Thursday, March 10, 2011


Then Observe ... Orient ... Decide ... Act ...  
It is a cycle, a loop.
Colonel John (Richard) Boyd (January 23, 1927 – March 9, 1997) was a United States Air Force fighter pilot and Pentagon consultant of the late 20th century, whose theories have been highly influential in the military, sports, and business.

Military theories
During the early 1960s, Boyd, together with Thomas Christie, a civilian mathematician, created the Energy-Maneuverability, or E-M, theory of aerial combat. A legendary maverick by reputation, Boyd was said to have "stolen" the computer time to do the millions of calculations necessary to prove the theory, but it became the world standard for the design of fighter planes. At a time when the Air Force's FX project (subsequently the F-15) was foundering, Boyd's deployment orders to Vietnam were canceled and he was brought to the Pentagon to re-do the trade-off studies according to E-M. His work helped save the project from being a costly dud, even though its final product was larger and heavier than he desired. However, cancellation of that tour in Vietnam meant that Boyd would be one of the most important air-to-air combat strategists with no combat kills. He had only flown a few missions in the last months of the Korean War, and all of them as a wingman.
With Colonel Everest Riccioni and Pierre Sprey, Boyd formed a small advocacy group within Headquarters USAF which dubbed itself the "Fighter Mafia". Riccioni was an Air Force fighter pilot assigned to a staff position in Research and Development, while Sprey was a civilian statistician working in Systems Analysis. Together, they were the visionaries who conceived the LFX Lightweight Fighter program, which ultimately produced both the F-16 and F/A-18 Hornet, the latter a development of the YF-17 Light Weight Fighter. Boyd's acolytes were also largely responsible for developing the Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II or "Warthog" ground-support aircraft, though Boyd himself had little sympathy of the "air-to-mud" assignment.
After his retirement from the Air Force in 1975, Boyd continued to work at the Pentagon as a consultant in the Tactical Air office of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Program Analysis and Evaluation.
Boyd is credited for largely developing the strategy for the invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War. In 1981 Boyd had presented his briefing, Patterns of Conflict, to Richard Cheney, then a member of the United States House of Representatives. By 1990 Boyd had moved to Florida because of declining health, but Cheney (then the Secretary of Defense in the George H. W. Bush administration) called him back to work on the plans for Operation Desert Storm. Boyd had substantial influence on the ultimate "left hook" design of the plan.
In a letter to the editor of Inside the Pentagon, former Commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak is quoted as saying "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."

Elements of warfare
Boyd divided warfare into three distinct elements:
  • Moral Warfare: the destruction of the enemy's will to win, via alienation from allies (or potential allies) and internal fragmentation. Ideally resulting in the "dissolution of the moral bonds that permit an organic whole [organization] to exist." (i.e., breaking down the mutual trust and common outlook mentioned in the paragraph above.)
  • Mental Warfare: the distortion of the enemy's perception of reality through disinformation, ambiguous posturing, and/or severing of the communication/information infrastructure.
  • Physical Warfare: the destruction of the enemy's physical resources such as weapons, people, and logistical assets.

The OODA Loop
Boyd's key concept was that of the decision cycle or OODA Loop, the process by which an entity (either an individual or an organization) reacts to an event. According to this idea, the key to victory is to be able to create situations wherein one can make appropriate decisions more quickly than one's opponent. The construct was originally a theory of achieving success in air-to-air combat, developed out of Boyd's Energy-Maneuverability theory and his observations on air combat between MiGs and F-86s in Korea. Harry Hillaker (chief designer of the F-16) said of the OODA theory, "Time is the dominant parameter. The pilot who goes through the OODA cycle in the shortest time prevails because his opponent is caught responding to situations that have already changed."
Boyd hypothesized that all intelligent organisms and organizations undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with their environment. Boyd breaks this cycle down to four interrelated and overlapping processes through which one cycles continuously:
  • Observation: the collection of data by means of the senses
  • Orientation: the analysis and synthesis of data to form one's current mental perspective
  • Decision: the determination of a course of action based on one's current mental perspective
  • Action: the physical playing-out of decisions
Of course, while this is taking place, the situation may be changing. It is sometimes necessary to cancel a planned action in order to meet the changes.
This decision cycle is thus known as the OODA loop. Boyd emphasized that this decision cycle is the central mechanism enabling adaptation (apart from natural selection) and is therefore critical to survival.
Boyd theorized that large organizations such as corporations, governments, or militaries possessed a hierarchy of OODA loops at tactical, grand-tactical (operational art), and strategic levels. In addition, he stated that most effective organizations have a highly decentralized chain of command that utilizes objective-driven orders, or directive control, rather than method-driven orders in order to harness the mental capacity and creative abilities of individual commanders at each level. In 2003, this power to the edge concept took the form of a DOD publication "Power to the Edge: the Information Age" by Dr. David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes. Boyd argued that such a structure creates a flexible "organic whole" that is quicker to adapt to rapidly changing situations. He noted, however, that any such highly decentralized organization would necessitate a high degree of mutual trust and a common outlook that came from prior shared experiences. Headquarters needs to know that the troops are perfectly capable of forming a good plan for taking a specific objective, and the troops need to know that Headquarters does not direct them to achieve certain objectives without good reason.

An Example

Here is what Boyd learned:
Let’s start with what he knew best. Picture two pilots in identical airplanes: two physically identical swordsmen wielding physically identical swords.
Picture the Red Pilot closing head-to-head with the Blue Pilot, over the desert at 30,000 feet and each at 500 miles an hour. The aircraft blow past each other in a blur.
Fight’s on!
Both pilots nearly snap their necks on the break, literally turning in their chairs under the G-load of the initial turn. Each must keep sight of the other. To lose visual on the opponent almost certainly is to lose your life, and this is the only life you’ve been issued. Each pilot observes the other. That’s step one.
Now, Red breaks one way and Blue the other. Their relative positions allow some options and remove others. Each pilot must assess where he is, where the other man is, where he is heading and at what speed, and likewise where the other guy is heading and how fast. From this he builds a mental picture of the three-dimensional battle. Pilots call this Situational Awareness, or SA. SA is powerful Kung-Fu. Good SA will keep you alive. Bad SA is rapidly fatal. So each pilot must orient himself. That’s step two.
Next, each pilot must make a near instantaneous decision as to what he will do next. Will their relative positions allow an offensive move, or is the situation so desperate that he is forced into the defensive? Each has observed, each has oriented…now each must decide what to do next. That’s three.
Once that decision has been made, there is nothing left to do but carry out that decision. Each of the pilots must act. Action in this case may mean a climbing roll – the high-G yo-yo – to increase the separation for the shot. Perhaps the only answer is a Split-S out of the fight to recover lost airspeed, or a desperate Break in the opposite direction to avoid the gunsights.
Whatever the action is, whether thrust or parry, Boyd realized that it is only here, in the fourth step – Observe-Orient-Decide-Act – that physical combat occurs. Being “a good stick” will help you here, yes. But Boyd’s breakthrough was to realize that there are three mental steps that precede the physical application of a warrior’s skill, and that these mental steps are not as important as the physical talent … they are far, far more important.
Then Observe…
It’s a cycle. It’s a loop. It’s called by its inelegant acronym: The OODA loop.
Now here’s what blew my mind, as I am sure it blew John Boyd’s mind on a level I can not and will never fully comprehend:
The winner of these battles is not necessarily the fellow who makes the best decisions. More often than not, it’s the guy who makes the fastest decisions.
Agility. Speed. Precision. Lethality. Fingerspitzengefuhl: fingertip control.
It seems counter-intuitive. So let’s first go back to the Green Spot.
Red and Blue are closing at 1000 miles an hour. Fight’s on!
Blue breaks left. Red does too. Both pilots observe, orient, decide, act. But Blue is faster. While Red is still orienting himself, building the situational awareness he needs to decide and plan his action, Blue has already chosen a maneuver and executed it. This renders Red’s previous orientation useless: Blue is no longer where he was a moment before.
Red must re-orient so he can make a new decision. Blue sees the confusion and delay. He’s already oriented. He decides and acts again. His advantage increases.
Now Red is confused and at 500kts he is flying pretty God-damned quickly into full-on fear. This confusion and fear cause him more hesitation. Out of rising panic he commits to an action that may have been appropriate two Blue cycles ago, but which is now – no other word for it – obsolete. Blue is now cycling so fast that he maneuvers for a position where any course of action Red may take will result in his fiery demise. He’s below and behind him – out of sight – not anywhere near where Red expected him because he has been observing, orienting, deciding and acting at a much faster pace.
Should Blue make a mistake he will observe it before Red does, re-orient himself, make a decision to correct the mistake and commit to the new action all before Red is even aware that Blue has blundered. Red, on the other hand, may be making superior judgments… hell, Red may be making a string of perfect judgments, but that won’t save him because his perfect moves are in response to a situation that no longer exists. He’s doomed.
Blue is cycling faster, correcting any errors before they cost him anything, re-adjusting and re-calculating at a much higher tempo than Red. And every second he gets further ahead.
Boyd would say, “he’s inside Red’s decision loop.”
Think about that for a second! Inside his decision loop. To Red, Blue appears psychic, magical, demonic: able to read his mind, anticipate his every move. Blue owns the initiative, and he will never give it back. The more this goes on the more rattled, confused and demoralized Red becomes. This slows his ability to orient, it clouds his decisions with fear, it paralyzes his actions with second-guessing and ultimately reduces Red from being a deadly man in a deadly machine to a floating tumbleweed with no SA: out of airspeed, out of altitude and out of ideas.
And out of the fight too, because that fight is over.

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