How Boyd finally got to the OODA loop

Chick Spinney, one of John Boyd’s closest associates, has revised his flow diagram depicting how Boyd’s strategic thinking evolved from his days flying F-86s in Korea in 1953 until his death in 1997.

Spinney Evolution of Boyds Ideas

In this chart, “ODA” is “orient-decide-act,” not “observe-decide-act.” As Chuck recalls, Boyd added “observation” in 1975, about the time he retired from the Air Force. “LWF” is the Air Force’s Lightweight Fighter program, which culminated in the flyoff between the YF-16 and YF-17 in 1974.

Note that Patterns of Conflict is about operating inside the OODA loop and says virtually nothing about the OODA loop itself. The only place Boyd develops — and draws — the OODA loop is in The Essence of Winning and Losing, 1996.

Chuck also highlights how Boyd returns to “Scientific/Philosophical Foundation Efforts” with Conceptual Spiral in 1992. Interesting to compare the two, the effects of 16 years of intense effort.

All of Boyd’s works, and a PDF of the above diagram, are available from our Articles page. I might also modestly recommend my “Origins of John Boyd’s Discourse,” which illustrates some of the domains Boyd investigated (e.g., evolution, complexity, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, etc.) as he moved along Chuck’s progression.

Amazing what you can find on Google

Like an essay by an Israeli general that originally appeared in Hebrew in an Israeli defense journal in September 1949 (that would be coming up on 66 years ago).

Boyd extracted a paragraph from it as Chart 99 of Patterns of Conflict. Chuck Spinney, some 35 years after Boyd incorporated it, got worried about the source and after a few minutes, found the original.  We have now added a citation to that slide.

Chuck made the following observation:

If you think about it, this is Israel’s strategy — as well as its grand strategy — to this day: Divide up its opponents. This becomes clear in the use of settlements and Israeli-only roads to carve up and control the West Bank and in its failing effort to isolate Iran. Of course, strategy is destructive and these ideas work to destroy your adversary, but grand strategy should be constructive, it should end the conflict on favorable terms that do not also sow seeds for future conflict. Applying concepts from strategy, such as these from Gen. Yadin, to shape a grand strategy is a prescription for perpetual conflict and destruction (ultimately your own)!

Chuck, incidentally, is echoing Boyd’s observation that strategy is destructive while grand strategy should be constructive, which Boyd put on Chart 142 of Patterns. The notion that grand strategy should “end the conflict on favorable terms, while ensuring that conflict and peace terms do not provide seeds for (unfavorable) future conflict” is from Chart 139.

Chuck has a nice treatment of grand strategy on his Blaster blog, and all of Boyd’s briefings, including the newly revised Patterns of Conflict, can be downloaded from our Articles page.

Shaping and Adapting

While leading his company in Afghanistan, Marine Major Paul Tremblay was ordered to clear a much larger Taliban force that was defending an area of rugged terrain. Ordinarily, such terrain would favor the defense, not to mention the numbers problem.  Major Tremblay, however, fashioned a plan of attack based on the notion of “operating inside the OODA loop,” where relative numbers are much less relevant.

Chuck Spinney picks up the story:

Major Tremblay did not know Colonel Boyd but has been aware of his briefings since he was a 2nd Lieutenant at the Marine Corps Basic School. He is the only officer I know who has studied and applied Colonel Boyd’s ideas in a premeditated way in designing and leading a combat operation. His reinforced company level attack on the Taliban was a stunning success and based on radio intercepts, it became clear he penetrated his adversary’s OODA loops and collapsed the opposing units into confusion and disorder, exactly as Boyd predicted.  His thesis does not discuss this operation.

I’ve uploaded Major Tremblay’s recently completed master’s thesis (517 KB PDF). It’s a brilliant piece of work. Quoting Chuck, again:

P.J. Tremblay’s thesis aims to clarify what is perhaps the single most misunderstood aspect of Boyd’s theory of interacting OODA loops: the confusion of absolute speed with relative quickness, particularly as it applies to agility in Orientation and Re-Orientation. Tremblay’s aim is to improve the Marine Corps training curriculum by clarifying Boyd’s ideas and laying out a way to better incorporate them in progressively more comprehensive ways at each level in the Marine Corps’ educational system, from the lowest to the highest level.

PJ’s thesis is a case study in the kind of intellectual development and stimulation that John Boyd was trying to achieve by leaving the Marine Corps Research Center with the complete archive of his briefings and note. Boyd, an honorary Marine, would say, “Semper Fi, PJ.”

Chuck has posted the complete introduction to Maj. Tremblay’s thesis on his blog.

Spinney: Why I wrote “Evolutionary Epistemology”

A reader asked about the reference to “Campbell” on slide 38, “Basic Assumptions of Different Orientations,” of Evolutionary Epistemology, whether this was Joseph Campbell, the late American author and scholar of myths. Chuck’s reply:

The Campbell I am referring to is Donald T Campbell. Curiously, I came up with the term “evolutionary epistemology” as a title by myself, when I was asked to brief Boyd’s D&C paper shortly after he died in 1997. This was to a strategy class at the Naval War College. Boyd never heard the term from my lips and I do not recall him ever using it. We often referred to his paper as his learning theory. I remember telling someone that this is really a paper about epistemology.

I added some things to the briefing that Boyd did not talk about in his lecture (especially, the evolution of cosmology) and while working on that part, it came to me that that Boyd’s paper was really about the evolution of epistemology. I am using the term “evolution” in a strict biological sense. So, I coined the the name of the briefing to distinguish it from John’s and to make clear that it was my interpretation of John’s work.

Later someone told me I was discussing things very similar to the work of Donald T. Campbell. And it turns out that Campbell, a social scientist, coined the term in the 1960s. I never heard of him, although he taught at my university (Lehigh), albeit after I had graduated!!!! I did a library search and came up with an article he wrote in 1974 with the same title, which you will find in Chapter II of a book of essays: Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge edited by Radnitzky and Barley (Open Court 1987). This book comes at the evolutionary nature from an entirely different perspective and there is no mention of Heisenberg, Gödel, or the 2nd Law. But many of the ideas overlap and are compatible with each other.

I do not think Boyd was familiar with Donald Campbell’s work, and I only came across it by accident after I prepared the briefing. So, since I evolved the title independently, I decided to keep it. But Campbell’s work (which I have not reviewed in many years) seemed consistent with Boyd’s.

By the way, lots of people were working on the ideas Boyd was exploring. My own favorite remains Jacob Bronowski — he was almost there — making two-way linkages between Heisenberg, Gödel, and the 2nd law, but he never synthesized all three. I think if Bronowski had seen Boyd’s paper, he would have slapped his forehead and said “ah hah!” By the way, Boyd showed the paper to the physicist Freeman Dyson (the three of us were in my office) and Boyd asked Dyson if he saw anything wrong in the argument. Dyson said he did not see any problems with the argument and from what I could tell, seemed to like the paper.

One final point: I do not recall Boyd saying anything about Joseph Campbell’s work or that it influenced his thinking — but that does not mean it did not.

Jacob Bronowski doesn’t appear in the sources for “Destruction and Creation.” There are two listings in the sources for Patterns, for The Identity of Man (1971) and A Sense of the Future (1977). I know that he was also a fan of The Ascent of Man (1973)Those three, plus two copies of The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, are included in his collection at Quantico.  All heavily annotated.