#DesertStorm30 – The Ghosts of Vietnam: Building Air Superiority for Operation DESERT STORM

#DesertStorm30 – The Ghosts of Vietnam: Building Air Superiority for Operation DESERT STORM

By Dr Michael Hankins

Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.

I think to understand the success of Desert Storm, you have to study Vietnam.

Lieutenant General Chuck Horner, Joint Force Air Component Commander during Operation DESERT STORM[1]

This reflection applies to many aspects of the 1991 Gulf War, undeniably so in the realm of air-to-air combat. As in most wars, air-to-air combat played a relatively small role, certainly not a decisive one. However, the differences between air combat during the Vietnam War and DESERT STORM are stark. In the skies above Southeast Asia between 1965 and 1973, the United States shot down approximately 200 enemy aircraft while North Vietnamese MiGs claimed about 80 US fighters.[2] During DESERT STORM, coalition pilots shot down 42 Iraqi aircraft and only lost one to a MiG.[3] There is no single reason why air-to-air efforts were so much more successful in DESERT STORM than in Vietnam. However, several factors synergistically combined to contribute to a considerable shift in air superiority efforts: training, situational awareness, technology, and the nature of the enemy being faced. These factors were interconnected. Technologies that had first appeared in Vietnam had matured and became more reliable. These technologies were also more interwoven with training and doctrine, drastically increasing their effectiveness in situations like those faced in the Gulf in 1991.

What went wrong in Vietnam

The 1970s and 1980s constitute a second interwar period. As with the period between the First and Second World War, the years between the Vietnam War and DESERT STORM was a time of massive technological, doctrinal, and organisational change within the US military. It was also a time of competing theories and visions regarding what the future of warfare might look like. These debates centred on the idea of fixing the perceived problems of Vietnam. However, there was little agreement over what exactly the problems were and even less about how to fix them.

Regarding the air-to-air realm, clearly, there had been problems in Southeast Asia. To avoid fratricide, restrictive rules of engagement prevented most missiles from being fired in the conditions for which they were designed. At the same time, the jungle environment compounded issues from transport and maintenance that frequently damaged delicate sensor equipment. North Vietnamese MiGs often did not stick around to fight. However, their agility was effective against the larger, heavier American interceptors when they did. US pilots often had little – if any – air combat training and rarely (if ever) against aircraft that mimicked the MiGs capabilities and tactics.

An F-4C Phantom II of the 559th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam, September 1967. Front to back: Captain John P. Flannery, 1st Lieutenant Lewis M. Hauser. (Source: US Air Force)

To fix these problems, two main camps emerged: the self-described ‘Fighter Mafia’ that later evolved into the larger Defense Reform Movement (Reformers) was led by former fighter pilots, analysts, engineers, and journalists linked to Colonel John Boyd.[4] They argued in favour of new aircraft that they were simple and cheap. The poor performance of missiles in Vietnam frustrated the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ who argued that the key to winning air battles required small, lightweight aircraft that emphasised maneuverability and gunnery. In their argument, aircraft did not need to be burdened with long-range radars. Countering these views was the defence establishment – the service leaders in the Pentagon, the USAF Air Staff, and other analysts, including the commander of Tactical Air Command, General Wilbur ‘Bill’ Creech. This group argued that a high-tech approach was necessary to counter the Soviet threat. They argued that although weapons may be expensive, they were not only effective but could protect more American lives and reduce casualties.[5]

These debates occurred in a context of larger doctrinal changes within all the US military services during a second interwar period of heavy debate and significant technological changes. Nonetheless, the Reformers had a large influence on the direction of air war planning in those years. However, ultimately, few of their proposed reforms truly took hold as the defence establishment had the advantage of being established and in power. However, in having to defend themselves against the Reformers’ frequent critiques, the defence establishment was forced to confront important issues, particularly regarding readiness and weapons testing procedures.

Train How We Fight

Even the most significant changes in technology would be of limited use without equal changes in training. This was something even the revered ace pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds realised. Speaking of his experience flying F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam, Olds lamented, ‘If only I’d had a gun!’ However, Olds opposed adding a gun pod to the F-4s in his unit because, as he recalled:

[o]ut of all my fighter guys, only a precious few have ever fired a gun at an aerial target, let alone learned how to dogfight with guns. Hell, they’d pile into a bunch of MiGs with their hair on fire and be eaten alive.[6]

Some US Navy officers realised the importance of air combat training, instituting the Navy Fighter Weapons School, also called TOPGUN, specifically to train F-4 and F-8 pilots how to defeat MiGs in air-to-air encounters. The school’s graduates began having success in the air battles of 1972. The US Air Force (USAF) was slower to institute similar training but did create the Red Flag exercises in 1975. The key to both programs was ‘dissimilar air combat training’ (DACT): training in mock combat against different aircraft types than one’s own. Said another way, DACT means to train how you fight.[7]

That meant that F-8, F-4, and F-105 pilots needed to square off against smaller, nimbler planes that could simulate the MiGs. T-38s, F-5s and F-86s were perfect for that. Pilots flying as these pretend adversaries became known as ‘aggressor’ squadrons. Eventually, captured MiG fighters of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron (nicknamed the ‘Red Eagles’) could give coalition pilots mock combat experience against actual MiGs.[8]

We Have the Technology

The new DACT training programs were not all about maneuvers and volleyball. The programs incorporated a wide array of new tactics emerging from rapid evolution in new technologies both in new airframes and the new generations of missiles that were far more capable than their Vietnam-era ancestors. These included new fighters like USAF’s F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the US Navy’s F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet. A far cry from the interceptors designed in the early Cold War, these new generations of planes emphasised air combat capability as their first priority, with multi-role functions like ground attack as an add-on. In other words, these planes were agile, born to mix it up in dogfights, but could still perform the vital missions of strategic and tactical bombing, close air support, and interdiction. Like the F-16’s fly-by-wire controls, their new control systems maximised the pilot’s command over their aeroplanes. At the same time, head’s up displays enabled pilots to see vital information and keep their eyes on the skies instead of looking down at their instruments and switches.[9]

The prototypes of the YF-16 Fighting Falcon (left) were smaller, lighter, and held less electronics, optimized for the day fighter role. The production model F-16A (right) was larger to incorporate all-weather and ground attack capabilities, among other modifications. (Source: US Air Force)

One of the most significant upgrades was a new model of the heat-seeking Sidewinder missile, the AIM-9L. Unlike previous versions, the ‘L’ (nicknamed ‘Lima’) could be fired from any direction. No longer did pilots need to maneuver behind an enemy after the ‘merge’ (in which two fighters flying head-on zoom past each other before beginning a maneuvering dogfight). This new weapon complimented the new AIM-7F Sparrow missile – a radar-guided missile with improved range and look-down capability. These missiles, combined with the Hughes AN/APG-63 radar housed in the F-15 Eagle’s nose, allowed the new generation of fighters to identify their targets from far beyond what the human eye could see. It also meant they could coordinate with other coalition pilots and “sort” their targets. Maneuvering was still crucial, but as former F-15 pilot Colonel C.R. Anderegg noted:

The cycle of counter vs. counter vs. counter continued, but the fight did not start at 1,000 feet range as in the days of ’40 second Boyd.’ The struggle was starting while the adversaries were thirty miles apart, and the F-15 pilots were seriously intent on killing every adversary pre-merge.[10]

Pilots in previous decades had often decried the lack of a gun on the F-4 and were sceptical of claims that missiles were the way of the future. Missiles were problematic in Vietnam, but in the Gulf War, they dominated. Of the 42 official coalition aerial victories, three were due to ground impact. The only gun kills were two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs that shredded Iraqi helicopters with their infamous GAU-8 cannon. In one case, an F-15E Strike Eagle dropped a laser-guided GBU-10 bomb onto a helicopter and received an aerial victory credit. The remaining 36 – almost 86 per cent – were the result of a guided missile. Of the AIM-7 kills, 16 (44 per cent of the total number of missile kills) were beyond visual range attacks.[11]

Even the best-trained and equipped pilots in the world cannot use their advantages if they are unaware of the threats around them. Effective situational awareness and early warning have proven crucial to air combat success. Throughout Vietnam, several long-range radars provided this capability. Airborne radar and surveillance programs like College Eye and Rivet Top and US Navy ship-based radar-like Red Crown became invaluable to pilots during Vietnam. Bringing the variety of systems together into Project Teaball in the summer of 1972 provided an even more powerful aid to pilots aiming to take out MiGs. Nevertheless, these systems (and the many other similar efforts) had limitations. The invention of pulse-Doppler radar systems enabled a reliable way of distinguishing airborne threats from ground clutter when looking down. This innovation led to the USAF’s E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). The Navy used a similar concept in their E-2 Hawkeye. These systems gave operators a view of aircraft operating in the entire airspace, allowing them to pass on the word to coalition fighter pilots where the MiGs were from very long ranges. Almost every single aerial encounter during the Gulf War began with a call from AWACS or an E-2.[12]

Know Your Enemy

The US and its allies prepared for a conventional war against the Soviet-style threat that Iraq seemed to be. As the saying goes, the enemy always gets a vote. In the Gulf War case, as one General Accounting Office report put it: ‘the Iraqi air force essentially chose not to challenge the coalition.’[13] Of course, that is not entirely true, as some intense air battles did occur, and a few Iraqi pilots proved quite adept. Nevertheless, overall, the Iraqi Air Force had not invested in air-to-air combat preparedness. There was no Iraqi equivalent of Top Gun or Red Flag, and air-to-air training was lacking. One US Navy Intelligence report stated: ‘Intercept tactics and training [were] still predominantly conservative, elementary, and generally not up to western standards.’ Culturally, while US fighter pilots tended to prize aerial combat, the Iraqi Air Force culture did not, viewing ground attack as a more desirable assignment. As historian Williamson Murray argued, Iraqi pilots ‘did not possess the basic flying skills to exploit fully the capabilities of their aircraft.’[14]

F-15C Eagles of the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron takeoff on deployment to Saudi Arabia during Operation DESERT SHIELD. (Source: US Air Force)

As F-15s flew combat air patrol missions during the opening strikes, searching for possible MiG threats, infrared cameras revealed one MiG-29 crashing into the ground. At the same time, another launched a missile that destroyed a friendly MiG-23 crossing ahead of it. In some cases, when coalition pilots obtained radar locks, Iraqi pilots made little to no attempt to maneuver before missiles destroyed their planes. When coalition planners began targeting the hardened shelters protecting Iraqi aircraft, many pilots attempted to flee to Iran. Reiterating the Iraqi fighter pilot force’s lack of competence, many of them did not have enough fuel for the trip and crashed. Coalition pilots seized the opportunity to destroy the enemy in the air as they fled.[15]


The lives lost in air combat during the Vietnam War are tragic. Many aircrew members died, others became prisoners, and many suffered lifelong psychological trauma. Every single loss affected the families and loved ones of those crews, creating ripple effects lasting generations. If some strands of hope can be pulled from those tragedies, one of them is that allied airmen’s struggles in the Vietnam War planted the seeds of change that led to the massive increase in air-to-air combat effectiveness in Operation Desert Storm. Technologies, training methods, and tactics first introduced in Southeast Asia continued to mature throughout the 1970s and 1980s, strengthened further by the heat of intellectual debate during those years. The coalition’s effectiveness in air-to-air combat alone did not win the Gulf War, of course. However, it did undoubtedly save many lives and contributed to the US achieving its objectives.

As Horner recalled: ‘Vietnam was a ghost we carried with us.’ One way to exorcise that ghost was by gaining control of the air in Iraq from the outset, which had not happened in Vietnam. It worked. As Horner recalled:

[e]very time the Iraqi interceptor planes, their best defences, took off, it was take off, gear up, blow up, because we had two F-15s sitting on every airfield, overhead every airfield, and so we never gave them a chance.[16]

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and is an Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018, and a master’s from the University of North Texas in 2013, He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header image: An F-15C Eagle of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing during Exercise Gallant Eagle, 1986. (Source: US Air Force)

[1] ‘Oral History: Charles Horner,’ Frontline, 9 January 1996.

[2] Sources differ on exact numbers. The best work on the air-to-air aspect of Vietnam to date is Marshal Michel, Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997).

[3] Lewis D. Hill et al, Gulf War Air Power Survey: Volume V: A Statistical Compendium and Chronology (Washington D.C.; US Department of Defense, 1993), p. 637, 641, pp. 653-4; hereafter cited as GWAPS. The one loss was US Navy Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher. Information about that event can be found here: CIA, FOIA Electronic Reading Room, ‘Intelligence Community Assessment of the Lieutenant Commander Speicher Case,’ 27 March 2001.

[4] For a precis of Boyd’s career, see: Michael Hankins, ‘A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker,’ From Balloons to Drones, 22 August 2018.

[5] For a pro-reform view, see Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001); and James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1993). The defense establishment view is best represented by Walter Kross, Military Reform: The High-Tech Debate in Tactical Air Forces (Fort McNair: National Defense University Press, 1985); and James C. Slife, Creech Blue: Gen Bill Creech and the Reformation of the Tactical Air Forces, 1978-1984 (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2004).

[6] Robin Olds, with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus, Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), p. 304, 317.

[7] The best overview of the origins of the Red Flag program is Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

[8] Gaillard R. Peck, Jr., America’s Secret MiG Squadron: The Red Eagles of Project Constant Peg (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2012)

[9] For a history of the development of both aircraft, see Steven A. Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950-1980 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017); and Michael Hankins, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991’ (PhD thesis, Kansas State University, 2018).

[10] C.R. Anderegg, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in The Decade After Vietnam (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2001), p. 163.

[11] GWAPS Summary Report, p. 60; GWAPS V5, pp. 653-4; Daniel Haulman, ‘No Contest: Aerial Combat in the 1990s,’ Presentation, Society for Military History annual meeting, May 2001, 6; Craig Brown, Debrief: A Complete History of U.S. Aerial Engagements, 1981 to the Present (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2007), pp. 23-149.

[12] Kenneth P. Werrell, Chasing the Silver Bullet: U.S. Air Force Weapons Development from Vietnam to Desert Storm (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003), pp. 187-205; Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam, 1968-1972,’ Air Power History 63 (2016), pp. 7-24; Michael Hankins, ‘#AirWarVietnam – Making a MiG-Killer: Technology and Signals Intelligence for Air-to-Air Combat in Vietnam,’ From Balloons to Drones, 15 August 2019. For details of individual encounters, see Brown, Debrief.

[13] GAO/NSIAD-97-134, ‘Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign,’ United States General Accounting Office Report to the Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Commerce, House of Representatives, June 1997, p. 66.

[14] Williamson Murray, with Wayne M. Thompson, Air War in the Persian Gulf (Baltimore, MD: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1995), 67, 92.

[15] Brown, Debrief, pp. 51-73; Murray, Air War, pp. 110-1, p. 162, 180.

[16] ‘Oral History: Charles Horner,’ Frontline, 9 January 1996.

The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial Note: On 19 September 2018, our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney delivered a paper on the subject of ‘The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists’ at a seminar organised by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Air Power Development Centre in Canberra. A precis of this paper was published in the Pathfinder bulletin issued by APDC, which can be found here. The Pathfinder series covers a range of issue from strategy, historical analyses, operations, administration, logistics, education and training, people, command and control, technology to name a few. Irrespective of the subject though, Pathfinders will always be focused on the relevance to air power; they are not intended to be just a narrative but deliver a measure of analysis. Apart from the addition of some minor changes to make this precis applicable to From Balloons to Drones as well as the inclusion of footnotes and further reading suggestions, this article appears as published in Pathfinder. We are grateful to APDC for permission to re-publish the piece, and the views in this article and the associated Pathfinder are not necessarily those of the RAAF.

‘[t]he study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.’

Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, (1912)[1]

‘The word history carries two meanings […] It refers both to what actually happened in the past and to the representation of that past in the work of historians.’

John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, Third Edition, (1999)[2]

What is history? What is its relevance to an air power strategist? These are important questions; however, as Richard Muller, a senior member of the faculty at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, reflected in 2016, ‘as a rule air forces have not embraced historical study to the same extent as have their army or navy counterparts.’[3] Nevertheless, in 1912, a year after an Italian aeroplane dropped the first ‘bomb’ over Libya, noted US naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan reflected on the link between military history and ‘sound military conclusions.’ However, history does not provide clear lessons. Nevertheless, the study of the past does offer a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

This article considers some of the issues related to applied military history beginning with an outline of the purpose of history and the challenges of applying the past to the present. It also considers how air forces have used the study of the past as a tool for education while concluding with some tentative thoughts on how history can be used to educate strategists in the continuing challenge to achieve professional mastery.[4]

To start with, the term ‘education’ is used in this narrative in a broad context and incorporates both formal and informal learning. Similarly, the term ‘strategist’ is used in a collegiate manner and assumes that modern air forces seek personnel who are professional masters, well-versed in the core knowledge that underpins the application of air power.

As the British historian John Tosh reflected, the term history is ambiguous at best. Is history a collection of facts related to what has happened or is it the scholarly discussion and representation of the past? If the latter statement is accepted as being correct, then it can also be assumed that the interpretation of the past is an argument without an end. While a hackneyed observation, history is a dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and reinterpret the past. Linked to this is the extent of historical information available to historians and, by default, strategists who seek to apply lessons from the past to the present. The archival records and evidence that underpin the interpretation of the past are normally incomplete. For example, the National Archives of Australia only preserves a small amount of the material generated by the Australian Government.

Moving beyond the above understanding of history, the field of military history can be split into three subfields: popular, academic, and applied history.[5] There is a degree of overlap between the latter two. The main criticism of applied military history is that it is a form of weaponising the past to cater for the present.[6] Underpinning this criticism is a view that those writing such history do so without sufficient understanding of the context in seeking to deduce lessons learnt. Unfortunately, this criticism is currently directed at academics working at institutions delivering professional military education. These institutions use history to illuminate and provide context to the ambiguous challenges that officers attending them are likely to confront in the future.

Historically, the criticism of weaponising the past does carry some weight, and therefore air power strategists could be criticised for the poor use of history to support their arguments. Indeed, as Sir Michael Howard, a distinguished military historian, noted in his 1961 lecture on ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’:

[W]hen great [interwar] pioneers of air war…advocated striking at the homeland and at the morale of the enemy people…they were basing their conclusions on their interpretation of past wars’. (emphasis added)[7]


More recently, Colonel (retired) John Warden III’s book, The Air Campaign, has been criticised for his use of a selective reading of history to fit the theory being propounded in it.[8] Admittedly, Warden is not a historian. However, such selective use of history becomes problematic to the broader task of delivering professional education when such texts appear in, for example, Staff College reading lists where they can reinforce a narrow, and at times wrong, understanding of some of the officers they are meant to educate. Despite this criticism, it is clear that many air power thinkers have recognised the value of a broad reading of history. For example, in a 1921 article on ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Group Captain John Chamier of the Royal Air Force reflected on the challenge of deducing appropriate principles for the use of air power given the brief history of air warfare till then. Nevertheless, Chamier recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history’, and he recognised that examples from ‘naval and military strategy’ could provide the necessary framework for a discussion of ‘air strategy.’[9]

While history and the application of its lessons by air forces is fraught with challenges, its importance as a didactic tool for the military cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the study of history has been, and remains, an element of the curricula at educational establishments of most air forces. However, considered in a broad manner, the study of history has been unbalanced. For example, in the late-1940s and 1950s, history and related subjects featured little on the curriculum at the RAAF College. As Alan Stephens has noted, the RAAF of this period identified itself as a ‘narrow technocracy’ with knowledge of the Air Force’s core business to be deduced from its ‘technical components’ rather than a ‘study of its history and ideas.’[10]

To conclude, there are several areas where the contemporary study of history plays a key role in the education of air power theorists and strategists. Perhaps most important is that a deep and contextual study of history provides an important understanding for military personnel seeking to gain professional mastery of the profession of arms. Indeed, if it is accepted that the aim of learning is to develop the cognitive ability to understand and deal with ambiguity, rather than to provide clear-cut answers to current problems, then the study of history has a role to play.

The skills associated with historical analysis refines human cognitive areas such as the ability to make considered judgements. An important contributor to the effectiveness of this learning process has been the increasing civilianisation of the academic delivery at institutions catering to professional military education. At a practical level, the use of Staff Rides as a learning tool could also ensure that history could be used as a means to explore ideas outside of the confines of the traditional education environment. However, this process also has its own challenges.[11] In the final analysis, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely’s remark that the study of history needs to form an essential part of a ‘balanced diet’ of education for the military professional in order for them to develop the knowledge to be effective, rings completely true.[12]

Key Points

  1. Even though history may not provide clear lessons, the study of the past offers a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces;
  2. History could be considered a rather dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and re-interpret the past;
  3. It is recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history.’

Further Reading

  • Gray, Peter, ‘Why Study Military History?,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 151-64.
  • Muller, Richard R., ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Bailey Jr., Richard J., Forsyth Jr., James W., and Yeisley, Mark O., (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016).
  • Murray, Williamson, and Sinnreich, Richard Hart (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Dr Ross Mahoney is the editor and owner of From Balloons to Drones as well as being an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: An Architect’s perspective drawing of the proposed RAF (Cadet) College at Cranwell. (Source: © IWM ((MOW) C 1081))

[1] Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, 196:680 (1912), p. 78.

[2] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education, 1999), p. viii.

[3] Richard R. Muller, ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Richard J. Bailey Jr., James W. Forsyth Jr., and Mark O. Yeisley (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), p. 113.

[4] On professional mastery in air forces, see: Sanu Kainikara, ‘Professional Mastery and Air Power Education,’ Working Paper, 33 (Canberra: RAAF Air Power Development Centre, 2011).

[5] John A. Lynn III, ‘Breaching the Walls of Academe: The Purposes, Problems, and Prospects of Military History,’ Academic Questions, 21:1 (2008), p. 20.

[6] Kim Wagner, ‘Seeing Like a Soldier: The Amritsar Massacre and the Politics of Military History,’ in Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds), Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Conflicts (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), pp. 25-7.

[7] Michael Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History (lecture),’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 107:625 (1962), p. 10.

[8] John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007), pp. 78-9. In a similar vein to Warden, Colonel John Boyd’s work ‘cherry-picked’ history ‘to provide illustrations and empirical validation for patterns he observed in combat.’ However, it should be recognised that Boyd was an airman who was a general strategist rather than an air power thinker per se, though his ideas do have applicability to the air domain. See: Frans Osinga, ‘The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System: John Boyd and Airpower in the Postmodern Era’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 53-4.

[9] Group Captain J.A. Chamier, ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 66 (1921), p. 641.

[10] Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume II – The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 188.

[11] On the challenges associated with staff rides, see: Brigadier R.A.M.S. Melvin British Army, ‘Contemporary Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Military Practitioner’s View,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 59-80,Nick Lloyd, ‘Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Useful Learning Experience?,’ Teaching in Higher Education, 14:2 (2009), pp. 175-84.

[12] John P. Kiszely, ‘The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: A British View’ in Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 32.

A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

By Dr Michael Hankins

In March 2018, Air University Press released a new edition of Colonel John Boyd’s A Discourse on Winning and Losing with a new introduction by Grant Hammond. On top of his heavy influence in designing the F-15 and F-16 fighters, Boyd was one of the most influential and often cited officers in the history of the US Air Force (USAF), but unlike most famous strategic thinkers, he published almost nothing. Thus, this new edition promises to be possibly the most widely disseminated and studied edition of Boyd’s intellectual output.

John Boyd during his service in Korea. (Source: Wikimedia)

Boyd is, however, a controversial figure. Among USAF officers, Boyd is either loved or hated. Hammond’s introduction refers to him as ‘legendary,’ ‘a great original thinker,’ and ‘a paragon of virtue – loved by many […] for his character and integrity.’[1] On the other hand, former fighter pilot and USAF Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak summarised the opposing view: ‘Boyd is highly overrated […] In many respects he was a failed officer and even a failed human being.’[2] Boyd was the type of person who challenged authority and fought for what he believed. He was also the kind of person that was so profoundly insecure that he stalked food courts to hunt down and physically assault people whom he perceived had not shown him proper respect.[3] However, many younger officers have never even heard of Boyd nor are they familiar with his ideas or character. With the recent release of the new edition of his work, it is worth taking time to briefly summarise Boyd’s significant contributions and provide some context as to why he is both so praised and so controversial.

First, we must deal with the notion of Boyd as – according to Hammond – ‘a premier fighter pilot.’ Some have referred to Boyd as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and many press outlets mistakenly refer to him as an ace. Although Boyd did fly F-86 Sabres during a brief tour in the Korean War, he does not have a single air-to-air kill to his credit. He never fired his gun in a combat situation. This is not necessarily an indictment of his skills. The reason is that in those years, the USAF tended to fly in formations in which only the lead element was cleared to fire, while the wingmen provided protection. Boyd only ever flew in a wingman position, and never got in an opportunity to fire at enemy MiG-15s. Later, Boyd became a flight instructor at the USAF Fighter Weapons School, and he wrote a manual on dogfighting tactics. His reputation as a fighter pilot was built on his time as an instructor, during which he displayed a penchant for defeating incoming students in simulated dogfights (developing his claim that he could always do so within forty seconds). Fans of Boyd laud him for this, although his detractors often wonder why an instructor defeating his students using an oft-repeated manoeuvre is noteworthy, much less a point worth bragging about.

Boyd’s first significant contribution to USAF thinking was ‘Energy Maneuverability Theory’ (EMT) in the early-to-mid 1960s. This was an application of the principles of thermodynamics to aircraft metrics. Up until that point, the most important metrics for evaluating fighter planes tended to be wing loading ratios, top speed, and acceleration. Many fighter pilots tried to argue that agility and manoeuvrability were more important in a dogfight, but although wing loading could provide a rough idea of how well a craft could turn, it fell far short of an accurate description of a plane’s manoeuvrability. Boyd’s EMT instead analysed how well an aircraft could change energy states – involving speed, acceleration, kinetic and potential energy – essentially giving a numerical value to how well a plane could manoeuvre under various conditions. Charting this value on a graph corresponding to speed and altitude will give a curve of the aircraft’s manoeuvring capability. This method gave fighter pilots a way to talk to engineers in their ‘language,’ and describe dogfighting in mathematical terms, which had a significant influence on aircraft design. Beginning in the late 1960s, EMT became a significant factor in designing and evaluating American aircraft.

This chart, a typical example of the types of charts Boyd produced, compares the agility of an F-4 Phantom II and a MiG-21, but specifically under conditions of a 5g turn. (Source: USAF Academy Department of Aeronautics)

Although Boyd appears to have come up with these ideas independently, he was not the first to do so. A decade earlier, in 1954, an aerodynamics engineer working for Douglas named Edward Rutowski had the same concept. Rutowski’s work did not apply to dogfighting, but to calculating fuel ranges of various types of aircraft.[4] However, the equations – and the charts – are almost the same as Boyd’s, who later admitted to copying the charts after denying it for years.[5] One element that Boyd did add, however, was overlaying the EMT curve for one aircraft on top of another, to show where one aircraft had an advantage in manoeuvrability. These comparisons, first done in the late 1960s, showed that Soviet aircraft of that time might have a distinct advantage in dogfighting compared to the American fighters of the day (which, in that period, were mostly interceptors, not traditional fighters). Thus, while not necessarily completely original, Boyd did more to popularise the EMT concept and apply it to fighter design and tactics training, which then became part of a push within the USAF to design aircraft that were more specialised for air-to-air combat.

Boyd had a hand in the design of those planes. The first major USAF project to design a dedicated air superiority fighter was the F-X program, which eventually resulted in the F-15 Eagle. Boyd was brought in partway through this project and attempted to influence the design toward being more dedicated for dogfighting. To Boyd, this meant making it as small as possible and gutting it of sophisticated technologies, especially radar. The more massive the radar dome in a fighter’s nose, the larger the entire plane needed to be. Making the radar as small as possible (or, as Boyd advocated, eliminating it), could make the plane smaller and lighter. Boyd managed to have a significant influence on the design of the F-15, but he did not get everything he wanted. The plane was significantly more extensive and more sophisticated than he advocated, so in disgust, he turned to another project.[6]

McDonnell Douglas F-15A (S/N 71-0280, the first F-15A prototype). Note the square wingtips and unnotched stabilator. (Source: Wikimedia)

Using a combination of subterfuge, connections with high-level decision-makers, stealing unauthorised time on USAF computers, and meeting with aircraft manufacturers in secret using coded language, Boyd pressured the Air Force to procure a smaller lightweight fighter. Boyd wrote the requirements for that plane, which happened to match almost identically the characteristics of a plane he had been secretly designing with General Dynamics’ Chief of Preliminary Design, Harry Hillaker. That plane eventually became the F-16 Fighting Falcon—his ideal true dedicated air-to-air dogfighter. However, Boyd was also disappointed by the modifications made to that aircraft. The USAF made it heavier and more sophisticated than he wanted, and so Boyd denounced it in disgust.[7] Indeed, although his vision for the F-16 was a pure dogfighter, the plane has rarely been used in air superiority missions by the USAF and has achieved zero air-to-air kills for the US.

An air-to-air right side view of a YF-16 aircraft and a YF-17 aircraft, side-by-side, armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, c.1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

After his retirement in 1975, Boyd went back to work in the Pentagon as an analyst, and it was during this time that he completed most of the intellectual output in the recently released new volume. This began with a short essay entitled ‘Destruction and Creation,’ which argued that societies and systems only really change when they are destroyed and recreated, rather than reformed from within. In 1976, Boyd received a NASA grant to study the differences in pilot behaviour between simulators and reality. Instead of focusing on that, Boyd produced a study titled ‘Fast Transients Brief,’ which consisted of carefully picked historical examples with which Boyd argued that victory in war was the result of being quick, unpredictable, and agile, with the goal of producing confusing in the enemy. This brief was essentially the first draft of what became a larger briefing called ‘Patterns of Conflict,’ which Boyd continually expanded to include more historical examples of his point. This briefing continued to grow, including more examples, until it became the final form under the new title ‘A Discourse on Winning and Losing.’ In this form, it was a fourteen-hour briefing split into two days. Boyd refused to shorten his briefings or to distribute summaries or slides to those who did not attend, insisting on being given the full amount of time, or nothing.[8]

Also embedded in these briefings was his evolving idea of the OODA loop, which stands for ‘observe, orient, decide, act.’ This was Boyd’s description of the process by which decisions are made at all levels from the tactical to the strategic. Boyd argued that all combatants in a conflict are going through that cycle, and whoever can complete repetitive OODA cycles more quickly will always be the victor. Fans of this theory tend to argue that this insight is revolutionary and secures Boyd’s place alongside thinkers such as Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. Others claim that this idea is very simplistic and offers very little in the way of insight or practical application. Interpreting and applying Boyd’s theory to subjects ranging from warfare to business has become something of a cottage industry. The OODA loop is still taught at US professional military education institutions. Love him, hate him, or merely indifferent, one cannot deny that Boyd has left a legacy and influence.

One final component of Boyd’s life that one must be aware of is his involvement in ‘The Reform Movement.’ During his time in the USAF, he and his followers who pushed for lightweight, dedicated air-to-air combat planes began referring to themselves as the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and saw themselves at odds with the US government – to the point of depicting themselves as participating in a guerilla war against a government that they deemed as corrupt and ineffective. After Boyd’s retirement, this group morphed into what became known as ‘The Reform Movement’ and moved away from just fighter planes to becoming politically active on broader defence issues. This effort included a litany of journalists, military officers, and politicians who went as far as to form their congressional caucus, as well as non-governmental organisations with the goal of lobbying for particular policies.

The group wanted all US military hardware to be cheap and ‘simple.’ Simple in this context meant technologically unsophisticated relative to the mid-1970s. They argued for cancelling expensive ‘complex’ weapons such as the F-15 and the M-1 Abrams tank and replacing them with cheaper, ‘simple’ alternatives, such as relying on the older M-60 Patton tank or replacing F-15s and F-16s with swarms of F-5 Tigers. ‘The Reform Movement’ was more political than the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and although the movement attracted some moderates and left-leaning individuals such as James Fallows (journalist for The Atlantic) and Senator Gary Hart (D-CO), it tended to skew conservative. Over time, it grew more conservative with the addition of politicians such as Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Dick Cheney (R-WY), and possibly its most prominent and active member (who coined the term ‘the Reformers’): self-proclaimed monarchist and white supremacist William Lind.[9] For this group, Boyd was seen as a messiah, and he was often discussed in religious terminology as a saviour preaching a new gospel.

Although this movement had an influential voice in the early 1980s, it had begun to stagnate by the end of that decade, and the 1991 Gulf War discredited many of their arguments.[10] However, despite that war demonstrating the effectiveness of all the weapons systems that the Reformers (and Boyd) had argued against, Boyd himself took sole credit for the success of that war. Boyd claimed he had been the actual author of the ground attack plan, which was not true, and that it would have been even more successful if his ideas had been implemented further.

Boyd is a complex figure, and his influence on the US military, especially the USAF, is impossible to deny. Although the bulk of his work has been floating around the internet for years, having a new edition of his work in an easily accessible and well-produced print edition is extremely useful and quite welcome.

Bibliographical Note

For more information on Boyd, the best place to start is most likely John Andreas Olsen’s 2016 article, ‘Boyd Revisited: A Great Mind with a Touch of Madness’ in Air Power History while the best examination of Boyd’s intellectual output is Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2007). Several authors further explore Boyd in Olsen’s edited work Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (2015). A genuinely scholarly biography on Boyd’s life has yet to be written. Hammond’s brief biography, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (2012) is a useful starting point but leans into praise for Boyd to a level that some readers might be uncomfortable with. Robert Coram’s popular biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002) has its uses but is little more than hagiography and should be read with a sceptical eye.

Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and and Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 40 aircraft after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during a mission over Iraq on 10 June 2008.  (Source: Wikimedia)

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

[1] Grant Hammond, ‘Introduction to “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” in Colonel John Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, edited and compiled by Grant Hammond (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2018), pp. 1-2.

[2] Carl Prine, ‘Q & A with Merrill ‘Tony’ McPeak,’ San Diego Union Tribune, 23 November 2017.

[3] See, for example, a story of Boyd seeking out a former colleague who had expressed doubt in Boyd’s ideas years before. Boyd put out his cigar on the man’s clothing, then began shoving him and shouting obscenities at him, all in public. Told in more detail in Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002), pp. 179-80.

[4] Edward S. Rutowski, ‘Energy Approach to the General Aircraft Performance Problem,’ Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences, 21 (1954), pp. 187-95.

[5] USAF Historical Research Agency, K239.0512-1066, John Boyd, Corona Ace Oral History Interview, 22 January 1977.

[6] For details on the development of the F-15, see Jacob Neufeld, The F-15 Eagle: Origins and Development, 1964-1972 (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1974).

[7] On this issue, see: Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 2012).

[8] These briefings are most thoroughly explored in Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[9] For a brief summary of Lind’s extremism (he was known for keeping a portrait of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in his office), see Bill Berkowitz, “Cultural Marxism’ Catching On,’ Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 August 15, 2003. Lind’s radical right-wing viewpoints are evident from his voluminous writing as the former Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism, and his many columns in a variety of conservative websites and magazines. His 2014 novel Victoria not only celebrates a violent militia movement overthrowing the American government but glorifies deportations and executions of non-whites and other minorities he deems undesirable, including Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and it favorably depicts the use of nuclear weapons against African-American populations.

[10] For a summary of ‘The Reform Movement,’ see: John Correll, ‘The Reformers,’ Air Force Magazine (February 2008), pp. 40-4. To see them discuss their ideas in their own words, see: James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Vintage, 1984) and James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).

What does Time and Space mean for the Airman?

What does Time and Space mean for the Airman?

By Ian Shields

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Ian Shields explores the implications of the concepts of time and space for airmen. Using these concepts, Ian explores the differences between the services concerning culture, technology, and decision-making. Understanding these differences is essential if we are to leverage the advantages of each of the domains in high-intensity warfare.


Time and Space bound all military operations. We are used to the idea of trading time for space, although that is primarily applicable to the land campaign. If we think about the time/space relationship in two campaigns separated by a significant amount of history associated concepts show a great deal of change:

  • The Peloponnesian wars – campaign duration, the speed of manoeuvre, communication, size of battlefield/weapon ranges.
  • The First Gulf War – campaign duration, the speed of manoeuvre, communication, size of battlefield/weapon ranges.

It can be argued that time and space constrains airmen; however, we have a different perception and are better able to exploit both time and space.

Nevertheless, before going any further, what do airmen do? In 2010, Colonel Tim Schultz, the then Commandant of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies suggested that airmen ‘project innovative forms of power across traditional boundaries.’ Again, with emphasis, airmen ‘project innovative forms of power beyond traditional barriers.’ The key words here are, ‘project,’ ‘innovative’ and ‘power’ and these are the key to why airmen are different. Given this, this article focusses on four areas: the impact of air power; our cultural differences as airmen compared with soldiers and sailors; the impact of technology; and decision-making before concluding.

The Impact of Air Power

Looking at the world at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, it was well-ordered, firmly based on the idea of the nation-state that was built on Treaty of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna. Europe was, by historical standards, relatively peaceful with well-defined and respected boundaries.

To alter the balance of power required armies crossing these boundaries which, as we saw in 1914, could have disastrous results. Navies could control trade, impose blockades, and prevent armies moving over stretches of open water but they are themselves constrained by the availability of water; water covers only 70% of the surface of the earth.

The Wright brothers aircraft at Farnborough being inspected by a small group of soldiers, c. 1910. (Source: © IWM (RAE-O 615))

The events of 17 December 1903 changed all that, although it was not appreciated in those terms at the time (or, arguably, ever since): with 100% of the earth covered by air, boundaries drawn on maps and the constraints of the ocean became far less relevant. Again, airmen project beyond traditional boundaries.

While technology did not allow air power to be fully exploited in the First World War, the omens were there. Yes, there was an over-reaction in the 1920s and 1930s with, for example, Stanley Baldwin’s pronouncement that ‘the bomber will always get through,’ but the seeds for air power to exploit time and space in innovative ways began to be appreciated.

Cultural Differences

When exploring the question of what time and space mean for airmen, it is worth also reflecting what they mean for the soldier and the sailor. Time and space considerations bound both far more than airmen.

Take the soldier. Their horizon is limited in both spatial and temporal terms: soldiers may be interested in what is going on over the next hill, but rarely will he or she have to think much further. The modern-day artilleryman may point out the range of his or her weapon systems but compared with the airman they are limited. All too often the soldier’s view is limited to the range of their vision, which is perhaps why he or she may not understand that air power can protect him or her without necessarily being always in sight – or under command.

The sailor, by contrast, is far more used to the open horizons of the blue ocean. His or her vision is bounded not by the trench system but by the curvature of the earth. Away from the shore the sailor enjoys a sense of freedom more familiar to the airman and is used to thinking in large distances. Culturally, airmen have more in common with the sailor than the soldier, and it is perhaps not surprising that we have adapted the nautical methods of navigation – speed in knots, distances in nautical miles, latitude and longitude as our geographic reference system rather than units more familiar to a soldier. The sailor, though, is also more bounded than the airman. Not only does the sailor’s domain stop at the shoreline or the river’s edge, but his or her speed across the oceans is, by our standards, slow while, with obvious acknowledgements to submariners, like the soldier he or she is largely constrained to operating in just two dimensions.

There is a further cultural divide, which is the way the pace of technology has shaped airmen. For the sailor, he or she has progressed from the sail, through steam to nuclear propulsion over many centuries. For the soldier, the path from bows and arrows, via the musket to today’s weapon systems has been a journey of some half a millennium. In contrast, airmen have moved from the Wright brothers through the jet engine to Sputnik and then on to the Space Shuttle in a short space of time. So, our perception of time, driven by the technology that permits us to operate in the third dimension, is fundamentally different.

Airmen even refer to it in our poetry – the definitive High Flight talking of slipping the surly bonds of earth, of wheeling, soaring and swinging high in the sunlit silence and, finally, of reaching out and touching the face of God – sentiments that speak loudly to we who exploit the third dimension and are less constrained by the fourth – time – than our earth- and water-bound brothers.

Less I am accused of too many flights of fancy, let me continue with something altogether more concrete, the impact of technology.

Impact of Technology

Technology allows us to fly and we are inexorably wedded to it as a result. We are at home not just with the advances, but the speed of change: we are adaptable. Technology allows us to challenge the constraints of time and space constantly. We go ever faster, ever further, ever higher to the extent that now it is the human in the cockpit, or in the loop, that becomes the limiting factor with the demands on the human body regarding g-force and life support becoming critical in aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon. The very speed at which our platforms can operate bring new pressures on command, control, and communications, and on the decision-making cycle. So, we can shrink time and exploit it to an ever-greater extent but are we reaching a new plateau with the human body the limiting factor?  If so, we turn again to technology and remove the human from the cockpit – the Remotely Piloted Aerial System (RPAS) – or help with decision-making by more automation.

Remotely Piloted Air System RAF Pilot Badges
RAF Remotely Piloted Air System ‘Wings’, which differ from the current RAF pilot badge by having blue laurel leaves to identify the specialisation. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)

However, is this shrinking or expanding of time? It is both, depending on your viewpoint: it is shrinking because we need less time to undertake actions, or it is expanding because we can achieve more in the same period.

Regarding space, we see a similar dichotomy, the shrinking and expanding of the concept of space. As we move further up – and even out of – the atmosphere, we seemingly shrink space – we have access everywhere from our lofty vantage point in orbit, and it is less and less possible to hide from our gaze. At the same time, we are shrinking space as our targeting becomes ever more precise and our discrimination better. 

Decision Making

Perhaps nowhere is our different approach to time and space more starkly illustrated than in the realm of decision-making. It was, after all, John Boyd, an airman – and a fighter pilot to boot – who came up with the OODA loop – a means of getting inside the enemy’s decision-making cycle – that is of exploiting time.

While air power offers the politician some advantages – being able to posture from afar, being able to deploy rapidly a potent force but one with only a small footprint – the speed and reach of air power (or, to put it another way, our use and exploitation of time and space) offers him or her specific challenges too; the perils of the hasty decision or the too-long delayed choice. For example, if there is verified intelligence of a hijacked Boeing 747 heading for Canary Wharf but presently over central France, when do you intercept it?

These challenges extend ever further down the decision-making process to the commander and, increasingly, to the man or woman in the cockpit: that split-second decision facing the Harrier pilot, Tornado crew or RPAS operator – to drop or not to drop ordnance?

However, perhaps the ultimate tyranny (so far in human history at least) of decision-making regarding time and space has been the advent of nuclear weapons. The initial employment of these weapons of mass destruction in 1945 came about because of long and careful decision-making, but with the range of ICBMs and the proliferation of weapons, both time and space have been shrunk as the decision-making cycle becomes ever more compressed with no chance of correcting mistakes. Moreover, remember that for the first 40 years of the nuclear weapon age, it was airmen alone who were responsible for their delivery.


In this brief article, I have sought to illustrate that we can use time and space – and the relationship between the two – as tools with which to explore air power in a unique way. We can use it to identify differences and similarities with the other domains, and it offers a different means of analysing what it means to be an airman.

Time itself has constrained this article to no more than a cornucopia of ideas, and I have explored neither space (as in outer space) nor cyberspace, both domains of increasing importance.

RAF Typhoon Aircraft During Exercise Capable Eagle
A Royal Air Force Typhoon of No. 1(F) Squadron during Exercise Capable Eagle, c. 2013. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)

Let me offer you three conclusions. First, as airmen, we are more constrained by time and space as we lack permanence and rely on technology to fly at all. Second, as airmen, we are less constrained by time and space because we operate at high-speed, have great reach, are inherently responsive, and have a cultural appreciation of time and space that is unique. Third, new and emerging technologies, as exemplified by fifth-generation air power, will continue to challenge our present perceptions of time, space, and its relationship; the exploitation of both outer space and cyberspace are excellent illustrations of both. To conclude, Francis Fukuyama famously talked about the ‘End of History,’ but perhaps what we are seeing is more an end of TIME and, if not an end then certainly a new appreciation of space.

Ian Shields is a retired, senior Royal Air Force officer who has a wealth of experience as an operator, commander, and analyst. After a 32-year career that saw him command a front-line squadron and reach the rank of group captain, he has more recently established himself as a highly respected commentator on defence and security issues, specialising on aerospace matters. Ian holds post-graduate degrees from King’s College, London, and the University of Cambridge. He currently an Associate Lecturer at the University of Cambridge and writes for several academic and journalistic publications on current issues within defence and international relations.

Header Image: A Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System comes into land at Kandahar Airbase in Helmand, Afghanistan, c. 2011. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)