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Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2004

Air & Space Power Journal

Review Essay


Dr. David R. Mets*


Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson

*Everything in this article is my own responsibility; in no way does it represent the attitudes of Air University, the US Air Force, or the Department of Defense. Regarding the verses in the epigraph, Charles Tennyson, the poet’s grandson, said that they depict a lady who lives in an imaginary web as she peers in her mirror, knowing that if she leaves her chambers for the real world she will come under a curse that will be her end—the self-absorbed person cannot survive engagement with the real world. Alfred Tennyson (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 132.

PITY THIS POOR reviewer! Idiots rush in where apostles fear to tread. In response to another reviewer who took issue with his view of Col John Boyd and the latter’s acolytes, Robert Coram writes, “As the author of seven novels and three nonfiction books, I know better than most the truth of the axiom, ‘A book is like a mirror. If an idiot looks in, you cannot expect an apostle to look out.’ “1 Here I reject the company of the apostles and rush in to review Coram’s book Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.2

The 10 books Coram offers as his credentials for expert status on airpower and war include three novels on drug smuggling; four police novels set in Atlanta; and nonfiction works on Antigua, on an Irish woman of Saigon, and on fishing. Indeed, he has a fine writing style, honed during his long experience as a teacher of writing at Emory University and demonstrated in a sensitive essay about prostate cancer on his own Web site.3 He describes his original motivator:

[Ralph] McGill’s writing and Daddy’s reaction showed me the power of words and caused a dream to stir in my breast. I was still in elementary school when I resolved that one day I would go up to Atlanta and write for the Atlanta Constitution. This was a lofty dream for a country boy. But for me and, I suppose, for hundreds of other young people in small towns around Georgia, Atlanta was a mythical place where anything could happen, a place where dreams can come true. From as far back as I can remember, Atlanta and the Atlanta newspapers were one and the same to me.4

I know that I am virtually alone looking into the mirror and coming away with a negative view. Coram proclaims on his Web site that he is practically buried in glowing reviews of the Boyd book. He is right. Seldom is heard a discouraging word in the dozens of reviews there. Is it possible that I am alone in my idiocy and that dozens of journalists are right? Or could it be that Coram’s prominence in the world of journalism results in reviews that constitute taking care of one’s own? Or could it be that the periodical reviewers value writing style above substance—perhaps very few of them have any expertise in airpower and war anyhow?5 Or could it be only the power of the publisher’s marketing machine? Woe is me; when I gaze into the mirror that is Coram’s book, I see many impressive things. But I don’t see anything at all in the way of experience, education, or research and writing that would yield expertise on either war or airpower. Perhaps it is only another “mirror crack’d” wherein the imagination runs wild.

The book’s subtitle, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, is neither the last nor the most extreme of the wild superlatives, undocumented assertions, or purple prose one finds between its covers. One of the grossest examples occurs on page 74, where Coram declares (without a footnote) that “inside flight ops [at Nellis AFB, Nevada], as the [fighter] pilot filled out the paperwork, bomber pilots or transport pilots looked over and saw the [Fighter Weapons School] patch and the black and gold checkerboard scarf and their manhood shriveled.” I spent more time on flying status than did John Boyd—briefly as a “light bomber pilot” and later as a transport pilot—but I never noticed that phenomenon. In fact, since the last time this light bomber pilot filed out of Nellis flight ops, he has fathered three more children. Coram’s naïve acceptance of foolish aircrew banter alone is enough to disqualify his book as a serious study. But let us note one more example: “This all boils down to one thing: Marines are utterly contemptuous of the Air Force.”6 That statement is insulting to both the Marine Corps and the Air Force. Upon his recent retirement, an Air Force colonel—one of my most distinguished colleagues at Air University—was hired to teach at Marine Corps University at Quantico, Virginia. And this is only one of the many instances of the mutual respect that exists between the two services.7

Coram and Boyd’s other biographer, Dr. Grant Hammond, the object of the former’s angry defense cited above, share a number of traits.8 Both of their books are hagiographies although Hammond’s is less extreme, and its author, who actually knew Boyd, has more background in the airpower world as a professor at the Air War College. Both seem to indulge in the common literary device of increasing the sales appeal of their stories to editors and customers by setting up a David (Boyd and his acolytes) to slay the Goliath (the Air Force establishment and numerous unnamed careerist generals). Nobody ever got rich by saying the US government did a pretty good job. Hammond, for example, has been known to appear first in the postwar markets with such pieces as “Myths of the Gulf War” that focus on what Goliath did wrong.9 I therefore use the same technique to discuss the “myths about John Boyd, his acolytes, and the military ‘reform’ movement” of a quarter century ago.10 (Don’t get me wrong. Anyone who can survive many years of flying in the F-86 and F-100, including ejections, cannot be all bad. What I see in the mirror crack’d has less to do with Boyd himself than with his biographers and acolytes.)

Myth One:

Boyd was born into a deprived situation but still managed to beat the odds.

Biographers and acolytes make much of this assertion. However, I believe that, to a man, they themselves are the products of privileged postwar environments and that they make their judgments without considering the context of young John Boyd’s (born in 1927) own youth. Coram (born about 1938), Hammond (younger than that), and most of the acolytes are too young to remember the Great Depression years or even the wartime era during which John Boyd grew up. Furthermore, as Walter Kross points out, the combat experience of advocates of the “reform” movement (many of them Boyd acolytes) was “virtually nil.”11

Coram titles the chapter on Boyd’s youth “Haunted Beginnings.” To be sure, his family did have its hardships—even tragedies—and that may look like deprivation to modern-day professors and journalists in the context of the affluent twenty-first century. But it was not at all rare in the context of the Depression and World War II. In fact, millions of young boys would have looked upon a family as wealthy if it owned a single-family home as well as an automobile and could afford to allow a son to spend his high school years lettering in two sports instead of working more to help out—as was the case in the Boyd household. But perhaps the biographers and acolytes had to overstate the case to make the apparent odds in favor of Goliath even greater than they were.

Myth Two:

Biographers and many acolytes declare that the Air Force establishment was prejudiced against Boyd, stacking the deck against him and denying him promotion to general officer.

John Boyd received his commission in 1952 at the time he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Iowa. He eventually became a full colonel. Senior journalists, acolytes, and professors may look upon that fact as a failure or disgrace; if so, they peer out at the world from an ivory tower. One need only use the class of 1952 at West Point—certainly a group whose starting prospects were below neither the Army nor the Air Force average—as a baseline against which to measure Boyd’s achievement. Of the 527 graduates, 339 (64%) did not make it as far as full colonel. Many of them had graduate degrees and intermediate- and senior-level professional military education—Boyd never did. Upon their commissioning as second lieutenants, all of them knew calculus and thermodynamics; Boyd did not get into that world until he was a senior captain, close to a decade later. Many of them had more combat and operational-unit command experience than did Boyd.12 Yet, John Boyd went further than almost two-thirds of the US Military Academy class of 1952. In fact, only 34 (less than 7 percent) of the 527 made general officer. In other words, even without the starting-line benefits of an engineering degree and an academy education, Boyd did as well as or better than 93 percent of the West Pointers.13

It appears to me that both Coram and Hammond have a serious flaw in their view of the military world. Maybe, as Coram hints, it indeed would be more accurate to suggest that without Goliath’s tolerant hand reaching out to Boyd, he would not have made colonel. But wait, wait—Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest strategist in American history, also did not go to West Point and certainly never got an engineering degree. If a rail-splitter from Illinois can reach such lofty heights, why can’t a business major from Iowa change the art of war?

Myth Three:

Boyd asserts (as do his acolytes) that he overcame the Neanderthal Air Force establishment to bring about large numbers of low-cost, lightweight, very agile fighters that repaired the service’s defects during the Vietnam era. He thus established the long day of US air dominance with the gun-armed F-16.

This myth includes a number of corollaries:

• John Boyd was instrumental in bringing about the F-15, but Goliath corrupted the aircraft by adding extras that made it too heavy.

• Strategic Air Command (SAC) and its commander, Gen Curtis LeMay, denied the gun weapon to Vietnam-era fighters.

SAC and LeMay imposed missiles on fighter pilots.

• The Vietnam air war proves that Goliath had lost the lessons of Korea in that the missile-armed fighters used in Southeast Asia lacked agility and rearward visibility, were too big, and smoked too much, all of which resulted in poor performance and the near loss of air superiority.14

• Those problems, together with the timid Goliaths who served as colonels in the 1950s, denied true fighter pilots the -realistic training in dogfighting they needed to conquer the North Vietnamese air force.

• The Communists were smarter than our Goliaths because they invented the small, light, and very agile MiGs.

• The huge F-111 was the ultimate expression of the ignorance of the Goliaths, who were determined to gold-plate everything and turn even the F-15 into an Aardvark (F-111) clone.

• SAC leadership of the 1950s was responsible for the failure of the F-105, designed for high-speed nuclear delivery, in the guerrilla war in Vietnam.

• The Navy, in all its wisdom, came up with the A-1E Skyraider—far superior to the F-105 for the air war in Vietnam. Taking note of this development, Boyd acolyte Pierre Sprey developed the purpose--designed A-10 (which the Air Force has tried to decommission ever since)—not-withstanding the fact that the Skyraider was designed for torpedo attack at sea rather than close air support (CAS).

In the 1970s, Boyd and his acolytes prophesied doom for the United States due to the errors of the Goliaths in charge of the Air Force. Many in Boyd’s coterie have weighed in with glowing reviews of Coram’s book and continue cultivating the martyrdom of John Boyd—but with precious little attention to the history that has happened since Vietnam.15

How did it come out? Did the great dogfighting ability of the agile F-15 and F-16 rescue us from doom? I doubt it. As of this writing, Air Force F-15s, the demons of the acolytes, had killed 39 targets—all of them with air-to-air missiles. Air Force F-16s have killed seven—none of them with the fine M-61 gun. In fact, the Viper has seen its effectiveness greatly enhanced by the addition of the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM), which gives most F-16s a beyond-visual-range (BVR) capability for the first time. The F-16 has used this missile for some of its kills—the rest have been with the updated Sidewinder, not nearly as dependent on the agility it used to require in Vietnam because it now has a near-all-aspect capability. So far, the Korea-style dogfight seems to have all but disappeared from the air-to-air battle. The agility of both aircraft remains highly useful in dodging surface-to-air missiles, but that is not what Boyd and the acolytes had in mind. But wait! The “reformers,” appalled by the excessive sophistication of the F-15, did succeed in obtaining the cheaper and simpler F-16 rather than the two-engine F-17 (which later evolved into the Navy’s F-18).16 What of it?

As of this writing, although we have lost neither an F-15 nor an F-16 in air-to-air combat, some have succumbed to accidents. By the end of fiscal year 2001, 100 F-15s had been destroyed in accidents that cost 37 pilots their lives—compared to 272 F-16s written off and 73 pilots killed. True, the F-16 has flown more hours than the F-15, but the number of aircraft destroyed and pilots killed is disproportionately higher in the Viper.17 Neither the Navy nor any surviving light-bomber pilot ever thought of that second engine as superfluous; without a doubt, a number of F-15s came home on the extra power plant. When the Viper loses its engine, the whole bird (and sometimes the pilot) usually goes with it.

One of the corollaries has to do with the guns-versus-missile argument. General LeMay and SAC are blamed for denying guns to -Vietnam-era Air Force fighters and imposing missiles on their reluctant pilots. How has that come out? In the first place, as noted, the F-15s and F-16s in service have 46 kills—all of them with missiles. The Air Force has had exactly two gun kills since the F-16 came on the line—both of them against helicopters shot down by the A-10’s 30 mm GAU-8, a gun specifically designed to kill tanks!18

A further defect in this myth maintains that Goliath (specifically, General LeMay and SAC) denied guns to the F-4C and F-4D. Nonsense. LeMay gets the blame, if that is the word, that really belongs to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. The Navy designed the F-4 (for fleet defense against nonmaneuvering bombers) and never included a gun in its models. The Air Force attempted to have an internal gun installed, but Secretary McNamara denied that change until combat in Southeast Asia demonstrated the need. At that point emerged the F-4E and its internal M-61 20 mm Gatling gun.19

Gen John J. Burns, a man with impeccable fighter-pilot credentials antedating any of those belonging to members of the “Fighter Mafia,” enthusiastically endorsed missiles—especially the BVR variety. This inclination largely accounted for his skepticism about the lightweight fighter. As it stood at the time, because the F-16 did not have a sufficient radar for semiactive AIM-7s, it could usually fire on an enemy only from the rear quadrant—whereas an enemy with a radar missile could shoot one in the face of the F-16 pilot. Since World War I, the plane taking the first shot has a rather pronounced tendency to win.20

As noted, not until the AMRAAM got its initial operational capability in the early 1990s did the Viper acquire a BVR weapon—itself a “high-tech” answer. General Burns’s attitude is neither new nor limited to senior officers.21 From the beginning, one could find in the Fighter Weapons Newsletter of the late 1950s great enthusiasm for the new missiles among junior fighter pilots. For example, Capt Robert Thor, writing in 1958 while Boyd was still assigned to Nellis, argued that in the near future a fighter pilot who came back claiming a gun kill would be confessing a failure to use his missiles properly.22

Similarly, SAC and General LeMay are blamed for forcing Tactical Air Command (TAC) into the nuclear age against its will by adopting the supersonic F-105 with its weapons bay for tactical nuclear bombs. But LeMay did not become the chief of staff until after the F-105 first flew in 1958. The truth of the matter is that one of the greatest tactical Airmen in our history, Gen Otto P. Weyland, is primarily responsible for bringing the F-105 and nuclear weapons into the tactical air forces.23 He needed no persuasion.

The F-111, another favorite whipping post for the acolytes, was the opposite of the lightweight fighter—much too complex and unreliable to maintain in high readiness.24 Who can argue with that? After all, one of the principles of war is simplicity. But none of the principles are sacrosanct, and one certainly can make a plan or a piece of equipment so simple that it will not do the job. The F-111 became one of McNamara’s projects to build commonality into service acquisition. For that reason, the airplane wound up with side-by-side seating instead of the Air Force’s preferred tandem seating. The latter would have made the bird too long to fit on an aircraft carrier’s elevator. But the Navy pulled out of the program in favor of the huge, swing-winged (like the F-111) F-14, saddling the Air Force with the restricted visibility of the seating arrangement for a couple of decades after-wards. However, for all its complexity and consequently low in-commission rate, the F-111 did fill an important role that the F-16 could not—long-range, low-level, all-weather attack with a fairly heavy payload. Indeed, when we could no longer patch the F-111, we had to redesign the F-15 into the E model with conformal tanks and new avionics to replace the 111 because its role remained necessary.

Another ax ground in Coram’s book maintains that the Goliaths of the Air Force know not whereof they speak when it comes to CAS. For proof, the acolytes point to the Air Force’s hostility toward the purpose-designed A-10. Coram has recently engaged the Goliaths on this issue in the press, apparently with incomplete information.25 Typically, he makes no attempt in the book to examine the other side of the story; he easily could have found it in the former Air Force historian’s book Strike from the Sky, which gives Goliath’s account of the tale.26

Coram labels the A-10 the first purpose--designed CAS airplane in the Air Force—a true statement if one discounts the history of the Air Corps and the US Army Air Forces, both of which had fielded numerous ground-attack designs from the A-8 through the A-26 (the latter having served in Vietnam as late as the 1960s). Acolyte Sprey, doubtless a remarkable man, was the mover behind the A-10 design. According to Coram, Sprey had to compromise somewhat in that the airplane turned out larger than he wanted and had two engines instead of one.27 Thank God for the Goliaths there. How one gets long loiter time and large, varied ordnance loads without size poses a dilemma. Too, though its maneuverability disappointed Sprey, the aircraft puts on impressive displays even at its low airspeed and altitude.

Boyd and the acolytes utilize the Korean War model as a sacred example of the air-to-air mission yet ignore it in the case of CAS. To be sure, in Korea the P-51 did yeoman’s service in this role. However, the single-engine (like the P-51) P-47 proved itself the superior CAS airplane in World War II, but without the liquid-cooling system that made the P-51 vulnerable even to small-arms fire. Although the early jets took a tough rap for not delivering ground support in the early days of the war, the addition of drop tanks and bomb racks to them diminished the P-51’s payload advantage. The latter’s romantic aura proved so strong that we even witnessed attempts to resurrect an updated Mustang during the Vietnam War. Lost in all of this, as well as in Coram’s CAS arguments, is the fact that the slower P-51 had double the loss rate of the F-80—partly because of the vulnerable cooling system and partly because the enemy could hear the P-51 coming, whereas the Shooting Star arrived over the fight almost as soon as the sound it generated. Furthermore, the F-80 spent substantially less time within range of the enemy’s ground fire. Consequently, the jet had double the in-commission and sortie rates of the Mustang as well as half the losses, as mentioned above. Without doubt, the Navy/Marine Corsairs and the Mustangs did crucial work in the very early days when no jet runways were available. But in time, flying twice as many sorties, even with lighter bomb loads, and experiencing half the losses were bound to have an effect. Ground forces have perennially complained about the lack of responsive CAS from the Air Force. The jets did not need the warm-up of the Mustangs, and they could get from the airfield to the battle area much quicker—that, too, was a factor.28

Thus, the case of the Goliaths, even if it were as Coram paints it, perhaps has some merit. The armament of the A-10 requires that it go low and get close to an irate enemy. The aircraft does that more slowly than, say, the F-16, so enemy gunners and missileers have more time to aim and fire their weapons before the A-10 gets close enough to fire its fearsome GAU-8 or even its Maverick missiles. The extra engine proves helpful here, as does the load of armor carried by the “Hog.” But the A-10 also takes longer than the F-16 to get out of the range of enemy weapons, and it does not have the effectiveness of the AC-130 from altitudes above most of the ground fire.29 In the end, Coram accuses the Goliaths of finally accepting the “loathed” A-10 only to guarantee that the Army would not snatch away the CAS mission. Perhaps it is well that they did so, given the results with attack choppers in the second war against Iraq.30

Myth Four:

John Boyd changed the art of war; he is the greatest military theorist since Sun Tzu.

According to Coram, “The academics who know of Boyd agree that he was one of the premier strategists of the twentieth century and the only strategist to put time at the center of his thinking. That is as far as they will go. But Boyd was the greatest military theoretician since Sun Tzu.”31 That is a pretty strong statement. It passes over some rather distinguished theoreticians: Carl von Clausewitz, Henri Jomini, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, and even John Warden—all of whom wrote books. Can Coram’s statement possibly be valid?

I first heard John Boyd speak at Air University soon after he retired. I much admired his delivery, for it did not depend upon the lame humor so typical of presentations of the day. Rather, his presentation was clear, and his earnestness was obvious. It did seem to me, however, that he depended rather heavily on Russell Weigley’s The American Way of War—I wondered why a retired colonel was just getting around to understanding the importance of time, surprise, maneuver, and the inadvisability of charging up the hill at Fredericksburg or against the center of the fortified Yankee line at Gettysburg.32 All of the second lieutenants coming out of West Point in 1952 were fully cognizant of those things. Gen Norman Schwarzkopf, who graduated 42nd out of 480 four years later, certainly needed no instruction on the nature of the blitzkrieg or on the inadvisability of following Ambrose Burnside’s example with a charge up the middle.33

But then it occurred to me that Clausewitz, Jomini, Mahan, Corbett, Douhet, and Mitchell had written their books at the end of their careers too—though Boyd never got around to putting his theories into book form. Rather, they took the form of briefings delivered from large numbers of slides. As he got further into retirement, he clearly was doing ever-more reading in a wide variety of sources. The briefings became longer and longer, and, as Coram notes, “his briefs were virtually impenetrable without an explanation.”34 Certainly, Clausewitz makes for tough wading; Mahan is easier reading but requires some effort. Douhet and Mitchell are easier still, although both have come in for heavy criticism. But I suppose one would not have to be a purist to argue that a theoretician must also be a teacher and that unless he delivers his ideas in usable form, as in a book, then the most brilliant concepts will go for naught.

Moreover, to be a “strategist,” one must be in a strategy-making position—never the case with Boyd. All of his work at Nellis occurred at the tactical level, and ever after he found himself on the technical side of Air Force work. Coram makes much of the notion that Boyd affected the strategy for the Gulf War after Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney called upon him for ideas. Undoubtedly, such contact took place, but victory has a thousand fathers, and the vice president has not indicated that Boyd’s ideas were any more important than many others. Allegedly, Boyd prevented the Goliaths (of the Army in this case) from going “high diddle diddle up the middle.”35 But Coram himself says that Cheney denied being the vital factor in changing the plan and that the decision makers favored a head-on assault. However, a wider sweep to the left—the well-known “Left Hook”—depended upon the deployment of a second corps. Coram (as well as Boyd and his acolytes) has considerable respect for the Marine Corps, as do all thinking Americans. He gives great credit to the amphibious threat, which he says fixed the Iraqi left flank so that it could not move to meet the Left Hook maneuver.36 He also admires the rapid march of the marines on that end straight up the middle into Kuwait City—with great effectiveness and minimal losses.37

Unhappily, according to some individuals, the march was too swift because the marines got so far ahead of schedule that they no longer acted as a fixing force on the coalition’s right flank. Thus, they started the enemy pedaling backward prematurely before the Left Hook could complete its swing to trap the Republican Guard and other enemy forces. Coram blames this situation on the Army, although in their book The Generals’ War (Coram’s source for Cheney’s role), Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor say explicitly that the marines acted as a piston that pushed the Republican Guard out of the pocket before the trap could be sprung.38 The point is that, even if Schwarzkopf’s original plan had called for nothing other than a frontal assault, chances are the Iraqi army still would have collapsed like a house of cards. Kenneth Brower and Steven L. Canby have remarked that “the Iraqis were so inept that air power could have won the war alone, as could have the army and marines. Almost any plan would have been one-sidedly successful.”39 The grounds for making John Boyd a great strategist seem somewhat shaky.

Much has also been made of his OODA (observe, orient, decide, and act) loop, sometimes more by the acolytes than by Boyd himself. In fact, a street on Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, carries the official name “OODA Loop.” Can this concept of Boyd’s justify the claim that he now outranks all the theoreticians since Sun Tzu? It seems to me that it says nothing new. Every second lieutenant coming out of the Military Academy in 1952 had undergone indoctrination in the principles of war, their utility, and their limitations. The whole point of the principles of offensive, surprise, and maneuver lay in undermining the enemy’s mental stability—and both Douhet and Mitchell were wont to declare that victory lay in the mind of the enemy. But then, “Command of the Sea” contained nothing new when Mahan set the notions to paper in 1890. Those notions proved enormously influential, even to the point of giving Douhet the idea for the title of his great work, Command of the Air. If we credit Mahan and Douhet as substantial theorists, why not Boyd?

What is a theory of war? A common definition would be “a body of ideas about the organization of military force and its employment in war and peace.” What is a great theory? It is a theory general enough to be used in a reasonable time and applied to a wide variety of cases. The ability to apply it to all cases would also be nice. Further, a good theory is specific enough to serve as a useful aid in decision making. An overly general theory is not very useful (e.g., motherhood is good), and an overly specific one has only limited usefulness (e.g., Jane is a good mother). Clausewitz declares that when troops go to the battlefield, they must leave theory behind. Because theory helps organize thought and education to make war more understandable, one must present it in digestible form—usually in writing.

Can we use the OODA loop in many cases? Yes, especially at the tactical level. All cases—never. We turned inside the enemy’s OODA loop in the case of the Mayaguez, and many Airmen and marines died because of it. Gen David Jones pleaded with the politicians to delay the assault on Koh Tang Island until Friday, but his superiors insisted that it go down at the break of day on Thursday.40 Unhappily, we did not know that the Cambodians had decided to release the Mayaguez crew and that it was already en route to freedom; thus, Airmen and marines started their disastrous landings for no purpose. Certainly the surviving marines were not at all contemptuous of the Airmen who pulled them out or died in the attempt. The US Congress turned inside the British OODA loop in 1812 when it declared war two days after the Orders in Council had been rescinded, resulting in the burning of the White House.41 Clearly, there is a time for quick action, and there is a time for deliberate decision making. The OODA loop offers nothing new, and many of the Goliaths from Rolling Thunder to Gen Michael Short have lamented the failure to implement it. Yet, Gen Wesley Clark also has made a plausible case that sometimes gradualism is necessary for the sake of coalition cohesion. It is the strategist’s task to discriminate between the two. People have a natural tendency to come up with a good idea, such as one for fighting MiGs over the Yalu, and then try to apply it to all manner of cases. Boyd, and especially his acolytes, tried to escalate the idea from the tactical level in all manner of ways. A universal model probably will never exist, and many people have declared that all wars are unique and must be considered on their own merits—or so says one of our passed-over theoreticians, Carl von Clausewitz.42

Boyd never presented his body of ideas in digestible form, and his acolytes, including Coram, make a virtue out of his deliberate refusal to do so.43 Consequently, his notions remain too vague to amount to anything other than a moving target of little use in structuring a debate or attempting to educate one’s mind on the nature of war before arriving at the battlefield. Coram insists that Boyd is the greatest fighter pilot in Air Force history and the greatest theoretician since Sun Tzu.44 I have looked into the mirror, but I cannot see the proof for either case. Nor do I see an apostle in Coram’s mirror. I do, however, see on page 130 of his book the statement that “Southerners and fighter pilots know the story is more important than the facts” (emphasis added). The part about fighter pilots is wrong; to the rest of the sentence, I say amen!45


1. “John Boyd, Technology and the Careerists” [letter to the editor], Naval War College Review 51 (Winter 2003): 141.

2. Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Boston: Little, Brown, 2002).

3. See Coram’s Web site, http://www.robertcoram. com/prostate.html. No doubt Col John Boyd’s death from prostate cancer struck a chord with Coram, given his own experience with the disease.

4. Robert Coram, “Two Days in May,” Atlanta 41 (May 2001): 1c, http://www.au.af.mil/au/aul/lane.htm (go to the EBSCOHost link).

5. I do not imply that an inevitable disconnect exists between journalism and good military history. A case in point is Rick Atkinson, whose book Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1993) is one of the best accounts of the first Gulf War and whose first volume of the history of World War II has garnered rave reviews. Yet, he is a leading journalist for the Washington Post. Clearly, he understands the critical use of interview sources and the necessity for valid archival research.

6. Coram, Boyd, 273.

7. Retired from the Air Force with 30 years of service, I have been invited to speak at Quantico four times, and I number among my thesis students two marines of the highest character. Clearly, some marines may be contemptuous, but Coram is much too prone to sweeping generalizations.

8. Grant T. Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).

9. Dr. Grant T. Hammond, “Myths of the Air War over Serbia: Some ‘Lessons’ Not to Learn,” Air and Space Power Journal 14, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 1, http://www.airpower. maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj00/win00/ -hammond.pdf; and idem, “Myths of the Gulf War: Some ‘Lessons’ Not to Learn,” Airpower Journal 12, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 1, airchronicles/ apj/apj98/fal98/hammond.pdf. Hammond does not deal with Boyd’s private life. Although Coram deplores the irresponsibility that Boyd displayed in his private life, he seems to take lightly the irresponsibility in his life as an officer.

10. Long ago, Lt Col (later Gen) Walter Kross also used a myths format to discuss the military-reform movement of that day. See “Military Reform: Past and Present,” Air University Review 32, no. 5 (July–August 1981): 101–8, airchronicles/ -aureview/1981/jul-aug/kross.htm. Although I address four myths here, I do not mean to imply that there are only four of them—either in the book or among the acolytes.

11. Kross, “Military Reform: Past and Present.”

12. As Coram points out, Boyd’s sole command occurred with the combat support group at Nakom Phenom in Thailand in 1972 at the end of the war—out of the operations field although it sometimes served as a stepping-stone to higher things.

13. Association of Graduates, US Military Academy, Register of Graduates and Former Cadets (West Point, NY: West Point Alumni Foundation, 2000), sec. 4, 323–32.

14. Many more myths are wrapped up in that one sentence. The peasants who flew the MiG-15 learned much between 1953 and the MiG-21 in 1965 because they had started from a much lower base than the Americans. Too, if one had reequipped the entire US Navy and Air Force with MiG-21s, the picture would have become even more horrible because the MiG could not carry a bomb load; nor could it have flown from Korat to Hanoi, and it did not have the support of tankers. Had the flight taken place over Acapulco instead of Hanoi, it would have been no contest at all. In short, the acolytes are using a false analogy to compare the MiGs with the F-4s and F-105s—it is as clear a case of likening apples to oranges as one could desire. In any event, a big chunk of the air superiority enjoyed in Korea resulted from B-29s preventing the building of MiG airfields close to the battle. Furthermore, Joseph Stalin implemented a deliberate policy of avoiding a nuclear confrontation with the United States by strictly limiting his MiG units to the air defense of the Yalu River border and nothing more. Thus, even the B-50s and B-36s that LeMay would not deploy to Korea had a role in the maintenance of air superiority there. The point is that the entire model used by the reform movement to build its argument was bogus. In any event, the maintenance of a two-to-one kill ratio in Vietnam, in the enemy radar environment, far from one’s own bases is a testimonial to strength—not weakness.

15. William S. Lind, “The Three Levels of War: Don’t Take John Boyd’s Name in Vain,” Counterpunch, 3 May 2003, http://www.counterpunch.org/lind05032003.html; Franklin C. Spinney, “Genghis John,” US Naval Institute Proceedings, July 1997, http://www.d-n-i.net/fcs/comments/ c199.htm#Reference; and “Harry Hillaker—Father of the F-16,” interview by Eric Hehs, codeonemagazine.com, http:// www.codeonemagazine.com/archives/1991/articles/ jul_91/july2a_91.html.

16. Lt Gen John J. Burns, probably one of the Goliaths who were nemeses of the “reformers,” argues that the primary driver for the lightweight fighter was not combat effectiveness but the desire to increase its appeal for foreign military sales: “As a result of a lot of dialogue, in which I was involved partly, the agreement was that the Air Force would develop the lightweight fighter, at that time not yet chosen, and inventory 650 of them because we needed a production base of 1,000 in order to make the price competitive with the Mirage primarily in the European consortium buying. They were going to buy about 350 so; we had to buy 650” (emphasis added). Interview by Hugh N. Ahmann, 5–8 June 1984, transcript, 306, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, AL.

17. USAF, “F-16 Flight Mishap History” and “F-15 History,” http://safety.kirtland.af.mil/AFSC/RDBMS/Flight/ stats.

18. Dr. Daniel L. Haulman, “Table of USAF Aerial Victories by Guns and Missiles,” draft (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air Force Historical Research Agency, n.d.). Even in Vietnam, missiles got 89 kills, and aerial guns only 43. In the first Gulf War, guns got two helicopters, and missiles downed 33 airplanes. Missiles registered all of the kills in Kosovo.

19. Burns, interview, 192–93.

20. Ibid., 223–25. One encounters a bit of a dilemma here. The point of the OODA loop is to get inside the enemy’s decision cycle to enable a first shot. One of the perceived benefits of the F-16 is that its small size increases the likelihood that the pilot will spot the larger enemy aircraft first. However, the initial design called for limiting it to guns and short-range missiles, both of which had to be fired from behind the enemy. Thus, enemy airplanes large enough to carry radar missiles and the required identification equipment would have the first shot from the front hemisphere. Even though improvements to the Sidewinder allowed some forward-hemisphere shots, its range remained short, and the pilot in the bigger airplane had a better chance of spotting one in front in time to eject decoy flares. On the importance of the first sighting, see Mike Spick, The Ace Factor: Air Combat and the Role of Situational Awareness (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 6–8. In fact, the book’s sole point deals with becoming sufficiently aware of the situation to enable the first pass on the enemy—something that John Boyd and many people before him understood.

21. Lest the reader assume that I am a company man defending the Goliaths and the Air Force on those grounds, I should point out that I had one tour as a tanker pilot in the 341st Strategic Bomb Wing and another as a C-130 pilot in the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing—experiences that would hardly make one a shill for either the fighter or bomber generals.

22. Capt Robert Thor, “GAR-8,” Fighter Weapons Newsletter, June 1958, 29–30. Coram declares that “Boyd and Christie [in a Pentagon briefing during the Vietnam War] expanded the regular E-M [energy-manueverability] brief to show how woefully inadequate were America’s air-to-air missiles. . . . The Sidewinder missed its target and plowed into the ground so often that the pilots called it the ‘Sandwinder.’ “ Coram, Boyd, 178. (It may have been inadequate, but it was the first guided missile ever to get air-to-air kills; the Soviets thought enough of it to copy it.) Boyd had earlier declared that “in summary, since the underside attack provides the greatest advantages—IR, G, surprise and performance—we should employ this attack whenever possible. As you will see later, this holds true for both fighter-versus-bomber and fighter-versus-fighter. When compared with a gun attack, AIM-9B [early Sidewinder] is far superior, since the range of the missile allows us to get into an effective cone of fire.” Boyd, “Aerial Attack Study,” rev. ed., 1964, 27, Air University Library, Maxwell AFB, AL.

23.Weyland was Gen George S. Patton’s Airman in command of the XIX Tactical Air Command during the march across France and the commander of Far East Air Forces during the Korean War before he came home to command TAC during the mid-1950s. Gen Otto P. Weyland, interview by Dr. James Hasdorff, 19 November 1974, transcript, 253, 260, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, AL.

24. See Coram, Boyd, 346–47, wherein he declares that “Spinney proved that virtually everything the Air Force had promised the American people about the F-15 and the F-111D was false.”

25. Robert Coram, “The Hog That Saves the Grunts,” New York Times [Op-Ed], 27 May 2003, http://www.robert coram.com/op_ed.html. Here, Coram says (without citing a source) that the Air Force plans to retire all A-10s and also asserts without qualifiers that “this is a serious mistake.”

26. In Strike from the Sky: The History of Battlefield Air Attack, 1911–1945 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), Richard P. Hallion argues that all successful CAS aircraft moved from the air-to-air to the air-to-ground role (incidentally, he does not explain away to my satisfaction the examples of the Shturmovik and Kenney’s B-25 gunships in the Southwest Pacific). But Hallion has a case in that the axiom “speed is life” for aircraft flying low over the battlefield has been demonstrated many times—as has the axiom that “the most useless thing in the Air Force is altitude above you.”

27. Coram, Boyd, 234–36.

28. Burns, interview, 79; George E. Stratemeyer, The Three Wars of Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer: His Korean War Diary, ed. William T. Y’Blood (Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1999), 34–35; Thomas C. Hone, “Korea,” in Case Studies in the Achievement of Air Superiority, ed. Benjamin F. Cooling (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1994), 454–55; and Allan Millett, “Korea, 1950–1953,” in Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support, ed. Benjamin F. Cooling (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1990), 362–63.

29. This deficiency may be changing now because of the great success of the economical Joint Direct Attack Munition and the movement to reduce bomb size, as permitted by its accuracy from altitude. Some current thinking holds that the ability to hit targets reliably from altitude, even through the clouds, with spotters on the ground (as in Afghanistan) has diminished the need for choppers and for A-10s to go low and close to the target.

30. Stephen Trimble, “AH-64 Apache’s Deep Strike Role under Army Review, Keane Says,” Air and Space Daily, 6 August 2003, 1, http://ebird.dtic.mil/Aug2003/s200308 06206809.html (accessed 9 August 2003).

31. Coram, Boyd, 445. He neither identifies the “academics” nor gives a citation for the last statement; the latter, therefore, depends upon his own authority.

32. Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973).

33. Association of Graduates, US Military Academy, Register of Graduates, sec. 4, 363. Coram does mention the blitzkrieg as setting something of a precedent for Boyd’s thinking—time was certainly a crucial part of the blitz.

34. Coram, Boyd, 329.

35. Coram rarely attributes his material but does credit Michael R. Gordon and Gen Bernard E. Trainor’s The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1995), for the information on Cheney’s role.

36. One can find any number of sources that assert that the amphibious threat fixed the enemy’s left flank, but Adm Stansfield Turner, in his article “Is the U.S. Navy Being Marginalized?” Naval War College Review 56 (Summer 2003), remarks that “the last opposed amphibious assault was made in 1950 at Inchon. We planned one at Wonsan in 1951 and another at Kuwait in 1991: both came a cropper due to mines. Today it is difficult to imagine where the United States might want to conduct a major opposed amphibious assault in the next twenty years or so” (98). Perhaps the Iraqis did not realize that, or perhaps they just had no capability or desire to swing out to the west. Maybe the Marine Corps has recognized this in that it has been abandoning the traditional “ship-to-shore” description of its mission in favor of “ship-to-objective” nomenclature.

37. Coram, Boyd, 424–26.

38. Ibid., 425; and Gordon and Trainor, Generals’ War, 362.

39. Kenneth S. Brower and Steven L. Canby, “Weapons for Land Warfare,” in The Future of Smart Weapons: Proceedings from a AAAS Annual Meeting Symposium, 8 February 1992 (Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1992), 1.

40. John F. Guilmartin Jr., A Very Short War: The Mayaguez and the Battle of Koh Tang (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), 37–38.

41. Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, 6th ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1958), 144.

42. Herewith the obligatory Carl von Clausewitz endnote: Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 88.

43. Barry Watts to David R. Mets, e-mail, 31 July 2003.

44. Coram, Boyd, 255, 445.

45. If you really need to read a work on Boyd, choose the Hammond book.


Dr. David R. Mets (USNA; MA, Columbia University; PhD, University of Denver) is professor emeritus at Air University’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. He studied naval history at the US Naval Academy and taught the history of airpower at both the Air Force Academy and West Point. During his 30-year career in the Navy and Air Force, he served as a tanker pilot, an instructor navigator in strategic airlift, and a commander of an AC-130 squadron in Southeast Asia. On another tour there, he was an aircraft commander for more than 900 tactical airlift sorties. A former editor of Air University Review, Dr. Mets is the author of Master of Airpower: General Carl A. Spaatz (Presidio, 1988) and four other books.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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