Turbulent situations produce opportunities for victory, and agile competitors succeed by consistently identifying and exploiting opportunities more quickly and effectively than rivals. But how do they do so? If agility confers success, what confers agility? This was the question that US Air Force Colonel John Boyd tackled when he analyzed the surprising success of the American-made F-86 Sabre fighter against the MiG 15 in dogfights during the Korean War. Boyd discovered that the Sabre had two structural advantages–a bubble canopy and full hydraulics–that largely explained their success. Looking through the bubble canopy, pilots could develop and maintain a fuller understanding of battle as it unfolded, and the plane’s full hydraulics allowed them to shift quickly from maneuver to maneuver to stay one step ahead of their adversaries.
If Boyd had ended his analysis here, he would have provided a compelling answer to a specific question. Instead Boyd generalized his findings by viewing the dogfights over the Korean peninsula as the distilled essence of a much more general phenomenon–competition to seize opportunities in any rapidly-changing, turbulent situation. Boyd’s breakthrough occurred when he conceptualized air battles as taking place in loops, where the pilots cycled through four steps–observe, orient, decide and act.
The cycle begins when a pilot observes the situation, including the hundreds of readings from the cockpit instruments and outside signals-the glint of sunlight from an upturned wing or an unexpected vibration. The bubble canopy expanded the Sabre pilots’ vista and allowed them to form a more expansive view of the unfolding situation. In the second step, the pilot oriented himself by forming
Entering the Korean War, experts predicted the Communist alliance supporting the North Koreans would dominate the skies. The alliance of Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean pilots flew the MiG 15, a plane considered superior on most dimensions to the F-86 Sabre flown by the United Nations forces. Not only did the Communist forces have better planes, they could deploy more of them, at least in the early stages of the war. They also enjoyed superior position. The Communists massed large formations of MiGs on the Chinese side of the border with Korea, where they waited to attack the UN fighters. When the MiG pilots were losing, they could retreat to their base behind the Chinese border, which UN pilots were forbidden to cross.
Despite their disadvantages, the UN pilots won ten aerial battles for every one they lost during the Korean War. Prevailing military doctrine could not easily account for the Sabres’ unexpected success. Success, according to existing theory, came from either superior resources or better position. The UN forces enjoyed neither. The lopsided victory in dogfights over the Korean peninsula inspired more pride than understanding for decades, until Colonel John Boyd analyzed these battles while trying to design a new fighter plane.
Boyd discovered that early comparisons with the MiGs overlooked two structural attributes of the Sabre that
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.