Why The Norwegian Naval Academy teaches John Boyd’s conflict theory

By Tommy Krabberød, Damien O’Connell, Chester W. Richards, Endre Sjøvold, Stein Hatlem Forsdahl, Jostein Mattingsdal and Roar Espevik

Newly published (in English) by the Norwegian Ministry of Defense on the armed forces web site: https://forsvaret.no/hogskolene/Forskning/Publikasjoner/Necesse/necesse-spesialnummer-korona/john-boyd-conflict-theory

The Norwegian Naval Academy uses Boyd’s framework as a basis for cadet education. So they started wondering: How would John’s concepts translate to the current fight against the coronavirus?

Boyd's OODA 'Loop," Really Final Edition

The Norwegian Defense University has just published a new version of “Boyd’s OODA Loop” in their journal, Necesse, edited by Royal Norwegian Naval Academy. I had thought that the previous version was about as close to perfection as can be found on this Earth, but alas Necesse is a peer-reviewed journal, and “Reviewer No. 2” ripped it to shreds. After I calmed down, it was clear that Number 2 was right. So the edition published in the journal is vastly improved over the last version.

As Boyd suggested in his final briefing, The Essence of Winning and Losing (all of Boyd’s works are available for free download on our Articles page), the OODA “loop” is simply a schematic representing three processes and the interplay among them:

  • Using our existing implicit repertoire
  • Creating new and therefore unexpected ways to use our repertoire in the heat of conflict
  • Creating new repertoire, principally by training when not in direct contact with an opponent
From “The Essence of Winning and Losing,” 1996.

In fact, he even called his drawing of the OODA “loop” a “sketch,” strongly indicating that there might be better ways to represent these processes, and over time, people have suggested several.

The folks at Necesse have done a magnificent job of making this rather long and complex paper readable. Although I am sure there are many people involved whom I do not know — you have my sincere gratitude — I would like especially to thank two officers of the Royal Norwegian Navy whom I know quite well and am proud to call colleagues, Commanders Roar Espevik, Main Editor of Necesse, and Tommy Krabberød, who approached me with the idea of a new version of the paper and encouraged me to press on with a major revision as a result of certain peer review comments.

You can download the paper from the Articles page. The current edition of Necesse, which contains the paper, is available at https://fhs.brage.unit.no/fhs-xmlui/handle/11250/2647802, and past issues can be found at https://fhs.brage.unit.no/fhs-xmlui/handle/11250/2559117. It’s an interesting journal. There are quite a few articles in English, and, through the miracle of Google Translate, you should have no trouble with the others. The origin of the name, incidentally, is found on the last page of the journal.

Inner conflict: Dragons and OODA loops

Artem Grinblat

My fascination with dragons started when as a boy. I’ve heard that a crane would beat a snake, deflecting and countering with its beak, that tiger beats crane, overcoming its defences with a flurry of paws, that snake beats tiger, finding a gap for precision strike, and that dragon beats them all, having four legs as a tiger, tail as a snake and long neck as a crane.

As fire-breathing cat-snake-birds, the dragons might represent our fear of predators but also, as Jordan B Peterson notes in this five minutes video, our strength when we conquer or tame them. They are also a symbol of flexibility and adaptation, of being able to show and combine efficiently what might be different and even opposite traits. And we might share this flexibility with dragons.

Continue reading

75th anniversary of Operation Hurry On

Nick Engelen

Operation Market Garden evokes images of the classic film A Bridge Too Far, where paratroopers led by Sean Connery fight a pitched battle against the German hordes, while hoping to be relieved by Allied ground forces advancing all the way from the Belgian border towards Arnhem. In September 1944 the Germans were on the backfoot and retreating. In the north of the Belgian borders, there was a huge gap in the German lines. The door to the Third Reich seemed open. Like water, an army attacks the gaps — the voids — and rather than trying to muscle trough the Siegfried line, Field Marshal Montgomery saw the opportunity to take the path of least resistance to bypass these defensive lines and attack the Rurh area, Germany’s industrial heart.

However a 24-hour pause not only made the allies lose momentum but also gave German commanders the opportunity to reorganize their retreating forces and send them right back to grind the allied advance to a halt. This and some other factors resulted in the what’s now called a magnificent disaster wherein more people lost their lives than during the landings in Normandy.

Continue reading

A bit of the old ultra-violence

Of the roughly 36,000 words that Boyd left behind, only about a tenth are in the form of a paper, that is, a linear stream of text. What if Boyd had expanded his textual output by 100,000 words and written a sci-fi novel along the lines of Starship Troopers? (Some of you believe that his one paper, “Destruction and Creation,” (1976) is written in an alien tongue but that doesn’t count). One of Scottish author Charles Stross’s characters does use the OODA loop, and quite appropriately, in the The Apocalypse Codex, as I described back in 2016, and so it might be a candidate for a “What if John Boyd …?” novel.

Here’s another. New author Ian Michael is serializing his novel, Ultra-Violence, on Sundays at the Fabius Maximus site. I think you’ll find lots of operating inside the OODA loop, cheng / chi, penetration along multiple thrusts, and even some moral conflict. So far, I haven’t stumbled across an explicit reference to the OODA loop, yet — although there’s plenty of messing with peoples’ orientations — but he’s only on chapter 4.

Check it out.

Here’s an obscure tip — there is a character named “Alex.” If that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it.

Creating agile leaders

All forms of mission-oriented leadership, from maneuver warfare to the Toyota Production System, share a common foundation: Fire up the creativity and initiative of all members of the organization and harmonize their efforts to accomplish the objectives of the organization. Such an orientation allows them to create and exploit fleeting opportunities before their opponents can understand what is going on.

As Don Vandergriff quotes one of the principal architects of the German blitzkrieg:

The principle thing now is to increase the responsibilities of the individual man, particularly his independence of action, and thereby to increase the efficiency of the entire army. . . .The limitations imposed by exterior circumstances cause us to give the mind more freedom of activity, with the profitable result of increasing the ability of the individual.

HANS VON SEECKT, Commander of the German Army, 1920 -1926

This approach is often called Auftragstaktik, and it is hard to find any military organization that doesn’t claim to be using it.

Continue reading

Magic and illusion: Foundation for leadership

Aspiring leaders typically concentrate on history and case studies, creating theories of success and failure in their disciplines.  This is fine but won’t produce great practitioners in either war or business. As the German General Hermann Balck once told Boyd, “The training of the infantryman can never be too many sided.”  Miyamoto Musashi in 1645 wrote that samurai (much less top-level commanders) should study the arts and sciences and master fields other than their own. And this was just to keep them from getting hacked to bits. And then there’s Steve Jobs with his famous calligraphy course and Zen training. Continue reading

Epistemology Evolves

Chuck Spinney has made a tweak to Evolutionary Epistemology, his look into Boyd’s process of destruction and creation.  If you’ve ever been put off by the density of Boyd’s paper, start here (download from our Articles page).

In particular, he added one more slide, Boyd’s “Revelation.” He explained: “As you know the Revelation was produced by Boyd at the completion of all his efforts … it is a great slide to end my brief.”


I agree. But on first reading, it may seem obvious, even trite. There’s more here, though, than meets the eye. You might try treating it like a Zen koan: What does he mean by “loser”? Somebody who loses all the time? Fifty-one percent? Only the decisive battle? Someone who quits? Does this apply to other forms of conflict, like business, where not every product or service is going to be successful? Would it be more accurate to describe a winner as someone — individual or group — who can build better snowmobiles than the competition? Seems reasonable, but it’s not what Boyd wrote. That, of course doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.

And what about that term “appropriate?” According to the “Revelation,” losers can’t build snowmobiles at all, but winners not only have to build them but also employ them “appropriately.” Again, it seems obvious that to succeed, you have to use the thing you built, and why would you employ it inappropriately? Is Boyd driving at anything profound, or even useful, here?

Every word in the “Revelation” was pondered and debated, including many of the topics raised above, in those legendary phone calls Coram describes. What you see is what came out.

While we’re on the subject of winners and losers, you might compare the “Revelation” to The Essence of Winning and Losing (1996).


Not John Boyd

But a good video, nonetheless.

Here’s Prof. Daniel Bonevac giving an introductory lecture on the OODA loop:

Professor Bonevac is a member of, and was formerly chair of, the Philosophy Department at the University of Texas. I don’t know when this lecture was given, but the video was posted in April of this year. One of the interesting things about it is that Professor Bonevac is teaching a class on Organizational Ethics.

Continue reading