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On Strategy, Part II
40-Second Boyd and the OODA Loop
In last week’s On Strategy, I theorized that strategy is the art of decision-making in conditions of uncertainty. I explored the four sources of uncertainty (Chance, Choice, Complexity, and Confusion) that the strategist would confront, and explained how a strategist might engage in the “meta-strategy” of manipulating uncertainty.
What I did not do is explain the actual process by which the strategic makes decisions in conditions of uncertainty. For that we have to turn to the ideas of Colonel John Boyd (1927 - 1997).
A prominent figure in the U.S. Air Force, known for his extraordinary contributions to air warfare theory, Boyd, often referred to as "Forty Second Boyd” and “Genghis John,” by friend and foe alike, transcended the parochial interests of his branch to became one of the great military theorists of history, a thinker on par with Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Mahan, and Triandafillov.
Boyd’s military service began with a tour of duty as an F-86 pilot in the Korean War. During the last two months of the war, he flew 22 missions, though he did not fire his guns or score a kill. After his tour of duty, he was invited to attend the Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School or “FWS” (their equivalent of the Navy’s “Top Gun” program). Boyd graduated at the top of his class and was invited to become an instructor at the FWS.
It was as an instructor that Boyd earned his nickname, from a standing bet that he could defeat any opposing pilot in air combat maneuvering in less than 40 seconds. Allegedly, he never lost the bet. His continuous success in these challenges established his reputation as an outstanding fighter tactician.
In 1964, Boyd released his Aerial Attack Study, a 156-page book on air-to-air combat that became the official tactics manual for US Air Force fighter pilots. As Colonelboyd.com explains, the Aerial Attack Study was
…an aerial combat manual that presented maneuvers and counter-maneuvers, as well as the reasons for choosing a maneuver in a given situation. The study literally wrote the book on air-to-air combat, and it is still in use by the U.S. Air Force, and air forces around the world.
Two years later, Boyd made an even more significant contribution to air combat with his Energy-Maneuverability Theory. In a 92-page memo, he offered a revolutionary revision that changed how fighter performance was evaluated, focusing on a fighter's energy state and its ability to change positions in combat. This theory allowed the U.S. Air Force to design more effective fighter aircraft, and led directly to the development of the F-16.
After his work on Energy-Maneuverability Theory, Boyd turned his military genius to even deeper matters. In 1980, he was invited by Colonel Michael Wyly, head of tactics at the US Marine Amphibious Warfare School, to give a presentation on military strategy. The 197-page briefing, Patterns of Conflict, revolutionized the doctrine of the US Marines by introducing the concept of maneuver warfare. In 1989, the US marines Corps published Fleet Marine Force Manual 1 Warfighting, signaling the official adoption of maneuver warfare as the Corp’s doctrine for operations.
In 1981, Boyd presented Patterns of Conflict to the then-little-known US Representative named Dick Cheney. The presentation had as powerful an impact on Cheney as it had on the US Marine Corps. 10 years later, then-Defense Secretary Cheney brought Boyd out of retirement to develop the operational plan for Desert Storm. Although “Storming” Norman Schwarzkopf got the credit for the flawless victory, it was actually Boyd that developed the famous “left hook” that outflanked the Iraqi Army. Former Marine Corp Commandant Charles C. Krulak notes:
The Iraqi army collapsed morally and intellectually under the onslaught of American and Coalition forces. John Boyd was an architect of that victory as surely as if he'd commanded a fighter wing or a maneuver division in the desert.
In 1995, Boyd gave his last briefing, called The Essence of Winning and Losing. It consisted of just 5 slides, of which the most important is this one:
The OODA Loop is a conceptual model that describes the process by which strategists or warfighters Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.
Observe: This step involves gathering information from the environment. In a military context, this could mean understanding the enemy's position, strength, and movements. In a broader sense, it refers to perceiving the current situation.
Orient: This is the analysis phase. It involves interpreting the information gathered during observation, taking into account one's own strengths and weaknesses, cultural background, previous experiences, and new information. This step is crucial as it shapes the decision-making process.
Decide: After analyzing the information, the next step is to formulate a course of action or a decision on how to respond to the observed situation.
Act: Finally, the decision is implemented. The action taken can then change the situation, necessitating a return to the observation phase.
Boyd theorized that if a warfighter could complete this cycle more rapidly than his opponent, he could effectively "get inside" the opponent's decision cycle, causing confusion and disorientation.
The concept of the OODA Loop has been widely influential not only in military strategy but also in business, sports, and other competitive fields. Indeed, in the the decades since Boyd first developed it, the OODA Loop has become so mainstream that Harvard MBAs who’ve never even heard of Colonel John Boyd will offer up phrases like “we’re inside their decision cycle,” or “we’ve disrupted the competitor’s OODA loop” in their board room and executive offices, much to the annoyance of anyone who has ever served in a combat arm.
As is usually the case when the business world adopts military doctrine, the OODA Loop has been foolishly simplified into a simple four-stage cycle. But, as the slide above shows, Boyd’s actual OODA Loop was not simple. It was a cybernetic process with feedback at every stage - an “ongoing many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection.”
The OODA Loop is the method by which the strategist decides in conditions of uncertainty. Uncertainty creates the necessity of observation and orientation; strategy actualizes the possibility of decision and action.
What the OODA Loop makes clear is that process of observation, orientation, decision, and action has to be both accurate and expeditious. If the decision cycle is not processed accurately (e.g. taking into account the real “situation on the ground”), it will worsen, rather than better, the strategist’s situation. But if the decision cycle is not processed expeditiously, it will inevitably become inaccurate because by the time the decision is made, the strategic situation will have changed!
This inherent tension between accuracy and speed which characterizes all strategic thought. Prior to Colonel Boyd, the tension had been illustrated in military maxims such as
Admiral Horatio Nelson: "Time is everything; five minutes makes the difference between victory and defeat."
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.”
General George S. Patton: "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week."
Boyd’s lasting contribution to military theory was in explaining why the tension arose, and how it could be ameliorated, but never removed. For anyone interested in learning more about Colonel John Boyd, I recommend without reservation Robert Coram’s book Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.
Next week (or, depending on Thanksgiving activities, the week thereafter) we’ll take a look at the work of the American military theorist Colonel Richard Leonhard, whose books The Art of Maneuver and Fighting By Minutes have had a profound effect on my thinking and game design.
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