Ed Beakley is the Director and guiding spirit of Project White Horse and is student of the strategic thinking of John Boyd. Ed requested space to respond to criticism directed at the OODA Loop by Col. Jim Storr in The Human Face of War and assumptions made regarding the influence of aerial combat on John Boyd’s strategic thought.
Boyd, Aerial Combat and the OODA Loop
by Ed Beakley
While I’m sure most have read the basic story, it seems it might be worth recalling the details abit. Boyd first characterized OODA, looking to understand and explain the differential in air-air kills between U.S. and North Korean pilots and realized that with the significantly better visibility from the F-86 bubble canopy than that from the MiG 15, the USAF pilot was more likely to see a MiG approaching from the rear quarter tan the other way around. (The Vietnam era MiG 17 and 21 had similar designs – narrow canopies extending straight back into the fuselage. I can attest to this having flown a MiG 21 simulator in an air engagement with a German Col in an F-4 at Ling Tempco Vought some years ago). This ability to see the fight early is critical and coupled with the F-86 significant advantage in roll rate meant rolling and turning into the MiG, then reverse rolling would eventually set up a misalignment in a/c attitude which the F-86 could exploit. Seeing led to the ability to exercise a fast transient.
Boyd’s example of the F-86 and MiG 15 allowed him to address the four pieces and their impact and of having the ability to change state quicker than one’s opponent. The fact that time wise the observation and action are nearly stacked on top of each other, does not mean that “orientation” and decision” did not or do not occur. One must realize that almost all engagements of aerial combat last only seconds. Data from the air war over Vietnam show that in most instances the shot down pilot never saw the shooter. Snoopy jousting with the Red Baron is a colorful idea but dogfights happen mostly only in training. Indeed, with certainly no disrespect meant, “Forty Second Boyd” is a characterization that could only come out of the training world. Forty seconds is multiple life times in actual air-air engagements.
So how then does OODA occur? Two things, one closely relating to martial arts – individuals must be completely immersed in their art. There exists no better representation of this than the fighter pilot. Any fighter pilot who wouldn’t claim he could kick your ass in forty seconds is not worthy of the name, and he trains hard to be able to back that up. And there’s nothing worse than a guy who can back that up. (Frank ‘Whip’ Ault, the Navy Captain, fighter pilot whose report led to TOPGUN was no Ace but his call sign was well earned). This leads to the second, that attitude, training AND being immersed with similar extremely competitive arrogant bastards, means he takes all the elements of orientation with him when he crosses the Yalu or the Red River Valley. His observation of the enemy aircraft brings the only missing piece of the “orientation” into play – physical situational awareness and allows the quickness of decision and action. “Decision” also follows out of that training (think about the “ribbon” drawings in Boyd’s Aerial Attack Study that were and are studied and practiced). He’s been there done that so many times, it’s truly Gary Klein’s recognition primed, but all parts of OODA are still in play.
Indeed, if the mission and performance of the aircraft differ substantially, the OODA process may actually stretch out and be more easily discerned. By way of example would be an A-7 on a Sam suppression “Ironhand” mission attacked from below by a MiG 21. The A-7’s performance is significantly less than that of the MiG. This is not the quick conversion to a kill of Boyd’s example where O-O-D-A are essentially stacked on top of each other time wise, rather survival of the A-7 pilot and completion of his mission to protect the strike group (i.e., survival of a number of planes), turns into a more spread out O-O-D-A process, in which working to gain proper orientation is crucial to the necessary timing of the decision and action to execute a “bug-out.”
This rolling reversal maneuver is extremely violent, involves applying negative G’s and can be disorienting to the executing pilot. Done correctly, it creates the same misalignment of aircraft with the MiG nose high, the A-7 nose low gaining separation and running out to the MiG’s six o’clock. The trick though is that you wanted to run toward the water. Even with separation and 180 degrees out of phase, it’s no longer just guns, the MiG had Atol missiles. Water meant possibility of pick-up if you had to eject. And on top of all that, if the Ironhand a/c bugged out, the strike group was now more susceptible to Surface to Air Missile attacks. Will anyone argue this is not a discernable example of observe, Orient, decide act?
As to Boyd’s stature and competence to analyze the air-air world in regard to a true Ace (5 confirmed kills):
1. World War II was unique in air-air combat in light of the technical capability, the number of aircraft in the air and in a fight at the same time. Many kills came without one pilot seeing the other. Kills were achieved by pulling the trigger at the right time as planes crossed your nose chasing someone else. To be sure there were some great deeds of derring-do and some great pilots and certainly intuitive actions played a significant part. Does Col Storr’s interviews with Aces indicating the falsity of the OODA in air-air combat counter Boyd’s analysis? Hardly. Boyd was not trying to expound a theory on OODA and Air-Air Combat, he used an example he knew well, which is appropriate in many instances, but certainly not all. He simply intended to show that if you could move through the OODA flow at a better tempo than your enemy, you could create a mismatch that could be exploited.
2. Was not being a true Ace important? No matter how good the pilot, luck and mission assignment plays a huge part. Ask any fighter pilot, anywhere this one. Some of the best never even get a look. True story ( I was in the same area earlier and it wasn’t nice) – one of the senior F-4 Commanders who’d been involved with all the early TOPGUN stuff, was so frustrated because he, unlike some of that group, did not have a MiG, hoping a MiG would come up, went “trolling” along the DMZ, the very last day of the war and got shot down and lost. Good pilot? Former commanding officer of the Blue Angels. Boyd’s work as an ACM instructor and developer/writer of the Aerial Attack Study at Nellis tells you all you need to know. One of his best students was Ev Raspberry, one of General Robin Olds’ MiG killers who credited his success over Route Pack Six to John Boyd for what he taught him at Nellis.
One final note, Seydlitz questions anything following from Boyd, if the original thinking is flawed. As noted above, the view of an Ace doesn’t necessarily contradict Boyd’s analysis. This is an extremely situationally dependent context. Would he dismiss my own experience in combat? The first time I read Boyd’s analysis, it made perfect sense. The fact that the flow can be almost unobservable due to speed of process is irrelevant. If Boyd’s OODA is to be discarded, then one must dismiss a whole process and body of work coming out of the Naval Electronic Systems Command in the eighties stemming from Dr. Joel Lawson’s research and writing on command and control. Boyd’s work seems to fall prey to “if it’s not perfect for all situations then it’s all bad”????
As to Storr, I turn the question, how can one now trust his writing, given his pretty obvious shoddy research on Boyd. One must go no further than page 12 and the critique of Boyd’s loop. Poor form no matter what he thinks of Bill Lind and 4GW.