A side of tachboulah, please

The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War
Steven Pressfield
New York: Penguin 2014
398 pages

CoverLionsGateIn my last post, I suggested a few things to read once you’ve become satiated with Boyd himself (don’t worry, it happens). A reader kindly recommended Steven Pressfield’s study of the Six Day War, told from the viewpoints of Israeli participants ranging from 19-year-old troopers to Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan. I highly recommend it as a source book for illustrating the major points of Boyd’s work.

I will admit to being a huge fan of Pressfield, beginning with The Gates of Fire. I suspect that regardless of your position on the various players in the Levant, past or present, you’ll find The Lion’s Gate to be a page-turner.

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All about agility in 400 sec.

At a special event midway through the first day, five of the presenters at LeanKanban 2015 gave short presentations on various topics.  The trick was that you had to have an intro slide, an outro slide, and 20 content slides, each of which was timed to display for 20 seconds.  In the video below, you can see the timing ball moving inexorably across the bottoms of the screens.

Mine was modestly entitled “Agility: The Power and the Glory.”  The software development community has a concept of agility, and if you search on “SCRUM” you can get an idea of how it works.  Apparently it works well because lots of development teams use it.  The way the developers use the term is the same as Musashi’s chapters 2 and 3, where he discusses tactics and techniques. This is important stuff because poor technique can ruin an otherwise brilliant strategy.20x20.001

But like Sun Tzu, Musashi goes on to insist that the real purpose of agility is to drive the terms of the conflict, to ensure, for example, that what you develop succeeds in the marketplace. Nokia, for example, didn’t go out of the phone business because of poor technique in building feature phones.  Agility should govern strategy — what to develop — as well as tactics and technique — how to develop it.

As I explain in this 20-slide talk, one of the really cool things Boyd did was to extract the essence of agility from something like “super maneuverability,” that is, a hardware concept, and move it into the pilot’s mind.  My little talk shows that this proceeded in stages first by noting the ability to handle change, then in the idea of “operating inside the OODA loop,” and finally to the concept of orientation.  This progression is critical to the concept of agility because otherwise you have a big problem explaining why the Red Baron’s Fokker Triplane from WWI, which was among the most agile aircraft ever built, didn’t even stay a front-line fighter for the whole war.

As an added bonus, I deconstruct the OODA “loop,” the big one from The Essence of Winning and Losing, in 60 seconds.

All of the little talks are worth watching, and mine begins at about 35:40.  You’ll occasionally hear voices in the background. To reduce the times needed for changeovers, we were all miked and in the excitement, we sometimes forgot this simple fact.  The MC is Markus Andrezak of the German company Überproduct in Potsdam.

20 by 20 with Pawel Brodzinski, Chet Richards, Nadja Schnetzler, Karl Scotland and Dominica DeGrandis at LKCE15 from Lean Kanban Central Europe on Vimeo.

Gators, by the way, are extremely agile.  Don’t be fooled into thinking they are just sluggish, belly-dragging lizards: They do the cheng / chi maneuver (abrupt transition from expected to unexpected) better than any human I’ve run across.

Coherent, Credible, and Wrong

The best strategist is not the one who knows he must deceive the enemy,
but the one who knows how to do it.

Polish SciFi master Stanislaw Lem (1921 – 2006)

We often think of Soviet doctrine as tanks lined up tread to tread, rolling forward until either they conquer or fall. Mass makes might. While there is a lot of truth to the Soviet, and so presumably Russian, respect for mass, it may surprise you to learn that the Soviets had, and so presumably the Russians have, a well thought-out doctrine of deception called maskirovka. The BBC ran a nice piece on the subject a few days back, “How Russia outfoxes its enemies,” by Lucy Ash.

Boyd had great respect for deception, “an impression of events as they are not,” as he wrote on Patterns chart 115, “Essence of Maneuver Conflict.” A person who is being deceived is not confused. He knows what the situation is. His orientation is coherent; his mental model of the world fits all the facts. It’s just wrong. Boyd’s primary vehicle for using deception was the cheng / chi maneuver, which he borrowed from Sun Tzu and reformulated in more modern terms as the Nebenpunkte / Schwerpunkt concept (see charts 78, 114, and many others). Basically, the deceiver shapes the orientation of the victim to expect (cheng) certain actions to take place. Think all of the stuff the allies did to shape Hitler into expecting the D-Day attack across the Pas de Calais. The deceiver then springs something entirely unexpected, the chi, and tries to exploit the resulting shock and confusion. Continue reading

What’s luck got to do with it?

One of the things that used to drive Boyd nuts was trusting to “luck”: Once you’ve run through your bag of tricks, you give up and “trust to luck.” We’ve done all we can. It’s out of our hands now.

Boyd would insist that you never do this, that you keep on building snowmobiles and learning from the results right up until the end. Keep your team from “coming unglued,” as he would put it. This is not luck but lots of clear thinking, hard work, and leadership before and during the conflict.

A little of this flavor comes from a recent interview in The Guardian by Peter Thiel, of “monopoly is good” (WSJ — paywall) fame. I had never thought of “luck” as being an atheistic god, but he may have a point:

What I do think is that as a society we attribute too much to luck. Luck is like an atheistic word for God: we ascribe things to it that we don’t understand or don’t want to understand. As a venture capitalist, I think one of the most toxic things to do is to treat the people I’m investing in as lottery tickets where I say: “Well I don’t know if your business is going to work. It might, it might not.” I think that’s a horrible way to treat people. The anti-lottery ticket approach is to try to achieve a high level of conviction, to ask: “Is this a business that I have enough confidence in that I would consider joining it myself?”

In other words, Fingerspitzengefühl as an antidote to “luck.” I think this is an interpretation that Boyd would have liked.

“Uncertainty” is reality; it’s the climate of all competition, and like climate, it affects all competitors. So as Richards’ Third Law states:

If you lost because of luck, you were a loser going in.

It would be like a general blaming his debacle on rain.

Uncertainty is really nasty stuff, so you don’t want to leave it to chance. The essence of Boyd’s approach to tactics is that you don’t have to wait on acts of God — you can create the climate of uncertainty yourself, you can build your own Fog of War Machine.

Because they’re inside their OODA loops

How small animals sometimes beat larger rivals:

Specific traits that may provide advantages to small species in aggressive interactions included well-developed leg musculature and talons, enhanced flight acceleration and maneuverability and traits associated with aggression including testosterone and muscle development.

From “When David beats Goliath,” by Anne Craig at PhysOrg. The study was performed by Paul Martin of Queens University, Kingston, Ontario.

Should not surprise readers of this column.

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 newyorker.com.  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.

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