John Boyd and the Reformers


No, not a band.

COL John Boyd is famous for his his OODA Loop theory. But the OODA Loop didn’t spring fully formed from his mind one day. It was the evolution of his thinking on air combat that lead to his E/M theory, which laid the intellectual groundwork for OODA Loop.

Nor was Boyd alone. He’s part of the famous Fighter Mafia. Air Force Magazine has a nice overview of the Fighter Mafia, and how they led the reform movement of the 1970s and 80s.

The Military Reformers were an obscure lot when they first emerged on the national stage around 1980. There were only about a dozen of them, mostly retired officers and midlevel systems analysts from the Pentagon and the defense industry. The outside world had never heard of them. They were not even called “Reformers” yet.

Their basic message was that the US armed forces were addicted to high technology and complex weapon systems. Such weapons were so costly that relatively few could be bought. Complexity made them hard to use and maintain, leading to readiness problems and reduced sortie rates. Even worse, the Reformers said, these complicated weapons were not as effective in combat as simpler, cheaper ones.

The Reformers took on tanks, missiles, and ships, but their primary target was tactical aircraft. In 1980, their home base was the Tactical Airpower division of the Program Analysis and Evaluation section of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. At the center of the movement were three individuals:

  • John R. Boyd, retired Air Force colonel, air combat theorist, consultant to PA&E, and the spiritual leader of the Reformers.
  • Pierre M. Sprey, engineer and PA&E systems analyst, who, along with Boyd, had been a key instigator of the Lightweight Fighter program in the 1970s.
  • Franklin C. “Chuck” Spinney, who had worked for Boyd as a captain and followed him to PA&E. His briefing, “Defense Facts of Life,” became the manifesto of the reform movement.

These three were protected and supported by Thomas P. Christie, head of the Tac Air division. He was an ally of Boyd’s from previous days and had recruited him for PA&E.

Read the whole thing. In the closing paragraphs, you’ll see a well intentioned group with a good cause go off the rails.

Here’s the thing about most complex weapon systems- they’re complex for a reason. While there are notable exceptions (say, F-35, F-111, LCS), most of the time complexity in a weapon system is driven  by a perceived need to counter a specific threat or provide a specific capability.

Why was the F-15 so big? Because the Air Force in Vietnam had been frustrated by the relatively short range of the Phantom, and the need for a long range powerful radar. Long range drives up the size of an airplane. And a long range radar requires a large radar antennae, which dictates to a certain degree the size of the airplane. It was specifically to address shortcomings that the Air Force accepted the cost and complexity that came with those capabilities.

And speaking of John Boyd, how about John Boyd speaking?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “John Boyd and the Reformers

  1. As pointed out at Phib’s place. The USAF is still under the Strategic Bombing spell. Boyd had some influence while they had a place at DOD, rather than USAF, but that’s gone, and the stupidity that drove USAF before is back to the fore. The idiots can’t even choose a decent crest for the EM saucer cap, and we’re supposed to think they have their act together?

    I do have trouble with the idea that some have about the F-15. It’s large, but it’s purpose requires it. It was built as an air superiority fighter. The Strike Eagle tries to make the thing into something it was never meant to be, and, in my opinion, never should have been built. Horner used the F-15C as CAP because that’s what it was built for. Some of the comments over there were simply silly.

    Yes the Air Force Mag article is biased. No surprise. The fingerprints of the Bomber Generals are still all over the USAF. That’s the biggest reason the A-10 will be killed. It’s also the biggest reason TacAir should be given to the Army, then teh AF can go away and play it’s own provincial games and let the adults get on with business.

    • QM, what’s wrong with a fighter/bomber? Some of our best designs evolved from fighter to fighter/bomber, including the venerable P-51, P-47, P-38, P/F-84, and F-4. That’s not to mention Navy designs.

      The F-15 frame was big enough & fast enough to hang tons of bombs on it, and with the GIB targeting is fun & easy! Drops the bombs, and you still have an excellent air-superiority fighter.

      The F-16 did a good job too, but the Eagle worked out better.

      But all of this derived from taking a great design, and modifying it without great penalty. This is distinct from designing said extra/new capabilities from the start. Like the F-35. I suspect it will turn out to be an effective aircraft, but will have cost a lot more money than if we developed the enhanced semi-stealth F-15, F-16, or F-18 designs which have been proposed. Hell, for all the money they spent, they might have well kept the F-22 line open.

    • The Strike Eagle, while maybe not a perfect platform, is widely regarded as hugely successful, both as an aircraft, AND as a procurement program.

    • Casey, the problem with the AF is the AF itself. A lot of people here don’t know what the AF was like when the Bomber Generals actually ran large commands. A bit after I was born, my father had to take a trip from Huter AFB (now AAF) to Asheville, NC to re-enlist to escape SAC. SAC was sorry command to be in for a lot of people, and he had had enough of LeMay’s vision of the AF. The major equipment problem in Vietnam is the Bomber Generals prevented the maintenance of a balanced AF and close air support suffered, and that was in addition to the fact that the 7th AF leaders made CAS a very low priority. They wanted to bomb North Vietnam, which was fine, but the war was going to be won or lost in the field in South Vietnam. I knew a number of people who served in Vietnam as Officers and Senior NCOs that told me that they would get the Navy or Marines if it was at all possible because of the AF’s sorry attitude towards CAS.

      There is nothing wrong with FBs. The AF wants nothing but those things while the Warthog is superior to either the Strike Eagle or F-16 as CAS platforms. The AF wants to relive the 8th AF fighter command experiences over Europe, and that’s fine. There is a need for that. Let them establish the air environment needed by Army TacAir and they will all be happy as clams, and so will the Army.

  2. xbradtc, I am surprised to hear you call the F-15 design complex. From my understanding, it was designed to be as simple as possible. Simple planform, airfoil, air intake, etc. The Eagle was very simple compared to the previous generation.

    Or were you referring to internal systems?

    • While the F-15 may look clean and simple, it is aerodynamically quite a bit advanced over its predecessors.

      And as you allude, a great deal of effort went into making it simple to operate and maintain, both of which tended to, ironically, make it more complex.