Science, Strategy and War by Frans P.B. Osinga

4 minutes estimated reading time

Science, Strategy and War isn’t a book that would have normally made it on to my reading list, but we’re living in strange times. The book is an analysis of the history and strategic theory created over time by John Boyd.

Boyd’s thinking led to the development of post-Vietnam, pre-stealth fighter aircraft that dominated the world’s skies. Boyd employed his experience and the insight that a ‘Swiss Army knife’ approach seldom provided an adequate design solution. A lesson that the US failed to learn when it created the F-35.

Boyd was also responsible for creating the ideas that encouraged the US to move war into the IT space. Boyd’s thinking on strategy has shaped military thinking on tools, structure, integration and responsibility. What military-types call network-centric warfare. This seeks to translate an information advantage, enabled in part by information technology, into a competitive advantage.

We saw the potential of this thinking in the first Gulf War when sensors, missiles and satellite imagery changed the face of modern warfare. What was less appreciated at the time by commentators is that this form of warfare was uniquely aided by Iraq’s flat terrain; which aided remote sensors and wireless networks. But the network-centric aspect really came into its own with William Owens’ paper on the system-of-systems which was emerging as the military followed Boyd’s approach.

Ok, whilst there is some crossover with technology concepts such as Kevin Kelly’s ‘mirrorworld‘; where AR knits together networked information with location this is all pretty arcane stuff.

Boyd breaks out of military circles

John Boyd is particularly famous for a model called OODA which has broken out from its military origins. Probably the most high profile fan at the moment is Dominic Cummings – the special advisor to Boris Johnson and political activist.

Cummings has talked about Boyd in terms of disruption and marketing of his political messages – through getting inside their OODA loop.

Boyd’s ideas have also been picked up by sports coaches and even litigation teams in the US.


OODA or observe–orient–decide–act, is often described as a ‘loop’ and shown that way. However this deceives the audience of its true nature. As Osinga correctly points out; observe and orient are continual flows of information that feed into the decide and act functions. Strategists talk about ‘getting inside the enemies OODA loop’; that is disrupting their intelligence, understanding of their situational awareness and ability to act.

Osinga’s critique of Boyd

In Science, Strategy and War, Osinga sets out to do achieve a number of things with regards John Boyd’s ideas.

First of all Osinga provides context, by providing a history of Boyd’s career in military service and as a retired service member and academic. Osinga brings a great deal of understanding to this part of the book as he also served in an air force and is an academic.

John Boyd Climbing out of F-86 Cockpit, circa 1953
John Boyd standing up in the cockpit of the F-86 Sabre that he few during his military service.

Secondly, he explains how Boyd developed and honed his ideas over time. Boyd’s OODA model was borne out of empirical experience as a combat pilot. It was first used to change fighter pilots about engaging with the enemy. Use of it then expanded to encompass bigger strategic outlooks.

Boyd read widely and had a deep understanding fo scientific principles due to his engineering background. He applied meta analysis to the great strategies and military campaigns of history and the literature describing them. He drew on his understanding of science to try and provide analogies for the many areas of uncertainty in implementing a strategy. He drew on the social sciences and concepts like post-modernism.

Whilst Boyd was technical; Science, Strategy and War makes it clear that he wasn’t technocratic in nature. Boyd was keenly aware of human factors including the different aspect of moral power. I think that this one of the least understood aspects of Boyd’s thinking.

I don’t think that Osinga’s book is essential reading for marketing. It was never meant to be. Instead, it provides a good insight into how many of our thinkers operate only at the surface level without truly understanding the concepts they talk about. Boyd was not a surface player, he thought deeply about things and read widely. In that respect I think he can be an example to us all. Osinga did a really good job at bringing this to light in an accessible way.

More on strategy here, more strategy related book reviews here.