Smart tactics

In the last post, I mentioned that the effort to change Marine Corps doctrine from attrition to maneuver took nearly 15 years before General Gray made it official in 1989.  An important component of this campaign was research into the history of warfare and publication of the results, particularly in the Marine Corps Gazette.

Here’s a good example, from some seven years before maneuver warfare was officially  adopted. It’s a letter to the editor of the Gazette by G. I. Wilson and one of his colleagues responding to a critique of articles on maneuver warfare:


LtCol Batchellor’s poignant uneasiness with maneuver warfare thinking (Apr82) may result from too casual a reading of the recent articles in the Marine Corps GAZETTE. Understanding the tenets of fluid/maneuver style of warfare requires careful, thoughtful reading and reflection.

Modern maneuver/fluid war took root at the small unit level with infiltration tactics developed in 1918 and conceptually has not changed since. It is applicable at every level from MAF to fire teams.

To understand maneuver warfare concepts, it is necessary to make the basic distinction between tactics and techniques. Techniques are those things that all armies must learn to do well in order to succeed, e.g., movement to contact, assault on a fortified position, and weapons proficiency. Tactics are the imaginative combination of those techniques allowing forces to move into unexpected places, at unexpected times, with unexpected speed, deception, and surprise. When a force continually strings techniques together in the same sequence, i.e., when it uses the same tactical doctrine, again and again, it becomes predictable and can be easily defeated. The “maneuverists” argue against tactical cookbook recipes because stereotype tactics lead to predictability and defeat. They do not reject battle drills that have proven successful, only the combining of such drills into dull, repetitious, and rote tactics. They do not advocate a policy of simply turning loose subordinate commanders on the battlefield. Such a command and control system, or rather the lack of it, would soon lead to total chaos and a possibility of defeat in detail.

Maximum flexibility and initiative can be given to subordinates by the senior commander clearly expressing his overall tactical intent, by tailoring mission-type orders to support that intent, and by designating a point of main effort for combat, combat service, and combat service support units. Through these command and control methods the senior commander can retain enough control to ensure a cohesive, coherent effort from his force.

Amphibious operations are not an end in themselves. They are merely a means of arriving on the battlefield. In order to be successful in any subsequent operations ashore, however, it is vital we possess a maneuver capability equal to or greater than our adversary. We do not fight decisive battles in the surf. This does not necessarily mean more mechanized vehicles (and all the attendant problems). Maneuver warfare advocates have never argued for increased mechanization as a means of increasing maneuverability. The maneuver they advocate is mobility in relationship to our enemy, and this is not something that is dependent upon mechanization or tied to machines.

The maneuver warfare advocates are attempting to institutionalize fighting smart. They believe that the Marine Corps’ potential adversaries will not give it time to rethink its tactical doctrine after the shooting starts. Marine officers owe it to themselves and their profession to discover as much as they can about the tenets of maneuver/fluid warfare before dismissing it as “good old flexibility and boldness.” It is so much more than that.


Fighting Smart

Col Mike Wyly*, USMC, ret., was one of the principle architects behind the Marine Corps’ doctrine of maneuver warfare. He and a group of advocates had written a number of articles in the Marine Corps Gazette and discussed and essentially sold the idea for a period of years between the end of the Vietnam War and the publication of the doctrine in FMFM-1, Warfighting, in 1989.

He recently recounted that one worry they all had was that once published and made official doctrine, it would stop evolving:

I alluded to it briefly in a response to a Gazette piece that was published, how I was in General Gray’s [Commandant of the Marine Corps] office along with John Boyd – just the three of us. General Gray had only days before signed FMFM-1. Boyd congratulated him but then got real serious and talked about how important it would be to keep the thinking – the “fighting smart” – alive and relevant. Were we ever to sit back and say “We did it”, we would lose it, Boyd warned. It would be our challenge to keep our minds open, too, in order that we stay relevant to the changing times.

The need to do so was always Boyd’s response when people asked him why he didn’t publish – even a book. Boyd worried that were he to ever do so, people would say “There it is! The answers are in the book!”, and stop thinking and lose relevance in the changing times.

Continue reading

Yet more kaizen

Continuous improvement.

I’ve had a few comments on “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop” particularly on the role of tempo / speed through the loop. So I’ve posted a minor revision of the paper to the Articles page. Although there are stylistic improvements throughout, most of the substantive stuff affected the “Is Faster Really Better?” section that begins on the bottom of page 28.


What was Boyd Thinking?

And when did he think it?

In his own words:

For the interested, a careful examination will reveal that the increasingly abstract discussion surfaces a process of reaching across many perspectives; pulling each and every one apart (analysis), all the while intuitively looking for those parts of the disassembled perspectives which naturally interconnect with one another to form a higher-order, more general elaboration (synthesis) of what is taking place. As a result, the process not only creates the Discourse but it also represents the key to evolve the tactics, strategies, goals, unifying themes, etc., that permit us to actively shape and adapt to the unfolding world we are a part of, live in, and feed upon. Abstract (c. 1987)

I took a stab at illustrating Boyd’s process:


The bubbles in the arrows show some of “perspectives” he pulled apart. The boxes along the bottom represent his syntheses, the presentations that make up his Discourse on Winning and Losing.

I was involved at the two ends, “Destruction and Creation” (1976) on the left and the two boxes — Conceptual Spiral (1992) and The Essence of Winning and Losing (1996) — on the far right.

It turns out that one of Boyd’s closest associates, Chuck Spinney, also drew a flow chart depicting how his concepts developed. Chuck was intimately involved with all the boxes on the chart:


This isn’t in strict chronological order (neither is mine), but in terms of how the ideas came to maturity, I agree completely.

Both of these illustrate the process of many-side, implicit cross-referencing across a variety of domains.  The rest of Boyd’s concept of Orientation, “projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection,” usually involved phone calls late into the night. Coram’s book describes this very well.

Incidentally, Chuck noted that early on, “ODA” stood for “Orientation, Decision, Action” which John came up with during his time running Development Planning on the Air Staff at the Pentagon.  Later, he added “Observation.”

All of the presentations and papers mentioned here, with the exception of the Aerial Attack Study and Boyd’s original Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) papers (which would be of interest only to historians of air-air combat and are summarized in New Conception) are available from the Articles page.

Chuck blogs at

Masterpieces are never finished

Just abandoned (attributed to Leonardo da Vinci).

I’m not claiming that the new version of “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop” is a masterpiece, although I think it’s pretty good, but I am abandoning it for now, with the exception of an occasional correction or brilliant rephrasing.  It’s available from the Articles page.

It’s a major rework: pretty much every paragraph has seen some TLC, and entire sections have been moved around.  I added a new section on whether faster is always better and also threw in quotes from L. David Marquet and the Buddha.

By the way, if you’re interested in this sort of stuff, check out the Corporate Rebels web site,, and follow them on Twitter @corp-rebels

Life’s lessons learned the hard way

I was having a discussion with an old friend about the enduring habits we picked up early in our military training.  He’s retired USMC, so naturally his stories are much more dramatic than mine. But our training NCO at ROTC Summer Camp (Ft. Bragg, NC, 1968) did manage to hammer in a few lessons.  Please add your own in the Comments.

  1. Shoes do not shine themselves; beds do not make themselves
  2. There is no better time than right now to get these done; second chances only exist in movies
  3. It follows that you do not have the time to do anything over
  4. First leadership lesson. You only have one simple task: Make sure that the other 39 people in the platoon get the mission accomplished. DO NOT do anything else.

These may seem elementary, but we’re talking college students in the peace-and-love 1960s.  Apparently, moms made the beds for many of these guys, and when they got to college, nobody did.

About number 4: He made it VERY clear to me that grabbing the broom and finishing an area myself was not what platoon-leaders-for-a-day do. Over the years, I figured out that something like mission command was the best idea.

Learning these was not pleasant.  While ROTC Summer Camp wasn’t Parris Island by any means, I still remember them, so I guess he did something right. And there are harder ways to learn lessons.

Thank you again, Sergeant …



John Sayen, USMC (dec.)

I just learned that my friend and colleague, John Sayen, has died.

Here is a tribute by Damien O’Connell:

This morning, I learned that my friend and colleague LtCol John Sayen, USMC (ret) passed away last night.

He was a great guy, John. A walking encyclopedia of military history, tables of organization, and little known, but often very intriguing. facts. He wrote an unpublished and amazing history of the evolution of American infantry battalions. He never hesitated to let me share it with Marines. And he never hesitated to take questions, donate his time for interviews, or fill requests for assistance.

Thank you for those things and everything else.

We’ll miss you.

John was a brilliant writer. Winslow Wheeler selected him to write the “Introduction and Historic Overview” for his 2008 compendium, America’s Defense Meltdown (available for free download from the Project on Government Oversight), and his two historical studies of US Infantry divisions in WWII are available from Osprey Publishing.

John could and usually would pun on any subject — words are the cherished tools of all authors — and he had a way of spotting the obvious long before anyone else realized that it was, in fact, obvious.  It didn’t always work: John once came up with a scheme to get the IRS to excuse him from filing federal income taxes.  Seemed odd, since if it were possible, no one would be paying taxes. But John did have a degree from law school. And he was scary smart. This went on for several months until one day he sheepishly admitted he had run into a few “unexpected issues.” Never brought the subject up again.  In the best traditions of maneuver warfare, he knew when to break off the attack and go somewhere else.   Before ending up in jail.

We won’t see his like again anytime soon.




Christmas Eve, Namaste

A new tradition — yoga on Christmas Eve. And as is also traditional, we end the session with savasana.

Sometime next year, I’ll explore a connection between yoga and the focus of Boyd’s approach.

Mission Command 201

Mission Command: The Who, What, Where, When and Why, An Anthology
by Donald Vandergriff (Author, Editor),‎ Stephen Webber (Editor
August 2017

I like good anthologies, and this is a very good one. Good anthologies can do several things, among them:

  • Provide discrete bins of thought that you can mine for nuggets — parts for your snowmobiles.
  • Let you look at a concept, in this case, “mission command,” from alternative viewpoints. Sometimes this can lead to an “Aha!” moment.
  • Expand your orientation — are you really doing all you could to engage the hippocampus? Be honest, now.

Cover of Mission CommandDon and Steve have done a great job of collecting essays that take you far beyond “What is Mission Command?”  In fact, when you get through, you may find that you know less about the concept than you thought. For example, people sometimes equate mission command with the German term Auftragstaktik.  But Auftrag doesn’t mean “mission.” It’s more like the English “contract.” When Boyd’s talking about “the German concept of ‘mission,'” he notes on Patterns of Conflict, slide 76:

The German concept of mission can be thought of as a contract, hence an agreement, between superior and subordinate. The subordinate agrees to make his actions serve his superior’s intent in terms of what is to be accomplished, while the superior agrees to give his subordinate wide freedom to exercise his imagination and initiative in terms of how intent is to be realized.

As part of this concept, the subordinate is given the right to challenge or question the feasibility of mission if he feels his superior’s ideas on what can be achieved are not in accord with the existing situation or if he feels his superior has not given him adequate resources to carry it out. Likewise, the superior has every right to expect his subordinate to carry out the mission contract when agreement is reached on what can be achieved consistent with the existing situation and resources provided.

So there’s obviously a lot more to the concept than simply “Tell people what to do and let them decide how.”   Don’s and Steve’s anthology will help you broaden your understanding and, perhaps, improve your use of the underlying philosophy in your own organization.

All the chapters are good, but I’d like to draw your attention to a couple that you might find especially broadening.

Quo vadis, mission command?

First, Grant Martin’s chapter on “Type II” mission command for situations where “the commander’s intent is ambiguous or weakly connected to the political purpose of the operation. … What should be added is how to conduct mission command when the purpose of the operation is unclear, where the scope is unbounded, and where cause and effect are not linear.”  Most business applications, in other words.  He proposes a new definition

In non-linear causality  situations, however, leaders must both assist and be assisted by their subordinates to best appreciate the context of the situation and during execution must learn and constantly adjust the appreciation of the context based on that learning. Of note: The learning must go both ways.

Boyd, didn’t like the term “command & control,” suggesting instead “leadership & appreciation.” Where does this leave mission “command”? If Martin’s idea intrigues you, you might explore other possibilities for expanding the concept. Boyd used the term “organic,” which has some of the bottom-up flavor suggested by Martin (there’s an example in chapter 5 of Certain to Win). Another idea is not to issue orders, even mission orders, at all, a possibility explored by David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around!**

The requisite physical energy***

Daniel Markert and Scott Sonnon introduce subjects that you don’t often find in leadership texts in their chapter, “Operationally fit for mission command.” For those of you not up on your neurophysiology, this one may be a little challenging. Just accept that the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and their kin are regions within the brain (or you could Google them and find out where). Markert and Sonnon address a major but often overlooked issue in leadership, that leaders inhabit human bodies:

The rapid onset of the fatigue reflex elevates stress arousal and degrades cognitive function with negative effects on shared understanding, risk awareness, creativity, and decisiveness.

They explain why this is true and what you can do about it. Recall that Boyd suggested that “Without a common outlook, superiors cannot give subordinates freedom of action and maintain coherency of ongoing action” (Patterns 74), so this is important stuff, and Markert’s and Sonnon’s chapter may start you down a productive path.

Explore, enjoy, learn, question.

Preview / buy Mission Command at Amazon


*This idea is implicit in Boyd’s EBFAS climate. Stephen Bungay develops it in detail in The Art of Action, where he, essentially, equates Auftragstaktik with Boyd’s entire EBFAS climate. Mini review in  an earlier post.

**Also covered in my presentation, All by Ourselves, available on the Articles page and in the mini review mentioned above.

***Observation by Gen Hermann Balck, Patterns, p. 118.

Dispatches from the front

In this case, automotive engineering.

Dean Lenane gave a major presentation at the recent European Manufacturing Strategies Summit in Berlin and has kindly agreed to post it on our Articles page (link above).  Look for “Organizing for Success with lessons from The master – John Boyd, OR, People, ideas, technology…IN THAT ORDER.”

In addition to being a keen student of Boyd’s ideas, Dean has had the wherewithal to put them into practice. As CEO of CRH North America, he grew the company from $20 M annual revenue to more than $350 M in a span of seven years. He documented some of this experience in The Turnaround, also on the Articles page. Now, as Managing Director, Europe, for Fisher Dynamics, he is continuing to experiment. I think you’ll find  his presentation innovative, exciting (if you’re into this sort of thing), and useful.

One thing I might point out is Dean’s concept of “providing coherent strategy” beginning on slide 69. You may recall that the objectives Boyd set on p. 2 of Patterns of Conflict were:


Focus and direction

• To make manifest the nature of moral-mental-physical conflict
• To discern a pattern for successful operations
• To help generalize tactics and strategy
• To find a basis for grand strategy

[“Focus and direction” was Boyd’s translation of Schwerpunkt.]

In order to  do this, he needed to harmonize grand strategy, strategy, and tactics so that success at one level wasn’t undone by failure at another — the “win the battles but lose the war” phenomenon.  It took him a while to get there, but Boyd finally gave an answer on slide 141.

Dean’s concept of “coherent strategy” serves the same function for manufacturing, and I would suggest for all commercial enterprises. To give one example, he insists:

This requires that a solid understanding of how things work at a tactical level be possessed by those making the strategic decisions.

By implication, a large staff structure of persons without actual front line experience and management by a mandarin class of professional managers without actual detailed knowledge of the specific business and products is anathema to a fast maneuver approach as these will slow down the decision loop. Slide 76.

Compare to Boyd’s slide 176:

– In accepting this idea we must admit that increased unit complexity (with magnified mental and physical task loadings) does not enhance the spontaneous synthetic/creative operation. Rather, it constrains the opportunity for these timely actions/counteractions.

Or put another way

– Complexity (technical, organizational, operational, etc.) causes commanders and subordinates alike to be captured by their own internal dynamics or interactions—hence they cannot adapt to rapidly changing external (or even internal) circumstances.

I think you’ll find what Dean has developed over the last 15 or so years to be an important addition to the expansion of Boyd’s ideas beyond their original domain of war and another instance of the Conceptual Spiral in action.

Good luck.