The theoretical foundations of manoeuvre warfare goes back in time 2,500 years to China and text such as the “Art of War” by Sun Tzu and the “Thirty-Six Stratagems”. However, much of the modern theory was developed during the twentieth century through the works of William S. Lind, H. John Poole, and Captain B. H. Liddel Heart as well as the German School of manoeuvre warfare that developed in the inter-war years. However, one interesting figure that stands out from the rest is USAF colonel John Boyd [Brown]. Unlike other theorist, Boyd did not publish a book on his theories of manoeuvre warfare, yet he made a significant contribution.

From the Air War in Korea to “Destruction and Creation”

John Boyd grew up in the US during the Great Depression. From his childhood experiences, Boyd developed an independent “do” attitude. As Boyd would say “to be or to do”, meaning you can either do the “right thing” and follow the “right” career path, or you can do something useful even if it didn’t make you popular nor give you the expected promotion. This was his attitude for much of his life and is reflected in his work such as the development of the Energy-Manoeuvrability theory, the design of the F-16, and his contribution to manoeuvre warfare theory as well as in his interest in sports. He was very much an individualist, doing his own thing, but could form part of a team but noted how well a team performs depends on how well the individuals perform. He was very competitive but was more interested in how to win rather than in the actual win. Much of his attitude was typical of those who grew up in the Depression; a need to put effort in, to self improve, and to be productive.

He joined the US Army Air Corps just at the end of the Second World War but didn’t complete his training before the War ended. He eventually ended up as a mechanic, being rejected from the pilot training programme. He was stationed in Japan but was discharged in 1947.

After leaving the army, Boyd went to University where he became a 2nd Lieutenant in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and with the our break of the Korean War he ended up in the newly formed Air Force as a fighter pilot. During his training, Boyd’s individualistic, “do something useful”, attitude came to the fore when he would study manoeuvers and conduct his own experiment well beyond what the course demanded as he searched for self improvement. Boyd served in the latter part of the Korean War as a Lieutenant and flew in a number of combat missions where he flew an F-86 Sabre against MIG-15s. Although he never made a kill in the war, his experiences contributed to his development of his theories.

After the war, Boyd became an instructor at the Flight Weapons School. Unimpressed by the teaching he saw, Boyd developed his own course on tactics. He tried to balance the need for presenting each student with a challenge but not making it so easy a student was given an automatic win. By 1957, as a Captain, Boyd was presenting his ideas in the, newly created, school newsletter, which had become a platform for the free discussion of tactics. He saw it as a way to present experiences and knowledge rather than having a check list. Students could then learn from the experiences of others and develop their own solutions to problems. Boyd eventually published his ideas for fighter pilot tactics in a manual entitled “Aerial Attack Study” in 1957, when he was moved to the Georgia Institute of Technology to study engineering. It was from his engineering studies that he developed the Energy-Manoeuvrability theory; seeing aircraft flight in terms of thermodynamics. This led Boyd to study Soviet aircraft, which led him to conclude that Soviet aircraft were superior to US aircraft. For his work, he was awarded the Air Force scientific award (twice) and was transferred to the Pentagon as a Major. Using his theory, Boyd analysed problems with aircraft design and his work led to the development of the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Falcon. It was his work on the F-16 that led Boyd to study the fast transit time of the aircraft when manoeuvring.

By 1972, Boyd was a colonel and he was serving in Thailand, monitoring movement along the Ho Chi Minh trail and serving as a base commander before going back to the Pentagon and then retiring a few years later. Through out much of his career, Boyd had to battle against the establishment and people with by the book, check list, solutions to every problem. But his conflict with others, despite being frustrating, helped Boyd develop his own ideas.

Boyd didn’t remain idle during his retirement, he studied and solved engineering problems but began to focus on better ways to win, on the psychology of war fighting. In 1976, he published his ideas in the essay “Destruction and Creation” [Boyd2], which was about mental worlds and his own struggles to win against the odds. This, eventually caught the attention of the US Marines, who, after the struggles of Vietnam, were thinking about mental frame works and how to win.

Theories of Manoeuvre Warfare

Boyd’s ideas were presented to the US Marines in the form of a lecture called “Patterns of Conflict” [Boyd1]. Boyd began with analysis of the performance of aircraft from a thermodynamic perspective but found what he had learnt could be applied to combat in general. In “Patterns of Conflict” he took the idea of fast transit time and developed the concept of tempo or rhythm, arguing that a fast tempo led to victory. He showed this idea by analysing the German Blitzkrig of the Second World War, comparing it to the Maginot line, the performance of the F-86 compared to the MIG-15, and the Israeli raid in 1976. He presented ideas on conflict and survival as well as summarising Sun Tzu. He then went on to look at patterns of conflict in history; from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan and on to the First and Second World Wars. Throughout his presentation, Boyd emphasised the human mind.

“Terrain does not fight wars. Machines don’t fight wars. People do it and they use their minds. So you better understand the people, because if you don’t understand them, you ain’t gonna make it, period.” – Boyd.

A significant contribution to his presentation was observations made during his work on the YF-16, the F-16 prototype, and on the A-10 Thunderbolt. On paper, the performance of the YF-17 was superior to that of the YF-16, at least according to the Energy-Manoeuvrability theory calculations. Yet, during tests, the test pilots continually pointed out that the YF-16 performed better. Boyd’s analysis concluded that the YF-16 was capable of manoeuvring faster than the YF-17. It was this fast transitioning that gave the advantage; the ability to lose and gain energy fast. Boyd’s work on the A-10 led to an interest in history. Starting with Blitzkrig and ending with Sun Tzu. His studies led him to understand that to win, one needs to get inside the enemy’s Observe – Orientate – Decide – Act (OODA) loop. The fast transition time of the YF-16 enabled the pilot to conduct an OODA loop faster than the YF-17 pilot. So, it was not the machine, itself, but the advantage gained mentally. The enemy becomes confused and disorientated.

“I am going to tend to become a bit uncertain because your actions appear ambiguous to me. I become a little uncertain and pretty soon I am confused, disordered, and going into a panic situation. You have unravelled me, and that is what you wanted to do.” – Boyd

Manoeuvre warfare is psychological. Defeat is defined as giving up the will to fight as opposed to attrition warfare, where defeat is defined as destroying the enemy’s ability to fight. Boyd found that this pattern repeated throughout history.

The OODA Loop

The OODA loop is very well known and summarises Boyd’s work. It is simple and yet, it hides a lot of complexity. The first “O” is simple enough; observe. But observing can be a complex task on its own in a dynamic, ever changing, chaotic environment such as a battle where information is coming in from multiple sources, both internal and external. A fighter pilot has to both look out the window for the enemy aircraft and pay attention to all the information the sensors and instruments are telling him. A commander on the battlefield has intelligence reports and recce reports to make sense of and not all the required information is there or is accurate or may even be a result of deception. That leads to the second “O”; orientation. That is, understanding all this information that is coming in. Here, a model of the world is constructed and there are many factors that contribute to this phase. From training and experience to culture and personality. In many ways, this is the most complex part of the loop, delving into the area of human psychology.

Humans have to take in information, make decisions, and act in the real world. To help us we have models in our head of how the world works. But these models are inaccurate and lead to biases and irrational thinking [Manoogian]. We can be stupid as well as clever. But somehow, we have to get things to work.

An example of this psychology in action is the US units around Chosin Reservoir in Korea during the Korean War in 1950 [Epps]. Two US units, the 1st Marine Division and the 31st Regimental Combat Team (RCT), facing little in the way of Chinese resistance, advanced to positions north of the main line, either side of the reservoir, where they settled for the night and prepared to attack the following day. The RCT did not secure defensive positions for the night. Both units were attacked during the night but after combat that involved hand to hand fighting, the Chinese withdrew. From this moment on, both units began to orientate themselves differently. The Marines called off their attack and secured their defence. They also tried to maintain contact with friendly units to their south. The RCT did not have full contact with all subordinate units and believed information from the Corps commander that the previous nights attack was conducted by remnant units of the retreating Chinese, thus, the RCT command was confidant of being able to carry out their planned attack. The next night, both units were attacked much like the previous night. The RCT commander now temporarily united his units. The 1st battalion of the RCT withdrew from their positions, leaving their heavy equipment behind, and joined up with the rest of the RCT. The withdrawal, however didn’t go well and the battalion had to fight their way to the 3rd battalion. During the fighting, the commander of the RCT was captured by the Chinese. Another night of attacks awaited both the Marines and the RCT. The new RCT commander concluded that the RCT would not last another night so ordered a breakout to the south, where friendly units were located. It went badly. Starting with a US aircraft dropping napalm on the RCT by mistake. The RCT had to fight its way through road blocks and their vehicles broke down. Their new commander was killed. Order broke down and it became every man for themselves. The Marines, in contrast, also fought their way south but they were able to remain intact as a unit with their equipment. They advanced to take terrain so their vehicles could manoeuvre down the roads. After three days the Marines arrived at friendly lines, still working as a unit.

The difference in the two units, which were similar in composition and faced the same challenges, comes down to the way they made sense of their environment, the way the orientated themselves.  The Marines did not believe the information they had received from the Corps commander and, therefore, acted with more caution and were, thus, better prepared mentally for the Chinese’s attacks. The RCT, however, were in shock after the first Chinese attack, it was not what they had been led to expect. They had failed to make sense of what had happened.

The next part of the OODA loop is Decide. From making sense of all the information, a commander then decides to act. In the case of the Marines and RCT in Korea, they both decided to make a breakout and withdraw back to friendly lines. However, the poor understanding and state of shock the RCT was in prevented them from making effective plans as the Marines had done.

The final stage of the OODA loop is to Act. Now the plans are put into effect but for the RCT, things just got worse and they collapsed into a state of confusion and disorder. The Marines were able to act effectively and keep their structure.

The OODA loop is often represented as going from one step to the next but it is far more complex than that. Flows can go back as well as forward in the loop and there are feedback loops within the main loop. The Marines and RCT, in the above example had feedback in the form of combat. The attacks from the Chinese should have provided information that the initial understanding of the situation was in error and both the Marines and RCT needed to adjust their world model. Information is often coming in while commanders are trying to orientate or even plan, which means they can do the observe stage while in the orientation or planning stage. In other words, there is no rigorous flow from one block of the loop to another but all blocks are passed through.

Boyd’s work forms the core of the US Marines’ war fighting doctrine.

“Through the high tempo of operations, constant shifting of forces and fluid, flexible action by ground and air elements working in close harmony, the Soviet-style enemy will rapidly lose control, cohesion, and momentum. With a loss of higher direction and a seemingly unpredictable foe able to undermine any action, disorder and paralysis occurs, leading to panic and a collapse of the Soviet opponent’s capacity and will to resist. The friendly force must emphasize superior speed, mobility, and tactical unity. The commander must acquire reliable and continuous intelligence while denying the same to his enemy. He must have superior mobile communications and units, which are logistically independent in the short term, to provide resupply flexibility, with only essential logistics located forward.” – Boyd.

The author is Dr, BEng(hons) PhD EurIng.
Foto: Wikimedia Commons


[Brown] “A New Conception of-War”. Ian T. Brown. 2018.
[Epps] “Relooking Unit Cohesion: A Sensemaking Approach”. Maj. Geoff Van Epps. Military Review. 2008.
[Boyd] “Patterns of Conflict”. Col. John Boyd.
[Boyd2] “Destruction and Creation. Col John Boyd. 1976.
[Manoogian] The Cognitive Bias Codex. John Manoogian III.

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