Warfighting Brought to You by . . .

By Major Jeffrey L. Cowan, U.S. Air Force

. . . several people, but most notably, an unlikely source. The groundwork for the way the U.S. Marine Corps does business was laid by none other than a retired Air Force officer, the irascible John Boyd.

Co-Winner, Marine Corps Essay Contest
Republished with Permission.

Lieutenant John Boyd and his flight leader saw the dozen-odd MiGs take off in the distance from an airfield North of the Yalu River. They were going to chase and shoot them down for an easy victory. Boyd was certain of it; already he had gained a reputation as a great fighter pilot, even as a wingman. But Boyd never would be a combat flight leader; it was 1953, and the war would be over in a few months. He had only 22 of the necessary 30 combat missions to qualify.


The MiGs continued to climb, and Boyd stayed close to his leader, ensuring that he covered his "six." The silver prey eventually saw the hunters and began to react. One of the enemy planes maneuvered expertly and gained an advantage on Boyd. But because of his keen sense and an early "tallyho," Boyd executed a series of quick maneuvers, forcing the MiG to overshoot.

The MiG could out-climb, out-turn, and out-accelerate the darling of U.S. military aviation, the F-86 Sabre Jet.1 What the F-86 could do better, however, was transition between maneuvers more quickly than the MiG. The hydraulic boost to the flight control surfaces on the Sabre allowed the F-86 to transition quickly in the roll, pitch, and yaw axes. These fast transients and energy maneuverability (the ability to lose and gain energy quickly) stuck with Boyd and led to some of his most important concepts in both fighter combat and maneuver warfare.

Boyd's most widely known contribution was the observe-orient-decide-act cycle, more commonly known as the OODA loop. Current air combat tactics manuals have borrowed and customized the OODA formula. Regardless of the acronym used, any fighter pilot engaged in air combat first observes the adversary with exterior or onboard sensors, preferably the pilot's own vision. Then the pilot predicts a course of maneuver for the enemy based on an assessment of the enemy's energy state, knowledge of the enemy's tactics, aircraft, and relative advantage in position. Next, the pilot assesses a maneuver needed to defeat an adversary's attack or to counter an adversary's defensive move while on the offensive. Finally, a maneuver is accomplished with great speed, which often is unpredictable and asymmetrical. The cycle is then repeated. If a series of maneuvers can be accomplished with enough quickness to keep the adversary from reacting with appropriate counter-maneuvers, then victory is certain.

Boyd's OODA loop was only one in a long line of innovations he introduced over the course of his professional career. His culminating treatise, A Discourse on Winning and Losing [The Green Book] was never published officially; but it has been reproduced thousands of times. As Grant T. Hammond, Boyd's biographer, said, "He wanted to give things away-especially ideas."2

It was fitting that General Charles Krulak, then-Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, wrote the following eulogy for Colonel Boyd:

11 Mar 97

To the Editor:

I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Colonel John Boyd, USAF (Ret). How does one begin to pay homage to a warrior like John Boyd? He was a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war. Indeed, he was one of the central architects in the reform of military thought which swept the services, and in particular the Marine Corps, in the 1980s. From John Boyd we learned about competitive decision making on the battlefield-compressing time, using time as an ally. Thousands of officers in all our services knew John Boyd by his work on what was to be known as the Boyd Cycle or the OODA Loop. His writings and his lectures had a fundamental impact on the curriculum of virtually every professional military education program in the United States. . . .

So, how does one pay homage to a man like John Boyd? Perhaps best by remembering that Colonel Boyd never sought the acclaim won him by his thinking. He only wanted to make a difference in the next war . . . and he did. That ancient book of wisdom-Proverbs-sums up John's contribution to his nation: "A wise man is strong and a man of knowledge adds to his strength; for by wise guidance you will wage your war, and there is victory in a multitude of counselors." I, and his Corps of Marines, will miss our counselor terribly.

C. C. Krulak
General, U.S. Marine Corps
Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps3

The Vietnam War had a significant impact on the way the Marine Corps would prepare to fight in future wars. Unlike the other services, the Corps' experience on the battlefields of Vietnam led to a conclusion that the American way of attrition warfare was not a successful means of war fighting. While the other services were embroiled in preparing for the imminent battle that was going to take place in the sky, and on the ground, and on the high seas, the Marine Corps realized that it had neither the numbers nor the equipment to compete in this environment.

Civilian military theorist William S. Lind (in tuxedo) introduced the head of tactics at the Amphibious Warfare School, Marine Colonel Michael Wyly (decanting wine, at right of picture) to retired Air Force Colonel John Boyd in 1979. At left is Marine Brigadier General Paul K. Van Riper, another doctrine innovator.


According to a Brookings Institute study in 1976, the Marine Corps faced two dilemmas following the Vietnam War. The first was the chronic difficulty in meeting recruiting goals required to fill a 196,000-member Corps. The second was a belief by many that there was no utility for future large force amphibious operations, the Marine Corps' specialty.4 According to Brookings:

"The Corps must shift its principal focus from sea borne assault to a more appropriate mission, such as garrisoning America's remaining outposts in Asia or defending Central Europe. The golden age of amphibious warfare is now the domain of historians, and the Marine Corps no longer needs a unique mission to justify its existence.5"

The small size and cohesiveness of the Marine Corps made it an ideal vehicle for the concepts of Colonel Boyd's maneuver warfare in place the traditional attrition warfare.

Colonel Boyd's ideas on warfare could be categorized, according to William S. Lind, et al., in their article, "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation," as the third generation of warfare. The article divides modern warfare into three generations and lays the foundation for a fourth generation. According to Lind, technological advances drove the first two generations while the last two are driven primarily by ideas. Lind explains first- and second-generation warfare.

First generation warfare reflects tactics of the era of the smoothbore musket, the tactics of line and column. . . . Operational art in the first generation did not exist as a concept although it was practiced by individual commanders, most prominently Napoleon. . . . Second generation warfare was a response to the rifled musket, breechloaders, barbed wire, the machinegun, and indirect fire. Tactics were based on fire and movement, and they remained essentially linear . . . the principal change from first generation tactics was heavy reliance on indirect fire. . . . Second generation tactics remained the basis of U.S. doctrine until the 1980s and they are still practiced by most American units in the field.6

While the other services still were mired in second-generation warfare (attrition warfare), a few in the Marine Corps recognized the need to progress to the third generation, or maneuver warfare.

This can be traced to the battlefields of Europe in 1918. According to Lind:

[The] third generation of warfare was also a response to the increase in battlefield firepower. However, the driving force was primarily ideas. . . . Based on maneuver rather than attrition, third generation tactics were the first truly nonlinear tactics. The attack relied on infiltration to bypass and collapse the enemy's combat forces rather than seeking to close with and destroy them. . . . The basis of the operational art shifted from place (as in Liddell-Hart's indirect approach) to time. This shift was explicitly recognized . . . [in the work of Colonel John Boyd].7

Two significant factors emerge from analyzing fourth-generation warfare. The first arose as a lesson from the Gulf War: "If you fight the West, don't mass conventional forces in the open or in static defensive positions, where it is easy to separate friend from foe."8

Fourth-generation warfare will be characterized by an "increased reliance on irregular/urban combat, with intermingling of friendly, hostile and neutral parties."9 According to defense analyst Franklin C. Spinney, "the rise of fourth generation warfare implies an increased need for irregular warfighting skills . . . with decreased reliance on firepower/attrition in ground warfare . . . [and] decreased reliance on deep strike/strategic bombardment in air warfare."10 Though the ideas of maneuver warfare are only some 80 years old, the emergence of a fourth generation of warfare will require new ideas in war fighting.

Lind identified four elements that carry over from the third to the fourth generation of warfare:

  • The first is mission orders. . . .

  • Second is decreasing dependence on centralized logistics. . . .

  • Third is more emphasis on maneuver. Mass, of men or firepower, will no longer be an overwhelming factor. In fact, mass may become a disadvantage, as it will be easy to target. Small, highly maneuverable, agile forces will tend to dominate. . . . [and]

  • Fourth is a goal of collapsing the enemy internally rather than physically destroying him.11

Boyd's ideas are the basis of the current Marine Corps warfighting philosophy. According to Lind, his ideas should have a lasting impact. It took nearly ten years for Boyd's ideas to become the basis of Marine Corps warfighting doctrine—an ironic and unintended consequence of one retired Air Force colonel's work.

Many senior ranking military officers in the Pentagon were fortunate to hear Boyd's four-to five-hour briefing on "Patterns of Conflict." Several later spent a significant amount of time with Boyd; two of them being then-Marine Corps Commandant General Robert H. Barrow and future Commandant Lieutenant General P. X. Kelley.12

The concepts of maneuver warfare as the Marine Corps adopted them had their roots in two individuals, one a civilian military theorist and the other a Marine: William Lind and Colonel Michael Wyly. In 1979, Colonel Wyly was head of tactics at the Amphibious Warfare School (AWS). His boss, Marine Major General Bernard Trainor, mandated that he develop a course of tactics that was out on the fringes of existing doctrine.

After experiencing the futility of attrition warfare as a platoon commander in Vietnam, he secured permission to change the way tactics were being instructed at AWS and commenced teaching free-playing war games in lieu of lecture. Unfortunately, this new curriculum would make five hours of planned lectures irrelevant.13

In 1979, contemporary to Colonel Wyly's war games, Lind was working on a version of maneuver warfare. Unlike Wyly, Lind was familiar with Boyd's work. Lind, as well as Army Lieutenant Colonel Huba Wass de Czege (founder of the School of Advanced Military Studies [SAMS] at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and a Boyd protégé), was instrumental in initiating the Army's doctrinal debate regarding active defense for the European theater. Lind ran into Wyly while observing one of the battalion exercises at the AWS. Wyly approached Lind and stated, "I know what I am against-attrition warfare-but I have yet to really formulate a program I am in favor of, so I am experimenting, and teaching from history and real experience-instead of from manuals."14

This exchange began many years of debate and controversy in the Marine Corps. During this exchange, Lind told Wyly about a retired Air Force colonel doing the same type of work. Thus commenced an 18-year relationship between Boyd and Wyly.

In 1979 Boyd began his relationship with the professional development and training of Marine Corps officers. That year was the first he was invited to speak at the Amphibious Warfare School. The first occasion was momentous for a small group of officers who stayed to hear Colonel Boyd talk late into the evening.15 Boyd's ideas on maneuver warfare, however, were not accepted immediately. Like many evolutionary changes, "his ideas were generally shunned by the hierarchy and embraced by a slowly growing number of junior officers, mostly captains. . . . Today those captains are colonels and generals or civilians."16 The Marine Corps did not embrace Boyd's maneuver warfare ideas until another individual came on the scene.

The senior Marine Corps officer who did the most to foster and bring about acceptance of these maneuver warfare concepts was General Alfred Gray. General Gray, at the time a brigadier general and head of the Marine Corps Development Center, was responsible for generating doctrine for the Corps.17 Not until he became commanding general of the 2d Marine Division did maneuver warfare concepts begin to be established. By the early 1980s, Wyly, Lind, and a small coterie of junior officers began developing concepts for what would become the Marine model of maneuver warfare.

A small group of these captains cornered their boss one night in the officer's club and implored him to move the Marine Corps to this mode of warfare. General Gray began inviting both Lind and Boyd to evaluate and teach maneuver warfare concepts at the 2d Marine Division.18

Between 1979 and 1993, The Marine Corps Gazette published more than 50 articles concerning maneuver warfare. The Marine Corps of the early 1980s was concerned, as were the other services, with facing the Soviet Union. The Corps knew it was outnumbered and outgunned for wherever this conflict might occur. According to Colonel Wyly, "John's ideas gave us something realistic we could do toward surviving and winning. We needed something we could believe in, and John's ideas gave it to us."19

The first of these articles was Lind's "Defining Maneuver Warfare for the Marine Corps," which laid out the fallacy of firepower-attrition type warfare. According to him, "the conflict is more physical than mental. Efforts focus on the tactical level with goals set in terms of terrain. Defenses tend to be linear, attacks frontal, battles set-piece and the movement pre-planned and slow."20 Lind attempted to show the stark differences between attrition and maneuver warfare. "The goal [of maneuver warfare at the operational level] is destruction of the enemy's vital cohesion—disruption—not by piece-by-piece physical destruction. The objective is the enemy's mind not his body. The principal tool is moving forces into unexpected places at surprisingly high speeds."21

The other notable difference that Lind cited is in the use of firepower. These early aspects of maneuver warfare saw firepower as merely a facilitator to maneuver. In this respect, firepower is used to exploit enemy weakness, enabling a force to maneuver and then later destroy the bypassed enemy forces.

Lind wrote: "The Boyd Theory is the theory of maneuver warfare."22 Maneuver warfare is not only the action on the battlefield giving it identity, but also the result or objective of breaking down the opponent mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. Lind concluded that maneuver warfare is relevant, especially to the Marine Corps. "It is relevant, because maneuver warfare is the most promising tool for the side with fewer numbers and less weight of metal . . . an attrition contest is not promising for the outnumbered forces, . . . maneuver makes quantitative factors less important by striking at the enemy's mind."23

What finally turned years of struggle into something concrete was General Gray's publication of FMFM (Fleet Marine Force Manual)-1, Warfighting, a document that would be the cornerstone for all other Marine Corps doctrinal publications. A small group, including retired Colonel Boyd, was instrumental in producing this seminal publication. For many, it offered a radical departure from the ideas of attrition. FMFM-1, now MCDP-1, offered all Marines a common purpose and direction. "Maneuver warfare is a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy's cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope."24

Colonel Boyd should be considered one of the most important military theorists of the United States. Though his ideas permeate disparate disciplines such as business and the military art, only a few now know his name. He would want it that way. His ideas had no proprietorship. This dedication to ideas—from publishing Aerial Attack Study, to inventing Energy Maneuverability Theory, to being a Pentagon reformer, to, finally, writing The Green Book—was the thread of his life.

Boyd gave much to the Air Force in service and legacy. It is in the U.S. Marine Corps, however, that his ideas on warfare have had a major impact. This would not have bothered Colonel Boyd. Time will tell whether his concepts of warfare will be valid in the predictable uncertainty of future warfare.


1. Lt Col John N. Dick Jr., USAF, "Corona Ace Interview with Col John R. Boyd," U.S. Air Force Oral History Interview, January 1977, pp. 14-21.

2. Grant T. Hammond, Ph.D., Telephone interview by author, 15 December 1999. Professor Hammond has been on the faculty of the U.S. Air Force Air War College for 11 years. He recently finished a 450-page manuscript on Colonel Boyd titled, On Winning and Losing: John Boyd and American Security. [DNI editor's note: published as The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security, Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.]

3. Hammond, On Winning and Losing, pp. 2-3. General Krulak wrote this obituary, which was published in Inside the Pentagon. Colonel Boyd died on 9 March 1997.

4. Martin Binkin and Jeffrey Record, Where Does the Marine Corps Go From Here? (Washington, DC.: Brookings Institute, 1976) p. 3.

5. Binkin and Record, Where Does the Marine Corps Go from Here? p. 88.

6. William S. Lind, "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation," Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989, pp. 22-23.

7. Lind, "The Changing Face of War," pp. 23-24.

8. Franklin C. Spinney, "Aviation from the Sea," downloaded from America Online, http://www.chetrichards.com. 11 November 1999.

9. Spinney, "Aviation from the Sea," p. 1.

10. Spinney, "Aviation from the Sea," p. 1.

11. Lind, "The Changing Face of War," pp. 24-25.

12. Getler, The Washington Post, 4 January 1981, p. A3.

13. Col. Michael Wyly, USMC (Ret.), e-mail interview by author, 11 December 1999.

14. Wyly interview.

15. Wyly interview.

16. Wyly interview.

17. According to Dr. Donald F. Bittner, professor of history, Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, Virginia. At the time, the Quantico command was called the Marine Corps Development and Education Command (MCDEC). It had two major components, the Education Center and the Development Center. The former focused on education and training and the latter on equipment and doctrine.

18. Wyly interview.

19. Wyly interview.

20. Lind, "The Changing Face of War," p. 55.

21. Lind, "The Changing Face of War," p. 56.

22. Lind, "The Changing Face of War," p. 56.

23. Lind, "The Changing Face of War," p. 57.

24. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, June 1997), p. 73.

Major Cowan is deployed in Kuwait. Until recently, he was attached to the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nevada. He is a graduate of the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, Virginia, and was an A-10 instructor at the 354th Squadron, Davis Monthon Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona.