COL John Richard Boyd (January 23, 1927 – March 9, 1997) was a United States Air Force fighter pilot and Pentagon consultant during the second half of the 20th century. His theories have been highly influential in military, sports, business, and litigation strategies and planning.

As part of the Fighter Mafia, Boyd inspired the Lightweight Fighter program (LWF), which produced the successful General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, which are still in use by the United States and by several other military powers into the 21st century. Boyd, together with Thomas Christie, created the Energy–Maneuverability theory of aerial combat, which became the world standard for the design of fighter aircraft. He also developed the decision cycle known as the OODA loop, the process by which an entity reacts to an event. His Aerial Attack Study demonstrated the continued effectiveness of dogfighting, disproving the belief in the Air Force that air-to-air combat was a thing of the past because of the advent of guided air-to-air missiles.

The OODA Loop

Boyd’s key concept was that of the decision cycle or OODA Loop, the process by which an entity (either an individual or an organization) reacts to an event. According to this idea, the key to victory is to be able to create situations wherein one can make appropriate decisions more quickly than one’s opponent. The construct was originally a theory of achieving success in air-to-air combat, developed out of Boyd’s Energy-Maneuverability theory and his observations on air combat between MiGs and F-86s in Korea. Harry Hillaker (chief designer of the F-16) said of the OODA theory, “Time is the dominant parameter. The pilot who goes through the OODA cycle in the shortest time prevails because his opponent is caught responding to situations that have already changed.”

Boyd hypothesized that all intelligent organisms and organizations undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with their environment. Boyd breaks this cycle down to four interrelated and overlapping processes through which one cycles continuously:

  • Observation: the collection of data by means of the senses
  • Orientation: the analysis and synthesis of data to form one’s current mental perspective
  • Decision: the determination of a course of action based on one’s current mental perspective
  • Action: the physical playing-out of decisions

While this is taking place, the situation may be changing. It is sometimes necessary to cancel a planned action in order to meet the changes.

This decision cycle is thus known as the OODA loop. Boyd emphasized that this decision cycle is the central mechanism enabling adaptation (apart from natural selection) and is therefore critical to survival.

Boyd theorized that large organizations such as corporations, governments, or militaries possessed a hierarchy of OODA loops at tactical, grand-tactical (operational art), and strategic levels. In addition, he stated that most effective organizations have a highly decentralized chain of command that utilizes objective-driven orders, or directive control, rather than method-driven orders in order to harness the mental capacity and creative abilities of individual commanders at each level. In 2003, this power to the edge concept took the form of a DOD publication “Power to the Edge: Command…Control…in the Information Age” by Dr. David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes. Boyd argued that such a structure creates a flexible “organic whole” that is quicker to adapt to rapidly changing situations. He noted, however, that any such highly decentralized organization would necessitate a high degree of mutual trust and a common outlook that came from prior shared experiences. Headquarters needs to know that the troops are perfectly capable of forming a good plan for taking a specific objective, and the troops need to know that Headquarters does not direct them to achieve certain objectives without good reason.

Boyd died of cancer in Florida on March 9, 1997, at age 70. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on March 20, 1997. His burial site is Section 60, Gravesite 3066.