The OODA loop, the basic rules of how you continuously interact with the world around you.
John Boyd was a Korean War fighter pilot. Relatively few people have heard of Colonel Boyd, however to those in the know, his thoughts and insights are marveled on the same scale as Sun Tzu, Sun Pin, Miyamoto Musashi, Jomini, Clausewitz and many other great military thinkers and strategists.
Since its development, the OODA Loop has drastically changed not only aerial combat, but land and naval combat as well. It has spilled over into the business world and applied in the litigation world as well.
John Boyd set the stage for how tactical aircraft are designed by developing what is known as “Energy-maneuverability theory” and the development of the OODA loop. John never published an explicit book or body of knowledge explaining the OODA loop in detail. Here is what I have, Boyd’s work Destruction and Creation, a “short” 2 hour briefing on his Patterns of Conflict (it was normally 6+ hours) on YouTube Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and the associated transparencies. Because there is no one consolidated treatise on this massive subject, this is why someone usually only gets a part of the knowledge and subsequently sometimes misapplies that knowledge.
Let’s talk about the OODA loop. First of all, it stands for
In the execution of the loop, you are told to do the following things:
- Observe and collect data
- Orient your mental paradigm to analyze and process the data
- Choose an action based on your analysis
- Act on that decision.
If you can do that quicker than your opponent, you win.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Not even close. Let’s look at this in sections.
The goal of observation is to obtain information about what you are observing. The most important concept about this step is realizing you will never have all of the information you need, not all of it will be correct and you will under- or overemphasize some of the information. This means you will most likely not make the “correct decision.” This is why:
There are three underlying principles that govern the observation part of the OODA loop. Without an understanding of these principles and how they affect the entire OODA loop, you’re going to get the wrong answer most of the time.
These principles are:
- Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem
- Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle
- Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Why are these principles important? Because they mean your best answer is probably wrong. However, if you are “less wrong” than your opponent and can be less wrong before he is, you will likely come out on top. These principles when applied to you, can also affect your opponent by how you act, which I will explain later.
Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.
This is best and most plainly described as, “You will never have all of the information you need.”
As you collect information, it will take a certain amount of time to obtain that information. If you take too much time to try and collect everything, some of the information already in your possession changes and therefore becomes outdated. Outdated information will lead to incorrect assumptions.
Example: I know there is an Enemy force in a certain town, of approximately Division size. If I were to attempt to ascertain what elements composed that force (infantry, armor, artillery, etc.), the time used to obtain this extra information might give the Enemy enough time to add extra units, swap units, or relocate the entire force, thus rendering the original information incorrect.
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
Everyone knows this as the “Cat in the box that might or might not be alive” theory, where observation changes what is being observed.
The original part (and the one Boyd was alluding to) means the more precisely you measure the position of a particle, the less precisely you can determine the momentum of that particle. The opposite also applies, the more you know about the momentum of the particle, you lose exactly where it is.
This one boils down to, “The more certain you are about one part of the data, the less certain you can be about the rest of the data.”
Second Law of Thermodynamics.
This is another of those “everybody’s heard of it, but no one knows what it means” kind of things.
In physicist speak, this law states, “The entropy of any closed system always tends to increase and thus the nature of any given system is continuously changing even as efforts are directed toward maintaining it in its original form.”
In non-physicist speak, “without external input or control, a closed system will constantly increase in randomness.”
Let’s say you have a small military unit, such as a platoon or a company that has lost all contact with higher command. They are under orders to attack a certain location at a certain time. If they are out of contact, the chances of the attack succeeding reduce over time because of confusion or uncertainty with the unit commander. Without external input to coordinate final commands, the cut-off unit will attack as they have been ordered. However, the Enemy might not be there, or another Enemy unit might be in its place (the orders could have been to destroy a particular piece of equipment or unit), or the rest of the friendly forces could have moved up their attack and already captured the location, so that the unit would now be attacking friendlies.
Taken collectively, these three theorems state, “Get what information you can, realizing you will never have all of it. Understand that your paradigm (or filter) by which you process the information will limit or at some level distort that information. You need a constant stream of general information. Too much of one type of information will invalidate other important information.”
Now that we have the information available to us, we need to orient ourselves to take advantage of it.
According to Merriam-Webster, the second definition of Orient as a transitive verb is:
a : to set right by adjusting to facts or principles
b : to acquaint with the existing situation or environment
Which means, we have to be either pointing in the same direction, or moving in the same direction as the facts we have just acquired.
The word paradigm also applies here. A paradigm is a University word that means “information filter.” Boyd, in his original diagram specifies five paradigms, “Cultural Traditions,” “Genetic Heritage,” “Analyses & Synthesis,” “New Information” and “Previous Experience.”
Like we would pass dirty water through several filters like a physical filter (think paper coffee filter) to get rid of unwanted physical particles, then pass the water through an activated charcoal filter to remove chemical contaminants and unhealthy microorganisms, then you add a drop or two of bleach (chlorine) to make sure it’s safe to drink, the information gathered must filter through our various paradigms to arrive at a pool of useful information.
All of these paradigms will interact and pass information around inside your head and to pop out the best answer. Not necessarily the right answer, mind you. Like I said earlier, all you have to be is “less wrong” than your opponent before they do the same to you.
Remember, Boyd was a fighter pilot and he designed the OODA loop for fighter pilots. Until you got behind the enemy aircraft and yourself pointed towards him so you had a continuous view of your target, all you got to see was a flash of where he was and which way was he pointing. From that split-second observation, you had to determine where he was in a three-dimensional relation from you and decide based on that information where he will end up after you maneuver your own aircraft.
Notice there is a feedback path from the decision point that leads back to the Observation bubble, which means you can observe how your decision can change your observation of your opponent.
You observed where he was, you made your best guess as to where he’ll be in the near future, now you change the pitch, yaw, roll and speed of your aircraft so you get into a direction, speed and orientation where (hopefully) you’re behind him and he’s in front of you, which in aerial combat can be two radically different things.
Notice there are two feedback lines for the act portion of this loop, namely feedback on how your action has affected your observation and “Unfolding Interaction the Environment.” This means as you act, it changes what is going on around you. If your opponent’s OODA Loop is faster than yours, they can use your change in aspect/orientation to perform another loop to affect and change their own orientation and decision on how to act. That way he gets behind you and gets you in front of him.
At this point, use everything you have learned and know about the situation to update your paradigms and start the loop over again. Good luck!