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U.S. News
Little-known pilot shaped U.S. strategy in Iraq

Friday, March 21, 2003

By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Security Writer

The man who is perhaps most responsible for the U.S. military strategy in Iraq never wore a general's stars, and, during his lifetime, was despised by most who did.

Robert Coram wrote the book on Boyd.

Accolades from the brass, like medals awarded fallen soldiers, have arrived posthumously for John Boyd.

"John Boyd is one of the principal military geniuses of the 20th century, and hardly anyone knows his name," said John Thompson, a former Canadian army officer who is managing director of the MacKenzie Institute, a Toronto-based think tank that studies global conflict.

"John Boyd was a thinker ahead of his time," said retired Gen. Michael Dugan, who was chief of staff of the Air Force during the buildup to the first Persian Gulf war. "Without giving him a lot of credit, the U.S. military is following his ideas."

The ruse the United States may have pulled in launching the war against Iraq with a cruise missile attack on Saddam Hussein and his high command could have come straight from Boyd's keep-'em-guessing playbook, Dugan said. According to Sky News sources, the CIA planted a false rumor with the British television network that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz had defected, hoping Aziz would go on Iraqi television to deny it. He did. The CIA tracked him back to a bunker, and the Navy and the Air Force destroyed it with cruise missiles and bombs.

"The ability to find out where this bunker was and the ability to react in minutes certainly was consistent with John Boyd's thinking," Dugan said.

Lt. Col. Rich Liebert, who teaches tactics at the Army Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., agreed. "The constant references to and the delay of the 'shock and awe' bombing campaign, is the kind of psychological warfare that Boyd recommended to paralyze the enemy," he said.

Nevertheless, a serving Army officer, a military reformer who admires Boyd, thinks that while many generals and admirals now pay lip service to Boyd's ideas, most still do not put them into practice.

"Most of the generals want to inflict shock and awe on an enemy that is already shocked and awed," said the officer. "The Philadelphia police department under Frank Rizzo could have taken Baghdad by now."

<*PL,0,0,10>John Boyd grew up in Erie and joined the Air Force in 1951. He served in Korea, but his reputation as one of the greatest fighter pilots in history was earned at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where he taught air-to-air combat at the Fighter Weapons School.

<*PL,0,0,10>Nicknamed "40 Second Boyd" because he could always maneuver his plane onto the tail of "enemy" pilots within 40 seconds, he never lost a mock dogfight.

<*PL,0,0,10>Boyd attributed his success to thinking faster than his opponents did. Before anybody can do anything, he has to see what's going on, figure out what it means, decide what to do about it, and then do what he decided to do, Boyd noted. He coined the acronym "OODA loop" to describe the process. It stands for: Observation. Orientation. Decision. Action. If you can go through the OODA loop faster than your enemy, you'll live and he'll die.

From the Civil War through Vietnam, U.S. military strategy has been based on what strategists call the "firepower-attrition" model. Basically, you get more and bigger guns than your enemy, then blast away until you win. It works if you can get more and bigger guns, but the results are usually bloody.

Boyd didn't discount firepower. But he said deception and speed were more important. Confuse your enemy about your intentions and then press him so hard that he doesn't have time to think. If you get far enough inside your enemy's OODA loop, he'll get confused and demoralized. And if he gets demoralized enough, he may surrender without fighting.

As brilliant an engineer as he was skilled as a pilot, Boyd played a major role in the design of the F-15 and the F-16, mainstays of the Air Force fighter fleet. His genius won him powerful friends. But his abrasive manner won him more enemies. He was passed over for promotion to general and retired from the Air Force in 1975.

After Boyd left active duty, he developed what came to be famously known within military circles as "The Brief," a six-hour slide show of his ideas. Few of the ideas were truly original.

His concept that the primary target should be the enemy's mind he borrowed from Sun Tzu, a Chinese sage who lived about 2,500 years ago.

His notion that initiative in combat should flow from the bottom up he took from German army experiments in World War I.

His insistence on close pursuit of the enemy to keep him off balance he took from Soviet military doctrine circa 1930.

But Boyd was a great simplifier and synthesizer.

Most generals and admirals considered Boyd and the handful of acolytes he attracted in the Pentagon's civilian bureaucracy as pains in the rear. But two who were impressed by his theories were Vice President Dick Cheney, then a congressman from Wyoming, and Gen. Alfred Gray, commandant of the Marine Corps from 1987 to 1991.

Cheney was secretary of defense during the first Gulf war, and he has credited Boyd's influence as a major reason he changed the battle plan for the liberation of Kuwait from a frontal assault, which could have led to many American casualties, to the "left hook" that proved so successful.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf had presented Cheney with a plan for a head-on offensive. "Not only did Cheney reject it, he used Boyd's colorful language to do so," wrote Boyd's biographer, Robert Coram.

As vice president, Cheney exerts considerable influence on strategy in Iraq as one of President Bush's inner circle of war advisers. But the most significant convert may have been Gray, who first heard Boyd's briefings as a colonel. Later, as commander of the Second Marine Division, and later still as commandant of the Marine Corps, Gray was in a position to implement Boyd's ideas about "maneuver warfare."

Their first combat test came in Grenada in 1983. They passed.

"We've got two companies of Marines running all over the island, and thousands of Army troops doing nothing," an Army general was quoted as saying at the time. "What the hell is going on?"

Pentagon analyst Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, Boyd's closest associate for many years, said, "The Marines [later] used Boyd's tactics in the first Gulf war, and they worked like gangbusters."

As the Marines showed success after success with their maneuver-warfare doctrine, elements of Boyd's thinking began percolating into the Army.

"If the Marine Corps picks it up, the Army's first reaction is to try to discredit it," said retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a leading military strategist. "If it proves to work, they'll copy it and claim it was their idea all along."

The service that has been most resistant to Boyd's ideas, ironically, is the Air Force. When Boyd died in 1997, only two Air Force officers attended his funeral. Dozens of Marines showed up.


Jack Kelly can be reached at jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.

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