John Boyd
Nickname(s)Forty Second Boyd
Genghis John
The Mad Major
The Ghetto Colonel
Born(1927-01-23)January 23, 1927
Erie, Pennsylvania, US
DiedMarch 9, 1997(1997-03-09) (aged 70)
West Palm Beach, Florida, US
AllegianceUnited States
Service/branchUnited States Air Force
Years of service1945-1975
Commands heldTask Force Alpha
56th Combat Support Group
Battles/warsWorld War II
Korean War
Vietnam War
AwardsLegion of Merit (4)
Air Medal (3)
Harold Brown Award
Other workMilitary strategist

John Richard Boyd (January 23, 1927 – March 9, 1997) was a United States Air Force fighter pilot and Pentagon consultant during the second half of the 20th century. His theories have been highly influential in military, sports, business, and litigation strategies and planning.

As part of the Fighter Mafia, Boyd inspired the Lightweight Fighter program (LWF), which produced the successful General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, which are still in use by the United States and by several other military powers into the 21st century. Boyd, together with Thomas Christie, created the Energy–Maneuverability theory of aerial combat, which became the world standard for the design of fighter aircraft. He also developed the decision cycle known as the OODA loop, the process by which an entity reacts to an event.

Early life

Boyd was born on January 23, 1927, in Erie, Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the Army Air Forces on October 30, 1944, while he was still a junior in high school. After graduation, he completed his basic training and skill training as an aircraft turret mechanic during the waning months of World War II. From January 1946 to January 1947, Boyd served as a swimming instructor in Japan. He attained the rank of sergeant, and served in the Air Force Reserve until he graduated from college. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1951 with a bachelor's degree in economics[1] and later earned a second bachelor's degree in industrial engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.[2]

Air Force career

Boyd was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force following completion of the ROTC program at the University of Iowa. On March 27, 1953, Boyd arrived in Korea as an F-86 pilot.[3] Boyd flew a short tour (22 missions instead of 100) in F-86 Sabres during the Korean War during which he served as a wingman and never fired his guns or claimed an aerial kill.[4] After his service in Korea, he was invited to attend the Fighter Weapons School (FWS). Boyd attended the school and rose to the top of his class. Upon graduation, he was invited to stay at the FWS as an instructor. He became head of the Academic Section and wrote the tactics manual for the school.[4]

Boyd was brought to the Pentagon by Major General Arthur C. Agan Jr. to do mathematical analysis that would support the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle program in order to pass the Office of the Secretary of Defense's Systems Analysis process.[5]

External video
video icon Booknotes interview with Robert Coram on Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, January 26, 2003, C-SPAN

He was dubbed "Forty Second Boyd" for his standing bet as an instructor pilot that beginning from a position of disadvantage, he could defeat any opposing pilot in air combat maneuvering in less than 40 seconds. According to his biographer, Robert Coram, Boyd was also known at different points of his career as "The Mad Major" for the intensity of his passions, as "Genghis John" for his confrontational style of interpersonal discussion, and as the "Ghetto Colonel" for his spartan lifestyle.[6]

During the Vietnam War, he served as Vice Commander of Task Force Alpha and as Commander of the 56th Combat Support Group at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand from April 1972 to April 1973.

Military theories

In the early 1960s, Boyd, together with Thomas Christie, a civilian mathematician, created the energy–maneuverability theory, or E-M theory, of aerial combat. A legendary maverick by reputation[citation needed], Boyd was said to have stolen the computer time to do the millions of calculations necessary to prove the theory,[7] but a later audit found that all of computer time at the facility has been properly billed to recognized projects and that no irregularity could be prosecuted. E-M theory became the world standard for the design of fighter aircraft. The Air Force's FX project (subsequently the F-15) was then floundering, but Boyd's deployment orders to Vietnam were canceled, and he was brought to the Pentagon to redo the tradeoff studies according to E-M theory. His work helped save the project from being a costly dud even though its final product was larger and heavier than he had desired[citation needed].

However, the cancelation of that tour in Vietnam meant that Boyd would be one of the most important air-to-air combat strategists with no combat kills. He had flown only a few missions in the last months of the Korean War (1950–1953), all of them as a wingman.

With Colonel Everest Riccioni and Pierre Sprey, Boyd formed a small advocacy group within Headquarters USAF that dubbed itself the "Fighter Mafia."[8] Riccioni was an Air Force fighter pilot assigned to a staff position in Research and Development, and Sprey was a civilian statistician working in systems analysis. While assigned to working on the beginnings of the F-15, then called the Blue Bird, Boyd disagreed with the direction the program was going and proposed an alternative "Red Bird". The concept was for a clear-weather air-to-air-only fighter with a top speed of Mach 1.6, rather than the Blue Bird's Mach 2.5+. The top speed would be sacrificed for lower weight (and therefore better maneuverability and lower cost). Both Boyd and Sprey also argued against an active radar and radar-guided missiles, and they proposed the concept to Air Staff. The proposal went unheeded, and there were no changes to the Blue Bird.[9][2]

The Secretary of Defense, attracted by the idea of a low cost fighter, gave funding to Riccioni for a study project on the Lightweight Fighter program (LWF), which became the F-16. Both the Department of Defense and the Air Force went ahead with the program and stipulated a "design to cost" basis no more than $3 million per copy over 300 aircraft. The USAF considered the idea of a "hi-lo" mix force structure and expanded the LWF program. The program soon went against the Fighter Mafia's vision since it was not the stripped-down air-to-air specialist that they had envisioned but a heavier multi-role fighter-bomber with advanced avionics, an active radar, and radar-guided missiles.[9]

Harry Hillaker, an F-16 designer, remarked that he would have designed the plane differently if he had known that it would become a multi mission aircraft.[10]

Boyd is credited for largely developing the strategy for the invasion of Iraq in the Gulf War of 1991. In 1981, Boyd had presented his briefing, Patterns of Conflict, to US Representative Richard "Dick" Cheney.[11] By 1990, Boyd had moved to Florida because of declining health, but Cheney, now Defense Secretary in the George H. W. Bush administration, called Boyd back to work on the plans for Operation Desert Storm.[12][13] Boyd had substantial influence on the ultimate "left hook" design of the plan.[14]

In a letter to the editor of Inside the Pentagon, the former Commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak is quoted as saying, "The Iraqi army collapsed morally and intellectually under the onslaught of American and Coalition forces. John Boyd was an architect of that victory as surely as if he'd commanded a fighter wing or a maneuver division in the desert."[15]

OODA loop

The OODA loop
The OODA loop

Boyd's key concept was that of the decision cycle or OODA loop, the process by which an entity (either an individual or an organization) reacts to an event. According to the idea, the key to victory is the ability to create situations in which one can make appropriate decisions more quickly than one's opponent. The construct, originally a theory of achieving success in air-to-air combat, developed out of Boyd's Energy-Maneuverability theory and his observations on air combat between MiG-15s and North American F-86 Sabres in Korea. Harry Hillaker (chief designer of the F-16) said of the OODA theory, "Time is the dominant parameter. The pilot who goes through the OODA cycle in the shortest time prevails because his opponent is caught responding to situations that have already changed."

John Boyd during the Korean War
John Boyd during the Korean War

Boyd hypothesized that all intelligent organisms and organizations undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with their environment. Boyd broke the cycle down to four interrelated and overlapping processes through which one cycles continuously:

Of course, while that is taking place, the situation may be changing. It is sometimes necessary to cancel a planned action to meet the changes. The decision cycle is thus known as the OODA loop. Boyd emphasized that the decision cycle is the central mechanism enabling adaptation, apart from natural selection, and is therefore critical to survival.

Boyd theorized that large organizations such as corporations, governments, or militaries possessed a hierarchy of OODA loops at tactical, grand-tactical (operational art), and strategic levels. In addition, he stated that most effective organizations have a highly decentralized chain of command that uses objective-driven orders, or directive control, rather than method-driven orders, to harness the mental capacity and creative abilities of individual commanders at each level. In 2003, the power to the edge concept took the form of a DOD publication "Power to the Edge: Command... Control... in the Information Age," by Dr. David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes. Boyd argued that such a structure creates a flexible "organic whole" that is quicker to adapt to rapidly-changing situations. He noted, however, that any such highly decentralized-organization would necessitate a high degree of mutual trust and a common outlook that came from prior shared experiences. The headquarters needs to know that the troops are perfectly capable of forming a good plan for taking a specific objective, and the troops need to know that the headquarters does not direct them to achieve certain objectives without good reason.

In 2007, the strategy writer Robert Greene discussed the loop in the post "OODA and You."[16] He insisted that it was "deeply relevant to any kind of competitive environment: business, politics, sports, even the struggle of organisms to survive" and claimed to have been initially "struck by its brilliance."

The OODA Loop has since been used as the core for a theory of litigation strategy that unifies the use of cognitive science and game theory to shape the actions of witnesses and opposing counsel.[17]

Aerial Attack Study

Boyd also served to revolutionize air-to-air combat in that he was the author of the Aerial Attack Study, which became the official tactics manual for fighter aircraft. Boyd changed how pilots thought; prior to his tactics manual, pilots had thought that air-to-air combat was far too complex to ever be fully understood. With the release of the Aerial Attack Study, pilots realized that the high-stakes death dance of aerial combat was solved.[18] Boyd said that a pilot going into aerial combat must know two things: the position of the enemy and the velocity of the enemy. Given the velocity of an enemy, a pilot can decide what the enemy can do. When a pilot knows what maneuvers the enemy can perform, he can then decide how to counter any of the other pilot's actions. The Aerial Attack Study contained everything that a fighter pilot needed to know.[19]

The overwhelming belief in the Air Force was that air-to-air combat, also called dogfighting, was a thing of the past because of the advent of guided air-to-air missiles. That belief was so prevalent that early versions of the F-4 Phantom were ordered and sent into combat without any integrated cannon.[citation needed] The Aerial Attack Study illustrated that the art of the dogfight was not dead by showing that fighter pilots could out-maneuver missiles. It was revolutionary by being the first instance in history in which tactics were reduced to an objective state.[20] The manual proved that he was the undisputed master in the area of aerial combat. Within a decade, the Aerial Attack Study became the text for air forces around the world.[citation needed]

Foundation of theories

Boyd never wrote a book on military strategy. The central works encompassing his theories on warfare consist of a several-hundred-slide presentation, Discourse on Winning & Losing, and a short essay, "Destruction & Creation" (1976).[21]

In "Destruction and Creation", Boyd attempts to provide a philosophical foundation for his theories on warfare. In it he integrates Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics to provide a context and rationale for the development of the OODA Loop.

Boyd inferred the following from each theory:

From that set of considerations, Boyd concluded that to maintain an accurate or effective grasp of reality one must undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with the environment geared to assessing its constant changes. He was hardly the first to do so but expanded Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by suggesting that natural selection applies not only in biological but also social contexts (such as the survival of nations during war or businesses in free market competition). Integrating both concepts, he stated that the decision cycle was the central mechanism of adaptation (in a social context) and that increasing one's own rate and accuracy of assessment as opposed to one's counterpart's rate and accuracy of assessment provides a substantial advantage in war or other forms of competition. The key to survival and autonomy is the ability to adapt to change, not the perfect adaptation to existing circumstances. Indeed, Boyd noted that radical uncertainty is a necessary precondition of physical and mental vitality: all new opportunities and ideas spring from some mismatch between reality and ideas about it, as examples from the history of science, engineering, and business illustrate.

Elements of warfare

Boyd divided warfare into three distinct elements:

Morale Warfare
the destruction of the enemy's will to win, disruption of alliances (or potential allies) and induction of internal fragmentation. It ideally results in the "dissolution of the moral bonds that permit an organic whole [organization] to exist, " the breaking down the mutual trust and common outlook mentioned in the paragraph above.
Mental Warfare
the distortion of the enemy's perception of reality by disinformation, ambiguous posturing, and/or severing of the communication/information infrastructure.
Physical Warfare
the abilities of physical resources such as weapons, people, and logistical assets.

Military reform

Boyd's briefing Patterns of Conflict provided the theoretical foundation for the "defense reform movement" (DRM) in the 1970s and 1980s. Other prominent members of this movement included Pierre Sprey, Franklin C. Spinney, William Lind, Director for Operational Test and Evaluation Thomas Christie, Representative Newt Gingrich, and Senator Gary Hart. The Military Reform movement fought against what it believed to be were unnecessarily complex and expensive weapons systems, an officer corps focused on the careerist standard, and an over-reliance on attrition warfare. Another reformer, James G. Burton, disputed the army's test of the safety of the Bradley fighting vehicle (about which he later published the book The Pentagon Wars). James Fallows contributed to the debate with an article in The Atlantic Monthly, "Muscle-Bound Superpower," and a book, National Defense. Younger reformers continue to use Boyd's work as a foundation for evolving theories on strategy, management, and leadership.

Boyd gave testimony to Congress about the status of military reform after Operation Desert Storm.[22]

Maneuver warfare and Marines

In January 1980 Boyd gave his briefing Patterns of Conflict at the US Marines AWS (Amphibious Warfare School), which led to the instructor, Michael Wyly, and Boyd changing the curriculum. That was with the blessing of General Trainor, who later asked Wyly to write a new tactics manual for the Marines.[23] John Schmitt, guided by General Alfred M. Gray, Jr., wrote Warfighting; during the writing, he collaborated with Boyd. Wyly, Lind, and a few other junior officers are credited with developing concepts for what would become the Marine model of maneuver warfare.

Wyly, along with Pierre Sprey, Raymond J. "Ray" Leopold, Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, Jim Burton, and Tom Christie, were described by writer Coram as Boyd's Acolytes,[24] a group that, in various ways and forms, promoted and disseminated Boyd's ideas throughout the modern military and the defense establishment.

Later career

At his retirement in 1975, Boyd was awarded the prestigious Harold Brown Award by the US Air Force.[25] After his retirement, Boyd continued to work at the Pentagon as a consultant in the Tactical Air office of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Program Analysis and Evaluation.


Boyd died of cancer in Florida on March 9, 1997, at age 70. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on March 20, 1997.[6] His burial site is Section 60, Gravesite 3066.[26]

Awards and decorations

During his lengthy career, Boyd earned many decorations, including:

Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Width-44 yellow ribbon with central width-4 Old Glory blue-white-scarlet stripe. At distance 6 from the edges are width-6 white-scarlet-white stripes.
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Silver oak leaf cluster
USAF Command Pilot Badge
Legion of Merit
w/ 3 bronze oak leaf clusters
Air Medal
w/ 2 bronze oak leaf clusters
Air Force Commendation Medal Army Commendation Medal Air Force Presidential Unit Citation
Air Force Outstanding Unit Award
w/ Combat "V"
Army Good Conduct Medal American Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal World War II Victory Medal Army of Occupation Medal
w/ 'Japan' clasp
National Defense Service Medal
w/ 1 bronze service star
Korean Service Medal
w/ 2 bronze campaign stars
Vietnam Service Medal
w/ 1 bronze campaign star
Air Force Longevity Service Award
w/ 1 silver oak leaf cluster
Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation Vietnam Gallantry Cross
United Nations Service Medal for Korea Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal Korean War Service Medal



  1. ^ Coram 2002, p. 33.
  2. ^ a b Coram 2002, p. 154.
  3. ^ Coram 2002, p.49
  4. ^ a b Michel 2006, p. 297.
  5. ^ Michel 2006, pp. 77–78.
  6. ^ a b Hillaker, Harry. "Tribute To John R. Boyd." Code One Magazine, July 1997.
  7. ^ Coram, Robert. "Interview (Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art of War)" C-SPAN video. Retrieved November 29, 2012.
  8. ^ Burton 1993[page needed]
  9. ^ a b Michel, Col. Marshall III (December 15, 2006). The Revolt of the Majors: How the Air Force Changed After Vietnam (and Saved the World) (PDF/Text) (Ph.D.). Auburn, Al.: Auburn University.
  10. ^ Hehs, Eric (15 April 1991). "F-16 Designer Harry Hillaker". Code One Magazine.
  11. ^ Coram 2002, p. 355.
  12. ^ Coram 2002, pp. 422–24.
  13. ^ Ford 2010, pp. 23–24.
  14. ^ Wheeler and Korb 2007, p. 87.
  15. ^ Hammond 2001, p. 3.
  16. ^ Greene, Robert. "OODA and You." Power, Seduction and War: The Blog of Robert Greene. Retrieved: September 7, 2011.
  17. ^ Dreier 2012, pp. 74–85.
  18. ^ Coram 2002, p. 114
  19. ^ Coram 2002, p. 115
  20. ^ Coram 2002, p. 116
  21. ^ Boyd, John R. (1976-09-03). "Destruction and Creation" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2021-02-21.
  22. ^ Schwellenbach, Nick. "Air Force Colonel John Boyd's 1991 House Armed Services Committee Testimony." U.S. Project On Government Oversight, March 26, 2011. Retrieved: September 7, 2011.
  23. ^ Coram 2002, p. 382.
  24. ^ Coram 2002, p. 182.
  25. ^ Lawson, Sean. Nonlinear Science and Warfare. p. 73.
  26. ^ Coram, Robert (2004). Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (May 10, 2004). p. 16. ISBN 978-0316796880.


  • Boyd, John Richard (September 3, 1976). "Destruction and Creation" (PDF). US Army Command and General Staff College.
  • Brown, Ian T (2018). A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare (PDF). Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps University Press. ISBN 9780997317497.
  • Burton, James G (1993). The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-081-9.
  • Coram, Robert (2002). Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (biography). New York: Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0-31679-688-0.. Contains "Destruction and Creation".
  • Dreier, AS (2012). Strategy, Planning & Litigating to Win. Boston, Massachusetts: Conatus. ISBN 978-0-615-67695-1. Uses the OODA Loop as a core construct for a litigation strategy system unifying psychology, systems theory, game theory and other concepts from military science.
  • Ford, Daniel (2010), A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, The Ooda Loop, and America's War on Terror, Greenwich, London: Daniel Ford, ISBN 978-1-4515-8981-8.
  • Hammond, Grant T (2001). The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 978-1-56098-941-7. An explanation of Boyd's ideas.
  • Henrotin, Joseph (2005). L'Airpower au 21ème siècle: Enjeux et perspectives de la stratégie aérienne [Airpower in the 21st century: interplay & perspectives of aerial strategy]. Réseau multidisciplinaire d'études stratégiques (in French). Vol. 1. Bruxelles: Bruylant (RMES). ISBN 2-8027-2091-0.
  • Lind, William S. (1985). Maneuver Warfare Handbook. Westview Special Studies in Military Affairs. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. ISBN 0-86531-862-X. Based on John Boyd's theories.
  • Warfighting (PDF). Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication. Washington, D.C.: United States Marine Corps. 1997 [1989].
  • Michel, Col. Marshall III (December 15, 2006). The Revolt of the Majors: How the Air Force Changed After Vietnam (and Saved the World) (PDF/Text) (Ph.D.). Auburn, AL: Auburn University.
  • Osinga, Frans (2007). Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. Abingdon, UK: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-37103-2. Aims to provide a better understanding of Boyd's ideas concerning conflict and military strategy. Contains a full description and explanation of all of his presentations. Takes reader beyond rapid OODA loop idea and demonstrates direct influence on development of Network Centric Warfare and Fourth Generation Warfare. Argues Boyd is first postmodern strategist.
  • Richards, Chet (2004). Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business. Philadelphia: ISBN 1-4134-5376-7..
  • Robinson, Stephen. The Blind Strategist: John Boyd and the American Art of War (2021) excerpt
  • Wheeler, Winslow T; Korb, Lawrence J (2007). Military Reform: A Reference Handbook (Illustrated ed.). Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger Security. ISBN 978-0-275-99349-8.