Observe. Orient. Decide. Act.
February 24, 2015 10:38 PM   Subscribe

John Richard Boyd was a U.S. Air Force F-86 and F-100 pilot. Indeed, at the elite Fighter Weapons School he was arguably the best pilot and instructor in the world during his tenure. Boyd could make jet fighters do “impossible” things and simultaneously out-think adversaries. As a result Boyd gained the moniker “40 Second Boyd” because he quickly defeated all challengers in simulated aerial combat.
from a review of “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War” by Robert Coram.

Robert Coram on the Art of Manliness podcast.

Forty Second Boyd And The Big Picture (previously)
About a hundred miles north of Las Vegas there is a clump of wild grass and cottonwood trees called “The Green Spot.” Not much to look at from the ground, but from thirty thousand feet above the brown Nevada desert it stands out for a hundred miles.

In the mid to late fifties, a fighter pilot could earn himself a quick forty bucks and perhaps a nice steak dinner in Vegas – not to mention everlasting renown, which is to fighter pilots what oxygen is to us lesser beings – by meeting over the Green Spot at thirty thousand feet and taking position just 500 feet behind an arrogant and unpleasant man with precisely zero air-to-air victories to his credit. From that perfect kill position, you would yell “Fight’s on!” and if that sitting duck in front of you was not on your tail with you in his gunsight in forty seconds flat then you would win the money, the dinner and best of all, the fame.

Tank commanders may be charging cavalrymen at heart; sub skippers may be deer hunters using patience and stealth. But fighter pilots are Musketeers. They are swordsmen whose survival depends on remaining on the offensive… that is to say, they are men who survive because they can (and have) initiated 16-to-1 fights because they possess the confidence – actually, the untrammeled ego – to know they will win.

To be challenged in such a manner is an irresistible red flag to men like this, and certainly no less of one because the challenger was a rude, loud, irreverent braggart who had never been victorious in actual air-to-air combat. And yet that forty dollars went uncollected, uncollected for many years against scores of the best fighter pilots in the world.

That is more than luck. That is more than skill. That is more than tactics. That level of supremacy is the result of the ability to see things in an entirely new way. It is the difference between escaping from a maze you are embedded in, versus finding the way out from one that you look down upon from above.

Having your ass handed to you in such a spectacular and repeated fashion causes some men to curse and mutter about ‘one trick ponies’ and so on. But for others, for those who are more invested in victory than in ego, it reveals a level of skill that instantly removes all swagger and competition and puts one in the place of a willing supplicant, eager for knowledge.

Taking a few moments to understand what this odd man learned about airplanes and aerial combat will pay rich dividends later. Because John Boyd – Pope John, The High Priest of the Fighter Mafia, the Mad Major, the Ghetto Colonel – Forty Second Boyd not only wrote the revolutionary tactics manuals that gave American pilots the keys to air-to-air victory… and with it the essential and undisputed control of the battlespace. Nor was his achievement limited to the design of the phenomenally successful F-15 and F-16 fighters. Nor was it merely the codifying of physics and thermodynamics to make a science out of an art form. That John Boyd saw all of these things for the first time would have made him a legend. But this was quite the lesser of his two great achievements. For Boyd not only saw how to perfect the sword. He saw too how to perfect the swordsman.

And for that, Forty Second Boyd may turn out to be one of the most important men of the Twenty-First Century. And he has lain at rest in Arlington National Cemetery since 1997.
you can read Boyd's work at Defense and the National Interest:
Aerial Attack Study[PDF], 1964
New Conception For Air-to-Air Combat[PDF], with the famous E-M diagrams
A Discourse on Winning And Losing[PDF]
Destruction And Creation[PDF] - 1976
Patterns Of Conflict[PDF, and powerpoint as PDF, and videos of John Boyd presenting] - 1986, his most famous work:
Idea of fast transients suggests that, in order to win, we should operate as a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries -- or, better yet, get inside adversary's Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action time cycle or loop
The Strategic Game Of ? And ?[PDF] - 1987
We will use this scheme of pulling things apart (analysis) and putting them back together (synthesis) in new combinations to find how apparently unrelated ideas and actions can be related to one another.
this leads us to our revelation[PDF]
Organic Design For Command And Control[PDF] - 1987
Conceptual Spiral[PDF] - 1992

The Essence Of Winning And Losing[PDF] - "If you have read any of the biographies of John Boyd, you may remember this briefing as “the big crunch.” If you develop a deep understanding of this work, you’ll have the essence of Boyd."
Boyd’s OODA Loop (It’s Not What You Think)[PDF]
A Non-school of Strategy:
The late USAF Colonel John R. Boyd (1927 – 1997) was hard on ideologues: “Don’t be a member of Clausewitz’s school because a lot has happened since 1832,” he would warn his audiences, “and don’t be a member of Sun Tzu’s school because an awful lot has happened since 400 BC.”
We should not be members of Boyd’s school, either: “If you’re going to regard this stuff as dogma,” he would say at some point in his briefings, “you’d be better served to take it out and burn it.” Why, then, spend time studying his works today? Boyd’s (1987a) answer was not to memorize the specific principles of any strategy— including his—but to follow his larger example, to achieve what he called “intuitive competence” in creating, employing and dealing with the novelty that permeates human life (Boyd, 1992).
On The Making Of History: John Boyd and American Security[PDF]

even businesses[PDF] have adapted The Strategy Of The Fighter Pilot. So have security professionals

some more reading:
Slightly East of New
What Does A Broken OODA Loop Look Like?
Introduction To The Theories Of Colonel John Boyd
posted by the man of twists and turns (28 comments total) 124 users marked this as a favorite
Nice. My opinion is that the Chet Richards PDF is actually the first of your links someone should read: (https://fasttransients.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/boyds-real-ooda-loop.pdf)
posted by michaelh at 10:54 PM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

wow, cool post. thanks. looking forward to digging into these pdfs.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 11:02 PM on February 24, 2015

I just read the Robert Coram book a few weeks ago and it was quite inspiring. I found a lot of the ooh-rah offputting--a bunch of "Boyd was a fighter pilot, a real warrior, a hero, this makes his actions correct, God bless America" BUT the story of his life is so good, and so entertaining that I would recommend it heartily. It's the tale of a single-minded asshole who was pretty much always right because of his single-mindedness and dedication to research (calling colleagues at 4AM to talk to them for an hour about the design research he'd been doing since he left the office.. almost every day).

The biographer (and Boyd himself) take the position that the Pentagon leadership's decision-making on acquisitions is basically treasonous so it's not really a right-wing book, despite the "warrior" stuff.
posted by thedaniel at 11:31 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is a fantastic post! I only know a little about Boyd (until I dig into these links) through his connection to Pierre Sprey and the rest of the Fighter Mafia who helped develop the F-16 and F-18.
posted by Auden at 12:28 AM on February 25, 2015

Having some rudimentary knowledge of the OODA loop and "fast transients" and the like is what has allowed me to trounce my friends at RTS games all these years. Way to let the cat out of the bag, the man of twists and turns!

But seriously, this is a great post!
posted by Harald74 at 12:36 AM on February 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Cripes. That's a seriously on fleek post.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 1:05 AM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I read an earlier bio of Boyd, and often wonder what he would think of the F-22 and F-35. I think some of his math could probably be applied.
posted by atchafalaya at 2:08 AM on February 25, 2015

I loved the Coram book too. I thought it was pretty honest - the All-American hero stuff was balanced out by descriptions of his family life which -are unflattering (the genuine idealistic inspiring uncorruptible genius hero is also a bad dad...)

Read the same book. I know this tag is stuck on too many people but Boyd just screamed Aspergers syndrome.

Great post.
posted by KaizenSoze at 4:45 AM on February 25, 2015

Nice. My opinion is that the Chet Richards PDF is actually the first of your links someone should read: (https://fasttransients.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/boyds-real-ooda-loop.pdf)

Chet has a blog have been reading for years.
The Fabius Maximus
posted by KaizenSoze at 4:46 AM on February 25, 2015

That ooda nonsense smacks of new age woo, don't it?

Well, fighter pilots are rather unconventional persons. Rest in peace and all that.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:05 AM on February 25, 2015

Idea of fast transients suggests that, in order to win, we should operate as a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries -- or, better yet, get inside adversary's Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action time cycle or loop
posted by the man of twists and turns

Surely eponysterical?
posted by pulposus at 5:24 AM on February 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm curious how much of this is still applicable now that dogfighting is basically obsolete and we just throw missiles over the horizon at each other.

Actually, we don't even do that anymore, do we? We just hit the airfields and destroy the opposing planes before they even get a chance to take off now.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:35 AM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Read enough Boyd and you'll begin to appreciate that the F-22 and F-35 are optimized to benefit those associated with the defense acquisition process, not combat utility and cost-effectiveness. If we really wanted that, we'd be buying lots more F-16s, F-18s, and A-10s.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:37 AM on February 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

Dedicated Boyd aficionados will want to read Science, Strategy and War: the Strategic Theory of John Boyd by (Dutch Air Force) Col. Frans Osinga, as well.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:12 AM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm curious how much of this is still applicable now that dogfighting is basically obsolete and we just throw missiles over the horizon at each other.

As we found out in Vietnam and Iraq, the problem with beyond-visual-range missile it that you really need to make sure that you know that plane is being flown by the bad guys before you crank off that missile, and once your close enough to know, then, well, you're not BVR anymore.

I feel that I should give a shout out to Boyd's earlier (WW II era) naval cousin, John Thach. Thach, as commander of VF-3, found himself flying in the Grumman F4F Wildcat. The F4F was somewhat fast, not very agile, but very durable. He found himself and VF-3 fighting the Mitsubishi A6M, aka the Zero, a fantastically maneuverable plane. One on one, the Zero would quickly get behind the (in general) tougher, more heavily armed, but much less maneuverable US planes, and well, the Nylon Letdown if you were lucky.

He came up with the first rules of aircraft combat. For the Zero, he came up with the Thach Weave. If bounced by a Zero, you and your wingman turn towards each other. If the Zero chooses to get behind one of you, the other one of you would get a perfect shot. Normally, you ran this in 4 fighter groups, with each pair weaving with the other, following the first rule of air combat, which is NEVER LEAVE YOUR WINGMAN. (The 2nd rule is "KNOW WHEN TO NOT FOLLOW RULE 1.")

Later in the war, during the Kamikazi attacks, he came up with the first extended form of the combat air patrol (CAP), the Big Blue Blanket. This combined CAP flights some distance from the fleet, and screening ships, preferably with radar, a good distance from the fleet to pick up the presence of inbound attackers with as much time as possible. When detected, the airborne CAP moved to intercept and the carriers launched a new set of aircraft to take the former CAP positions, and the first fighters, after the interception, landed and recycled.

Unlike Boyd, the Grumpy Colonel, Thach had no problems with the brass, and ended up retiring as a full Admiral -- after, incidentally, developing many of the Navy's anti-submarine warfare tactics after his flying days were over.
posted by eriko at 6:30 AM on February 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

I knew nothing about this. That's Saturday gone...
posted by Devonian at 6:30 AM on February 25, 2015

I've often thought that NFL Football is the single best place one can see an OODA loop in action. There is no other sport where the intellectual ability of an off-field coach, between plays, and an on-field leader, within a play, can have so much influence over the outcome of a game. Each play is a cycle of the loop in itself:

Observing what happened in the previous play, at a high level and by seeing what individual players were able to do on both sides of the field;

Orienting by considering the game situation, knowledge of your own team and the opposing team, and knowledge from previous experience in the current and past games;

Deciding on the best action, taking into account what you hypothesize the other team may do;

Acting by sending a play (or multiple plays) or calling for a time-out.

Within a single play you have a similar loop executed by the QB and other players on the field:

Observing what personnel and formation the other side is in;

Orienting by considering the in-game situation and knowledge of your own and other players' abilities and tendencies;

Deciding on the specific play to call, the positioning of the players, and what their specific role in the play will be;

Acting on the play itself, or by calling for a time-out.

In my mind, there's no better practitioner of this than Bill Belichick and the NE Patriots, and you can see this right at the end of the Superbowl. On that last drive the Seahawks were executing well, but they were operating right at the edge of their own OODA loop: they had to call two critical unforced timeouts where they weren't quite ready to go by the time the play clock expired.

Leading up to the critical final play by the Seahawks, everyone in the stadium including Pete Carroll was expecting Belichick to call a timeout, stopping the clock and giving both sides an extra 30 seconds for their OODA loop. Instead, Belichick decided to let the clock run, and it must have taken Carroll 5-10 seconds to realize that, leaving him and Wilson with only about 10 seconds to decide on the fateful play call.

I think deep down he knew that it would be better to have Carroll rush than to give him time to think.

When you have 5 seconds to call a play, you have to pick a simple one that you've used before. Carroll picked a good one, but one that Butler had seen before in practice. The rest is history.
posted by Harvey Byrd at 8:30 AM on February 25, 2015 [13 favorites]

Chet has a blog have been reading for years.
The Fabius Maximus

The handle Fabius Maximus refers, I presume, to Quintius Fabius Maximus Cunctator ("the Delayer"). Ironically, he was given this moniker mockingly because of his tactic of fighting Hannibal by nipping at his heels instead of in a head-to-head confrontation, yet in the long run he was successful. I learned this from my high school Latin teacher, who, among other things, had a cup of coffee with the Detroit Tigers as a young man and wound up with a PhD in classics from U Chicago.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:32 AM on February 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Boyd's brilliant concept--integrate the data faster than your opponent can--is NOT HARDLY New Age woo. It is a notion that is directly transferable to real world "combat situations," including but not limited to litigation.

Wonderful post. I will be spending quality time for a while digging on more Boyd--an American genius, IMHO.
posted by rdone at 8:35 AM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am curious about the OODA loop in real time- here he's talking about dogfights.
To me there's not a lot of time in which to process the loop.
I haven't read all the links yet, of course, but I see a lot of carefully crafted analysis which requires some time to process. How does this work in the moment?
In Harvey Byrd's example, I can see how coaches do it- they have a little more time, but how do the players? Practice, practice, practice?
My own area of interest here is table tennis. I'm in the middle of the point, and I'm not processing information fast enough. I'd like to improve that.
posted by MtDewd at 9:35 AM on February 25, 2015

I read his Patterns of Conflict slides a few years ago, after The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War turned me on to them. First time I'd made the effort to understood anything about military history. Pretty glorious stuff, though I spent more time catching up on wikipedia with the knowledge he assumed in the slides than I did reading the actual slides.

Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd is another interesting book about him, analyzing his ideas from a postmodern perspective. Or at least its central idea is interesting. It's rather dense, and I must admit I didn't finish it.
posted by fivebells at 10:16 AM on February 25, 2015

I wonder if this is where the "AIDA" thing (Attention, Interst, Decision, Action, iirc) in Alec Baldwin's Glengarry Glen Ross harangue came from?
posted by thelonius at 10:21 AM on February 25, 2015

To me there's not a lot of time in which to process the loop.

I expect that the best fighter pilots, like other elite athletes-and-allied-types, don't quite experience time and awareness the way that normal people do. But of course most fighter pilots aren't the best few.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:06 AM on February 25, 2015

backseatpilot: “I'm curious how much of this is still applicable now that dogfighting is basically obsolete and we just throw missiles over the horizon at each other.”
The Boyd Cycle is folded into the concept of Maneuver Warfare, which was still part of official Marine Corps doctrine the last time I checked.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:31 AM on February 25, 2015

To me there's not a lot of time in which to process the loop.

I think this is addressed in Osinga (or maybe Certain to Win?), but I believe at least part of the idea is that the process becomes unconscious. Your subconscious (what I occasionally like to call the anteconscious) mind can often process/assimilate information much quicker than the conscious mind. In an actual hand to hand fight (and I assume a dogfight as well), if you are thinking consciously about what to do next and your opponent doesn't have to, you lose.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:28 PM on February 25, 2015

I am curious about the OODA loop in real time- here he's talking about dogfights.
To me there's not a lot of time in which to process the loop.
I haven't read all the links yet, of course, but I see a lot of carefully crafted analysis which requires some time to process. How does this work in the moment?
In Harvey Byrd's example, I can see how coaches do it- they have a little more time, but how do the players? Practice, practice, practice?
My own area of interest here is table tennis. I'm in the middle of the point, and I'm not processing information fast enough. I'd like to improve that.
- MtDewd

The major mistake people make in using the OODA framework is thinking of it as opposed and competing loops, and that the key to succeeding is to simply step through the loop faster than your opponent.

In conflict, it's more appropriate to think about multiple nested and concurrent loops, feeding information and results into each other, simultaneously observing, orienting, deciding and acting on multiple information fronts.

I don't know much about table tennis, but I know a little bit about tennis, and tournaments. You've already established one loop: observing that you are not where you want to be in your playing, orienting towards the problem, deciding to improve, and acting to get better. Let's call this 1.

Inside 1 are loops A and B. A is you observing a lack of practice time, orienting towards more practice, deciding to practice more, and practicing more. B is observing that tournament play will make you better, seeking out a tournament, deciding to enter it, and entering it. The results of these loops feed into loop 1.

Inside B are loops Aang and Beatriz - named after your opponents in the tournament. Let's assume that you're a typical 70/30 player: good baseline, a couple of great shots or preferred situations - a great backhand, say. Aang is a 100/0 player: totally miserable, except in very limited circumstances (killer serve!), where he is totally unstoppable. Beatriz is a 50/50 player: highly competent in all areas, no specialty. You observe your opponents, orient towards them prior to the matches, decide on a plan of action for each, and act on it. The results of these loops feed into loops B and 1.

Loop Aang dictates an interesting course of action: work to avoid his specialty, even if it means abandoning yours, and stick to his areas of low competence - even if they are yours. So against a killer serve, that means aggressive returns, working volleys, and controlling the serve rate to not lose control of the ball when you have it.

You can create even smaller loops on a match-by-match basis, and even a point-by-point basis. Who sets the tempo? Where is your opponent? Is he tired? Is he favoring a side? Observations pile up, and you can extract relevant ones to initiate further loops.

Loop Beatriz is a little trickier. She's going to try and do to you what you did to Aang, but at a greater effectiveness. So you have to take the opposite tack: create opportunities to use your backhand, force her into backhand volleys, serve so she has to return in a way that sets you up for backhands, etc. And again, the matches devolve into their own loops, and those loops occur in every point, or even every movement within those points:

OBSERVE: where is the ball now?
ORIENT: what do I want to achieve on this movement?
DECIDE: what is the best course to win?

And the information in these loops moves upwards, and as informational thresholds are reached, or critical decision points are reached, loops terminate, and you create new ones.

The smallest unit of these loops is probably the 'movement' within a rally or point. And you can practice these individual pieces: long shots, short shots, forehands, backhands, serves from various places to various places, such that when you decide, you can move immediately into acting, without thinking about acting (or thinking about thinking about acting).

The second key is not merely to work through and optimize your own OODA loops, but to do things that actively degrade your opponents OODA cycle. They are doing the same things that your are doing, and you should strive to deny them information (or actively mislead them), or deliberately take actions that render their prior information useless. For example, when playing Aang (and you know Beatriz is watching), don't rely on the backhand.

Hope this helps...
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:18 PM on February 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Another key is you don't always move through the whole thing. For example, orient-act patterns or decide-act can let you maximize exploitation of an opportunity, or you might careen around in a completely different order. Instinctive behavior at certain stages has a similar effect. The full loop is in some of the links and looks more like a cloverleaf highway exchange than a circle.
posted by michaelh at 2:05 PM on March 1, 2015

Boyd certainly deserves a lot of credit, but I'm not sure his ideas are necessarily unique. Prior generations of tacticians recognized many of the same things that he did.

In ground combat, "seizing the initiative" was associated with similar advantages to what Boyd achieves through the OODA Loop model. For two evenly-matched adversaries with similar decisionmaking-cycle times, the leader who moves first, and forces the adversary to react, and then most importantly who keeps acting and forcing the adversary to repeatedly react, react, react, without being able to recover, has a strong advantage: they can dictate, largely, the terms of the engagement.

What Boyd did was give a simple, easy-to-understand formulation of a complex idea that had previously been tied up in a lot of historical, doctrinal baggage. Clausewitz certainly understood it, but it's tied up in the language of 19th century setpiece ground warfare. (His statement that "the side that is surrounded by the enemy is better off than the side which surrounds its opponent" is based largely on the fact that the surrounded force will have faster internal lines of communication and can thus react faster than the surrounding force, at least in the context of 1812.)

However, the OODA Loop has become something of a favored cliche in non-military settings, e.g. management or business books, and I'm not necessarily convinced that it has as widespread applications as some people seem to think. I think it's fairly rare in business to be engaged in one-on-one adversarial "combat" with someone else, such that you can actually 'win' decisively by outmaneuvering them over a short timescale. Litigation is a possible exception where this adversarial model works (by design). But in general, business seems to be more of an evolutionary model—where success or failure is defined by how well and quickly you adapt to external stimulus and pressure, and expand into various niches and exploit them—rather than a strictly combative one.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:28 AM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

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