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.
Soldiers, scientists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, improvisational comedians, and athletes must all act–and act decisively–despite facing an impenetrable fog of the future. Over the past decade I have studied action under uncertainty in a variety of domains to glean insights that could prove useful to managers facing turbulent markets. One of the most robust findings was the value of iterative loops when proceeding into an uncertain future. These iterative loops include distinct steps to make sense of an ambiguous situation, make choices, execute, and then revise in light of new information. Variations of the agility loop have emerged as useful tools to guide scientific experimentation, aerial combat, software development, and venture capital investments. My next several posts will discuss how loops can promote agility in turbulent domains, beginning with an unexpected military success that triggered a fundamental rethinking of military doctrine.
As the Korean War began, the situation looked bleak for the US pilots and their allies fighting under the United Nations flag. North Korea, along with the Soviet Union and Peoples Republic of China, could field more jets, and flew superior planes. The American-made F-86, nicknamed “the Sabre,” had entered active service only the preceding year and was unproven in combat. The Sabre’s swept back wings cut a fine profile, but at the time few experts considered it equal to its Soviet-produced counterpart, the Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) 15.