Boyd’s OODA “Loop”: What and why?

As Frans Osinga pointed out in his 2006 examination of John Boyd’s philosophy of conflict, Science, strategy and war: The strategic theory of John Boyd, the OODA loop is the best known but probably most misunderstood aspect of Boyd’s body of work. Even today, it’s very common to see people describe the OODA loop as a loop. However, when Boyd finally got around to producing a “sketch” of the “loop” (his terms), it was, as I’m sure practically all readers of this blog know, something entirely different.

From “The Essence of Winning and Losing,” 1996.

Why? The reason is that the OODA “loop” is an answer to a specific problem. It is not, for example a model of decision making — in fact, it simply requires you to make implicit and explicit decisions and link them to actions, all the while experimenting and learning.

On November 30, I gave a lecture on this subject to the Swedish Defense University in Stockholm. My host, Johan Ivari, arranged for it to be recorded and made available on the University’s web site. They broke it into two parts:

Part 1

Part 2

I had a lot of fun with this, and the students asked some great questions. I hope you enjoy it!

By the way, check out some of the other interesting videos on their site.

Is it agility or adaptability?

I tend to think of “agility” as adaptability with a time dimension, that is, the ability to adapt more rapidly to new situations than can competitors or opponents.  That may not, however, be the only or even a very good way to think about these concepts.

Here’s an alternative view:

AQ is hot right now – but is it the Adaptability Quotient or the Agility Quotient?

Kristopher Floyd
Founder and CEO, TeamMate AIDao-TheWay

November 13, 2018
Originally published on LinkedIn. Reprinted with his kind permission

Throughout military history, there have been winners and losers. Some of the winners have found disproportionate success due to strategic brilliance; when examining their successes, we find a golden braid that links them all together. This braid is the foundation of an underlying philosophy that dictates how military forces can survive and thrive in hyper-competitive, chaotic, uncertain situations. Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Alice

Sun Tzu was a great fan of intelligence and spies in particular — check out Chapter 13 if you need a refresher —  because it’s much easier to operate inside opponents’ OODA loops if you already know what they’re going to do. As luck would have it, today is the birthday of Louise de Bettignies, AKA Alice Dubois, one of the greatest intelligence operatives of all time.

To explain why, a little historical perspective might prove useful. Although the German Schlieffen Plan failed to hook around Paris and end World War I in 1914, it left the Germans occupying a fair portion of northeastern France for the next 4 years. From January to September, 1915, this area provided the theater of operations for de Bettignies, whose network alerted the British to German plans and tactical movements  and almost took out the Kaiser himself. Among other feats of derring-do.

There are several bios of her, but historical fiction might be a good place to start. To this end, Kate Quinn has written a most readable — “page turner” wouldn’t be too strong — story of her operation, The Alice Network. I recommend it highly.

Happy Birthday, Louise.

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

Fear of planning

Another post on research into the physiology of orientation.

Planning may start in brain’s amygdala, study says,” reporting on research conducted at Cambridge University.  The amygdala is most commonly associated with emotions like fear and aggression, so its relationship to planning comes as somewhat of a surprise.

Perhaps this neural activity in the amygdala is related to the idea that much of the activity of the frontal lobe — our higher-order thinking apparatus — is justifying and implementing actions that we decided on somewhere else. “The mind follows where the heart leads,” in other words. Perhaps it’s the amygdala and not the heart.

Early in the process, neurons in the amygdala were activated in a pattern that reflected “several trials ahead” whether the monkey would save up towards specific goals, according to the study. “These activity patterns could be used by the frontal lobe to translate goal signals into concrete action plans,” [project lead Fabian] Grabenhorst told AFP by email.

What makes this most interesting from Boyd’s perspective is that this activity is taking place in one of our primary fear centers, and in particular, one activated by ambiguity.  A key thread in Boyd’s approach is to pump up fear, menace, and uncertainty (ambiguity), which juice the amygdala.

This was a small experiment, but it does suggest a physiological basis for Boyd’s contention that one can attack not only an opponent’s plans, as Sun Tzu insisted, but his very ability to plan.

Formlessness in space and time

In chapter six of the Sun Tzu text, we read:

Therefore, when you induce others to construct a formation while you yourself are formless, then you are concentrated while the opponent is divided. (Cleary trans., p. 106)

Boyd loved this concept. He called it the principle of dispersion, parodying the Army’s emphasis on concentration. The idea is that the opponent has to be on guard everywhere, while you know what you’re doing. Boyd took it even further: You can disperse not only in space, but combine it with dispersion in time, so that the opponent cannot recover from the first attack before the second is upon him. And the third. And the fourth. Think of how you reacted the last time things started happening faster than you could cope. Against a linear formation, you don’t need every attack to succeed. Often one will be enough, if it can penetrate and cause the opponent’s formation to begin to collapse. The next group of forces streaming in can complete the job. Boyd called this “operating inside the OODA loop.”

Where else do we see formations? How about football? What would Boyd’s principle of dispersion / operating inside the OODA loop look like there? For a great example, check out “Ditka vs. Ryan: The Feud That Fueled the ’85 Chicago Bears” (in the print edition as “Hate, Jealousy, and Da Bears,” p. D10) by Rich Cohen in Friday’s Wall St. J. (paywall). This should give you the idea:

“As organized and experienced as that group of players were from the Chargers, they’d seen nothing like it,” [Chicago safety Doug] Plank said. “Mad dogs. Wild men. Coming from every side. A jail break. By the end, Dan Fouts did not know where to look: Should he try to find the open man downfield, or should he simply brace for impact?”

It was this confusion, planted in the mind of the quarterback, that made the 46 [the Bears’ code name for this type of defense] hum.

When briefing the section of Patterns of Conflict that deals with Clausewitz and Jomini, Boyd would critique these guys for their emphasis on order. He usually told the story of how despite this obsession, Jomini almost discovered the idea of operating inside the OODA loop. Jomini had written of a cavalry attack, where the usual tight formation broke down, and in the resulting confusion, the attackers broke through and won. Jomini concluded that the attack had succeeded in spite of the breakdown in the formation. Boyd said, “No! It succeeded because of it.” The Union attack on Missionary Ridge, November 25, 1863, is another example. In each of these cases (and many others) there was confusion, and one side could exploit it before the other could figure out what was happening.

So it isn’t that there is a balance or trade-off between structure / form and agility / formlessness. Formlessness, as the Sun Tzu text insists, creates its own form, and as Boyd noted, this often happens in time as well as in space.

Incidentally, the idea that only one attack has to succeed also carries over into football. Here’s Plank again:

“Football is chess,” Plank said. “You can capture all my pawns, but if I tip over that king [the opposing quarterback], I win.”

[By this way, perhaps this will answer the question of why Ender’s Game is so popular among the maneuver warfare crowd.]