By Daniel Ford
This fall, I became very interested in John Boyd, the autodidact military thinker who developed the OODA loop, served as a key individual in the development of the F-16, and provided some of the planning of the 1991 Gulf War. Boyd produced very few pieces of written work; his main form of delivery was slide decks, which he presented and iterated repeatedly. Scholarly work on Boyd has been thin.
This present book is one of the few out there. It was written by John Ford, who pulled it together from two essays and a short dissertation he wrote while taking an online master's program at King's College London. It's self-published.
Despite these unusual origins, the book does a good job of overviewing Boyd's life and the basics of his thought. I'll soon review Osinga's much more substantial dissertation-turned-book on Boyd's strategic theory, so in this review, I'll just hit some of the highlights.
Ford says, "The goal of all human behavior, Boyd begins, is to increase our capacity for independent action. We join with others so that we can cooperate—and compete—toward that goal. Since the resources available to us are finite, we thereby begin a struggle that can never end" (p.17). So action and decision become critical:
Each of our mental concepts represents both a domain and its constituent elements, and we can approach them in two ways, either analytically or deductively. Through analysis, we separate the elements from the domain, an activity that Boyd calls deductive destruction. We can then synthesize these disparate elements into 'something new and different from what previously existed.' Boyd calls this process constructive induction. His favorite example of the dual process of destruction and creation is to have his listeners build a mental 'snowmobile' by taking elements from the domains of skiing (using only the skis), boating (using the two-cycle outboard engine), motorcycling (the handlebars), and a child's toy tank or earthmover (the treads). ... 'Over and over again,' Boyd writes, 'this cycle of Destruction and Creation is repeated until we demonstrate internal consistency and match-up with reality.' (pp.17-18).Of course, perfect "match-up" or correspondence is not possible, and Boyd "suggests that the closer we get to the underlying reality, the larger our uncertainty becomes" (p.18); Boyd claims that "'the process of Structure, Unstructure, and Restructure ... is repeated endlessly in moving to higher and broader levels of elaboration' and argues that this "'Dialectic Engine'" may help us to better understand how people cope with their environment to increase their capacity for independent action (p.18). Boyd later developed this insight into the OODA loop.
OODA stands for Orient, Observe, Decide, and Act. In developing this model, Boyd sought to explain the cycle of destruction and creation, or structure/unstructure/restructure, through which entities passed as they interacted with their environment. (This organism/environment distinction was influenced by Boyd's reading of Maturana, among others.) Orientation was the decisive point or schwerpunkt of the loop (p.22), shaping how the organism observes, decides, and acts. That orientation involved not just the immediate situation but also the organism's past experiences, cultural tradition and genetic heritage (p.22). And each stage of the cycle involves feedback as well; the cycle is not just sequential (p.23).
Boyd's acolytes, such as Lind and Hammes, applied these insights to fourth-generation warfare (4GW). But "arguably, the first real-world application of the OODA Loop came in the 1991 Gulf War," when the US forces used multiple deceptive thrusts and feints to keep the Iraqi forces off balance, getting inside their decision loop (pp.23-24).
Here, let me reproduce a block quote of Boyd that Ford uses to explain how the OODA Loop is applied in warfare:
And it occurred to me ... that if I have an adversary out there, that what I want to do is fold my adversary back inside himself, where he can't really consult the external environment he has to deal with ... Then I can drive him into confusion and disorder and bring about paralysis. ... If I can operate at a tempo or rhythm faster than he can operate at—well, he can't keep up with me, and in effect then I fold him back inside himself. And if I do that—ball game! You saw it in Desert Storm, you see it in basketball games, football games, and a whole bunch of other stuff. (quoted in Ford pp.26-27)That is, the warrior "gets inside" the adversary's OODA Loop by changing conditions more rapidly than the adversary can react. (My summary is a little oversimplified, but let's build on it.) Doing so allows the warrior to disrupt the tempo of the adversary's loop, ensuring that the adversary is reacting to conditions that no longer obtain, and forcing the adversary into an equilibrium condition—that is, decreasing the adversary's capacity for independent action, shrinking rather than broadening the levels of elaboration.
Okay, let's play with theory a little. Suppose we apply these insights to another theoretical cycle, the cycle of the object in activity theory. In AT, the object of the activity is both objective and projective, representing both the current state and the future, intended state. The activity is structured around (i.e., oriented to) transforming that object. Yet the activity system also encounters contradictions, tensions across the system, and those contradictions require the activity system to either change or be shaken apart. Contradictions are "engines of change," as Engestrom puts it.
In Engestromian third-generation activity theory (3GAT), these activity systems are linked: activities often overlap and even share objectives, which they might collaboratively try to transform (and in which they might be at cross purposes).
To my knowledge, activity theory hasn't been applied to warfare; in fact, I can't think of instances in which AT has been used to examine flatly antagonistic dynamics. But I can imagine using insights from the OODA loop to think through how one entity might deliberately introduce contradictions in the other's cycle—contradictions such as internal disjunctures in the actors, disjunctures between actors and community, or disjunctures between tools and object. Introducing such disjunctures could disrupt that activity system severely, either shaking it apart or bogging it down. Getting inside the OODA Loop involves introducing secondary and tertiary contradictions across the target activity system. Now that I'm typing this, I'm a little surprised that I haven't seen studies that examine such antagonistic actions across activities. (If you've seen some, please send them to me!)
But why not flip it? After all, 3GAT has generally focused on how to improve harmony across activity systems (probably from the orientation of educational psychology, the field from which Engestromian 3GAT emerged). We can just as easily imagine a virtuous cycle in which collaborators rather than antagonists synchronize their OODA Loops/transformation cycles to reinforce each others' integrity. (Again, if you have seen some AT scholarship along these lines, I'd love to see it.)
OODA is still rather underdrawn, in large part because Boyd's archives consist mostly of slide decks, but also because military scholars have generally not been as interested in Boyd's work as practitioners. Ford's book is one of the few that explore and elaborate on OODA; another is that of Osinga. I'll plan on writing my review of that book soon.