From Defence of the Baltic to the Airspace above Kosovo: The Transformation of the Royal Danish Air Force, 1989-1999

From Defence of the Baltic to the Airspace above Kosovo: The Transformation of the Royal Danish Air Force, 1989-1999

By Dr Søren Nørby

The 30th of May 1999 is an important date in the history of the Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF). On this day, Danish General Dynamics F-16s dropped bombs against a hostile target for the first time in its history. The target was in Serbia; a country located more than 1,500 kilometres from Denmark, and with which Denmark was not legally at war. Instead, what the RDAF participated in was a ‘humanitarian intervention’ that was supposed to stop a potential Serbian genocide in the province of Kosovo.

RDAF participation in the intervention against Serbia in 1999 was the end of a period fundamental transformations of the Air Force after the end of the Cold War. In this period, almost every aspect of the RDAF began to change – its doctrine, technology, and central mission. This article explores those changes by looking at the role of the RDAF during the post-Cold War conflicts in Yugoslavia between 1992-1995 and Serbia in 1999.[1]

In 1989, the RDAF was small but versatile. It consisted of more than 100 aircraft, a force of ground-based air defence centred around eight mobile missile batteries (I-HAWKs), seven large airbases, and a well-developed command-and-control-system that maintained a constant aerial picture of Denmark and the surrounding area. Its peacetime force was approximately 8,200 personnel, which could be increased to 17,500 in wartime. The RDAF was well integrated into NATO, and its main task was the defence of the western part of the Baltic Sea in case of an attack from the Warsaw Pact.[2] This was a role the RDAF undertook in conjunction with other NATO partners.

From ‘Peace-dividends’ to the Civil War in Yugoslavia

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was one of the most momentous events in the modern history of the Danish defence policy. It prompted a shift away from the low-profile approach that had been the cornerstone of Danish policy since the end of the Second World War. In September 1990 the Danish government deployed the corvette, Olfert Fischer, as part of Operation DESERT SHIELD, the United Nations (UN) sanctioned military operation against Iraq, following the occupation of Kuwait. This deployment illustrated to Danish politicians that there was political capital to be gained from participating in such operations, far from Danish shores. At the same time, the Danish Defence Command, which coordinated and controlled the Danish military, realised that operations far from Denmark were a way to stay relevant and to avoid the hard cuts to the defence budget that some Danish politicians wanted, now that the enemy – the Warsaw Pact – had disappeared.

In 1992, the UN set up a peacekeeping force for the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. The Danish government decided to participate with approximately 940 soldiers – a large contingent by Danish standards. Initial problems with recruiting the needed number of soldiers resulted in a change in Danish military law that now stipulated that members of the Danish military were required to accept participating in missions outside Denmark’s borders. Approximately five per cent of the men and women employed by the Royal Danish Army, the Royal Danish Navy and RDAF chose not to accept this and left the military.[3]

In 1993, the Danish government strengthened the Danish contribution to the UN operation in Yugoslavia by deploying ten main battle tanks. Denmark thus became the first country to deploy such heavy weapons in a UN operation. When Danish politicians voiced concern that the deployment of the Danish tanks would be perceived as a dramatic escalation of UN involvement in the civil war in Yugoslavia, the Danish Armed Forces decided that the tanks should be painted white, giving them the nickname ‘The Snow Leopards.’

The deployment of Danish Leopard 1 tanks to the Former Yugoslavia in 1992 marked an important turning point in Denmark’s defence policy. (Source: Author)

Pressure from International Organisations

The RDAF was initially not deployed on the international stage, other than a single Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which in 1992 flew ten trips as part of the emergency assistance provided to the Yugoslav city of Sarajevo.[4] The pressure to change the RDAF contribution came from NATO, which had begun its transformation towards a smaller, but more flexible organisation, capable of faster response times. This process had already begun before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it gained further momentum in the 1990s.

In 1991, NATO created two new forces: the Immediate Reaction Forces (IRF), capable of deploying within a few days, and the Rapid Reaction Forces (RRF) with a deployment time of a few weeks. Here the Danish government decided that that the RDAF’s Squadron 730 should be Denmark’s contribution to the IRF.[5]

The contribution of Squadron 730 to NATO’s IRF marked a shift in focus for the RDAF. During the Cold War era, NATO-planning envisaged that British and American squadrons would reinforce the RDAF.[6] NATO had planned to reinforce the RDAF with one Royal Air Force squadron of Hawker Harriers and two squadrons of SEPECAT Jaguars. United States Air Force (USAF) reinforcements were to consist of one squadron of McDonnel-Douglas F-15s, three F-16 squadrons, and one squadron of Republic A-10 Thunderbolts.

The 1990s, however, saw the RDAF shift to an expeditionary role whereby it contributed to the safety of others outside of Denmark’s borders. As such, the importance of making Squadron 730 available for NATO’s IRF cannot be overstated. Squadron 730 became the ‘flagship’ unit of the RDAF.

NATO’s involvement in the Civil War in Yugoslavia

In parallel with the above developments, during the first years of the 1990s, NATO became increasingly involved in the civil war in Yugoslavia. A UN ordered No Fly Zone had to be enforced by NATO, and in February 1994, this led to aircraft from the Alliance coming into action for the first time when US aircraft downed four Bosnian-Serbian fighter jets over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A Royal Danish Air Force F-35 Drakken aircraft taxis into takeoff position during Exercise OKSBOEL ’86. (Source: Wikimedia)

On several occasions, the Danish government considered contributing Danish aircraft to NATO operations over Yugoslavia. Such a move was, however, hampered by Danish politicians, who in 1991 had decided to scrap all of the RDAF’s Saab Draken aircraft. This meant that the Air Force’s ability to perform close air support had been downgraded to the degree that meant that Danish aircraft was unfit to perform their intended tasks over Yugoslavia. Therefore, despite pressure from NATO, the Danish government had to decline NATO’s request to deploy Danish aircraft over Yugoslavia. This was embarrassing for the Danish government and meant an increased focus on the close air support task. This meant procuring new equipment, such as the Low Altitude Navigation Targeting Infrared for Night laser targeting pods (LANTIRN) that would eventually enable the RDAF’s F-16s to use precision-guided munitions (PGM). However, the acquisition and introduction of such equipment was a long process, and the LANTIRNs were not operational until 2001.

In the Line of Fire – Yugoslavia

On 29 April 1994, while the debate over a possible deployment of RDAF F-16s was ongoing, a Danish tank force became involved in combat operations against Serbian forces near Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Danish tanks were ambushed, resulting in a firefight lasting approximately 45 minutes. The episode was the first time since 1943 that troops under the Danish flag had fought in battle. While the Danes did not suffer any losses, the Bosnian Serbs subsequently acknowledged that they had nine killed and 15 wounded. The battle, known under the name Operation Bøllebank (Operation Hooligan Bashing), became just as important to the Danish military as the deployment of the Olfert Fischer four years earlier. It showed that Danish soldiers were ready to put military power behind international engagement and were able to fight.

Bøllebank also showed the soldiers, airmen and sailors in the Danish military that post-Cold War UN-operations were fundamentally different from the peaceful UN-missions that Denmark had participated in before 1989. It became clear to the Danish military that personnel deployed on such a mission could be called on to undertake combat operations. Finally, Bøllebank also illustrated a high degree of political and popular support for the Danish participation in the UN-operations, which subsequently helped to expand the Armed Forces’ maneuvering room in connection with these operations.[7]

RDAF Pressure for Change

During the 1990s the RDAF tried on numerous occasions to convince Danish politicians to deploy Danish planes to the civil war in Yugoslavia. This was driven by a fear that the RDAF’s lack of an international profile would make it difficult to secure funding for new equipment. The various professional heads of the RDAF in this period all wanted to make the entire Air Force deployable, including such elements as the Hawk missile system and radars. Following recommendations from the Danish Defence Command, Danish politicians decided to invest much money in new and more mobile equipment, and the RDAF’s Hercules and Gulfstream transport aircraft were equipped with, among other things, missile warning equipment to enable them to operate in dangerous areas.[8]

The RDAF also devoted resources to developing a Danish doctrine for the operational use of air power. The RDAF was inspired by USAF Colonel John Warden’s theories regarding the strategic use of air power, especially his 5-ring model of the enemy as a system. These ideas were used to set the direction for the development of the RDAF and to provide inspiration for how Danish aircraft could be used in the event of a conflict.[9]


Following Operation DELIBERATE FORCE, the NATO air campaign over Bosnia and Herzegovina between 30 August and 20 September 1995, the civil war in Bosnia was stopped with the so-called Dayton Agreement. This peace deal ended a civil war that had cost more than 100,000 lives and driven more than four million people from their homes. Thanks to the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force of 60,000 personnel, Bosnia and Croatia have since been mostly peaceful.[10]

In the shadow of the civil war, however, another conflict lurked. Within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which after 1995 consisted of Serbia and Montenegro, a significant minority of ethnic Albanians constituted much of the population of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. The conflict between the ethnic Serbs minority and the ethnic-Albanian majority in Kosovo dated back hundreds of years but escalated in 1989 when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic deprived Kosovo of the expanded autonomy enjoyed by the region since 1974.

During the 1990s, the political environment in Kosovo gradually grew worse, and by 1998 large parts of the province were no longer under Serbian control. The Serbian military and police, therefore, initiated a particularly hard-fought effort in Kosovo to restore control of the province – preferably by cleansing the province of ethnic Albanians.[11]

Among other things, because of the experience of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, the world community could not let the Serbs pursue a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Albania. An American-led attempt to find a peaceful solution was therefore made, and the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke was given the task of trying to negotiate a solution.


To put pressure on the Serbian president, on 14 June 1998, NATO gathered a force of approximately 80 fighter jets from 12 countries. In Operation DETERMINED FALCON, these aircraft flew along the Serbian border and illustrated to the Serbian President that NATO was ready to use military power if the Serbs did not halt the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

For this operation, Denmark provided three F-16 aircraft (two plus one in reserve) at just two days’ notice. At 17:30 on 15 June 1998, Danish F-16s, together with a C-130 Hercules carrying support personnel and ammunition, flew to the Italian airbase at Villafranca. The next morning two Danish F-16s took part in the operation along the southern Serbian border to Macedonia and Albania. After a successful operation, the Danish aircraft returned to Denmark.[12]

During the summer of 1998, Richard Holbrooke managed to reach an agreement including the withdrawal of some Serbian forces from Kosovo. Whether DETERMINED FALCON played a role in that agreement or not is unclear.[13] However, the agreement did not last, and in September 1998, up to 300,000 Kosovo Albanians were once again on the run in Kosovo. These refugees threatened to destabilise the entire region and create a flow of refugees in Europe, such as those the world had witnessed during the 1997 collapse of Albania. The European authorities were very aware of this, and the European Union put much effort into stopping the Serbian cleansing of the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo.

Towards Operation ALLIED FORCE

Concurrent with this process, NATO began planning a military operation. On the 8 October 1998, the Danish government made available six F-16s (four operational plus two reserve aircraft) and support personnel, totalling 120 men, for a NATO operation named OPLAN 10601 ALLIED FORCE. This operation was designed to compel the Serbs to return to the negotiating table and ensure that the Serbian forces left Kosovo by the 16 October.

One of the six RDAF F-16s deployed as part of Operation ALLIED FORCE in 1999. (Source: Author)

The Danish F-16s and most of the personnel initially came from Squadron 730. At the time, however, the RDAF had only 36 pilots with current operational experience on the F-16 aircraft. This figure included pilots serving at the RDAF headquarters as staff officers. The Danish contribution to ALLIED FORCE required six pilots in Italy, six on standby in Denmark and six for other operations, including those on leave at home in Denmark. The deployment thus required half of the RDAF’s available F-16 pilots. This problem was further exacerbated by the fact that all the deployed pilots had to be certified for the weapons systems that were expected to be used during the operation.

ALLIED FORCE, therefore, put much pressure on the entire fighter structure and operations of the RDAF. This pressure meant that all tasks that did not directly relate to air policing the skies over Denmark or ALLIED FORCE were discontinued. For example, among other things, Squadron 727 suspended the training of new pilots, while most of its pilots were deployed to Italy. In the long run, this would ultimately have an impact on the RDAF’s ability to meet its readiness level.[14]

Thanks to political and military pressure, in February 1999, it proved possible to persuade both representatives of the Kosovar rebel movement Kosovo Liberation Army and the Serbian government to initiate negotiations about the future of Kosovo. These took place at the French president’s summer residence at Chateau de Rambouillet, southwest of Paris. On the 18 March, however, it became clear that the negotiations would not lead to a deal, and with the negotiation options exhausted, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana had no other options than on the 23 March to initiate Operation Allied Force. At 19:00 the following night, NATO began launching airstrikes against Serbian targets in Kosovo and Serbia.

The Danish Experience

RDAF F-16s participated in ALLIED FORCE from day one; however, the operation came at an unfortunate time. In addition to the aforementioned pilot issue, the RDAF was in the middle of a midlife update of its F-16s, and the number of operational aircraft was significantly reduced. Initially, the RDAF only had 14 F-16s capable of participating in the air campaign. This meant that the aircraft deployed during the air campaign worked up so many flight hours that had they operated in peacetime they would have had to be sent home to Denmark for inspection. To alleviate this issue, the RDAF’s Tactical Command issued exemptions from the rules to keep the aircraft flying.

For most of the air campaign, Danish F-16s operated in the defensive role. This was a necessary part of ALLIED FORCE. The Air Force of Yugoslavia – even though most of its fighter jets were of an older design – posed a potential threat to NATO had they chosen to resist the Alliance’s attack. However, after having lost four jets during the first days, the Air Force of Yugoslavia chose to keep most of its aircraft on the ground. Nevertheless, political demands from NATO-member states meant that approximately 33 per cent of Alliance aircraft were devoted to the air defence role against potential attacks by the Air Force of Yugoslavia.[15]

On these combat air patrols, Danish F-16s operated in pairs. Initially, their patrol zones were located over the Adriatic Sea, where the essential air tankers operated. As NATO became more confident that Serbian forces would not try to counter NATO operations, the patrol zones moved to the area over Albania and Macedonia and later also Hungary. This allowed the American jets, which had until then patrolled these areas, to be transferred to offensive operations.

Since Danish F-16 pilots were not equipped with night-vision-goggles, they were used in daylight operations. During one patrol over Kosovo, a Danish F-16 was fired at by a Serbian ground-to-air missile, which did not, however, successfully hit its intended target.[16]

Danish Offensive Air Power

While Danish F-16s primarily focused on the air defence role, in the final days of the air campaign, the RDAF aircraft became involved in offensive operations against Serbian targets.

The first Danish bombs were dropped on the 30 May. The details of the attack are still classified, but what is known is that the target was a radio mast in northern Kosovo and that the two F-16s each dropped six MK-82 bombs. From an altitude of 11,000 feet, the pilots visually observed the bombs hitting the target area. For the attack, the Danish planes used ‘dumb’ bombs. The primary reason for this was that it was not necessary to use a more expensive laser-guided bomb (LGB) on the target. Secondly, an attack with an LGB would have required ‘buddy’ lasing. This technique involved one aircraft illuminating the target with a laser and guiding the LGB, dropped from a second aircraft, towards the target. As well as the above, there was also uncertainty about which pilot was responsible for the bomb if it caused collateral damage. The RDAF, therefore, chose to use dumb bombs where there was no doubt that the Danish F-16s were fully responsible for weapons released.

According to one of the pilots involved in the 30 May attack, the target area had visible bomb damage before the Danish attack. The Danish bombs hit close to the target, but due to the uncertainty about the target’s condition before the attack, the military value of the attack was uncertain. For the RDAF, however, the attack was a significant event as it was the first time Danish aircraft had dropped bombs on an adversary.[17]

For the RDAF, its participation in ALLIED FORCE was a test of whether the Air Force had achieved the transformation that the leaders of the Air Force had wanted. The RDAF’s goal in the 1990s had been to create an air force capable of participating in an air campaign alongside its NATO-allies as well as executing the same type of missions as the USAF or the RAF. The RDAF’s conclusion following ALLIED FORCE was that this goal had not been met.

While participation in ALLIED FORCE was historic, with Danish aircraft bombing hostile targets for the first time in its history, the air campaign showed that the RDAF had fallen behind technologically when compared with Denmark’s NATO allies and especially the United States. The RDAF therefore, subsequently initiated a process to catch up with these technological deficiencies. Thus, ALLIED FORCE accelerated the RDAF’s transformation into an ‘expeditionary air force’ tailored for international operations.

A critical element of this transformation was a focus on precision-guided munitions to avoid collateral damage. The effect of participation in ALLIED FORCE was the acceleration in the acquisition of new equipment, such as LANTIRN, and ammunition for the Danish F-16s. When the RDAF deployed in support of US forces in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks on the 11 September 2001, the Air Force’s technology level had been significantly improved.

Conclusion – From Defense of the Baltic to Global Reach

The transformation described in this article meant that the RDAF in 2000, compared with 1989, had been reduced by the following: a 50 per cent reduction in air stations; a 50 per cent reduction in fighter pilots; the number of Hawk squadrons had been reduced by 25 per cent; and the number of fighter aircraft in the RDAF inventory had reduced by 35 per cent. Similarly, the peacetime force had been reduced by 17 per cent to approximately 7,900, while the wartime force had been reduced by 26 per cent to 14,800. These cuts had not only hit the RDAF, but the overall number of personnel in the Danish armed forces had been reduced from 39,000 to 33,200, while the wartime force had fallen from 103,000 to 81,200.

The RDAF had, however, at the same time managed to survive the loss of the Warsaw Pact as its enemy, and had shown Danish politicians that improvements in the RDAF’s capabilities allowed it to participate in international operations far from Denmark. The lack of success in the skies above Kosovo in 1999 was therefore not seen as a failure for the RDAF but as evidence that the Danish politicians needed to spend more money on the Air Force in order to reap the benefits of participating in international operations. This policy eventually showed its merit during the air war over Libya in 2011-2012, where Danish F-16s dropped 923 bombs on Gadhafi’s military forces and showed that they were able to work closely together with the USAF and other allies – a prerequisite today for being on the front line during international missions.

Dr Søren Nørby is a researcher and lecturer at the Royal Danish Defense College in Copenhagen. He earned his PhD from Syddansk Universitet in 2018. He specialises in naval history and is the author of 25 books and more than 50 articles. For more information see

Header Image: Based on the experience of the operations over the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, the RDAF underwent a number of critical transformations. One of these transformations was the introduction of new technologies to improve capabilities, such as the LANTIRN pod for use of on the F-16 that came into service in 2001. (Source: Author)

[1] This article is based on the author’s book Når Fjenden Forsvinder. Det danske flyvevåbens udvikling 1989 – 1999 (When the enemy disappears. The transformation of the Danish Air Force 1989-1999) (Odense, 2019).

[2] ’Fakta om Forsvaret 1990,’ København, 1990.

[3] Forsvarskommandoen, Ved Forenede Kræfter (Vedbæk, 2000), p. 210; H. Hækkerup, På Skansen. Dansk forsvarspolitik fra Murens fald til Kosovo (København 2002), p.. 103.

[4] ’Rapport fra Udvalget vedrørende forsvarets materiel’, København 1998, p. 164.

[5] Ringsmose, Danmarks NATO-omdømme. Fra Prügelknabe til duks (Dansk Institut for Militære Studier 2007), p. 19; ‘Årlig Redegørelse 2004’, København 2005, pp. 34-5.

[6] Ved Forenede Kræfter, p. 171.

[7] L. Møller, Det danske Pearl Harbor. Forsvaret på randen af sammenbrud (København, 2008), p. 57; R. Petersen, ’Den bedste ambassadør – civil-militære relationer og demokratisk kontrol i Danmark 1991-2011’ (Phd Thesis, Roskilde Universitet, 2012), p. 207ff; R. Petersen, ’Danske sneleoparder i Bosnien,’ Militært Tidsskrift, 2010; P.V. Jakobsen, Fra ferie til flagskib. Forsvaret og de internationale operationer (København, 2009), p. 9; P.V. Jakobsen, ’The Danish Libya campaign: Out in front in pursuit of pride, praise and position,’ Upubliceret artikel, 2016, p. 195; K.S. Kristensen, Danmark i krig: Demokrati, politik og strategi i den militære aktivisme (København, 2013), p. 38; L. From, ’Da et kampvognsslag ændrede danskernes syn på krig,’ Jyllands-Posten, 3 May 2015; ’Balkan har reddet det danske forsvar,’ FOV Nyhedsbrev 7/2002.

[8] S. Hartov and J.E. Larsen, Forsvarets fly efter 1945 (Flyvevåbnets Specialskole, 1995),  p. 36ff.

[9] John Warden III, The Air Campaign. Planning for Combat (Washington 1988).

[10] M.O. Beale, ‘Bombs over Bosnia. The role of airpower in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ (Thesis, USAF School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1997), pp. 33-4; Christian Anrig, The quest for relevant air power: continental European Responses to the air power challenges of the post-cold war era (Maxwell, AL, 2011), p.. 32, 179; M. Juul and S.W. Nielsen, 12 år på Balkan (København 2004), p. 46; John Olsen (ed.), Air Commanders (Dulles, VA, 2013), p. 356ff; C. Axboe, Vi troede ikke, det kunne ske her – Jugoslaviens sammenbrud 1991-1999 (København, 2018), p. 227-53.

[11] Axboe (2018), p. 275.

[12] I. Daalder and M. O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly. NATO’s War to Save Kosovo (Brookings Institution Press, 2001), pp. 32-3; G. Schaub, Learning from the F-16 (København, 2015), p. 19ff.; M. Vilhelmsen, ’Operation Allied Force (AOF): Da Flyvevåbnet med voksent,’ Upubliceret. Vojens, 2010, p.. 2; ’Rapport vedr. dansk flyvevåben deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 12 november 1999, B2-B3; Årlig Redegørelse 1998, pp.. 33-6.

[13] Nørby (2019), p. 131-7.

[14] Hammerkasterne: Historien om Eskadrille 727 gennem 50 Ar (Skrydstrup, 2005), p. 162-3; ’Flugten er stoppet – men stadig mangel på F-16 piloter,’ Berlingske Tidende, 7 May 1999; ’Rapport vedr. dansk flyvevåben deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 12 November 1999, p.. B-11 og D-10. TTJ og ’F-16 planlægningsmøde vedr. evt. overgang til anvendelse af F-16 MLU i f.m. Flyvevåbnets deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 8 March 1999.

[15] Olsen (2010), p. 233.

[16] Forsvarskommandoens Presse- og Informationssektion 2001, pp. 12-5.

[17] Schaub (2015), p. 10: Vilhelmsen (2010), pp.. 3-4; ’Danske jagere bomber Milosevic,’ Ekstra Bladet, 28. May 1999; T. Kristensen, Kysser Himlen (København, 2017), pp. 179-180.

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)

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[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).