By John Boyd
This is the second review in a series, going over briefings by John Boyd.
Patterns of Conflict
(For my own eyesight, I'll use the PDF of the PPT rather than the scans of the original briefings here.)
Boyd sets a modest set of goals for this presentation:
MissionBoyd begins by recalling his key insight in air-to-air combat: that the aircraft with faster transient qualities (able to gain and lose energy more quickly) will have an advantage (Slide 4). He generalizes from this point: the
• To make manifest the nature of moral-mental-physical
• To discern a pattern for successful operations
• To help generalize tactics and strategy
• To find a basis for grand strategy
• To unveil the character of conflict, survival, and conquest (Slide 2)
Idea of fast transients suggests that, in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries—or, better yet, get inside adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action time cycle or loop.
Why? Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries—since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing as well as faster transient rhythm or patterns they are competing against. (Slide 5, his emphasis)Let's link this idea with the previous presentation. If an adversary indeed learns and innovates by observing and reacting to mismatches between our expectations and what actually happens, then operating at a faster tempo allows us to get ahead of that conceptual spiral, providing inconsistent feedback that causes the adversary to make wrong or inconclusive hypotheses. More colloquially, Boyd proposes jamming the conceptual spiral. If the conceptual spiral works by systematically addressing contradictions, Boyd argues, we can introduce spurious contradictions that lead the adversary away from systemic learning. We should "Simultaneously compress own time and stretch-out adversary time to generate a favorable mismatch in time/ability to shape and adapt to change" (Slide 7, his emphasis) and we can do that, he says, by (a) generating a rapidly changing environment and (b) inhibiting the adversary's ability to adapt to that environment (Slide 7).
Boyd draws an analogy to evolution (Slides 10-12), arguing that "variety/rapidity/harmony/initiative (and their interaction) seem to be key qualities that permit one to shape and adapt to an everchanging environment"—and that, similarly, cooperative groups must harmonize their efforts (Slide 12, his emphasis). He reinterprets classic strategic advice and cases from Sun Tzu, Alexander, Hannibal, and others within this thesis (Slides 13-40). He emphasizes the asymmetries and strategems of these paragons in contrast to the top-down approaches of Napoleon, Clausewitz, and Jomani, who "did not appreciate importance of loose, irregular tactical arrangements and activities to mask or distort own presence and intentions as well as confuse and disorder adversary operations" (Slide 46). Clausewitz in particular "did not see that many non-cooperative, or conflicting, centers of gravity paralyze adversary by denying him the opportunity to operate in a directed fashion, hence they impede vigorous activity and magnify friction" (Slide 42, his emphasis).
Boyd argues that 19th-century technology and infrastructure reinforced this trend: "Huge armies, and massed firepower and other vast needs supported through a narrow fixed logistics network, together with tactical assaults by large stereotyped formations, suppressed ambiguity, deception, and mobility hence surprise of any operation" (Slide 48, his emphasis).
Interestingly, Boyd then turns to social conflict, citing Marx:
Without going into explicit detail we find (according to many investigators, including Karl Marx): that the interaction of competition, technology, specialization (division of labor), concentration of production in large scale enterprises, and the taking and plowing back of profits into this interaction produce opposing tendencies and periodic crises that leave in their wake more and more workers competing for jobs in fewer and fewer, but larger, firms that increasingly emphasize (percentage-wise) the use of more machines and less labor. (Slide 50)He characterizes the Marxian message:
According to Marx/Engels and their followers, the only way out is via revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat (workers) to smash the capitalistic system and replace it with one that does not exploit and oppress masses for the benefit of a ruling elite or class. (Slide 51)The necessary conditions of success here are (a) a crisis, since "Crises represent height of confusion/disorder due to many opposing tendencies (centers of gravity) that magnify friction, hence paralyze efforts by authorities to dominate such surges of turmoil"; and (b) a vanguard, since "Vanguards represent disciplined moral/mental/physical bodies focused to shape and guide masses as well as participate in action to exploit and expand confusion/disorder of crises that shake adversary’s will to respond in a directed way." These are "the golden keys that permit us to penetrate to the core of insurrection/revolution and, as we shall see later, modern guerrilla warfare" (Slide 51).
Such efforts represent ways "to destroy a society from within" (Slide 52). But he also is interested in how to exploit conditions to destroy a society from without (Slide 52), and for that purpose, he examines the case of infiltration in World War I, comparing and contrasting with Lawrence's guerilla tactics in the same war. "Both stress clouded/distorted signatures, mobility and cohesion of small units as basis to insert an amorphous yet focused effort into or thru adversary weaknesses" (Slide 65).
Between WWI and WWII, some major advances happened. Critically, and most interesting to me at this point, "Lenin, and after him Stalin, exploited the idea of crises and vanguards—that arise out of Marxian contradictions within capitalism—to lay-out Soviet revolutionary strategy," resulting in "A scheme that emphasizes moral/psychological factors as basis to destroy a regime from within" (Slide 66). At the same time, the Nazis developed Blitzkrieg and Mao developed guerilla warfare.
The next two slides are on Soviet revolutionary strategy. He names the major tasks as
- "Employ agitation and propaganda in order to exploit opposing tendencies, internal tensions, etc. Object is to bring about a crises, to make revolution ripe as well as convince masses that there is a way-out."
- "Concentrate “the main forces of the revolution at the enemy’s most vulnerable spot at the decisive moment, when the revolution has already become ripe, when the offensive is going full steam ahead, when insurrection is knocking at the door, and when bringing the reserves up to the vanguard is the decisive condition of success.”" (Slide 67)
- "Select “the moment for the decisive blow, the moment for starting the insurrection, so timed as to coincide with the moment when the crisis has reached its climax, when the vanguard is prepared to fight to the end, the reserves are prepared to support the vanguard, and maximum consternation reigns in the ranks of the enemy.”"
- "Pursue “the course adopted, no matter what difficulties and complications are encountered on the road towards the goal. This is necessary in order that the vanguard not lose sight of the main goal of the struggle and the masses not stray from the road while marching towards that goal and striving to rally around the vanguard.”"
- "Maneuver “the reserves with a view to effecting a proper retreat when the enemy is strong … when, with the given relation of forces, retreat becomes the only way to escape a blow against the vanguard and retain the vanguard’s reserves. The object of this strategy is to gain time, to disrupt the enemy, and to accumulate forces in order later to assume the offensive.”" (Slide 68)
That is, the Soviets based their revolutionary strategy on the exacerbation of contradictions in the targeted society. The strategy was based on the determinist view that societies would eventually be ripe for communist revolution, but it also relied on dialectic and thus provided some basis for Boyd's work.
Similarly, Boyd examines Blitzkrieg, concluding that it "generates many non-cooperative centers of gravity, as well as undermines or seizes those that adversary depends upon, in order to impede vigorous activity and magnify friction, thereby paralyze adversary by denying him the opportunity to operate in a directed way" (Slide 71). An army operating under Blitzkrieg keeps up the pace by interlocking OODA loops at different levels, ensuring that low-level commanders had latitude to act within their own OODA loops as long as they synchronized with OODA loops higher up the chain. "Each level from simple to complex (platoon to theater) has their own observation-orientation-decision-action time cycle that increases as we try to control more levels and details of command at the higher levels. Put simply, as the number of events we must consider increase, the longer it takes to observe-orient-decide-act" (Slide 72). This scheme only works if officers have a common outlook (Slide 74) in which the what is agreed upon, but the how is left to the officer's discretion (Slide 76). In this scheme, the Schwerpunkt (center of gravity; focus of main effort) was realized via implicit communication, diminishing friction and reducing time (Slide 79).
Boyd reviews the essentials of guerilla warfare next, then argues that modern guerilla warfare is a synthesis of more traditional guerilla warfare, Soviet strategy, and Blitzkrieg.
Insurrection/revolution becomes ripe when many perceive an illegitimate inequality—that is, when the people see themselves as being exploited and oppressed for the undeserved enrichment and betterment of an elite few. This means that the guerrillas not only need an illegitimate inequality but they also need support of the people; otherwise, insurrection/revolution is impossible. (Slide 94)Common themes of this type of guerilla warfare are familiar to those who have read 4GW literature:
And the intent:
- Avoid battles—instead penetrate adversary to subvert, disrupt, or seize those connections, centers, and activities that provide cohesion (e.g., psychological/moral bonds, communications, lines of communication, command and supply centers …)
- Exploit ambiguity, deception, superior mobility, and sudden violence to generate initial surprise and shock followed by surprise and shock again, again, again …
- Roll-up/wipe-out the isolated units or remnants created by the subversion, surprise, shock, disruption, and seizure.
Boyd briefly discusses how to disrupt this sort of conflict by noting that it is "Difficult to sustain fast-tempo and maintain cohesion of blitz effort when forced to repeatedly and rapidly shift concentration of strength against weakness" (Slide 104), then discusses specific cases of counter-Blitz and counter-guerilla campaigns.
- Exploit subversion, surprise, shock, disruption, and seizure to generate confusion, disorder, panic, etc., thereby shatter cohesion, paralyze effort, and bring about adversary collapse. (Slide 98)
Boyd then discusses different sorts of conflicts, including moral conflict, with some discussion of how to counteract it by increasing harmony, adaptability, and initiative (Slide 124). Based on a synthesis, Boyd then argues that the goal of conflict must be to
Diminish adversary’s freedom-of-action while improving our freedom-of-action, so that our adversary cannot cope—while we can cope—with events/efforts as they unfold.That goal can be reached with this action:
Observe-orient-decide-act more inconspicuously, more quickly, and with more irregularity as basis to keep or gain initiative as well as shape and shift main effort: to repeatedly and unexpectedly penetrate vulnerabilities and weaknesses exposed by that effort or other effort(s) that tie-up, divert, or drain-away adversary attention (and strength) elsewhere. (Slide 128)Grand tactics then become:
And strategy becomes:
- Operate inside adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action loops, or get inside his mind-time-space, to create a tangle of threatening and/or non-threatening events/efforts as well as repeatedly generate mismatches between those events/efforts adversary observes, or anticipates, and those he must react to, to survive;
- Enmesh adversary in an amorphous, menacing, and unpredictable world of uncertainty, doubt, mistrust, confusion, disorder, fear, panic, chaos … and/or fold adversary back inside himself;
- Maneuver adversary beyond his moral-mental-physical capacity to adapt or endure so that he can neither divine our intentions nor focus his efforts to cope with the unfolding strategic design or related decisive strokes as they penetrate, splinter, isolate or envelop, and overwhelm him. (Slide 131)
Penetrate adversary’s moral-mental-physical being to dissolve his moral fiber, disorient his mental images, disrupt his operations, and overload his system—as well as subvert, shatter, seize, or otherwise subdue those moral-mental-physical bastions, connections, or activities that he depends upon—in order to destroy internal harmony, produce paralysis, and collapse adversary’s will to resist. (Slide 133)At the same time, a nation must essentially apply the same principles constructively, strengthening unity, harmony, and moral fiber as well as attracting potential adversaries as allies (Slide 140).
The rest is historical cases and wrap-up. Later in the series, we'll see how Boyd elaborates the OODA loop as well as his ideas about winning and losing.