that highlighted how agility can trump superior resources or position.

John Boyd, then a Lieutenant, landed in Suwon South Korea in March 1953 hoping he would not arrive late for his second war. Nine years earlier, Boyd–then a high school senior–had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces (the precursor to the Air Force), hoping to serve as a pilot in the Second World War. Upon completing high school, Boyd enlisted for active duty in April 1945, and was still in training when the war ended. Boyd served out the remainder of his military obligation as a swimming instructor.

After graduating from college, Boyd joined the Air Force, and was assigned as a wing-man in a squadron deployed in the Korean War. Aerial combat was intense throughout the conflict, particularly near the base of the Yalu River separating North Korea from China, a stretch of land that airmen dubbed “MiG Alley” because of the frequent patrols by Russian-made MiG-15s. The Korean War ended four months after Boyd arrived, preventing him from logging enough missions for a promotion to flight leader. Boyd did stay in Korea long enough to learn about the Sabre’s stunning upset of the heavily favored MiGs.

After the war, Boyd returned to Nellis Air Force Base where he spent most of the next six years at the Fighter Weapons School, first as a student, and later as an instructor. The most-selective fighter pilot training program in the Air Force, the school was the role model for its Navy counterpart, popularized in the film Top Gun. As an instructor, he earned the nickname “40 second Boyd,” by issuing an open challenge to any pilots to engage in mock combat. Any pilot who took the bet would meet Boyd over the “Green Spot” (a patch of greenery in the Nevada desert that hosted a brothel with nude sun-bathers), and lock onto the tail of Boyd’s plane. Boyd would reverse their positions in less than forty seconds, or pay the challenger forty dollars. Although many of the world’s best fighter pilots took the bait, Boyd never lost his bet.

During his tenure at Nellis, Boyd wrote the book on aerial combat, a 150-page manual entitled “Aerial Attack Study,” that systematically codified maneuvers in aerial combat, and became the basis for subsequent air-to-air combat doctrine within the Air Force. After a two year break to study for an engineering degree at Georgia Institute of Technology, Boyd was stationed at Eglin Air Force base in Florida, where he spent much of his time distilling his earlier insights on tactics into the Energy-Maneuverability theory, a mathematical equation that calculated an aircraft’s ability to change direction, altitude or speed under specified conditions, and allowed systematic comparison between different aircraft for the first time.

Boyd’s job description did not include revolutionizing aircraft analysis, so he “borrowed” computer time without official authorization. His superior officers discovered the power of his theory and the unsanctioned use of the computer at roughly the same time, leading them to submit the paper work for a medal recognizing his breakthrough, and a court martial for misappropriation of government resources at the same time. In the end, the court martial proceedings were dropped, and Boyd received several official awards for his contribution to aeronautical engineering.

Despite his many contributions to the Air Force, Boyd never earned a General’s stars. His intensity in flying spilled over into other domains of his life, including arguments where he underscored debating points by poking his finger–or the lit end of a cigar–into his interlocutor’s tie.  Although he hit a glass ceiling, Boyd remained a force to be reckoned with, and throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, led the so-called “Fighter Mafia,” a group of military renegades who bucked the Pentagon bureaucracy to push through two fighter planes-the F15 and F16. The jets evoked fierce opposition from Air Force bureaucrats who favored bombers over fighters,  but in the end both fighters reached production. Boyd helped design both planes, and in the process of thinking through how to build the ultimate fighter, he revisited the surprising success of the Sabres in the Korean War and re-conceptualized combat in terms of battle–the topic of my next post on military agility.

For more on Boyd, see Robert Coram’s entertaining biography, Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war. Grant Hammond’s analysis The mind of war: John Boyd and American security articulates Boyd’s key insights.

Leading in turbulent times

This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Don Sull is professor of management practice in strategic and international management, and faculty director of executive education at London Business School. This blog is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs, managers, and outside directors to lead more effectively in a turbulent world.

Over the past decade, Prof Sull has studied volatile industries including telecommunications, airlines, fast fashion, and information technology, as well as turbulent countries including Brazil and China, and found specific behaviours that consistently differentiate more, and less, successful firms. His conclusion is that actions, not an individual’s traits, increase the odds of success in turbulent markets, and these actions can be learned.