The wingman-philosopher of MiG Alley: John Boyd and the OODA loop.

Author:McIntosh, Scott E.
Position:Observe-Orient-Decide-Act - Essay


In "John Boyd and John Warden: Airpower's Quest for Strategic Paralysis," Maj. Gen. David S. Fadok describes John Boyd's theory of conflict as "an eclectic and esoteric discourse on how to survive and win in a competitive world." (1) The author, however, makes it clear that this discourse did not spring fully-formed from Boyd's forehead; a number of years, experiences, and influences steered Boyd toward this philosophy. Boyd broke from the physical and spatial parameters that limited predecessors and instead emphasized the temporal and psychological. Surprise, in effect, is the prime goal, and to achieve this Boyd advocated operations at a faster tempo than that of one's adversary. His "Boyd Cycle" or "OODA (2) Loop" especially has migrated from a tactical construct toward wider application; it has found advocates not only in the U.S. military, but also in the realms of business and sports--anywhere a competitor seeks an edge. Boyd's OODA loop is still pertinent; dissecting its historical influences, however, may be just as useful when formulating an approach toward U.S. security.

If Flying an Airplane is Complex, Fighting One is Even Harder

In Robert Coram's biography of Boyd, he describes a briefing Boyd delivered in 1976 where he stated that

Generating a rapidly changing environment--that is, engaging in activity that is so quick it is disorienting and appears uncertain or ambiguous to the enemy--inhibits the adversary's ability to adapt and causes confusion and disorder that, in turn, causes an adversary to overreact or underreact ... [T]he message is that whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives. (3)

According to Grant T. Hammond's John Boyd biography:

It was at Nellis [AFB, Nevada,] that he first achieved fame within the Air Force. He was simply the best instructor at the Fighter Weapons School, and everyone knew it. The secret of air-to-air combat was to get inside the other guy's OODA loop. Get your opponent in a position where he was already reacting one or more moves behind what you were able to do; fling him out in front of you by quickly changing speed, altitude, or direction. Then nail him. The key was the speed with which you could change and adapt to the changes. (4)


Indeed, if one imagines himself in the cockpit, it is easier to grasp Boyd's conclusions, though he applied them to all facets of military operations. The pilot must constantly scan his instruments to monitor aircraft "speed, altitude, or direction," as well as fuel and performance. He must compensate for any change in the machine's intended pitch, roll, and yaw. He must note and correct any deviation from accepted limits in enzyme temperature and pressures. He may converse with other entities in the air or on the ground as he looks down at a kneeboard chart to estimate his aircraft's location. He must assess and act upon any odd vibration in the airframe or sluggish response to his actions. He is therefore in constant motion, striving to preserve situational awareness via sensory inputs from his eyes, ears, and hands. The possibility of other aircraft inadvertently colliding with--or maneuvering to attack--his own aircraft geometrically augments this need for situational awareness. There is therefore a lot going on in the cockpit--even in a modern GPS, fly-by-wire, Heads-Up-Display enabled jet fighter (the modern SAM/AAA threat is no petty distraction, either), where technology has shifted the mantra from "aviate, navigate, communicate" to "aviate, assimilate, disseminate".


According to Boyd, when the enemy appears, this pilot--already immersed in an intense cockpit workload--must be first to observe the adversary, orient his own aircraft to the position of greatest advantage, decide to engage, and act to do so. This Observe-Orient-Decide-Act checklist is known as the combatant's OODA loop. He with the faster OODA tempo and more accurate assessment is forecast to win in any engagement. Fadok describes the unfortunate adversary:

Mismatches between the real world and our mental images of that world generate inaccurate responses. These, in turn, produce confusion and disorientation, which then diminish both the accuracy and the speed of subsequent decision making. Left uncorrected, disorientation steadily expands one's OODA loop until it eventually becomes a death trap. (5)

In this example, the victor takes advantage of his OODA loop's tighter radius. He is turning inside the enemy's loop and maintaining (maybe even improving) his position there with the intent of passing the enemy aircraft through his gunsight.

Mastering the Fundamentals and Taking the Initiative

Boyd, as a military pilot, understood the process of learning responses by rote. (6) From his first day of training, this pilot memorizes checklists until his actions are automatic. He must respond immediately, fluidly, and accurately when an instructor yells "Bailout!" or "Hot start!" or "Engine fire!" Paradoxically, having mastered the fundamentals of procedure, the hypothetical pilot is later taught the doctrine of "Centralized Control/Decentralized Execution." U.S. military training regimens have evolved from what the nineteenth century Prussian thinkers called "Auftragstaktik," where the leaders of the smallest combat units, having received a general mission (Auftrag) from a commander "in a short, concise order" (7) are trained to lean forward and show initiative--to be proactive, aggressive, and fluid in execution. The American fighter pilot's stress on initiative is at the forefront of this doctrine and has been so since at least the Second World War. Through this juxtaposition of checklist memorization and "leaning forward in the straps," the fighter pilot is trained to "minimize his own friction through initiative and harmony of response ... to 'tighten' his own loop ... to speed up his own decision-action time ..." (8) Such emphasized decentralization in actions and rapidity in responses will, according to Boyd, concurrently decelerate and expand the enemy's loop. The perceived menace and unpredictability in a faster and more accurate OODA loop will confuse and disorganize enemy forces. "Ultimately, it produces panic and fear that manifest themselves in a simultaneous paralysis of ability to cope and of willingness to resist." (9) As previously noted, this OODA loop concept--knowingly or otherwise--has been embraced by U.S. military leadership and is now well-known in its doctrinal and training institutions.

MiG Alley

One can surmise that John Boyd started theorizing about...

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