The Lessons of John Boyd Still Needed Today

Daniel Stimpson, Principal Analyst

The late United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd is credited with providing much of the intellectual heft behind many tenants of modern maneuver warfare doctrine.  Many of his insights into the nature of warfare began with his development and understanding of Energy Maneuverability (EM) theory.  Boyd’s EM theory was the first scientific approach to explain air-to-air combat in terms of energy relationships that related an aircraft’s maneuverability to its altitude, airspeed and direction. Utilizing his EM theory, Boyd was able to construct and compare EM graphs for various fighter aircraft.  This technique allowed engineers and tacticians, for the first time, to conduct side-by-side, quantitative analyses of the relative strengths and weakness of individual aircraft designs.  One of Boyd’s most important insights came when he constructed an EM graph of the Soviet MiG-15 and the American F-86 Saber.  According to his graph, the MiG-15 was superior to the F-86 in nearly every performance measure, but somehow American pilots were maintaining a 10-to-1 kill ratio in the Korean skies.  After considerable effort to explain these facts, Boyd realized that the F-86 had two important characteristics that made it a superior fighter.  The first was its glass bubble canopy, compared to the flat glass panes of the MiG-15 cockpit.  The second was the F-86’s full hydraulic control system verses the mechanical flight controls in the MiG-15.  Together these two differences gave American pilots tremendous advantage over their opponents, despite the F-86’s power and maneuverability shortcomings.  The canopy design provided better situational awareness and the hydraulic controls provided more rapid maneuverability.  Boyd eventually referred to these characteristics as Observations and Fast Transients, two concepts that he incorporated into his famous Observe-Orient-Decide-Act Model for warfare, commonly known as the OODA Loop (Ford, 2010).

Boyd’s development of the OODA loop was an outgrowth of his realizations not only about air-to-air combat, but also his study of the nature of human knowledge and decision making.  He conjectured that, for people to make timely decisions, “we must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself appears to change.” (Boyd, 1976)   Further, he noted that as a person strives to build an accurate understanding of reality, he iteratively improves his understanding in a cycle of informational creation and destruction that is repeated until the arrival at an internal consistency that matches his perception of reality.  In addition, Boyd believed that the extent to which people are able to match their mental image to reality, determines the extent to which they can make informed decisions (Osinga, 2007).

These insights are incorporated into Boyd’s OODA Loop conceptual model of warfare, which contains the following four primary functions:

  • Observation: The utilization of surveillance, reconnaissance, and other means to fill in knowledge gaps.
  • Orientation: The act of making sense of what is learned by orientation and building perceptions of reality.
  • Decision: Determining what course of action (COA) to pursue.
  • Action: The physical action taken to disrupt or destroy the opposing sides functions.

“Boyd’s loop can apply to operational, strategic, and political levels of war” and that one of its great strengths is its “elegant simplicity” that makes it useful in an extensive set of domains (Grey, 1999).  Here is the common view of the OODA loop:

The simplified conception of the OODA loop (Osinga, 2007).

The simplified conception of the OODA loop (Osinga, 2007).

Boyd said all stages of the OODA Loop are not created equal.  But that Orientation is the schwerpunkt (or the decisive point) of the model and indeed all human decision making in general (Ford, 2010).  According to Boyd, “Orientation shapes the character of present observation-orientation-decision-action loops - while these loops shape the character of future orientation” (Boyd, 1987).  If Boyd is correct, orientation is the most critical function not only to the current decision, but to future decisions and ultimately to the long-term success of a competitive undertaking.  This would mean that a key to prevailing in any competitive situation is the ability to remain well oriented, from start to finish.  Additionally the converse is true, a systemic lack of orientation will be a significant contributor to difficulties.

Information

Central to modern decision making is the importance of information and ideas over a simple reliance on technological dominance.  This is a primary strength of Boyd who emphasized the non-material elements of an organization as the most critical to its success while he viewed technological elements as facilitators.  Especially in an uncertain environment, the insight that information can provide is a precious commodity.  Especially in a competitive environment, where opponents are active, the opportunity to act and seize the initiative is likely to be short-lived.  Thus, there is a premium on timely utilization of information that must be assimilated before fleeting opportunities are lost. (NDP 6, 1995).

The challenge of quickly amassing information is not new.  If we look back to the early 19th century, we observe that theorist Carl von Clausewitz collectively described a pervasive characteristic of war as producing a “fog” of uncertainty in which a military force must operate (Clausewitz, 1873).  So while lack of information and uncertainty characterizes much of modern decision making, a fully integrated OODA loop model provides a conceptual framework with which to cut through and navigate.

Recently we have been witnessing the emergence of “Big Data” techniques as a means to gain insights.  But this presents its own set of challenges, as more than ever, information can flood decision makers which, if not selectively filtered and processed gives a person the impression of meaning, even while the most relevant information is misplaced, diluted and never brought to bear.  In fact, there is nothing to be gained by an information deluge.  Simply stated, information is only useful to a decision process if a decision maker has the power to use it to make smarter decisions (Washburn, 2001).

The fact is, that despite all the flashy software our current methods for gathering, storing, retrieving, and transmitting information far exceed in number and effectiveness our methods for putting it to inferential use and drawing conclusions (Schum, 1994).  This only increases the need for good analysts to determine what is important, and what is not, in order to provide decision makers with the greatest opportunity to remain correctly oriented at the schwerpunkt. Thus, as we move forward, we must remember that big data only helps us observe more.  It does not guarantee that what we are observing matters.  As Boyd instructs, observation must not be allowed to eclipse our primary need to remain oriented and we must continuously ask, does all this data really help or does it only distract?

References

Boyd, J. R. (1976). Destruction and Creation, (Unpublished brief).

Boyd, J. R. (1987). Organic Design for Command and Control, (Unpublished brief).

Clausewitz, C. (1873) On War, (Translation and editing by Howard, Michael and Paret, Peter, 1984).  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Ford, D. (2010). A Vision So Noble. Durham, New Hampshire: Warbird Books.

Grey, C. (1999). Modern Strategy, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Naval Doctrinal Publication 6, (1995) Command and Control, United States Government.

Osinga, F. (2001). Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. London, England: Routledge.

Schum, D. (1994). The Evidential Foundations of Probabilistic Reasoning. Evanston, Illinios: Northwestern University Press.

Washburn, A. (2001). Bits, Bangs, or Bucks?  The Coming Information Crisis. Phalanx.  34:3 (part 1) and 34:4 (part II).