Sunday, September 28, 2008

A John Boyd Minefield at Small Wars Journal?

The release this week of The John Boyd Roundtable, Debating Science, Strategy, and War has sparked a spirited debate over at Small Wars Journal. One of their council members Cavguy
opened the following discussion thread, What's the big deal about John Boyd?

Cavguy begins by asking:

Okay,Probably stepping into a minefield here.

I was reading Selil's blog on the new Boyd book coming out and it got me thinking. First, I'll admit ignorance similar to I had on EBO a few months ago. I've heard of OODA (big shrug of shoulders, failed to see how it could change my life in any away) and know he was a deep thinking fighter pilot who concentrated on how to do things faster/better/more efficiently. I also understand he was a magnetic personality, kind of a Tony Robbins for the military.

Far from stepping into a minefield, Cavguy asked the kind of questions that any good officer should ask before following anyone into a proverbial or actual minefield. The ongoing discussion generated comments that John Boyd would have welcomed.

Council member Eden writes:

I have to say this has been one of the most stimulating threads I've followed in a while, and one of the reasons why I keep coming back here when I should be working. The references and explanatory notes have given me a better understanding of Boyd and his work - though I have to admit I have never been a fan.

Adding valueable insight to the discussion is William F. Owen.

He writes in part:

I have no beef with Boyd.

MY beef is with those who advocate him out of a sense of fashion, and mostly have little experience or knowledge with the wider and mostly more useful bodies of military thought.

Clausewitz is not simple either, but I get him. Most people criticising Clausewtiz haven't read his work thoroughly and/or discussed it with others. Boyd left very very little written work to "not get".

He left presentations that are now presented by others, and were constantly evolving.

The editor of the book which sparked this discussion, Mark Safranski writing as Zenpundit had this to add:

Great Thread! Now Boyd in context.....

This has been a marvelous discussion and I thank CavGuy for initiating it after reading Selil's review of the short book I edited. I've been following the thread carefully since Wilf gave me a head's up in an email and I wanted to put in a few words on some points of the debate on Boyd's relevance or importance to military thought.

I've learned a fair amount about John Boyd's thinking in the last few years though I do not have near the same level of expertise as do Boyd's collaborators like Chet Richards, Chuck Spinney or William Lind. Or that of Frans Osinga, whose book Science, Strategy and War is a must read for anyone who really wants to know what Boyd actually argued. I think that last point is one on which Wilf would agree.

There's been a discussion if Boyd merits being called "the greatest" or a "great" strategist or theorist. I think it's fair to say that Boyd himself would never have put forth such a claim of that kind or wasted time worrying about what people thought of him or whether he made a more significant contribution to the study of war than Colin Gray or Carl von Clausewitz. Boyd was more interested in learning, teaching and discussing conflict (moreso than just "war") and were he alive, I'm certain Boyd would be delighted with the Small Wars Council and the endless opportunities here for discussion and reflection.

Was he "great", much less "greatest" ? In his briefs, Boyd was trying to shift the paradigm of American military culture away from linear, analytical-reductionist, mechanistic, deterministic, Newtonian-Taylorist, conceptions that resulted in rote application of attrition-based tactics toward more fluid, alinear, creative -synthesist thinking and holistic consideration of strategy. Give the man his due, in his time these were radical arguments for a Pentagon where the senior brass of the U.S. Army had reacted to the defeat in Vietnam by purging the lessons learned of COIN from the institutional memory of the Defense Department.

To me at least, looking from a historical perspective, that's great. In a world with a population now close to seven billion, where the United States maintains a relatively small but expensively trained professional military, remaining wedded to attrition warfare would seem to be losing strategic bet. "Injun country" doesn't just have more Injuns than we have cowboys, they have more Injuns than we have bullets in the six-shooters our cowboys use. Moving the USMC away from an exclusive focus on attrition - and in the long run large portions of the Armed Services - by itself would lead me to use the word "great" in describing John Boyd's work.

Is Boyd a "strategist" or a "theorist" ? Historically, the 20th century is an anomaly because the Cold War and the advent of nuclear weaponry caused the center of gravity of strategic thinking to shift away from generals and admirals and toward statesmen and social scientists - except for George C. Marshall, our great postwar strategic thinkers were entirely civilian: George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Paul Nitze, Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and so on. The U.S. military reacted to the overriding strategic impetus of potential thermonuclear war by retreating psychologically away from the messy complexity of the world into a surreally compartmentalized military professionalism allegedly devoid of politics, economics and other questions considered routine variables by generals in past ages of warfare.

Boyd's briefs, however pedestrian this very self-selected group may find his military history, argued for that messy complexity properly being at the center of military thought. Moreover, and it's kind of amazing no one has mentioned it, Boyd hammered at how revolutions in science were changing society and were going to ultimately change warfare. I'll buy that there were a few other colonels or flag officers at the time Boyd was briefing who were deep reading military classics in an impressive way but I'm skeptical that the potential impact of complexity theory or Kurt Godel on operational art were frequent topics of discussion before Boyd wandered in with some briefing slides. He's a theorist. About what? Strategy.

Much of Boyd's work is modeling a process of dynamic synthesis, of continual learning and adapting competitively and reaching to fields further and further away from "pure" military concerns in order to generate new insights. That's been criticized in this thread repeatedly as lacking in "originality" ( except at the time, no one else was doing it). That was a feature, not a bug, gentlemen. If the U.S. military then or now was overflowing with creativity, novel problem solvers and was a true "learning organization" - to borrow Dr. Nagl's phrase - then Boyd would fail the "So, what" test.

In my humble opinion, the military, while a good sight better on the "learning" score in 2008 than in 2004, still has a ways to go.

Following this discussion, I was drawn to the theme of a column by Thomas Barnett: To rule high seas, make sea traffic transparent .

Barnett argues that:

One of the main problems in counterterrorism today is that there are so many people and vehicles and so much data and material moving through globalization's myriad networks that it seems virtually impossible to track it all effectively. Nowhere has this problem been more acute than on the high seas.

He writes about how former Adm. Harry Ulrich, then U.S. commander of NATO Naval Forces Europe addressed this problem:

Ulrich began stitching together a network of shore-based sensors ringing the Mediterranean. His naval command then began initial monitoring by tapping into the International Maritime Organization's existing Automated Identification System, transforming NATO's ability to track ship traffic in the Med.

Ulrich told Barnett in an interview in 2007.

"I don't do defense; I do security. When you talk defense, you talk containment and mutually assured destruction. When you talk security, you talk collaboration and networking. This is the future."

This led me to think about the evolving role of our military. Defense has been the mantra since the first family unit organized itself for protection against outside aggressors. As societies evolved so did the role of defense. When nation states find themselves interconnected by trade, culture and mutual collaboration, security becomes vital to ensure that those threads of connectivity remain secure. Much like a police force in a community, defense begins to move beyond guarding the walls to protecting the streets and networks beyond those walls.

To paraphrase both Tom Barnett and Admiral Ulrich the future, is security of those networks and threads of collaboration. Connecting the dots between the discussion at the Small Wars Journal's Discussion blog and Barnett, is that both represent a shift in the thinking of how we define the role of our military in the 21st century. In turn the contributions of those who take the time to share their thoughts on the Small Wars Journal blog adds much to this important subject.

Update: Defense and the National Interest has this post by Robert M. Toguchi an active duty Army colonel who draws a connection between Nassim Taleb's best-selling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable and John Boyd's OODA loop theory.

Implications of the Black Swan

Toguchi writes in part:

In the case of responding to a Black Swan initiative, Boyd recommended several approaches to buy time and to regain the strategic initiative. They include: divert attention, use a multiplicity of options, create strategic depth, use rapidity, gain internal harmony, and magnify the adversary’s friction while streamlining one’s own. Using historical examples, Boyd demonstrated how these methods have great applicability to throw any adversary off of his game and to provide the breathing space for the U.S. to employ strategic options.

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