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Civilians unacquainted with the ways of the Building have only vague ideas about what it is the Pentagon does.  They think the real business of the Pentagon has something to do with defending America.  But it does not.  The real business of the Pentagon is buying weapons.

As a general once said, "Our job is to see that the flow of money to the contractor is not interrupted."

Strategist  John Boyd, Colonel USAF, was not only a fighter pilot but an ace bureaucratic desk jockey as well.  Some of the battles he fought in the Building can teach you a lot about our military, bureaucratic, and corporate  systems.

Boyd was the chief planner behind the F-15 and F-16 fighter planes and envisioned the Light Weight Fighter specification that led to the F-16 and F/A-18.  

He believed the Pentagon always leaned toward Bigger-Higher-Faster-Farther within a contracting system designed for "protecting the farm," the billion dollar weapons systems contracts and contractors, more than serving the needs of the soldiers, the mission, and the nation.  

The weapons-buying business has few checks and balances; from beginning to end it is an advocacy proceeding.  Not only do military rewards and promotions go to the officer in charge of a major program but he almost always finds a high-level job in the defense industry upon retirement, often with the company whose project he ushered through the Pentagon.  This is the true nature of the Building.

Study after study has shown that the higher in rank a military officer ascends, the less likely he is to make trouble, let alone change.  Boyd made plenty of change but he never made General.  How could he, in a Pentagon system which conducts tests not to save the lives of American servicemen but to buy more weapons?

In the long fight over adequate testing of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle [how's it performing in Iraq and Afghanistan?], Boyd advised the point man, Jim Burton, to follow three rules:

The first was the most difficult and most familiar to anyone who had worked with Boyd.  "Jim, you can never be wrong.  You have to do your homework.  If you make a technical statement, you better be right.  If you are not, they will hose you.  And if they hose you, you've had it.  Because once you lose credibility and you are no longer a threat, no one will pay attention to what you say.  They won't respect you and they won't pay attention to you."

The second thing Boyd told Burton was not to criticize the Bradley itself.  "If you do, you are lumped in with all the other Bradley critics.  It is the testing process you are concerned with."

While Boyd and Burton might make such a distinction, the Army could not.  To them, criticizing the testing process was the same as criticizing the Bradley.  But the difference in the two approaches is not at all subtle.  By staying focused on the testing methodology, Burton was protecting the lives of American soldiers;  he held the mental and moral high ground.  

Finally, Boyd counseled Burton not to talk to the media or to Congress, to stay inside the system.  If you go outside the system, he said, you will be viewed as just another whistle blower.  And whistle blowers get no respect;  they get others to help them do something that they can't do themselves.

The issue of testing is key:  does the system perform?  We all know the military and their contractors have long reputations for not giving value for the dollar, the latest example being the Coast Guard refitting fiasco featured on "Sixty Minutes" tonight [5/20/07].

The real business of the Pentagon is buying weapons.  And the military has a pathological aversion to rigorous testing procedures because in almost every instance the performance of the weapon or weapons system is far below what it is advertised to be and, thus, far below the performance used to sell Congress on the idea in the first place.  Weapons development is inherently risky and the costs can be difficult to predict.  But the big problem is what Spinney calls "front-loading," the practice of deliberately underestimating the costs in order for Congress to fund the program.  The weapons-buying business has few checks and balances; from beginning to end it is an advocacy proceeding.

One of Boyd's fundamental dictums when waging bureaucratic war was to use the other person's information against him.  One application was understating everything in a negative report on a defective weapon so that any revisions would only make the conclusions more damning.  Another was the "reverse pump":

He told Burton to keep in mind that when he wrote a memo, it was not for the person to whom it was addressed, but rather to the generals.  Boyd called this a "reverse pump."  Burton was feeding information to the people spying on him.  This meant that accuracy in everything Burton said and wrote was even more critical.  Again and again Boyd came back to one of his earliest admonitions to Burton.  "Do your homework.  If they hose you one time, they will never again respect you."

a third was responding to an avalanche of paperwork by generating more paperwork back up the chain of command.

Boyd fought for the right tools for the right job, arguing not so much against technology as against the improper use of technology.  

But the Pentagon was a place where:

The Air Force has never made a serious study of warfare because every historically based effort to do so has come to the inescapable conclusion that the use of air power should be consistent with or - better yet - subordinate to the ground commander's battle plans, a conclusion that argues against the existence of an independent Air Force.  And since Air Force doctrine is hardwired to the idea of independence from ground forces, this branch of the service remains unable to do any original thinking about how airpower should be integrated into the strategy of war.

Turf wars broke out because "We don't care what the Russians are doing.  We only care about what the Navy is doing."

And Boyd was the only one in the Pentagon actually studying strategy, tactics, and how to win wars.

Boyd and his group of Reformers, the Acolytes, followed his mantra:

"Machines don't fight wars, people do, and they use their minds."  He also preached, "People, ideas, hardware - in that order."  Thus, machines and technology must serve the larger purpose.

Boyd's brief, "Patterns of Conflict,"

laid out a framework for assessing different technological approaches.  It promoted the application of scientific and engineering knowledge to human needs.  "Patterns" is about the mental and moral aspects of human behavior in war.  That technology should reinforce that behavior, not drive it, was the argument of the Reformers.   The Reformers believed that America's technological advantages were being used incorrectly and had, in fact, become a  liability.

Boyd also believed  "You can't change big bureaucracies until they have a disaster."

I read about Boyd because I don't want to wait for that disaster.

Notes from John Boyd;  The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram
Boston;  Little, Brown, 2002
ISBN 0-316-88146-5

You can learn more about John Boyd and his work at and

Originally posted to gmoke on Sun May 20, 2007 at 09:11 PM PDT.


Is war business and is business war?

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Comment Preferences

  •  great diary (6+ / 0-)

    Just finished readying Coram's Boyd biography the other day.  Was just a damn innovative thinker, its amazing that the Marine Corps is the only service that requires its officers to study his works in training (though his theories of air combat are used by Air Forces all over the world).

    William Lind, the conservative columnist (and former Gary Hart defense staffer) writes about military affairs from a Boydian perspective-- absolutely worth reading.

  •  I worked for those bastards, and even got a (6+ / 0-)

    patent for nontoxic metals in explosive mixtures.  Htey give not a shit, and I can attest.  Warmest regards, Doc.

  •  Good Diary -- (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    devtob, susie dow, YoyogiBear

    Highly recommend James Carroll's "House of War" -- a bit long winded which makes it a slog, but worth the effort.

    From the excerpts you provided not sure Boyd's conclusions about the Air Force are completely in sync with Carroll's but taken together from their different perspectives may well provide a more complete picture.  FWIW analysis of the effectiveness of air bombing campaigns from WWII on consistently conclude that they aren't.  So, back when the Army ran the air war, it didn't work any better.

    What FDR giveth; GWB taketh away.

    by Marie on Sun May 20, 2007 at 09:19:15 PM PDT

    •  Airpower (5+ / 0-)

      We thought we could bomb people into submission in WWII, in Vietnam, and all over the world.  Turns out, the hard work always has to be done on the ground.  

      Boyd was trying to figure out how best to do it successfully in the mind first. your own and your adversary's.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Sun May 20, 2007 at 09:24:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  But --- (5+ / 0-)

        we have to question why N. Vietnam etc. were defined as adversaries.  Why weren't they free to choose their governments without interference by the US MIC?  Why are we so insecure that we can't tolerate differences?  Why "you're either with us or against us" is ever present in our foreign policy?  Why we're tolerant of brutal dictators that kiss American corporate and government butts but intolerant of democratic governments that want to run their countries differently -- don't want to allow US multi-nationals to blunder their natural resources and leave behind an impoverished nation.

        What FDR giveth; GWB taketh away.

        by Marie on Sun May 20, 2007 at 09:54:18 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm trying a new tack with people who (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          devtob, groggy, susie dow

          say that the left lost Vietnam.  Because there really wasn't much of a consequence to "losing" Vietnam, was there?  They even helped us out in Cambodia.

          •  Useful fictions once embraced (7+ / 0-)

            tend to be carried to the grave -- and all too often passed on to the next generation to carry to their graves.

            If the left was so powerful, why was it that LBJ had a virtually free hand in Vietnam for four years and then Nixon picked up the ball for another four?  Of course, the US was engaged in Vietnam for almost a decade before LBJ escalated it to a full scale war and Nixon didn't exactly end our participation with his and Kissinger's deeply flawed peace agreement.  People still apolectic over the "loss" in Vietnam never seem able to explain why it was that the US, UK and USSR could defeat two industrialized war machines in less than half the time the US spent in Vietnam.  That the ordnance dropped on that tiny country was a multiple of what was dropped in WWII (IIRC).  They just don't get it that the Vietnamese people wanted to be free of foreign occupation.  That to them Ho Chi Minh was their G. Washington.

            You're right that there were no consequences for us in "losing" Vietnam.  All we did was forestall the inevitable for twenty years and left behind millions of dead and massive destruction, contamination and deforestation behind.  As well as the killing fields of Cambodia.

            What FDR giveth; GWB taketh away.

            by Marie on Sun May 20, 2007 at 10:34:45 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  More than a decade (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              At the end of WW2, US encouraged France to re-occupy Vietnam so the Viet Minh or nationalist forces similar to China's Red PLA Army wouldn't take control.

              When the French got cut off, encircled and defeated by Giap, the USA organized an illfated airlift to try to save the French military garrison at Dien Bien Phu. It didn't work,and the French garrison led by Navarre surrendered after 83 days of shelling.

               The French did not want to go back to every preWW2 colonial enclave and reassert the Empire. They wanted to trim way down...US policy was critical of the new countries and their different social systems.
              In some cases destabilization of the new and old monarchial regimes reborn were called for to be compliant with US commercial interests.

              That was the case in the early 1950's with Iran, Guatemala, even Vietnam.  1946-1975  29 years wasted effort on an obsolete idea in SE Asia .

              Today is the 4th anniversary of the success of "shock and awe". hear the cheering?

              by Pete Rock on Mon May 21, 2007 at 09:55:31 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

        •  Adversary (6+ / 0-)

          Language is definitely a part of this on a variety of levels.  

          We need to think of language that lets us talk about waging peace as strategically as we speak of waging war.

          Instead of adversary, we can say antagonist or even partner.  On the mat, in my practice, the one who falls is the same as the one who throws and we take turns throwing and falling.

          Boyd talks about harmony the way Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of aikido,  talks about harmony.  The highest practice of the martial arts is swordlessness, being able to win the battle before it begins.

          Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

          by gmoke on Sun May 20, 2007 at 10:21:47 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  it's not that clear (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        devtob, groggy, susie dow, YoyogiBear

        Desert Storm was pretty easy for the ground forces because of what the air forces did.  Same with Serbia/Kosovo.  Bombing an aggressor's home territory is a very essential part of a war like those.  That being said, there is a big problem here.

        The Air Force doesn't do a good job of supporting the Army.  Just look at the future aircraft, are you really going to go bomb a guy in a tent with an airplane that costs a significant fraction of a billion dollars?  Are you really going to fly a transport that costs a significant fraction of a billion dollars into a badly maintained airfield that is over-run with enemy snipers?  I think not, but the Army needs that to happen.

        We are moving towards unmanned aircraft as a result.  I've lost all faith in the Air Force, right now they are desperate because they have no legitimate mission in Iraq beyond transport.  This is not good for the country.

        •  Hearts and Minds (5+ / 0-)

          You don't win hearts and minds by saturation bombing.  

          Airpower is extremely effective against physical targets but it alone does not break, to use Boyd's terms, the moral bonds that permit adversary to exist as a force.

          Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

          by gmoke on Sun May 20, 2007 at 10:49:53 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Of all of the services, it seems the Air Force (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          devtob, unterhausen

          (and to a lessor extent, the Navy) has the most weapons programs that have simply taken on an expensive life of their own.

          They spend billions on systems of limited usefulness (Star Wars, for example) and don't seem to think anything of it.

          I wish our representatives had the balls to start cutting the programs.  as it is though, such programs are the sacred cows of American politics.  You cannot touch them without getting smeared in your next election as being "soft on defense".

          In the debates about reducing government spending no one EVER suggests cancelling questionable programs.

          Meanwhile, our march towards militarism proceeds unimpeded.

          •  The A-10 (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

             The Warthog, AKA Thunderbolt II is one of the most effective ground attack aircraft ever built - and the Air Force never wanted it. They only went ahead with it because it was that, or allow the Army to develop its own air arm for ground support.

            Boyd was instrumental in making sure it would do exactly what it needed to do to be effective. The Air Force would like it to go away so they can get more Raptors - but they can't get rid of it because it's too good at what it does.

            "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

            by xaxnar on Mon May 21, 2007 at 09:26:22 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting mind (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Will add Boyd's biography to my reading list.

  •  Boyd was an amazing guy - unrecognized (6+ / 0-)

    Was the person behind the original F-16 design - which was compromised to provide attack capabilities.....

    His biography (title escapes me) is worth the read.

    As a prophet, he was ignored by the AF - but his theories are central to the Marine Corps approach to combat.

  •  Goes a long way to explaining why Colin Powell (5+ / 0-)

    gave the bogus address to the UN.

    You don't make 4-star general by bucking the system.  BushCo counted on his conditioning and stood by while he lost his credibility.

    Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else. --Will Rogers

    by groggy on Sun May 20, 2007 at 11:32:29 PM PDT

  •  It will be this way until we are defeated (0+ / 0-)

    on the field of battle.

    •  Field of Battle (0+ / 0-)

      We won't be defeated in the field head-to-head against an enemy but be nibbled to death by gnats and mosquitos as we are in Iraq and probably soon will be in Afghanistan.

      One thing that impressed me negatively about the one member of the highest-ranking and most powerful military man I've ever met, a then Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the overwhelming confidence he and his aides had.  They were the cocks of the walk and nobody could ever stand up to them.

      Pride goeth... as they say.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Mon May 21, 2007 at 08:06:25 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  DoD Acquisitions (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The next big weapons system you will be hearing about in the coming years:  The Zumwalt Class Destroyter.

    Folks both on the inside and outside of the Navy think the design is inherently unstable in certain high sea conditions and prone to tipping.  Check out the picture in the article above.  They have sacrificed naval maneuverability for "stealth."  Which has left some critics to asking, "Why in the hell do we need a stealthy destroyer? They aren't meant to be stealthy."

    The navy will be dumping billions into this new for it.

    Mero nom Mote Dai ho. Ke cha?

    by Mote Dai on Mon May 21, 2007 at 09:11:29 PM PDT

    •  You want a stealthy ship? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Mote Dai, Spoc42

       They're called submarines. Everything else is a floating target - especially as anti-ship missiles/torpedos get ever more effective.

      "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

      by xaxnar on Mon May 21, 2007 at 09:20:48 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  And as everyone knows... (0+ / 0-)

        Al Qaeda is developing amazing high tech radar to defeat our current naval fleet.  Oh wait, that's right, they depend upon Flintstone technology to destroy targets.

        Seriously, against what target is a "stealth" ship to be used?  Our major military threats at the moment don't have naval fleets like the days of yore.  You think someone in the Navy is afraid of China perhaps?

        Mero nom Mote Dai ho. Ke cha?

        by Mote Dai on Mon May 21, 2007 at 09:47:25 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Glad to see someone else who's heard of Boyd (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

       Boyd is a true American original, a genius, and exactly the kind of person a 'professional' military can't abide.

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Mon May 21, 2007 at 09:18:00 PM PDT

    •  Boyd (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Definitely an incredibly determined and original man.  I'll be studying him for some time I think and will probably be writing more about him.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Mon May 21, 2007 at 09:22:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Fascinating subject (0+ / 0-)

     There is a great piece in the book about Boyd's dedication as a fighter pilot and trainer flying the early jets like the "100" Super Sabre and figuring them out. That was his early career.

    Meticulous, professional doing everything required, noticing what was left out or incomplete and doing that too. He became not a mathematician, but a combat theoretician and successfully tapped technical skilled peers to help with the formidable challenges in advanced technology. He didn't master every part of it, but knew what was critical in the system and what needed exploring and proving concept for success. And he worked well with honest bright people inside or supporters of the Armed Services that could help.

      The book's chapter with the younger Marine Corp officers learning his criticism of classical positional "invasion" or amphibious assault tactics: They searched him out ,he was Air Force, and his rewriting of concepts, objectives and strategy to minimize losses and be generally more effective was a buzz around the officers who paid attention.

      He also actually led in combat, doing a tour of Vietnam in 1968, IFAIK.

     His provocative briefings of senior officers were legendary.

     No one else DARED like he to do it.  Boyd had given so many excellent briefings that his peers or immediate superiors with few exceptions were jealous or uneasy with him. He out thought them and outworked them.    

     That gets you marginalized in a super bureacracy like any of the branches of the Armed forces. Getting promotions is intensely political and that game's rate of success determines your standing. Boyd would never go beyond colonel.

     The study about energy expended by a fighter plane  and its general value and how to rate true combat effectiveness was  great work.

     Back before (then Sec AF)Cheney went totally to the dark side he wasn't averse to having briefings from Boyd (prior to Gulf War 1) but he wasn't any better a judge and rewarder of true talent than the Pentagon senior brass was.

     Coram's book is an excellent read.  

     The true value of Boyd will be learned by other countries's military establishments who, unlike
    "fortress America", cannot afford the grandiose schemes and enrichment of mega corporations.

    The business competition to acquire contracts ,to go beyond for narrow political and business advantage more than the single purposed effective weapons systems is a built in curse of our procurement economy.  

     America has been losing the fight to build really needed systems not gravy trains for contractors like we have.

    Today is the 4th anniversary of the success of "shock and awe". hear the cheering?

    by Pete Rock on Mon May 21, 2007 at 09:36:40 PM PDT

    •  Cheney Too (0+ / 0-)

      Boyd briefed Cheney too when Shotgun Dickie was SecDef.  Supposedly, Cheney called on Boyd for the battle plan in the first Gulf War.  That is, along with getting all the command staff copies of the Ken Burns Civil War documentary so that they could brush up on their strategy skills.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Mon May 21, 2007 at 10:50:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  We need to learn more about Boydian thought (0+ / 0-)

    This was my intro diary to Boyd for politics;

    OODA Loops, Political Campaigns and the Blogsphere; an oasis of truth. -1.75 -7.23

    by Shockwave on Mon May 21, 2007 at 10:08:35 PM PDT

    •  Thanks (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I agree.  We have to work hard and work smart.  Boyd's idea will help.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Mon May 21, 2007 at 10:55:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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