Guest Post: Beakley on Boyd, Aerial Combat and the OODA Loop

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.”

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