Who still reads Boyd?

Apparently the Russians. In “The Moscow School of hard knocks: Key pillars of Russian strategy,” 17 Jan 2017,  CNA analyst and former NDU program manager Michael Kofman
offers vivid illustrations of ideas that Boyd developed in his various papers and presentations (all available on our Articles page).  He doesn’t cite Boyd, but you’ll recognize the concepts.

I have no idea of how Kofman came across these ideas — Boyd has nine pages of sources at the end of Patterns of Conflict, so he isn’t claiming that he thought most of them up. Regardless of how Kofman discovered them, he establishes that they certainly do work, but unfortunately not for us.

For example, when describing Russia’s overall approach to strategy, he notes that

Russia’s leadership is pursuing an emergent strategy common to business practice and the preferred path of startups, but not appreciated in the field of security studies. The hallmarks of this approach are fail fast, fail cheap, and adjust. It is principally Darwinian, prizing adaptation over a structured strategy.

This should leap out at anyone even casually familiar with Boyd since Patterns of Conflict cites the theory of evolution by natural selection as one of its two foundations (war is the other).

Boyd’s whole approach to strategy was emergent. This is clear not only from how he uses strategy but in how he defines the term, at the end of Strategic Game:

A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.

In other words, there is an overall objective — it’s not just random actions, even very rapid actions, for action’s sake — and the pattern emerges as our “efforts” interact with the “unfolding and often unforeseen world.” You see a similar philosophy in Kofman’s description of the Russian approach:

This is confusing to follow when Russia’s goals are set, and yet operational objectives change as they run through cycles of adaptation. It is also a method whereby success begets success and failure is indecisive, simply spawning a new approach.

Compare to Patterns 132: “Establish focus of main effort together with other effort and pursue directions that permit many happenings, offer many branches, and threaten alternative objectives. Move along paths of least resistance (to reinforce and exploit success).”

Why take such an approach? Right after his definition of strategy, Boyd suggests an answer:

What is the aim or purpose of strategy? To improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture or as a nation-state) can survive on our own terms.

Kofman notes a similar purpose by Russia:

Russia does quite the opposite [of brute force], typically bidding the bare minimum required for coercive warfare, rather than jumping in chest deep. This is about seeking leverage to shape adversary behavior and coerce, not ownership, and the strategy holds when looking at the broader U.S.-Russia geopolitical confrontation. (emp. added)

Finally, Kofman explains, correctly in my view, that the reason we are unable to counter this strategy or evolve a similar one ourselves, is that our orientation is tightly locked:

The greatest handicap the U.S. policy community has is a series of cognitive biases about Russia and the actual strength of America’s hand in these conflicts. … Washington has been unable to get past a way of looking at Russia and the world that proved disabling.

In a second article,”A comparative guide to Russia’s use of force: Measure twice, invade once,” 16 February 2017, he elaborates on these themes:

In the Russian view, force must be used cheaply, deniably when necessary, and with emphasis placed on retaining agility, which requires holding the bulk of its forces in reserve. Military objectives are emergent, subjugated to a political and diplomatic strategy, and force is meant for coercion rather than conquest.

The Russian approach is truly agile:

More importantly, Moscow is comfortable with failure, preferring for it come fast and cheap so it can improvise the next evolution rather than investing in a failing plan. As I described in an earlier article, the overall Russian strategy is emergent, preferring a lean approach to deliberate planning.

Finally, he gives a wonderful instance of “operating inside the OODA loop”

[The Russians] penetrated the U.S. decision-making cycle and stayed there while the United States spent its time coming up with new catchy ways to describe Russian warfare. Vladimir Putin said long ago, “the weak get beaten.” The strong get beaten, too, when they’re being dumb.

Boyd offered that if you can operate this way, you can “Generate uncertainty, confusion, disorder, panic, chaos … to shatter cohesion, produce paralysis and bring about collapse.” (Patterns 132).  Seems so.

Incidentally, Kofman also makes a compelling case that Russia not only understands fourth generation warfare but has evolved ways to make it work. For example, from the first paper,

New generation warfare’s most salient points are on the employment of non-military instruments of national power in confrontation, asymmetric and indirect methods, and the de facto search for competitive advantages against much stronger adversaries. It moves the needle more toward the population as the center of gravity and away from direct force-on-force contests centered upon large military forces and firepower.

He does go to great lengths not to call it “4GW,” and studiously avoids any mention of previous work in the area, but compare this characterization of “new generation warfare” with, for example, Lind et al.’s original 1989 paper or T.X. Hammes’ The Sling and the Stone, and see what you think.

I strongly urge you to read both of Kofman’s articles. Don’t worry about the lack of credit to Boyd or Lind. The fact that Kofman can make such effective use of their ideas shows not only how powerful they are but also how deeply they’ve penetrated strategic thought. Superman comics it’s not, but it’s much further than Boyd might have hoped, on the 20th anniversary of his death.

[As far as I know, Boyd never briefed a Soviet or Russian audience, but from the mid-1980s, his material was widely copied and circulated. Copies have been available on the Internet for about 15 years.]

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4 thoughts on “Who still reads Boyd?

  1. Arguably Russia did get into Washington’s decision loop on both Syria and Ukraine.

    It’s always smart to know what the other side is thinking and to study their best minds. I’m sure the Russians know that.

    That’s a good reason why it’s best not to stir up tensions and to try to use diplomacy. A nation state war would be a disaster for both sides.

  2. I do, and have lost my copy of “Boyd The Fighter Pilot.” While on my leisure time
    off, I would frequently carry it around, in my local travels, and enjoyed re-reading
    it chapter, by chapter.

  3. Thanks Chet. I’m a bit old fashioned, I have a tablet, but prefer hard copy.
    I still have my Grant Hammond volume, the James Stevenson Pentagon, and Jim Burton.s.
    I hope to replace my copy, through ebay.
    I’ve had some increadably positve experiences dealing with ebay, and I regard
    that operation very, very highly.

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