John Boyd and the American Art of War
Melbourne: Exisle Publishing, 2021
Hardcover 360pp RRP $49.99
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, April 2021
This book introduces the reader to the life and work of Colonel John Boyd [1927-1997], US Air Force. He was a fighter pilot who served in the Korean War, and later became a student of military doctrines on strategy and tactics, He suggested many ways in which the American Armed Forces should go to war - especially if the Cold War with the USSR should become a 'hot' war involving the United States and European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
Boyd is described in the book as he claimed himself to be ‘a most influential military theorist’. At the same time, Robinson writes, he became known in the Pentagon as 'The Mad Major', 'Ghengis John' and 'that unprintable Boyd', and as a ’maverick by nature’. He was critical of the doctrines in place in the US Army following the Vietnam War - which Boyd claimed the Americans lost, and of what he described as the 'Mythology of Attrition' Warfare, which would have been the first choice of many US and NATO commanders. It was the doctrine that Boyd claimed had been practised by Douglas Haig and innumerable other officers from time immemorial and up to the Vietnam War.
The American High Command realised that the lessons learned in the wars America and its Allies had fought since 1945 had no relevance to a possible future war against Russia over the sweeping European Plain that stretched from the Ural Mountains to the Netherlands. Senior Army officers looked to any of their Allies who had had experience in that situation - which meant senior officers of the German Wehrmacht who fought between 1941 and 1945, and who 'knew the country' - the likely enemy and its military doctrines.
Many of these officers had been interned by the Allied Powers in 1946-1947. The Americans had a political rationale for changing their relationship with Germany, because they saw it as a vital component in their strategy for preventing any adventurous Russian military or political leaders striking westward into the heart of Germany. This meant accepting the re-armament of the largest and richest State in NATO, although this meant gaining the support of the German officers who had fought against Russia [and the Americans] between 1941 and 1945. Many of these German Commanders from World War 2, were given early release if they had been convicted of war crimes, and who were prepared to act as paid consultants. Many, eager to reinforce the myth of the ‘Clean Wehmacht’ - that it had never been involved in any German war crimes, accepted the offer of becoming advisers, helping plan American and NATO strategies that would be usable should World War 3 break out. Especially, they wanted an alternative to the doctrines being promulgated, by Boyd and others, some of which had found favour with the US Marine Corps, but not within US Army High Command.
Boyd had put forward a doctrine based on the concept of 'Mobile Warfare', which was built up from his research into fighter aircraft tactics. The alternatives being considered by the US/NATO High Commands were many: Attrition Warfare, Forward, Static, and Active Defence, Positional Warfare, and AirLand Battle. All these are detailed by Robinson.
Boyd had built his doctrinal model, Maneuver Warfare, around a tactical model designed to be used by fighter pilots, which was an application of the 'O-O-D-A Loop', a 4-stage process of using 'Observation / Opportunity / Decision-making / Action' to give pilots an advantage over the main Russian fighter, the MiG-21, which had better performance characteristics than the F-15 and F-16, U.S. aircraft in use at that time - that is: post-Korean War. From the discussion on these various doctrines, it appears that both Boyd and the American Army Staff officers have not understood the shortcomings in some of their suggested doctrines.
It seemed that Boyd had assumed that a tactical model, designed to be used by fighter-pilots operating in relatively small actions of a few aircraft on each side, can be expanded to a strategic model applicable in combats involving several Corps of troops, perhaps 100 000 men, with tanks, medium and heavy artillery and effective air-to-ground support.
Senior Army commanders had looked to officers of a beaten Army, forgetting that history is written by the victors. The losers will try to revitalise their reputations by blaming political interference or sheer weight of numbers, or some other reasons for their defeat, as Halder et al did, when giving advice to NATO and US Army commanders and planning staff. They were, it seems, amply rewarded by their sponsors, for their efforts.
For both, these oversights were unforgivable. They smacked of the situation faced by many Armies, and especially those of Great Britain and France in 1914 and 1939-40: To fight any war using the strategies and techniques that had led to near-disaster, In the post-Vietnam era, according to the author, the Americans turned for advice and guidance to men who claimed they knew how to win, in conditions and with doctrines and equipment that had led to defeat in 1945 that were completely different.
Stephen Robinson is an officer in the Australian Army Reserve, a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon and the Australian Command & Staff College, and is also a recognised historian, so he has the background and experience to critique commentary on military doctrine, which is the thrust of John Boyd's research and writing. This book is well constructed, and easy to read, especially for those who have background in Command or Staff positions in any Armed Service. Much was learned from reading it to compile this review, and no doubt others of lesser experience will gain the same benefits.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.