Cheng, Chi, and Mother Nature

John Boyd, on chart 132 of Patterns, described what you’re trying to accomplish by operating inside opponents’ OODA loops*:

“Generate uncertainty, confusion, disorder, panic, chaos … shatter cohesion, produce paralysis and bring about collapse.” Once you have these well underway, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to “subvert, disorient, disrupt, overload, or seize adversary’s vulnerable, yet critical, connections, centers, and activities … in order to dismember organism and isolate remnants for wrap-up or absorption.”

If you achieve this, it doesn’t make any difference how big your opponents are or how much great technology they have.

Why not? What do you actually see inside the victim’s organization when it’s happening? Here’s an example from the cockpit voice recorder in a tragic 2009 plane crash:

At 10:16 P.M., the plane’s impending-stall alert system—the stick shaker—kicked in. “Jesus Christ,” Renslow said, alarmed. In his panicked confusion, he pulled the shaker toward him instead of pushing it away from him. Seventeen seconds later, he said, “We’re down,” and, two seconds after that, the plane crashed, killing everyone on board and one person on the ground.

Capt. Resnlow was a highly skilled professional as was his co-pilot. So what happened? One way to think about it was that Mother Nature was operating inside his OODA loop, that is, events were changing more rapidly than his mental model — his orientation — could keep up. The result was confusion, disorder, panic and paralysis. Boyd is suggesting that in a conflict between groups of human beings, you can generate these effects by operating inside opponents’ OODA loops.

Read the complete piece “The Hazards of Going on Autopilot,” by Maria Konnikova on  You may have noticed that events in the cockpit resembled the results of a successful deception operation, a cheng / chi maneuver. A classic cheng / chi pattern is to lull your opponent into a false sense of security and then extremely rapidly, spring the trap. It’s interesting that some forms of automation inadvertently produce this same effect.


*”Operating inside the OODA loop” is one of what I’ve called Boyd’s four “big ideas.” For an explanation, scroll down to “Boyd’s Big Ideas” on our Articles page.

Orientation — not what it seems

Once, while musing on the essence of things, Boyd noted that:

Orientation is the Schwerpunkt. It shapes the way we interact with the environment—hence orientation shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act. In this sense, Orientation shapes the character of present observation-orientation-decision-action loops—while these present loops shape the character of future orientation. Implication: We need to create mental images, views, or impressions, hence patterns that match with activity of world, and we need to deny adversary the possibility of uncovering or discerning patterns that match our activity, or other aspects of reality in the world. Organic Design, 16

In other words, conflict is a game of dueling orientations, where we try to maintain a more accurate model of unfolding circumstances than the other players’. We don’t leave this to chance:  ” … and we need to deny adversary the possibility of uncovering or discerning patterns that match our activity, or other aspects of reality in the world.” Boyd suggested many ways to do this, including camouflage, concealment, security, deception, and most powerful of all, ambiguity particularly by operating inside adversary’s OODA loops. Continue reading

Centers of gravity — Do they still matter?

Decisively defeating al-Qa‘ida will involve neutralizing its CoG, but this will require the use of diplomatic and informational initiatives more than military action.  LTC Antulio J. Echevarria II, USA (ret.)1/

This most perceptive statement, written before our invasion of Iraq, raises the issue of whether the center of gravity concept offers anything for the types of conflicts we find ourselves engaged in today.

At least twice in the last week or so, I’ve seen “centers of gravity” in articles about US defense policy:

Zen Pundit on American Spartan

Mark Safranski has posted his review of American Spartan, Ann Scott Tyson’s story of US Army Special Forces Major Jim Gant in Afghanistan. Read it.

Here’s my review of Mark’s review.

As Mark notes, the strategy of supporting local insurgents goes way back, and it can be highly successful — the United States wouldn’t be here if the French hadn’t taken this approach. But it’s also true, as he notes, that if you create a monster to fight a monster, you have, in fact, created a monster. You’d think we might have learned this from our first Afghan adventure. So I certainly agree with Mark when he says that “It should only be done with eyes wide open as to the potential drawbacks (numerous) and it won’t always work but the militia option works often enough historically that it should be carefully considered,” but “eyes wide open” is easier after the fact. Even a mechanical system of three or more parts can become complex and therefore unpredictable. So we have, at the very least, the US forces, the various tribes and militias, and the government. You see where I’m going with this, and that’s before we consider that the players are hardly mechanical parts whose behavior can be predicted over any length of time. Continue reading

Irregular warfare

As Boyd would say, “Why would you fight any other way?”

Here’s a quote from a review in today’s WSJ [paywall]:

[Charles] Lee was awarded the honorary rank of major general in the Polish army and observed the Russians campaigning against the Ottoman Turks and Polish rebels, witnessing how small bands of irregular fighters could seriously disrupt and impede unwieldy regular forces. Combined with what he had already seen of frontier warfare in America, this experience did much to convince him of the superiority of guerrilla tactics over conventional ones.  “Book Review: ‘Renegade Revolutionary’ by Phillip Papas & ‘Charles Lee’ by Dominick Mazzagetti” by Stephen Brumwell.

Continue reading

Diseases of orientation

In Boyd’s grand scheme of things, Orientation drives action. The easiest and most reliable way to defeat opponents is to mess with their orientations so that the resulting actions are ineffective, late, or missing altogether.

It’s an ancient idea, all the way back to Sun Tzu (“All warfare is based upon deception.”), and that’s just what we have in writing. We can be sure the idea itself dates way before Sun Tzu.

In any case, a few thousand years later, Boyd added the idea of operating inside the OODA loop:

Mentally we can isolate our adversaries by presenting them with ambiguous, deceptive, or novel situations, as well as by operating at a tempo or rhythm they can neither make out nor keep up with. Operating inside their O-O-D-A loops will accomplish just this by disorienting or twisting their mental images so that they can neither appreciate nor cope with what’s really going on. Strategic Game, 47

Continue reading

Figures and maps from Certain to Win

I know a lot of you have bought electronic editions of Certain to Win (“a lot” being relative, but I’m highly grateful and flattered, nonetheless) that did not have legible figures and maps. My sincerest apologies.

I’ve uploaded a PDF file with all the graphics in the book. There’s a link to this file on the Articles page.

Some electronic editions also didn’t play well with Table I on page 43. I recreated that table in an earlier post and have also added a link on the Articles page. Continue reading

Fourth Generation War — Was I Wrong?

When I proclaimed the death of 4GW in this very blog about a year ago? Of course not. But there are disturbing developments, at least in its decline-of-the-state/road-warrior variant (aka, the Bill Lind definition).

Did you know, for example, that groups espousing an ultra-orthodox salafist interpretation of Islam, those iconic 4GW warriors we call “al-Qa’ida,” now control an area larger than that of the United Kingdom? This zone includes much of western Iraq and eastern Syria. It’s worth reminding ourselves that before March 2003, they controlled exactly none of this (or any other) territory. Patrick Cockburn offers his explanation of how we got ourselves into this mess in “Al-Qa’ida’s second act,” a five-part series in The Independent. Continue reading

Another ring?

John Boyd really liked Miyamoto Musashi’s 1645 treatise on swordfighting, A Book of Five Rings. In that same vein, he was a big fan of The Japanese Art of War by Thomas Cleary, a work that includes excerpts from Musashi and quotes from several other samurai and Zen masters of that period. Both of these books emphasize preparing an opponent mentally before risking an attack, a theme that also runs through Sun Tzu and that forms the foundation for much of Boyd’s Discourse.

As an aside, the parallels between fencing and dueling in the skies over southern Nevada are too close to ignore.

It’s always good, then, to receive a paper by someone who knows both fencing and Boyd. Here’s a new one for you, Nick Johnson’s “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop and Fencing,” which I’ve uploaded to the Articles page.