The pivot point

If you browse through the John Boyd Compendium on DNIPOGO, down near the bottom you’ll come across something called “Fast Transients.” If you open this briefing, you’ll soon find yourself immersed in Energy-Maneuverability charts and other technical fighter pilot stuff. If you stick with it, though, all of a sudden, with no prior warning, up pop Gödel, Heisenberg, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. One can only wonder what Boyd’s audiences, enured to years of talk about turn rates, negative energy states, and out-of-plane maneuvering, must have thought.

Although all three of Boyd’s biographers mention this briefing, whose correct title is New Conception for Air-to-Air Combat, it remains an oddity to most people, probably because Boyd didn’t include it in the Discourse on Winning and Losing. For students of Boyd’s development, however, it occupies a special place:

  1. New Conception is the first work by Boyd that mentions Gödel, Heisenberg, and the Second Law. While it is true that Boyd had been polishing “Destruction and Creation” for several years, Boyd actually released that paper to the world a month after New Conception.
  2. It forms an obvious bridge between the ideas of “Destruction and Creation” and Boyd’s work on land warfare that took form in Patterns of Conflict.
  3. More important, the fault line is clearly visible, in Chart 16.
  4. Most important, New Conception is the starkest example of the “dialectical engine” that Boyd proposed in “Destruction and Creation.” You don’t have to understand anything about energy-maneuverability to realize from charts 9-12 that Boyd was driving that methodology into greater and greater levels of complexity.
  5. Exactly as he predicted in “Destruction and Creation,” anomalies began to appear that required even more complexity to explain. Finally, Boyd realizes a new synthesis and proclaims it on the final chart: He who can handle the quickest rate of change survives. As Tom Christie notes, this is not a conclusion that one can derive from energy-maneuverability.
  6. Boyd makes expansive claims for his new insight — not only is this a “new conception for air-to-air combat” but also for waging war (chart 21). At this stage, of course, all he has to back this up is his intuition that he’s on to something new, elegant, and big.

So Boyd begins with geeky charts of fighter aircraft performance, has an epiphany, and is launched on the road to Patterns of Conflict. In fact, several charts from New Conception make an appearance, with various degrees of modification, at the beginning of Patterns.

It’s worth comparing New Conception carefully with Patterns. For example, the wording in chart 19 is similar to, but not exactly the same as that of Patterns 5.  Note that at this stage, Boyd still sees a fast transient as something an aircraft could generate (“natural hook”), but he also knows that in order to make good on his claim that he’s found a key to war, he has to get people into the loop. The OODA “loop” itself still lies in the future, but Boyd is already claiming that fast transients can produce mental and moral effects involving time scales, uncertainty, ambiguity, chaos, and these will prove decisive in war.

A PDF of New Conception for Air-to-Air Combat, from a new Apple Keynote rendering, is now available on our Articles page, from the menu above.

2 thoughts on “The pivot point

  1. A good (understandable) introduction to Godel.

    http://www.miskatonic.org/godel.html

    There is a lot to this, for me though what stands out, is that complexity
    begets, uncertainty.

    I think Boyd was using this analogy to make a point about complexity in a competitive
    environment, air combat being his forte.

    I can tell you from my own experience, that complexity impairs learning and the
    fundamental grasp and understanding of concepts. Ironically many of
    the Godel interpretative explanations are good examples in and of themselves.

    it sounds cliche, but the K.I.S.S. principle is most often very effective.

    Anything I’ve ever learned or come to understand, has always been on a
    very simple level, and from that departure point , you make further discoveries
    establish analogies, make connections, and move forward.

    Max

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