John Boyd And The OODA Loop


I was reminded today that Hugh Hewitt still hasn’t returned my biography of John Boyd that I loaned him a decade ago. I’m starting to think it won’t be forthcoming.

John Boyd went from  a brash young fighter pilot, to a tactical thinker who (with others) greatly changed the way the US thought about, and trained, fighter tactics. He also, based on his tactical thought, had a good deal of influence in the decision to design and purchase the F-16, a plane optimized to fight using his E/M(or Energy/Maneuverability) theory of fighter combat.

That alone would have made him a pretty memorable fellow. But building on his tactical thought, he leveraged that to an operational and strategic level theory that has been popular in both military and civilian circles for some time now. His theory became know as the “OODA Loop.”

Boyd posited that we respond to any situation or environment via a process with four elements.

  1. Observe
  2. Orient
  3. Decide
  4. Act

We observe a situation via our senses, or other methods of gathering information. We orient this information this information based on past experiences, culture, analysis, an our heritage. We make a decision based on this orientation, and then act to fulfill the decision.

But the process is not linear, as read above, but rather continuous, with each element generated feedback in the process, hence the term “loop.”

http://xbradtc.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/11_ooda_loop.png?w=500&h=230

Click to greatly embiggenfy.

The goal of consciously using an OODA loop in combat is to speed up the process of making a decision. By running through the cycle faster than an opponent, his previous observations, orientations and decisions are rendered useless by the newest observations (that is, the results of your decisions and actions). By continuously operating inside an opponent’s decision cycle, his level of chaos and confusion is greatly increased, and the validity of his own OODA loop is degraded until such time as it is worthless.

The Army has never specifically, doctrinally endorsed the OODA loop, though virtually every field grade officer is familiar with the concept. In AirLand Battle, the term of art used was “agility” which, rather than a purely physical concept, was very much a mental one, sharing the same goal, the ability to adjust to conditions and make and execute decisions faster than the enemy.

The current Army capstone doctrine no longer lists agility as one of the tenets of warfare, but does list adaptability:

ADAPTABILITY
28. Army leaders accept that no prefabricated solutions to tactical or operational problems exist. Army leaders must adapt their thinking, their formations, and their employment techniques to the specific situation they face. This requires an adaptable mind, a willingness to accept prudent risk in unfamiliar or rapidly changing situations, and an ability to adjust based on continuous assessment. Perhaps equally important, Army leaders seek to deprive the enemy of the ability to adapt by disrupting communications, forcing the enemy to continually react to new U.S. operations, and
denying the enemy an uncontested sanctuary, in space or time, for reflection. Adaptability is essential to seizing, retaining, and exploiting the initiative based on relevant understanding of the specific situation. For example, Army leaders demonstrate adaptability while adjusting the balance of lethal and nonlethal actions necessary to achieve a position of relative advantage and set conditions for conflict resolution within their area of operations.
29. Adaptation requires an understanding of the operational environment. While impossible to have a perfect understanding, Army leaders make every effort to gain and maintain as thorough an understanding as possible given the time allowed. They also use the Army’s information networks to share their understanding. Understanding a specific situation requires interactive learning—intentionally and repeatedly interacting with the operational environment so to test and refine multiple hypotheses. Army leaders expand
their understanding of potential operational environments through broad education, training, personal study, and collaboration with interagency partners. Rapid learning while in combat depends on life-long education, consistent training, and study habits that leaders had prior to combat.

You don’t have to dig deep in those two paragraphs to find analogs to the four processes of Boyd’s loop.

For a theory first applied to the realm of jet fighter combat, where 90 seconds is an eternity, it actually found its greatest fanbase in the Marine Corps, where he is often credited with helping (along with a great many others) reviving Marine interest in maneuver warfare.

And while the OODA loop is a popular subject among many business managers, they tend to be the of the fad of the moment type presentations. Boyd, on the other hand, was very much a numbers guy. He and two other folks, dubbed the “Fighter Mafia” developed much of the theory while working on the LFX program, that later became the F-16 and eventually spawned the F-18. Of the two other members, one was a fighter pilot and the other was a civilian statistician. Boyd himself was an industrial engineer.  They approached the theory from a systems analysis point of view.

Interestingly, as one of the more influential strategists of the second half of the 20th Century, Boyd never wrote a book on strategy. Rather, he spread his gospel via a series of briefings. These slide decks are a good resource, but sadly, without the context of actually having Boyd brief them, much is lost.

Boyd died in 1997.

A collection of his briefings can be found here.

3 Comments

Filed under Air Force, ARMY TRAINING, history, war

3 responses to “John Boyd And The OODA Loop

  1. Esli

    The ability to “OODA” effectively requires experience, which is lacking, and about to become even more not in evidence, as a result of all the training cancelled by sequester (and for the army this is huge; for example all of my training for the remainder of the FY will be at the individual and crew level and will not roll one combat vehicle, but I digress).

    What I expect all of my guys to understand is the 4 steps to actions on contact, they being:
    -deploy and report
    -develop the situation
    -recommend a course of action
    -execute a course of action
    sure this will look very similar to OODA, but is slower, and also in step three specifically requires a subordinate to describe to his higher headquarters what he is facing and make a recommendation as opposed to just doing. Mounted maneuver warfare is much slower than jet aircraft…

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    • True, and one thing I didn’t touch on is that merely going through the motions of OODA isn’t what needs to happen.

      Speeding your loop for the sake of speeding it merely results in flailing about, and ironically generates confusion on your side, and clarity on the enemy side.

      One must be well trained, and a subject matter expert to transition from observe to orientation, otherwise the D and A phases are deeply flawed and counterproductive.

      In sum, the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat.

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  2. Boyd also had obtained a degree in Aeronautical Engineering as well. His influence resulted in the way the spec was written for the F-15, but, as I understand it, he had more influence on the 16, YF-17, and, ultimately, the F/A-18. His influence is pretty much gone, and I think we are seeing the result in the F-35 development. I think we are taking a step down in many ways, and still don’t have a real replacement for the Eagle.

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