The Fighter Pilot and the Politicians


The U.S Air Force has produced many fine pilots, but only one has regular conferences dedicated to analysing and publicising his thought: John Boyd. Although his combat experience was limited and he never scored a victory, his skills were such that he became known as “40-second Boyd” when an instructor at the Fighter Weapons School based on his standing bet that, starting a dogfight from a losing position, he could down his opponent within that time. He never lost.

But Boyd wanted to be more than a pilot. He wanted to be a theoretician. He wanted to take his experiences and distil the rules of aerial combat. For he had realised that the key variable in a dogfight is time – he who reacts first wins. Each pilot goes through the same process which he termed the “OODA Loop” and the one who completes it first gains an advantage. Both pilots Observe – gather data on the situation, then they Orient – use their experience to come up with a range of options for action, they Decide – by picking one and then they Act.

However, the situation faced by the pilots is dynamic. If one completes the OODA Loop and does something, they change the situation faced by their opponent, forcing them to go back to the beginning and while they are going through the process again, they are unable to act. Boyd termed keeping one’s opponent off-balance in this way “getting inside the OODA Loop” and saw it as the key to victory.

Boyd’s theory revolutionised the approach of the US Air Force which started to prize manoeuvrability over speed in fight jet design (the F-16 is 500mph slower than the F-15 but, crucially, it is 4 tonnes lighter) but it also spread beyond the military to the worlds of sport, business and politics, being loved by the leading figure in a certain referendum campaign.

Imagine you were a political strategist, schooled in Boydian thought, who wanted to unseat a Prime Minister. What would you do? Boyd would tell you to constantly change the situation your adversary faced. Every time they dealt with one issue, you would force them to deal with another. If you released one story to the press, you would follow up with another. If they dealt with an attack from one angle, you would switch to another. You would make sure they were constantly dealing with a new problem. You would continually force them to re-start their OODA Loop. You would subject them to a period such as Boris Johnson has recently faced.

The difference between an aerial dogfight and a political knife-fight is finality. If a pilot gets inside his opponent’s OODA Loop and achieves missile-lock, he has won. A plane which has been shot down cannot harm another. In politics, however, a single blow is not similarly fatal. Time gives opportunity. A political figure retains the ability to get inside his opponent’s OODA Loop, say by releasing some information about them, in a way which a downed fighter pilot lacks. Anyone using Boyd’s theories to unseat a leader would be very keen to make sure it happened quickly, perhaps publicly encouraging others to act, aware that until they have won, they are vulnerable.

Boyd went on to generalise his theories in a several hundred slide presentation Discourse on Winning and Losing which so impressed Dick Cheney that he was recalled from retirement to assist in the planning of Desert Storm. With such a resume, one might expect him to have been honoured with at least a couple of stars, but he retired a colonel. A prickly character, nicknamed variously “The Mad Major” and “Genghis John”, he upset too many people in the chain of command to achieve the highest rank. But he was undeterred, telling his “Acolytes” “If you go that way, you can be somebody…you will get promoted and you will get good assignments. Or you can do something – something for your country, your Air Force and yourself. You may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments…but your work might make a difference… To Be or to Do? Which will you choose?”

If Boyd’s OODA Loop sheds a light on the travails of the Prime Minister, his question “To Be or to Do?” gives us a way to look at the other issue of the week. Sir Keir Starmer is quite happy to tout his position as Director of Public Prosecutions as evidence that he is “strong on crime” but thinks it is a “ridiculous slur” to point out that on his watch, the organisation failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile (despite the fact he apologised for it after a report by Alison Levitt QC in 2013). Or John Warboys. A review of the London CPS in 2010, two years after he became DPP, found that “the results are disappointing…a deterioration from our 2005 and 2007 overall performance assessments.” Sir Keir is very happy to talk about what he was, more reluctant about what he did. He is behaving like one who wants to Be, not one who wants to Do.

To an extent, this is understandable. None of us enjoy talking about our failures. But politicians across the spectrum site their claims to office in the positions they have held, not their performance in them. There is no shortage of those on the other side of the aisle willing to tout their experience of Afghanistan and Iraq. Without wishing to denigrate the bravery of those who served, neither has much chance of making it into a “Top Ten” of British colonial exploits.

Nor is this a parochial Westminster issue. Ursula von der Leyen was hailed as the Wunderfrau when she was chosen as Commission President. Surely a former Defence Minister was just the thing for a “geo-political” Commission? Just a week before, Rupert Scholz, Defence Minister under Helmut Kohl had said “The Bundeswehr’s condition is catastrophic.”

Across the Atlantic, Joe Biden’s cabinet picks were a sign according to Vogue (yes, Vogue) that “the adults are back in charge”, citing the “experience” of his picks. Certainly, his foreign policy nominees had done their time, serving in the Obama administration, but if you think the 44th President was a diplomatic success, I have a “reset button” to sell you.

Politicians and their supporters love telling us about the jobs they have had but all these claims really tell us is that they are good at getting them, whereas we want to know if they are good at them, which is not the same. The average Premier League manager lasted one year, one week and two days at the start of the 2019 season. Each and every one of them appeared competent during the recruitment process and yet, with those numbers, most of them obviously were not.

In comparison to politics, however, while the system may not be good at identifying the right candidates, it is extremely good at weeding them out once they have failed. And it learns. David Moyes’ performance at Everton seemed good enough to get him the Manchester United job but his less than successful tenure there means that while he can always say he held the top job at Old Trafford, he has never managed a club of similar stature since. What he did is more important to football recruiters than what he was. Is it reasonable to suggest that past performance is vital when choosing a new manager yet irrelevant when picking the holder of the highest office in the land? If we want more people who want to do in politics, and fewer who want to be, how can we achieve this without interrogating candidates’ track records in detail?

The current resident of 10 Downing Street may have good reason to curse John Boyd, but, if he can persuade the electorate to focus on what the opposition leader did rather than what he was, he may yet have cause to thank him.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him on his website.