Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Roundtable on: Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Therory of John Boyd

This post is written as part of an ongoing roundtable on Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy, and War. over at and cross posted on zenpundit.

Col/Dr Frans P.B. Osinga of the Neatherlands Air Force wrote this work as his doctoral thesis. It is a supurb, clearly written journey into the mind of a great thinker. For myself, someone who is seeped in the essence of history that for the most part took place before John Boyd's time, I found the book a stimulating read.

John Boyd, known as 40-second Boyd, for always being able to defeat an opponet in air combat within that time constraint, was a maverick, who left no great written treatsie to explain his theories. What was left behind after his death were lecture notes and vu-graphs. Dr. Osinga carefully ginned those notes into a readable text and gave even the most un-military minded, a window on how not only John Boyd thought, but how humans and on a broader scale, all organisms adopt and survive.

John Boyd's legacy has been his OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Action), some would conclude that his contribution is revolutionary, or that it was based on selective cherry picking to support his thesis. The contributions of John Boyd are important because they draw from a vast store house of specialties, such as history, science, and behavior for support. He mulled these concepts over in his great mind and shared them in marathon lectures lasting up to 18 hrs.

The benefit of this work is to draw attention to Boyd's theory and stimulate thinking, something that in a modern technology centered universe, is often left to pre-concieved notions.

Boyd defined the Art of Success as:

Appear to be an unsolvable cryptogram while operating in a directed way to penetrate adversary vulnerabilities and weaknesses in order to isolate him from his allies, pull him apart, and collapse his will to resist;

Shape or influence events so that we not only magnify our spirit andstrength but also influence potential adversaries as well as the uncommittedso that they are drawn toward our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success.

Boyd concluded with:

The first sentence is an advice to remain, in the words of Sun Tzu, unfathomable to the enemy, yet operate coherently in several levels of war and across different dimensions.

Multi-sylable words for a simple concept, survival.

Today, strategists debate what generation of warfare we have now evolved too. I am no expert in those fields and would be treading on frozen celophane to try and cross that river. This book helps us understand the changing environment of both war and peace. In a historical prospective, we can reach back into earliest time, or to the remote jungles of New Guniea fifty years ago, when two men would meet in the forest; they would first, observe, then, orient to get best posture for survival, make a decision, kin or enemy, take action, fight or break bread. In the simplest terms, these decisions have played out in ever complicated scenarios ever since.

Dr. Osinga's book may turn out to be more read than any biography on John Boyd because he addresses the meat of what Boyd was trying to say in hundreds of lectures. He does this by providing the reader with Boyds ideas to ponder:

Categories of conflict:

Three kinds of conflict

Based on his ‘panorama’ of military history, Boyd argues that one can imagine three kinds of human conflict:
Attrition Warfare – as practiced by the Emperor Napoleon, by all sides during the 19th Century and during World War I, by the Allies duringWorld War II, and by present-day nuclear planners.

Maneuver Conflict – as practiced by the Mongols, General Bonaparte, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, Hitler’s Generals (in particular Manstein, Guderian, Balck, Rommel) and the Americans under Generals Patton and MacArthur.
Moral Conflict – as practiced by the Mongols, most Guerrilla Leaders, avery few Counter-Guerrillas (such as Magsaysay) and certain others from Sun Tzu to the present.

In a historical sense looking back to draw from the examples of strategies that worked or failed are most helpful when one realizes that a saying frequently used by an old soldier I once knew, that the Army suffers from CRS, IE, can't remember scat, (my word to keep it cleaner) and it is still the norm today.

By using the above example of Attrition conflict and then compare it with Manuever conflict, one gets an image of how innovation can overcome conventional wisdom to win.

Spartans vs Thebans led by Epaminondas,who adopted the following strategy at Leuctra. The strong left wing advanced while the weak right wing retreated.
Or: Patton's end run manuever around the Germans and across France, vs Hodge's attrition warfare in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.

And Moral, verus Attrition and Manuver conflict;

Going to Vietnam ready to fight WW III, and finding ourselves fighting a stealthy foe, reminicent of our own colonial indian wars.

Dr. Osinga concludes that John Boyd's work serves a greater purpose that his OODA loop idea.

Boyd’s ideas involve much more than exclusively the idea of ‘rapid OODA looping’ or a theory for maneuver warfare. Contradicting those who categorically dismiss the validity of the OODA concept, the idea was found to be deep and rich in ideas,explanations, hypotheses, propositions, concepts and suggestions concerning conflict in general. These concepts are firmly based on a thorough study of military history and informed by insights on learning and the behavior of social systems derived from various disciplines.

What this book serves to tell us is that in order to survive, one has to be ready to adapt. This is illustrated in our current strategy in the so called long war. The understanding of Boyd's strategy also relate in every aspect of life from the mundane to profound.

I would highly recommend this book to everyone.
"Science, Strategy, and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd"

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