For a man described as “the greatest strategist you’ve never heard of”, there certainly is a lot written about John Boyd: Robert Corham’s biography, Frans Osinga’s book, plus a compilation of essays from noted Boyd enthusiasts.
Scarcely a critical word is ever spoken of Boyd and his theories, to say little of his acolytes and the Defense Reform Movement. That is, until a doctoral dissertation came my way, courtesy of Chris Manteuffel.
Boyd’s modern-day acolytes might recall the Loopy One’s frustration with expensive, heavy, twin-engine fighters, such as the F-4, F-111, F-14, and most notably, the F-15. According to Robert Corham’s account, Boyd was dismayed at the fact that increasingly expensive jet fighters put the US at a numerical disadvantage against the Soviets in Europe. Moreover, Boyd, with his energy-maneuverability theory, advocated vast numbers of small, lightweight fighters, capable of out-performing nimble Soviet jets in close-range dogfights. The lackluster performance of McDonnell-Douglas’ F-4 Phantom against North Vietnam’s antiquated MiG-19 and MiG-21 only bolstered Boyd’s argument.
Thus, the Lightweight Fighter Program was born, with Boyd describing the leading model, the YF-16, as a ”true fighter pilot’s aircraft”. The new lightweight fighter sported a bubble canopy–not unlike the classic P-51D Mustang–for excellent 360-degree visibility. And though the new fighter was devilishly maneuverable, it was notoriously unstable. This prompted Lockheed-Martin to develop a radical fly-by-wire system, in which on-board computers had authority over much of the aircraft’s control surfaces.
Boyd and the “Fighter Mafia” felt that high-end avionics, such as radar, needlessly weighed down the aircraft, making it less agile in a dogfight. (These “gold-plated” add-ons also, incidentally, made the aircraft more expensive, which limited the aircraft’s production run) Drawing on experience gained from dogfights over North Vietnam, Boyd lobbied to remove the radar from the YF-16, which would later become the US Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon.
In a poignant passage from Corham’s book, Boyd was crushed when the Air Force overrode him, installing the radar anyway. Boyd’s child had been defiled by what he viewed as corruption within the defense industry.
But we never really heard the other side of the story.
Boyd’s acolytes often neglect to mention that the F-15, so derided by Boyd, would rack up an unprecedented 104 air-to-air kills against zero losses. Nor do they mention that the F-16 would become an even better fighter, thanks to more reliable air-to-air missiles (the AIM-7 Sparrow was notoriously ineffective during the Vietnam War). And Boyd was probably shocked to learn that one of the first combat operations featuring his beloved F-16 wasn’t a dogfight, but a bombing run, with F-15s providing top cover. And though Boyd would have balked at the F-22 Raptor’s $150 million price tag and paltry production run of 187, it’s still more numerous than any fighter aircraft cranked out by Russia’s faltering aerospace industry since the end of the Cold War.
If you have a weekend to spare, I’d recommend checking out this dissertation; it’s about a lot more than fighter aircraft. I should also thank Chris for pointing out a master’s thesis I’ve long been searching for, which asserts that fighter pilot subculture is not unlike the corporate culture at Enron.
A productive weekend for sure.
Addendum: All this criticism of risk aversion needs to be balanced with some of the vignettes from Enron. Nassim Taleb, in The Black Swan, notes that successful businessmen often attribute their success to aggressive risk taking in their autobiographies. Nevertheless, Taleb rightly points out that America’s unemployment lines are filled with aggressive risk-takers as well (Enron and AIG, anyone?).
But, of course, not many people write books about bad investments, do they?