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.

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, and past issues can be found at 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

Empathy in Orientation

I tweeted a link to a Forbes article on empathy this morning, “Want more innovative solutions? Start with empathy.” by Tracy Bower.

Boyd explained his notion of orientation on chart 15 of Organic Design (available from the Articles link, above):

Orientation is an interactive process of many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections that is shaped by and shapes the interplay of genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences, and unfolding circumstances.

I don’t recall any place where he defined “empathies,” or, for that matter, “empathy,” much less “projections,” “correlations,” or “rejections.”  These terms appear out of the ether, right after this chart:


where he proclaims an “Insight” that:

Interactions, as shown, represent a many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection. (OD, 11)

If you really want to have some fun, try briefing these two charts sometime.

Then, in his very last briefing, The Essence of Winning and Losing (also in Articles), he drew his infamous OODA “loop” sketch (his words), below which he recorded another “Insight”:

Also note how the entire “loop” (not just orientation) is an ongoing many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection.

The Zen of Boyd?  I don’t know. Perhaps something to ponder. For example, if you squint hard at chart 10, are there other ways you could characterize these “interactions”?  And how is the Stuka pilot Hans Rudel an interaction?  Can you come up with some more relevant interactions to make a similar point about orientation?

Mobile Warfare for Africa

Before there was ISIS, before 9/11, and before Syria, Libya, Niger, etc., there was the Border War in Southern Africa (1966 – 1989).

Mobile Warfare For Africa

I’m very excited about this book. Unlike so many recent manuals on counterinsurgency warfare, this one was not written by the losers (to quote an observation by Martin van Creveld).  Drawing on their own experiences, tempered by the events of the intervening three decades, two of its participants have written a nearly 400 page examination of this conflict, which presaged many of our experiences in the Middle East. What we could have learned …

It is a weighty tome, though, so it will be a while before I can post a complete review.  In the meantime, from what I’ve seen skimming the volume and its accompanying atlas, and carefully reading the first three chapters, I can recommend it to readers of this blog. And there’s even an OODA loop.


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

United Air Lines – an OODA loop perspective

In other words, what’s their orientation?

I’m not too good at reading minds, much less corporate minds, but one thing stands out: For all practical purposes, domestic airlines in the US today are monopolies. They have left just enough market share at their primary hubs to avoid the threat of federal action, and this limited capacity means that open skies treaties won’t significantly increase competition.

When your orientation says “monopoly,” you act like a monopoly. In particular, without the threat of the marketplace, you have a lot of flexibility in the levels of service you provide — your quality — and in what you can charge. Play this game well and you can maximize the amount of money to be paid out to the the people who control the organization and to those who can fire them. Continue reading

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.

New version of “Evolutionary Epistemology”

Chuck Spinney has posted a new version, 2.4, of Evolutionary Epistemology, his explanation in briefing slide format of Boyd’s “Destruction and Creation.”  The biggest change is a new page 4. You can download this version from our Articles page.

Robert Coram captured the problems most of us have when trying to understand what Boyd was driving at in D&C:

Because Boyd spent more than four years researching and writing and then distilling his work down to eleven pages, the result has a specific gravity approaching that of uranium.  It is thick and heavy and ponderous, filled with caveats and qualifiers and arcane references that span theories never before connected. To read “Destruction and Creation” is to fully appreciate the term “heavy sledding.” (Boyd, p. 323)

Yet, as Chuck illustrates, everything Boyd wrote in the remaining 20 years of his life — from Patterns of Conflict to The Essence of Winning and Losing — reinforce the main points of D&C. It is the only thing Boyd produced that he never revised.

Evolutionary Epistemology is more than an explanation, however. It stands as a complement to Boyd’s paper, and, by looking at his concepts from other angles, makes the original more approachable. It takes its place alongside Patterns, Strategic Game, Conceptual Spiral, and the rest of the Discourse as another illustration of message of “Destruction and Creation.”

[Note: the link to “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop” on page 43 has been broken. Please download the latest version from our Articles page.]

Playing defense

One of the most powerful ideas in Boyd’s philosophy of conflict is that it doesn’t make any difference how potent adversaries’ weapons might be — or how brilliant their strategy — if they can’t use them.  Why might they not be able to use them?  Some reasons are simple, such as lack of proficiency. In other words, insufficient Fingerspitzengefühl or its organizational counterpart, Einheit. They know what to do but just don’t have the skills to do it.

There’s another possibility, one that Boyd especially liked, and it applies even if they’re well-trained: Get them confused, discombobulated, or better yet, infected with fear, uncertainty, doubt and mistrust.  He suggested many ways to do this, some of which are direct, such as agitprop and fifth columns, and others that fall under the category of “operating inside their OODA loops.” You can read more about this approach in Patterns, particularly around pages 121-125 and pages 46-47 of Strategic Game. Continue reading