I came across this book when Rands recommended it as reading for someone getting situated into a new job. It seemed like casual reading, which I’ve been looking for, so I decided to pick it up.
I’m glad I did.
The book details the life of John Boyd—a fighter pilot who went on to change aviation and America’s approach to war. In addition to being an interesting read, it’s also sparked and connnected some ideas. I’m hoping to explore those further soon.
I had trouble putting this book down, and I absolutely loved it. It’s helped me synthesize some seemingly-unrelated ideas I’ve been having. While I don’t know if others will get the same enjoyment I did, I still think it’s a great read and definitely recommend it.
While Boyd has left tons of things behind as part of his legacy, the book arranges his intellectual work into three main arcs: air-to-air combat, E-M theory, and new approaches to warfare.
Boyd initially set out in his career to be a fighter pilot, and the best one ever. He was obsessed with anything that would give him the upper hand in a dogfight.
In Boyd’s time, there had been essentially no new innovations in air-to-air combat tactics. The basic goal in a dogfight was to get behind your target, then get them in your sights long enough to score a kill. However, combat technique was stagnant. Air-to-air combat was seen as an art form, not a discipline.
Boyd’s obsession led him to constantly think about how new approaches. On offense, you want to stick on your target. On defense, you want to shake them off. Boyd’s intuition and experimentation eventually gave him the feeling and technique he needed to reliably beat other pilots.
How Boyd thought about applying his techniques was simple and straightforward. In any given position, your opponent has a certain set of moves available to them. They’ll pick one to try to counter whatever situation you’re in. Your job is to figure out what they might do, and have a counter to their counter ready.
What Boyd was seeking was a way to quantify what moves are actually available to a pilot based on the situation. This, in turn, would let you more rigorously determine what your opponent’s available counters are at a given point in time.
Boyd eventually had a breakthrough: your airspeed dictates what moves you’re capable of performing. The remainder of the first phase of his work was to document this into a manual of air combat tactics.
In the next phase of Boyd’s work he developed the energy-maneuverability theory, or E-M theory. In a nutshell, this theory describes in mathematical terms how an aircraft’s performance options are dictated by its speed, thrust, drag, and weight.
This partially expands upon his previous work with air-to-air combat. It wasn’t airspeed that determined what you could do—it was your energy. In this way, pilots can factor in other things that affect their E-M, such as aircraft models (each has its own performance capabilities) and altitude (potential energy that can be converted into speed).
More importantly, this gave a framework for designing aircraft. It specified what was important for air-to-air combat, as well as gave a way to calculate how an aircraft would perform in a range of possible scenarios.
Boyd, and this theory, played a large part in the design of the F-15 and F-16 fighters.
The last part of Boyd’s arc is his departure from aviation to war strategy. He synthesizes a number of works, coming up with a new approach to fighting.
A key part of this is his OODA loop: observe, orient, decide, act. This is a decision-making loop that everyone goes through. Boyd’s point is that if you are operating on a faster decision-making cycle than your opponent, you can overwhelm and defeat them.
More crucially, OODA loops strongly relate to time. There are lots of ways to speed up the OODA loop, thus allowing you to make faster and more impactful decisions. Experience and intuition, for example, can drastically cut down on time needed to observe and orient.
You can also dilate your opponent’s OODA loop. In essence, if you can put someone in confusion or disarray, they have to recover from it. During which time you can hit them again, exacerbating the effect.
He came up with many more intellectual theories during this time. Two that came up often were his Destruction and Creation as well as Patterns of Conflict. They seem to be available here.
I think (and the book alludes to) these theories being applicable beyond warfare. I’m planning to dig into some of them and figure out how to apply them.
Aside from his story and work, Boyd’s character is another large part of who he is. He’s an abrasive straight-shooter who believes it’s better to do something rather than to be someone. This often got him into political trouble, but he persevered because he wanted to do work that mattered.
These traits resonate with me—I have a little bit of this as well. It’s reassuring to have a better understanding of this archetype—you’re going to do hard work that people don’t and won’t appreciate, but if you succeed you’ll move things for the better.
I don’t think this is fully recommendable, but I do want to extract elements of this and turn it into something more.