What Should America Do in the South China Sea? Ask a Fighter Pilot

Colonel John Boyd, to be specific.

What to do in the South China Sea? Ask a fighter pilot. One in particular: the late U.S. Air Force colonel John Boyd. Colonel Boyd would exhort U.S. officialdom to grasp the strategy China is pursuing in Southeast Asia, and to acknowledge—indeed, grok—that Beijing wants to transform the regional maritime order in ways inimical to America, its allies, and all seafaring nations. That’s a challenge worth taking seriously.

The precepts underlying the liberal order—in particular, that no coastal state makes the rules governing use of the global commons—should be nonnegotiable for the United States. Accordingly, Washington must summon up resolve, resources, and allies to defend the commons rather than talk itself into believing Beijing will compromise away things it deems of crucial importance—things such as sovereignty over regional waters, skies, and land features. If U.S. leaders gird themselves to do the former, they might stand some chance of achieving the latter.

In short, Obama administration chieftains must orient themselves to Beijing’s strategy while clarifying their own purposes and deciding how much they treasure those purposes. Only after completing the intellectual work and a gut-check can the administration design a strategy that deploys power to fulfill its goals. Executing the strategy will prove simple by contrast with devising it—although as military philosophers warn, accomplishing the simplest thing is difficult amid the hurly-burly of strategic competition and conflict.

Acting as custodian of nautical freedom in Southeast Asia is an open-ended mission. It will prove neither quick, nor cheap, nor risk-free. Genghis John”—such was his ornery repute—would grin knowingly at the administration’s plight. A self-made military strategist of Cold War vintage, Boyd devised his “OODA” decision cycle—observe, orient, decide, act; lather, rinse, repeat—to explain how combatants adapt to ever-changing surroundings. (Or not, in the case of the losers in strategic competition.)

Savvy competitors, that is, afford their surroundings close scrutiny; filter the information they gather through historical, cultural, and organizational lenses; decide how to manage those surroundings; and act. If sufficiently alert, resolute, and nimble, they keep up with change—and philosophers teach that keeping apace of change represents one of the foremost tasks of statecraft.

The OODA construct applies to conflict situations ranging from duels between lone swordsmen to power politics between nations. Contends Boyd, the likely victor in wartime or peacetime strategic competition is the contestant who best stays in tune with far-from-static surroundings. Or, better yet, the victor takes charge of his surroundings, modifying them to his advantage—and thus keeping his opponent perpetually disoriented and vulnerable.

In other words, the savvy antagonist disorients rivals by throwing “fast transients” at them. If you’re a flyboy like Boyd, prosecuting a dogfight against an enemy warbird, you can suddenly climb or dive, add or shed speed, or juke at odd angles. A fighter ace constantly changes the combat environment around his opponent until he loses touch with reality. The other aviator can’t observe, orient, decide, and act accurately or speedily enough to keep pace with changes his antagonist imposes. In short, a well-executed series of radical maneuvers leaves a less agile foe in the ace’s crosshairs.

You’ve got the foeman once you outwit and outmaneuver him. An uptempo, more economical, more clearsighted OODA cycle confers dominance over competitive endeavors.

And again, keeping an opponent perpetually off-balance is about more than fancy tactics in close combat. Strategic maneuver or diplomatic stratagems can accomplish much the same thing. China, Boyd might say, knows what it wants; wants it badly; and is acting on that desire. It has a sense of purpose and the steadfastness to pursue its goals relentlessly. Having observed and oriented to conditions in Southeast Asia, it has decided on a strategy and acted. Meanwhile, America is floundering back in the observation and orientation phases. Advantage: China.