Air University Review, January-February 1980

Bureaucratic Tactics

William S. Lind

The recent work of Colonel John Boyd, USAF (Ret), on the nature of conflict has provided a new and useful basis for the development of military theory. Colonel Boyd was the father of energy management air combat tactics. More recently he has evolved a "fast transient" approach to air tactics from an analysis of air combat, including that in Korea. There, he noted the MiG-15 could perform almost every single maneuver better than the F-86. Why, then, did the F-86 usually win the engagements? According to Boyd, it was because the F-86 could transition from one individual maneuver to another much more quickly than the MiG-15. Fast transient tactics, as opposed to energy management tactics, emphasize the transition from one maneuver to another. These tactics are proving highly effective. Why?

In answering this question, Colonel Boyd began to evolve a theory of conflict. He observed that in any conflict situation all parties go through repeated cycles of observation-decision-action. The potentially victorious party is the one with an observation-decision action cycle consistently quicker than his opponent’s. As this party repeatedly cycles inside his opponent’s actions, the opponent finds he is losing control of the situation. Because of his longer cycle time, his reaction is facing a later action by the faster party than it was intended to oppose. Instead of achieving convergence with the first party's action, he finds himself facing ever-widening divergence. Suddenly, he realizes there is nothing he can do to control the situation or turn it to his advantage. At that point, he has lost. Often he suffers mental breakdown in the form of panic and is defeated before he is destroyed physically.

The Boyd theory that conflict is in essence competitive observation-decision action cycles explains many forms of combat on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. It offers a basis for the development of new and improved battlefield tactics and for a better approach to operations.

It also appears to offer an entirely new tactics, a tactics based on perceiving the opponent not only as an army but also as a bureaucracy. Such a tactics would supplement, not replace, battlefield tactics. But such "bureaucratic tactics" may require few resources to implement, yet offer substantial returns.

The basis of bureaucratic tactics is the realization that to be militarily effective a military force must maintain a rapid observation-decision-action cycle. Yet, in peacetime, military services tend to develop a number of routines, standard operations procedures, requirements and organizational habits that have little or no relationship to military effectiveness (although they may relate to efficiency) and which materially slow the observation -decision -action process. Officers will have little difficulty in identifying such routines within elements of their own service.

On D-Day, two armies and air forces will clash, but so will two bureaucracies. Both sides are likely to come to the initial battle with their peacetime bureaucratic habits largely intact. Within hours, certainly within days, the front line will shed many of these habits. But especially in a conflict where the strategy requires forward defense, the first few days may be decisive. Even after the initial period, bureaucratic behavior will persist in the supporting arms, the combat support elements, and the combat service support elements—the more so the farther one moves behind the front.

The essence of bureaucratic tactics is encouraging the enemy to follow his own least militarily useful, most time-consuming bureaucratic habits until he lengthens his observation-decision-action cycle to the point of total ineffectiveness. This involves identifying such enemy bureaucratic practices through careful and conceptually sophisticated vulnerability analysis, and encouraging him to follow these practices by preserving the facilities they require while at the same time (through selective destruction) making the practices take even more time than normal. It must be fully understood that in bureaucratic tactics, preservation is as important as destruction. Those elements of the enemy's system, which he may regard as assets but which our vulnerability analysis shows to be liabilities must be preserved, and the opponent must be encouraged to use them.

A detailed example may illustrate the concept more clearly. Currently, there is a major divergence in tactics and operational philosophy between the U.S. Air Forces, Europe, and the European air forces.1 The Europeans emphasize high sortie rates, local control, and preplanned sorties. USAFE operates on the basis of a low sortie rate, centralized control, and midair control of sorties.

The European system appears more robust and more efficient in generating combat power from total resources. It also appears more appropriate for armored warfare, in that it relates air support to the ground commander's scheme of maneuver, not just to exchange ratios.

If forces opposing USAFE used normal tactics, they would see the centralization of the U.S. forces as a vulnerability. They would shoot down the AWACS and destroy the centralized command facilities on which the U.S. system depends.

However, this might be counterproductive. If the centralized system is no longer workable, USAFE may have no choice but I adopt the potentially more effective European system. Thus, the enemy's action in destroying the planned centralized U.S. system might actually raise U.S. net effectiveness. (This assumes, of course, that USAFE would have sufficient time to make the transition.)

In contrast, an enemy using bureaucratic tactics would carefully preserve USAFE's centralized C3 system. It would degrade that system 's observation-decision-action cycle by shooting down some AWACS but not all. It would be careful not to attack the central control headquarters. It would restrict but not cut off the communications channels between the central headquarters and the units and between units and their airborne aircraft. It would force the U.S. Air Force to choose between operating its preferred peacetime system with a substantially lengthened observation-decision-action cycle, or abandoning it while it is still nominally operable in favor of the Europeans system, a system which USAFE has devoted some effort to opposing. The opponent would count on (and possibly use disinformation and deception to reinforce) the Air Force’s bureaucratic behavior to lead it to choose the former, with potentially disastrous results on the battlefield.

Bureaucratic tactics promise to be an economy-of-force measure. They would require very precise vulnerability analysis prior to the conflict but should need only small battlefield resources, since they do not require much destruction of enemy assets. They could be used by units such as Special Forces and Rangers. They might offer an answer to some of the problems of declining relative effectiveness faced by tactical aviation. If nothing else, they might lead us to see some of our own policies and practices in a different light.

Washington, D.C.


1. See Dr. Steven L. Canby, "Tactical Air Power in Armored Warfare: The Divergence within NATO," Air University Review, May-June 1979, pp. 2-20.


William S. Lind (A.B., Dartmouth College; M.A., Princeton University) is legislative assistant for the Armed Services Committee to Senator Gary Hart of Colorado. He has served as legislative assistant to Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio, and assisted him in the preparation of the Taft white paper on defense. His publications include a critique of U.S. Army doctrine in the Military Review (March 1977); proposals for restructuring the Marine Corps in the Marine Corps Gazette (December 1975); and a critique of current naval force structure in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (March 1978). Mr. Lind is a doctoral candidate at Princeton.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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