The October 2011 AFJ article “Goodbye, OODA Loop” should have set off alarm bells across the U.S. defense community. In their well-written article, Kevin Benson and Steven Rotkoff, both retired Army colonels, ask us to abandon Air Force Col. John Boyd’s OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) in favor of a new method of decision-making that helps us better cope with our complex operational environment.
Why should this concern us? Because OODA is everywhere in our theory, doctrine and force structure planning. It’s the theoretical foundation of our tactics, maneuver warfare concepts, and command-and-control concepts such as network-centric warfare. Whenever anyone talks about getting “inside the adversary’s decision cycle,” they’re consciously or subconsciously alluding to Boyd’s OODA Loop. Defenders of Boyd regard the OODA Loop as a universal description of the nature of conflict. To them, abandoning OODA would be as absurd as a cellular biologist renouncing respiration and osmosis.
So who is right: Benson and Rotkoff or their detractors?
They both are, for they are, in fact, talking about two different versions of the OODA Loop. The first is a simple circle, which Benson and Rotkoff call inadequate. The second, less familiar one was designed by Boyd himself. For the last 20 years, the OODA Loop has increasingly driven our strategy, doctrine and force structure decisions. And for most of that time, we’ve been using the wrong one.
Boyd was one of the more controversial and brilliant military thinkers of the modern era. A fighter pilot and lifelong autodidact, he transformed fighter tactics by translating the intuitive insights of successful dogfighting into the quantifiable terms of math and science. His energy maneuverability (EM) theory helped fighter pilots understand which combinations of position and maneuver would give them the greatest advantage against a given enemy fighter. In practice dogfights, Boyd himself used EM theory to defeat nearly all comers. In wider practice, his theory has given the U.S. practically unchallenged air superiority for a generation.
But Boyd’s work led him to wonder: Could the theoretical principles that got him inside the turning loop of enemy pilots also be applied to competition of all kinds? Thus began Boyd’s lifelong journey to understand the very nature of war, and the human minds that wage it.
Along the way, Boyd took the insights he had acquired mastering aerial dogfighting and applied them to the Pentagon. A major force in the Pentagon reform movement in the 1970s, Boyd mobilized allies inside and outside the bureaucratic systems to replace ineffective and expensive aircraft with cheaper, more efficient ones that maximized the insights of EM theory, such as the F-16, F-15 and A-10. (For more about this, see James Burton’s book “The Pentagon Wars,” whose reprint is sorely needed in times like ours.) Some even credit the stunning tactical success of Operation Desert Storm directly to Boyd’s influence, noting his frequent visits to then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and frequent references at Pentagon press conferences to getting “inside the enemy’s decision loop.”
Rejected by the Air Force mainstream for his sometimes less-than-tactful approach to incompetence and inefficiency, he was ultimately adopted by the Marines, who saw in his theories a way to escape static attrition warfare in favor of a more responsive, decentralized maneuver style.
OODA and Ockham
For most AFJ readers, the circular version is what comes to mind when the OODA Loop is mentioned, and it is the version discussed by the “Goodbye, OODA Loop” authors. The basic principle is this: We observe the world through our senses, orient ourselves to the current situation, decide how we would like the future to unfold, and take appropriate actions to try to influence events in the direction of our desired future.
In this simple but highly memorable form, OODA represents the universal logic of any conflict and applies to any level of warfare. As strategic theorist Colin Gray remarks in his book “Modern Strategy,” “The OODA Loop may appear too humble to merit categorization as a grand theory, but that is what it is.” Many have taken this to heart, and even as you read this, new programs, doctrines and theories are being built on top of this very basic OODA formulation. As a graphical expression of theory, it seems to pass Occam’s Razor with flying colors: “The simplest explanation is most likely the correct one.”
Or does it pass muster? Was William of Ockham even right? Whether one digs deeper into the OODA Loop or what Ockham supposedly said — Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate (Plurality must never be posited without necessity) — we find the simplest answer is not necessarily the best one.
People have such an insatiable urge to simplify things, we even oversimplify our aphorisms about simplicity.
Studies by cognitive neuroscientists have demonstrated that as a basic human trait, we are stressed more by uncertainty than unpleasant certainties. But in our efforts to achieve parsimony and the false cognitive ease often associated with it, we sometimes cut out too much detail and end up building expensive empires on theoretical foundations of sand.
Boyd, who continued to refine and update his ideas until his untimely death in 1997, never wrote a book summarizing his life’s work; his concepts were presented in the form of abstracts and briefing slides. It was only in his last briefing, a six-slide presentation labeled “The Essence of Winning and Losing,” that the colonel presented his own diagram of the OODA Loop. What are the biggest differences between the “circle OODA” and “Boyd’s OODA”? Look carefully at the location and direction of the feedback arrows, explained by Boyd’s text in the box below the diagram. The arrows go in both directions, and they connect each “letter” of OODA simultaneously. While the steps in Boyd’s loop are indeed sequential and circular like the simple diagram (here pulled out like a Mercator projection map of the globe), the feedback loops keep it from being segmented into separate OODA processes — it is not necessary for one process to end before the next one starts. Orientation is continuous, and both informs and is informed by observation in a two-way flow.
“Implicit guidance and control” connects observation and action outside of the orientation phase in the same way a reflex or subconscious reaction would occur without conscious thought, meaning that decision and action can be fed both by subconscious and conscious decisions, with both types feeding back into orientation. Note also that in Boyd’s Loop, “Action” is also labeled “Test” in this diagram. This means that Boyd’s diagram does not assume perfect orientation at the time of action, as the “Goodbye” authors implied; rather, it tacitly admits that some actions are taken specifically to test the environment that orientation cannot sufficiently fathom or predict. The orientation phase is further broken into several internal processes, reflecting Boyd’s own emphasis that orientation is “the Schwerpunkt, the key” to the entire process. In fact, orientation can be seen as the center of human cognition, consisting of many competing models, memes and simulations played across an ever-updating history of the past with the senses’ constantly updated picture of the present.
In short, Boyd’s OODA has much more going on than a simple decision loop. It not only shows individual decision cycles, but also represents multiple cross-referencing patterns of observation, action and reflection, all operating simultaneously along different timelines.
Destruction and creation
The “Goodbye, OODA Loop” authors’ main point in calling for something better than the simple OODA Loop was their observation that it could not be used to explain the richness of understanding that red teams bring into group decision-making cycles. They are correct — the simple loop is far too simple to describe either individual or group decision-making beyond abstract net results.
But when one considers Boyd’s OODA Loop, the role of the red team makes perfect sense. Acting as an internal subagent in the orientation process of the group, the alternative views of the red team create more complete simulations of the world outside the group, helping it develop better collective mental models about how the world really works. In fact, red teaming for groups mirrors the same process that makes human brains the best parallel processing and pattern recognition tools ever developed. Cognitive neuroscience has shown that individuals depend on various conscious and subconscious subroutines inside our brains that give us alternate explanations and interpretations of what we’re sensing in the external world. These various perspectives, and our built-in implicit pattern recognition “software,” give us a better cross-referenced “group” decision than we would get if we depended on only one conscious mental model. The “Goodbye” authors are on to something: Internal competition improves orientation. Boyd knew this as well, describing the process of challenging old models and building new ones as “destruction and creation,” a never-ending process that occurs within the orientation step.
In truth, the “Goodbye” authors cannot be faulted for this lack of awareness of Boyd’s final OODA formulation; many declared fans of Boyd aren’t familiar with it, either. This is partly due to Boyd’s failure to collect and publish his work, but it is mainly due to the fact that Boyd’s legacy has been neglected compared with the magnitude of his contributions. Boyd had a genius for recognizing when others were making decisions with models of the world that were too simple, and he was not afraid to speak truth to power or to go around those who were blocking the way of progress. Because of this, Boyd was cast as a maverick, and his true contributions are mostly known to a small group of people whom he influenced the most, even if the results from these contributions permeate the entire modern force. Time and history will likely be more kind to Boyd’s legacy than his contemporaries in the defense community were. Such is the nature of reform and scientific revolutions.
Our cognitive trap
So why does this discussion of a diagram matter?
Because simple diagrams are like bumper stickers: necessary to mobilize group action and consensus, but dangerous as well. Oversimplistic diagrams lead to oversimplistic mental models that miss important relationships and associations. These generate poor estimates of risk and cascading effects, which take us down strategic rabbit holes that waste precious national blood and treasure when we enter the wrong war, buy the wrong forces, or fail to train our forces to cope with the challenges they will actually face. For much of our recent history, our defense community has been caught in just such cognitive traps, ones that we’re only now starting to recognize as our appreciation of complexity increases.
Ironically, the popularity of Boyd’s ideas has created the largest cognitive trap in which much of the defense community still finds itself. As people absorbed the wisdom of the OODA Loop, they absorbed the simple version as a decision loop, but not the deeper insights of the adaptation engine that Boyd actually offered. While emphasis on the decision-loop aspects of OODA is absolutely appropriate in tactical situations, large parts of the defense community became obsessed with the idea that paralysis — collapsing the adversary’s OODA Loop while maintaining your own at a faster pace — was the ultimate goal of warfare. Network-centric warfare advocates promised that we could achieve “decision dominance” and gain victory through the right combinations of kinetic and nonkinetic effects if we only had the right interconnected systems to remove the fog of war. Under Transformation, we designed light, agile forces designed to overwhelm the enemy’s ability to respond to our higher operations tempo and assumed that this would collapse our enemies’ wills to resist us.
But this approach, just like the simple OODA Loop that it invokes, fails to consider the longer and more important adaptation loops that describe the long-term interactions needed for lasting conflict termination. We focused on short, fast races, forgetting that the race never really ends. The ability to cause paralysis through combat is vitally important to our national security, but paralysis is irrelevant or even counterproductive if it is not serving as a temporary stepping stone on the way to creating lasting, nonviolent, long-term patterns of complementary adaptation between two societies. In the strategic sense, victory does not come from paralysis — it comes from its opposite.
In complex situations, you don’t have the luxury of solving one problem at a time, or solving short-term problems now and worrying about the long term later. You have to work on them all at once, and when you can’t, you should understand the inherent risks of engaging in “repair service behavior” at the expense of tackling the multiple root causes of wicked problems.
A better decision process for complex situations must consider both short-term decision-making and long-term adaptation, and set the conditions for both events at the same time, for they are inexorably intertwined. Thinking and reacting faster is important sometimes, but in the strategic sense, you must often force yourself to think slower to test and observe how complex operational environments are unfolding. If you do not have the patience to wait for that inevitable unfolding to occur, and the flexibility to adapt both your orientation and actions to this new reality, you will fail to see when fast-paced tactical actions are actually inhibiting the achievement of long-term strategic advantage. If your only emphasis is on outspeeding your opponent, you may find yourself speeding headlong toward strategic irrelevance and only realize it too late.
The real challenge for the modern strategist is to find a unifying theoretical framework that allows us to fit all of the various pieces together into the best composite picture of what is going on, and what is likely to happen next, and how we might best all work together to “nudge” adaptation we cannot predict or control in a favorable manner. Recent studies in complexity have shown that there are common processes of adaptation that hold true at all levels of cognition and scale, whether we’re talking about unconscious actions of slime molds or the most complex political negotiations between nation states. The levels of complication among these processes are obviously very different, but the basic algorithm is the same.
We’ll never be able to accurately predict the future in a complex world, and we’ll never be able to completely control what happens in it, but with a better understanding of the universal process of adaptation, we can organize what we already know from various disciplines of study, and find new ways to leverage the entire process of adaptation — in the physical, cognitive and moral domains — with comprehensive approaches that go far beyond paralysis. The “better peace” we’re looking for on the other side of war comes when societal patterns of adaptation favor nonviolent methods of competition and cooperation over violent ones. If we don’t understand what drives and sustains mutually beneficial adaptation, how can we ever hope to create the conditions for it using military force?
We don’t need to get rid of the OODA Loop; we need to rediscover it. The universal description of adaptation in OODA can serve as the foundation for a unifying theoretical framework of a more interconnected grand strategy. If Boyd were here today, he would probably tell us to get moving on something better than what he left us.
“Destruction and creation” can never stop in an ever-changing, adversarial world. We need to resurrect the real OODA Loop, and use it as the foundation for even better models to help us use the processes of decision and adaptation in a complex world.