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.
My last post discussed Warfighting, the US Marine Corp manual that characterizes combat as disorderly, uncertain, fluid and plagued by friction that makes “the simple difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible.” This post focuses on resource allocation in turbulence, specifically how an officer with limited troops, ammunition, and attention can commit the resources under his control to achieve the greatest impact.
Allocating scarce resources entails difficult trade-offs even in stable circumstances. But Marines face the added complications of a situation in flux, acute time pressure, incomplete and often conflicting data, an enemy attempting to anticipate and thwart their plans, all with life and death at stake. Warfighting outlines principles that help Marine officers allocate resources in real time, without resorting to the fiction that they can predict how battle will unfold. Below is my synthesis of the Marine Corps’s principles as they relate to resource allocation in turbulence:
Plunge in without overplanning. Officers can plot strategy in the map room, but battles are won or lost in the field. Marine Corps officers plan, of course, but they also recognize the limitations of their plans. Not even the best informed or most experienced officer, can foresee how an engagement will unfold. Rather than spend endless hours honing the perfect plan, Marines develop a good enough plan. Many follow the 70 percent solution— if they have 70 percent of the information, do 70 percent of the analysis, and feel 70 percent
Few institutions face greater turbulence than the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines’ missions include not only combat but also evacuations, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and counter-terrorism in some of the most unsettled spots on earth. The end of the Cold War made the world more turbulent for the Marines, which deployed every five weeks on average during the 1990s, a threefold increase in deployment frequency.
When General Alfred M. Gray became Commandant of the US Marine Corps in 1987, he began a series of far-reaching changes to the Marines. Gray had served in Vietnam, a war in which the Marines’ deaths exceeded the Corps’ combined fatalities in in seventeen of the eighteen