OODA’s not a bad idea. It’s a good one, applied poorly and too liberally. It’s not as if faith in John Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act Loop is instantly fatal, more like a chronic illness that weakens the mind over time. It limits an actor to aim for speed and locks out other options beyond speed.
As a “time-based theory of conflict,” in the words of Boyd’s biographer, Robert Coram, the OODA Loop only gets you so far. Tactical speed is only one component in the larger success-seeking activity known as strategy.
Strategy is not the sum of its tactical parts
The problem is the inherent tactical focus of OODA. It’s entirely about tactics, as William Lind, writing in 1980, acknowledged: “Working from his studies of air-to-air combat, Col. Boyd has generalized a theory of conflict. which both explains the essence of maneuver war seen historically and provides a basis for further development of maneuver tactics…The Boyd Theory enables us to understand what happens in maneuver warfare.”
Using early Cold War-era aerial dogfighting to generalize a theory of conflict seems a bit of a stretch. But let’s lean in to this idea, that winning on the battlefield is simply the sum of all tactical parts (i.e., X1vs. Y1 + X2 vs. Y2 + X3 vs. Y3, etc.).
But we know that’s not how war goes. Many tactically superior forces win head-to-head and then lose wars. Tactics don’t simply scale up to strategy. They are related games played at different levels. Both are important but they are not the same.
A single great teacher doesn’t tell you much about a national education system. One great salesperson can’t make an entire company. One great hitter doesn’t tell you everything about the health of a team, a league, or a sport. These are all related on some level, but distinct.
That’s not to say that OODA can’t have an impact. It might help, say, amateur basketball teams win by creating chaos through raw speed. It can have an impact there, where the rules and referees box the teams in to certain behaviors.
To dive deeper, let’s apply Boyd’s logic. As he once put it, “If you want to understand something, take it to the extremes or examine its opposites.”
Let’s go to the extremes. Imagine the world’s fastest and smartest mosquito, able to out-fly anyone or anything. It wouldn’t much matter because it’s too small to make a difference in our world.
Now let’s scale up. Imagine a human being that can out-OODA anyone else. Again, an actual Army of One wouldn’t matter much no matter how fast or how talented. Perhaps tactically excellent, but strategically not all that impressive.
Let’s scale up again. Imagine a country, an entire country that’s nimble, agile, and doesn’t have to wait for plodding persuasional politics to act.
We’re in luck. There are such countries—North Korea can launch attacks at will, Russia often chooses to kill first and ask questions never, and Belarus demonstrated recently it can opt to skyjack a plane full of people when it wants.
These each represent the autocrat’s advantage. Autocracies almost always have the first mover advantage. If that’s the case, if North Korea can always out-OODA the West, they should be getting whatever they want whenever they want it, right?
Sure, time matters and speed sometimes kills. Speedy success can look appealing. But time and speed aren’t the only things that matter. Other factors are very important, often more important.
Context matters as much or more than speed
Success has many different forms across several different contexts. Imagine someone that achieves business success in California (say, Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg). Then try to think of what it might take for a similar level of success in London or Mexico City, Russia or China.
Context matters, setting matters. Overspeeding over and through a slower opponent doesn’t always “win.” Consider the Gulf War, famously 100-hours long. Coalition forces out-OODA’d the Iraqi defenders, really ripped through Saddam’s army. Yet would anyone say overspeed was strategically decisive? No, not really, because a certain tactical activity is just one instrument in a much larger strategic symphony. And few if any would judge American and Western efforts in Iraq successful over the past three decades.
In its purest form, OODA’s essentially an algorithm that guides you to always be faster than your opponent. But what about the second opponent behind you? (Ask Julius Caesar about this problem.) Or the emergent strategic response triggered by an actor’s tactical victories—say, the alliance that Napoleon brought down on France, that upended his empire?
The Legend of Boyd, the Myth of OODA
It’s strange that so many have placed so much faith in OODA.
Isn’t it? That a theory developed from aerial combat has kept hold of so many in an age when aerial combat has virtually vanished? There’s no more dogfighting; this part of war’s history has almost entirely shriveled up.
Boyd’s OODA Loop, in this way, reminds me of the seventeenth-century Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musahi. A learned, great tactician with a relatively simple philosophy of action. There seems to be a deep human urge to reach for another era’s ideas. We want some ancient Yoda-like figure to bestow wisdom on us.
Imagine OODA came from baseball’s Ted Williams, or an Olympic wrestling coach. It probably wouldn’t have so much grip as having come from an amazing fighter pilot like Boyd. His quirks, his mannerisms, his other ideas and speeches, and the fact that he never really wrote much of anything that’s provided this mostly empty vessel into which so many pour their need to hook-on to a Great Genius of ye olden days.
It seems the mystique of leaving nearly nothing written down has magnified Boyd’s impact. His adherents’ interpret what little there is like soothsayers reading bones. They typically claim Boyd’s “misunderstood,” just as Boyd himself often did. But the burden here falls on the proponent of the theory. If Boyd wanted to be understood clearly, he should have written clearly. That was his own bloody, cardinal red sin.
Boyd was a brilliant guy, and OODA’s tactically useful, but strategically limited.
*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Really, what do you think? Comments and critiques are welcome here. If you enjoyed this, please flick it on to anyone you think might find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention matters!
All the very best & see you next week, Matt
Battles need to be won, and OODA can win them. Best recent example is actually Rommel vs Cunningham. Best recent counter-example is Rommel vs Auchinleck, shortly thereafter; Rommel was a one-trick OODA ponny, really. Best totally modern example is RTS competitive multiplayer (e.g. Starcraft). I would actually put the South Koreans higher than the North, or any authoritarian force, in any engagement consisting of _multiple_ actions.
You want to know what I think, ML Cavanaugh? Well... Remember YOU asked for it!
OODA Loop was NEVER About “Grand Strategy” Formulation
ML Cavanaugh is engaging in a transparent strawman argument unbecoming his impressive credentials. Cavanaugh entirely misrepresents the OODA Loop and the position of its advocates (at least the ones I’ve studied) as somehow believing that the OODA Loop, itself, constitutes a Grand Theory for formulating and executing Strategy.
Cavanaugh implies that Boyd and his acolytes believe that OODA explains the essence of ALL Strategy without ever citing a single example of Boyd or any of his devotees ever stating such a ludicrous proposition. Indeed, those he cites clearly state that OODA is limited to tactical circumstances. Whoever told Cavanaugh that OODA is a methodology for the Strategic-level of war likely knows less about Boyd than Cavanaugh demonstrates. This supposition is difficult to research, because Cavanaugh never provides a source behind his strawman assertion.
Cavanaugh says that, “context matters,” while he lifted OODA entirely out of its appropriate context. He distilled “everything Boyd” down to using OODA speed to induce chaos. But OODA is only a small (albeit important) piece of Boyd’s entire body of thought, and Boyd does not rely on OODA speed alone to fold the enemy inside himself.
Cavanaugh ignores Boyd’s important integration of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Gödel's Second Incompleteness Theorem, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics on how we perceive and interact with both the external and internal environment and how we may induce chaos. He never digs into Analysis and Synthesis as it relates to the generation of options for adaptation. And these are only a few of the many points that Boyd covers in his body of work.
Cavanaugh attempts to squeeze the Genie back in the bottle by implying Boyd’s OODA was really just limited to aerial dogfighting (with a few grudging applications beyond that) -- a passe blood sport from a bygone era that will NEVER occur again (an assertion that sounds like a reprise of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Systems Analysts who decided Jet Fighters no longer needed Machine Guns). But Boyd expanded his study of warfare far beyond the skies and demonstrated that his theoretical constructs were actually rather timeless and widely applicable. Indeed, the United States Marine Corps’ insightful Capstone Doctrinal manuals are based largely upon the foundation laid by Genghis John. These manuals have remained essentially unchanged since they were published in the 1990s (Compared with U.S. Army Capstone Doctrine, which changes more frequently than an infant’s diapers). This point explains why more Marines attended Boyd’s funeral than Airmen.
He proclaims that Boyd left “nearly nothing written down,” which indicates why Cavanaugh may have such a limited and esoteric grasp of a deeper, richer body of thought. Boyd produced -- but never published -- a wide range of written products worthy of study (which I can only postulate Cavanaugh has never read). One supposes that Boyd’s cardinal sin (at least as far as Cavanaugh is concerned) was that he never published. Boyd never felt ready to publish because he was always refining his thoughts and understanding of an incredibly complex subject. Boyd never felt that he’d “arrived” at a perfect distillation of his message he felt ready to publish, but Boyd left PLENTY for us to read and study -- and one doesn’t need a basket of chicken bones to understand it.
He may not be aware that Dr. Grant T. Hammond compiled, edited, and published through Air University Press a 400-page work by Boyd, “A Discourse on Winning and Losing.” I can only assume he is not aware of this publication because the OODA Loop appears as a mere Appendix in this work. If he IS aware of it, then I doubt he’s studied it at any great length. And if the fact that someone else had to finish Boyd’s work is a reason to discount it, then we need to stop quoting Clausewitz, too.
If that is still insufficient for Cavanaugh, Dr. Hammond -- who had a personal relationship with Boyd, had read Boyd’s 327-page “Green Book, and sat in on lectures by Boyd -- published a well-sourced, extensive, and authoritative biography on Boyd AND his Works: “The Mind of War.” And if reading Boyd’s works seem like a confusing, “mystical” process of interpretation -- “…like soothsayers reading bones…,” then I invite Cavanaugh to listen to some of Boyd’s recorded lectures which remain available on YouTube, which I found most illuminating.
I will not lay claim to being an “expert” on Boyd… for as Boyd said: “An ‘Expert’ is someone who’s ‘learned’ everything there is to know about a subject and can’t [refuses to] learn anything new.” I first learned of Boyd as a new Lieutenant at Armor Officer Basic Course over 30 years ago while reading Bill Lind’s “Maneuver Warfare Handbook.” I have studied Boyd off and on ever since, and apparently have enough of a cogent understanding of John Boyd to comment with a degree of authority.
I say all this because Cavanaugh’s fallacious screed demonstrates that he REALLY has “misunderstood” Boyd entirely…and it is not (as Cavanaugh intimates) ‘Boyd’s fault.’