Boyd by Robert Coram


Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s more than a history of warfare both in and outside the Pentagon. It’s a look at human nature and the nature of bureaucracies. It’s a story of hope but it also makes you think that hope is misplaced. If it was up to me Robert Coram would get the Book of the Year Award for “Boyd“.

320 pages

Excerpts From My Kindle

[my comments]
Foreign pilots training at Nellis as part of the Mutual Defense Assistance Pact took copies back to their countries, where it was studied as if it were Holy Writ. They agreed that the U.S. Air Force was truly an amazing organization if a mere captain could write such a document. Within ten years the “Aerial Attack Study” became the tactics manual for air forces around the world. It changed the way they flew and the way they fought. Forty years after it was written, even with the passage of the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, nothing substantial has been added to it.  – location 1895-1899

Already Secretary of Defense McNamara and his Whiz Kids had cancelled the F-105 program; no more of the low-level, high-speed nuclear bombers would be built. McNamara had ordered the Air Force to buy F-4 Phantoms. But Phantoms originally were built for the Navy; they were interceptors designed to take off from a carrier and shoot down whatever might be threatening Navy vessels. Air Force pilots ridiculed it as a “Band-Aid aircraft” and said every bend in its wing and every angle in its tail covered a design flaw (which was true). It had two engines and two crew members-one too many of everything. And its shape-my God, that bulky, fat fuselage with the bent wings and angled tail! Air Force pilots said the F-4 proved that with enough power, anything could be made to fly, that if it were pushed sideways through the air, the drag coefficient was no different than in normal flight. – location 2185-2191

While the denizens of Wright-Pat have always had a very high opinion of themselves, that opinion is not universally shared. A story is told of how a group of former high-ranking German officers was touring military facilities in America and was taken to Wright-Pat. The officers saw the labs and talked with professorial officers and experienced the lofty mustiness of the base, and then one of the German officers turned to his host and quietly said, “Now I know why we lost the war.” His host from Wright-Pat smiled and waited. “We had two bases like this.” – location 2433-2437

Boyd knew that, left to its own devices, the bureaucracy always came up with an aircraft such as the F-111. The Air Force looked at technology rather than the mission. And if they did consider the mission, it was always the fashionable mission of the day. – location 2529-2531

The Air Force was seduced by swing-wing technology, a technology that ultimately would ruin two generations of airplanes. (The under-powered Navy F-14 Tomcat is a swing wing and the performance is so poor that pilots call it the “Tom Turkey.” The B-1 Bomber, one of the most trouble-plagued aircraft in the Air Force inventory, is a swing wing. And the U.S. version of the SST, which Boyd and his friends managed to have cancelled, would have been a swing wing.) – location 2533-2536

If Boyd briefed this- he showed, for instance, that the F-4 Phantom was too heavy and did not have enough wing to win a turning fight with a MiG-21 at high altitude-and he was wrong, it would be the end of E-M. If he said, as the E-M charts showed, that the only place for an F-4 to successfully fight the MiG-21 was at low altitude and high speed, he had better be right. And the F-111 chart was one that would cause serious heartburn to any general who saw it-the chart was solid red: Soviet aircraft could defeat the F-111 at any altitude, at any airspeed, in any part of the flight envelope. – location 2670-2674

Sprey realized, as had Christie before him, that being Boyd’s friend meant dedicating one’s life to Boyd’s causes. Very few men were ever invited by Boyd to join forces with him. None ever refused. Each sensed intuitively that he was being offered a rare gift. Each was to pay a terrible price for his friendship with Boyd. Each would have paid more. – location 3259-3261

But the P-51 was designed for range and speed, not maneuvering. It became the premier fighter of World War II only because the British-over the vehement objections of the WrightPat bureaucracy-replaced its puny power plant with a big Rolls-Royce engine. The F-86 was designed as a high-altitude interceptor. To reach high altitude, it had to have big wings, and because it had big wings, it became, serendipitously, a great maneuvering fighter.) – location 3304-3307

During the summer of 1967, the Soviets introduced two new fighters: the swing-wing MiG-23 and the MiG-25. American fighter pilots laughed at the MiG-23 and said the only good thing about the F-111 was that the Soviets had copied it and thereby lost at least one generation of aircraft to bad technology. – location 3542-3544

But the Air Force inflated the MiG-25 into a serious threat. Word leaked out that the aircraft could reach Mach 2.8 and altitudes far above the ceiling of the F-X. What the Air Force did not reveal was that if the MiG-25 reached Mach 2.8 it immediately had to land because the fuel was exhausted and the engine had to be replaced. Nevertheless, the “threat” of the MiG-25 meant the F-X suddenly had a much greater priority. – location 3544-3547

History has proven Boyd correct in picking the fixed-wing design. The variable-sweep wing was one of the major aviation engineering blunders of the century. Hollywood and the movie Top Gun notwithstanding, the F-14 Tomcat is a lumbering, poor performing, aerial truck. It weighs about fifty-four thousand pounds. Add on external fuel tanks and missiles and the weight is about seventy thousand pounds. It is what fighter pilots call a “grape”: squeeze it in a couple of hard turns and all the energy oozes out. That energy cannot be quickly regained, and the aircraft becomes an easy target. Navy admirals strongly discourage simulated battles between the F-14 and the latest Air Force fighters. But those engagements occasionally take place. And when they do, given pilots of equal ability, the F-14 always loses. – location 3745-3751

Boyd’s ERs from Southeast Asia are close to perfect. It is worth noting that in the cauldron of a combat environment, a place where men reveal what they are made of, and a place where-as his predecessor as base commander proved-some men collapse from stress, Boyd performed flawlessly. But now he was going back to the Pentagon, back to the labyrinth of the Blue Suiters. – location 4474-4476

Two of the most important [new aircraft] are in the Air Force and the Air Force doesn’t want either. You will have a fight.” “What are they?” “The lightweight fighter and the A-10.” After reading Hallock’s detailed analysis of the two projects, Schlesinger agreed. Schlesinger’s decision was the third serendipitous event that kept alive the lightweight fighter. Once again, remarkably, the project had been rescued. First there was Packard’s decision to start a prototype program. Without Packard’s decision, the lightweight fighter would have been stillborn. Second, when Colonel Lyle Cameron, head of the Air Force prototype selection committee and friend of Pierre Sprey, began looking for projects to prototype, the Fighter Mafia, working under the camouflage of Riccioni’s study, was ready and handed him detailed specifications for the lightweight fighter. And now Hallock had recommended the lightweight fighter as a top priority of the new SecDef. – location 4503-4510
[I’m an military aviation nerd who grew up with a copy of “Air International” magazine and built models airplanes in the basement. All through the 1970s and 1980s, it was the aircraft that Boyd and his accolades designed and built that caught my attention, and latter would catch my camera at all the airshows I attended.]

Boyd liked ambiguity, believing it opened new vistas and led in unexpected directions. Burton was uncomfortable with Boyd’s lack of fix. “You are taking advantage of the fact words can have more than one meaning,” Burton said. “You are using words and ideas and concepts in ways that people don’t use those words and ideas and concepts.” – location 5131-5134

Boyd thought analysis could lead to understanding but not to creativity. Taken to the extreme, he thought analysis was an onanistic activity, gratifying only to the person doing the analyzing. He talked of “paralysis by analysis” and said Washington was a city of ten thousand analysts and no synthesizers. “They know more and more about less and less until eventually they know everything about nothing” is how he put it. – location 5182-5185

The Art of War became Boyd’s Rosetta stone, the work he returned to again and again. It is the only theoretical book on war that Boyd did not find fundamentally flawed. He eventually owned seven translations, each with long passages underlined and with copious marginalia. The translations of Samuel Griffith and, later, Thomas Cleary were his favorites. He insisted the Acolytes read and reread the book. – location 5295-5298

As Boyd studied German tactics, words such as Schwerpunkt and Fingerspitzengefuhl became everyday expressions. Neither translates well. Schwerpunkt means the main focus of effort. On a deeper reading it is the underlying goal, the glue that holds together various units. Fingerspitzengefuhl means a fingertip feel. Again, the fuller meaning applies to a leader’s instinctive and intuitive sense of what is going on or what is needed in a battle or, for that matter, in any conflict. – location 5339-5342

The Atlantic published “The Muscle-Bound Superpower” in the October 2, 1979, issue. – location 5631-5632
[James Fallows]

Then, in May, Fallows weighed in with another piece titled “America’s High-Tech Weaponry.” He told of Spinney’s “extraordinary report” and quoted Sprey at length. – location 5662-5663


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