Category: Asymmetric


During the Korean War, the northwestern quadrant of North Korea along the southern-most half of the Yalu River was known as MiG Alley to the Air Force pilots that flew during the conflict. It was in this area that most of the encounters between Soviet pilots flying MiGs and U.S. pilots flying F-86s occurred. According to analysts within the Air Force at that time, the MiGs should have come out on top: it could turn quicker, fly higher, and go faster. In reality, it lost 10:1 to the F-86s. By unofficial counts, the score was 792 MiGs shot down compared to 78 F-86s shot down. Many years later, the answer for the unexpected outcomes was provided by an Air Force pilot (Colonel John Richard Boyd) and a civilian mathematician (Thomas Christie) which they called the Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) theory of aerial combat.

The mathematical equation that is the basis for E-M theory is eloquently simple and as follows:

Just to break down the equation for you (because I will be discussing it further in this post), the variables are as follows: Specific Energy (PS), Thrust (T), Drag (D), Weight (W), and Velocity (V).

I was introduced to E-M theory (and other concepts that I may elaborate on at a later date by a long-essay by Daniel Ford that, if I remember correctly, was entitled “Strategic Dimensions of Contemporary Warfare”.1 That essay led me to read a couple other books: Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” and Robert Coram’s “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War” and a lot of what’s currently bouncing around in my head goes back to these works. But let’s focus on the E-M theory equation for the duration of this post.

What the equation provides is a means to determine the maneuverability characteristics of an aircraft without having to first build and test a prototype or to determine these characteristics for an existing aircraft…such as an enemy aircraft that you may not be able to actually put your hands on. All you have to do is know what the values are for each aircraft, run the equations for different flight conditions (e.g., Drag is affected by altitude due to air density), and then see where the strengths and weaknesses for each aircraft lie.

This explains why the F-86s were so successful against the MiGs during the Korean War. Although the MiG was considered a superior aircraft by the standards of the time, the F-86s characteristics were superior at lower altitudes and slower speeds. (Note: Other factors were involved that are not explained by E-M theory but I may decide to cover those at a later date if I choose to also apply OODA Loops to politics.) One of the strategies successfully leveraged by the F-86 pilots was to lure the MiGs into combat at a lower elevation, use rapid and successive changes in velocity to put the F-86 behind the MiG, and then “hose ’em”. Conversely, it became quickly known to F-86 pilots that high-altitude and high-speed engagements with MiGs were to be avoided. Those that didn’t learn this early didn’t usually survive to learn it later.

So, how does this relate to politics? Simply stated, political organizations are subject to the same variables. Any given organization (and, truly, it doesn’t even need to be a political organization) generates Thrust, works against Drag, has Weight and can move at different Velocities. Putting all of these variables together, a Specific Energy for an organization can be identified and used to explain and predict outcomes for various contests, at various “altitudes”, and utilizing various “maneuvers”.

Within a political engagement between two or more parties, there will be conditions that provide an advantage or disadvantage to one party relative to the other party or parties. Therefore, the key is to know the “maneuverability characteristics” of your party and those of the opposition in order to either coax the opposition to engage you when your advantages are higher than theirs or your disadvantages are lower than theirs. The ideal engagement, naturally, would be when your advantages are highest and the opposition’s disadvantages are highest but ideal engagements are typically going to be rare. Other combinations are also possible, such as engaging when the conditions are disadvantageous for both parties but more disadvantageous for the opposition. But I don’t intend to go into all possible strategic combinations. Instead, I would like to close out this post by going over the variables in the context of politics and then continue in a subsequent post with how they relate to actual and theoretical events within the realm of politics today.

Before I explain the variables involved in this E-M Theory of Politics, please allow me to consolidate terms for the sake of maintaining simplicity and clarity. Rather than having to keep using the terms ‘organizations’, ‘parties’, and ‘politics’, I would like to collectively refer to these as ’causes’ since a ’cause’ is what all of these have in common.

Now, let’s break down the variables so that we can get to the really interesting part of applying the concepts to the world of causes in my next post:

Thrust (T)
Thrust is the force generated to move the cause forward. This force will usually be the people that are positively involved with or inclined toward the cause.

Drag (D)
Drag is the force or resistance opposite to the Thrust that works to slow, stop, or reverse the direction of the cause. Drag can come from just about anywhere but, like Thrust, usually comes from people that, in this case, are negatively involved with or inclined against the cause.

Weight (W)
Weight in terms of an aircraft in flight is the mass of the craft multiplied by the force of gravity and essentially works perpendicular to the direction of motion. For a cause, this comes down to the cost of keeping everyone together in terms of how they are organized and managed.

Velocity (V)
Velocity is the current rate of progress being made toward the objectives of the cause.

Specific Energy (PS)
Specific Energy is a measure of how effective the cause is being at a given moment. In terms of the other variables, it’s the ongoing attainment of objectives based upon positive actions and opinions without being adversely countered by negative ones while maintaining group cohesion.

In my next post (Part Two), we’ll apply this information and see if it can provide both the ability to explain and possibly predict outcomes in the real world of politics.

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1 Mr. Ford has a subsequent work based on his long-essay called “John Boyd vs. al-Qaeda: how a fighter pilot’s ‘OODA Loop’ can help win the war on terror“ that interested parties may wish to check out.

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Previous related post: Asymmetric Politics: Applying Military Doctrine to Political Doctrine

The recent bruhaha around ‘violent’ and ‘vitriolic’ rhetoric being blamed for actual violence set me to thinking about how much politics and warfare share in common. In reality, they’re directly related, with warfare being the outcome of an utter failure in political discourse. The American Revolution, for example, came out of an environment in which political discourse between the Colonies and Great Britain was shut down by the government.

It didn’t happen over night. For over thirty years, the Colonies attempted to engage the existing political structure in order to have their grievances addressed. It was Great Britain, jealous and fearful of the economically growing Colonies, that fired the first shots, both politically and militarily. Even then, the Colonies didn’t immediately rush to take up arms. Several attempts by the Colonies to reconcile with Great Britain were made even after first-blood had been shed by British troops. So, after eight hard-fought years to gain independence, it’s not really surprising that the terminology of warfare was incorporated into the political discourse of America. After all, the freedom to participate in a republican form of government was won at great individual cost of life, health, liberty, and possessions and keeping it requires as much fervor and self-sacrifice today as it did then. The use of military terminology within politics is a homage and reminder of what it cost us to attain this freedom in the first place.

So, after re-contemplating the appropriateness of cross-pollination between warfare and politics, it occurred to me that additional and contemporary interchanges of ideas between military doctrine and political doctrine should be beneficial (cross-hairs be damned). For my part, I intend to post here a series of my thoughts of how military doctrine and concepts may be appropriately (i.e., non-violently) applied to the political struggles of today. In particular, I will be focusing on the concept of Asymmetric Politics.

I don’t have a time frame set for myself in which to complete this but much of this is weighing heavily on my mind and I’d like to lighten the mental load as soon as possible. I have a rough idea of what the next three or four posts will be about but I anticipate that some of it may change as I continue to ruminate on how best to express what’s bouncing around in my head. I hope you’ll check in periodically to contemplate my future contributions. Please stay tuned and be on the lookout for additional posts on the topic of Asymmetric Politics.

Next related post: Asymmetric Politics: E-M Theory (Part One): Key Concepts