Thursday, February 05, 2015

Reading :: Science, Strategy and War

Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd
By Frans P.B. Osinga

A few days ago, I reviewed Daniel Ford's slim book on John Boyd, A Vision So Noble, which grew out of his MA work. It referenced this book, which was evidently Osinga's dissertation. Osinga was an F-16 pilot and served in the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

Osinga's focus is on another former pilot, John Boyd. As discussed in the earlier review, Boyd was a pilot who went back to school to become an engineer, then became an autodidact military theorist whose readings included Tzu and Clausewitz but also Maturana, Bateson, Polanyi, Kuhn, and Popper. "Some regard Boyd as the most important strategist of the twentieth century, or even since Sun Tzu," Osinga tells us (p.3), although "on the other hand, his work has invited dismissive critique" (p.1). Complicating this legacy is the fact that Boyd's body of theoretical work is made up of "four briefings and an essay"; the briefings are slide decks that Boyd revised throughout his life. (You can see the originals at the John Boyd Compendium.) The slide decks are meant to be presented rather than read as standalone documents, and thus pose a problem for those who want to better understand Boyd's thought.

To preserve Boyd's thought, Osinga takes on the task of contextualizing these primary texts: he contextualizes the challenges that Boyd addressed; digs into archives such as interviews with Boyd; and uses the archives to identify some of Boyd's sources (Boyd was not meticulous about citing) so he could read those sources himself. It's a lot of work, and the result is—based on my limited understanding of the subject—a strong account of the major claims Boyd made and an argument for taking these claims seriously.

Osinga starts by orienting us to terms of art in military theory: military theory itself ("the aggregate of theories, doctrines, and beliefs belonging to a particular individual, community or period," pp.8-9); operational art ("the body of knowledge dealing with the use and behavior of military forces in a military campaign aimed to achieve strategic or operational level military objectives," p.9); doctrine ("the aggregate of fundamental methods of fighting, often tacit or implied," p.9); and strategy (referencing Clausewitz, "the use of tacit and explicit threats, as well as of actual battles and campaigns, to advance political purposes," which "provides the conceptual link between action and effect and between instrument and objective," p.9).

Strategy, he adds, "concerns both organization and environment"; "affects overall welfare of the organization"; "involves issues of both content and process"; exists on different levels (e.g., corporate strategy and business strategy in the same firm); and "involves conceptual as well as analytical exercises" (p.10). And "Strategy abhors a vacuum; if the strategic function is lacking, strategic effect will be generated by the causal, if perhaps unguided and unwanted accumulation of tactical and operational outcomes" (p.10). Strategic theory involves four levels:

  • "a level that transcends time, environment, political and social conditions and technology"
  • "a level that explains how the geographic and functional complexities of war and strategy interact and complement each other"
  • "a level that explains how a particular kind of use of military power strategically affeects the course of conflict as a whole"
  • "a level that explains the character of war in a particular period" (p.12)
With that background established, Osinga argues that "Boyd's work comprises a specific intellectual response to the military problems of the US armed forces in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and his arguments are colored by this predicament in the sense that he aimed to change a specific mindset and a doctrine that, in his view, was dysfunctional" (p.16). 

In Ch.2, Osinga overviews Boyd's military life to trace how his thoughts about strategy emerged. Boyd was drafted into the US Army in 1946, attended USAF pilot training in 1952, flew 22 combat sorties in the F-86 Sabre during the Korean War (1953), attended and became instructor at the Fighter Weapons School (1954), and published a manual on fighter maneuvers, Aerial Attack Study, in 1960. 

Let's pause there. In Korea, "What intrigued him was that despite flying in F-86 aircraft with a lower ceiling, a wider turn radius and slower maximum speed than its rival, the Russian Mig-15, the kill ratio was 10:1 in favor of the F-86 during the Korean War" (p.22). One explanation might have been training, but that didn't explain everything, especially since the North Korean pilots often had numerical superiority. Boyd realized that the "bubble canopy ... provided a distinct advantage over the constrained view" of the Mig-15, but he believed there was an additional element (p.22). 

At his next post, the USAF Fighter Weapons School, he focused on air combat tactics. He acquired the name "40 second Boyd" because he routinely "bet that he could beat any pilot within 40 seconds in a 1 versus 1 air combat set-up, a bet that he usually won" (p.22). He also wrote Aerial Attack Study, "an encyclopedia on air-to-air combat" that is still being used (p.22). 

In 1960, Boyd went to Georgia Tech to pursue a degree in industrial engineering. While studying the Second Law of Thermodynamics, "he discovered that he could explain air-to-air combat in terms of energy relationships, in which altitude is potential energy to be traded for speed—kinetic energy—and vice versa. Turns became energy-consuming maneuvers ... and engine power an energy provider ..." (p.23). He could express these relationships with equations and plot the outcomes with graphs. "By overlaying and comparing such graphs of different fighters the speed/altitude areas of relative advantage became immediately obvious" (p.23). Yet these calculations required substantial computer time, so once Boyd graduated in 1962, he got a post at Eglin Air Force Base and proceeded to covertly use the USAF Systems Command computers to finish his research. The result was EM theory, which "revolutionized fighter design" (p.23). This work landed him at the Pentagon, where he helped to develop the next generation of fighters (p.23). 

At the Pentagon, Boyd saw that the win-to-loss ratios for fighters had plummeted from the 10:1 in Korea to ratios as low as 1:1 in Vietnam (p.24). Boyd, along with others, argued strongly for dedicated tactical fighters that could transition between maneuvers quickly (p.25), leading to the development of the F-16 (which Osinga flew) and the F-18. 

It also resulted in the A-10, which was not a tactical fighter but a tank killer; Boyd researched the A-10's needs by interviewing German WW2 experts on the subject, and that led him to study strategy and tactics in general (p.26) and setting him on the path as a military theorist.

At the same time, Boyd was working on A New Conception for Air to Air Combat, in which he addressed the fact that in a fly-off, the YF-16 (which would become the F-16) and YF-17 (which would become the F-18) had been predicted to be a close match based on EM theory, yet the YF-16 clearly outperformed the 17 in actual tests. The YF-16 could perform tighter turns, allowing them to slip inside the YF-17's turn circle while still gaining energy and maintaining high turn rates (p.26). Critically, Boyd argued that "we should operate at a faster tempo than our adversaries or inside our adversaries [sic] time scales ... such activity will make us appear ambiguous (non predictable)..." (p.27, my emphasis). This insight was the kernel that led to later elaboration of the OODA loop. What's important to note here is why higher tempo is better: not because one can outpace the adversary, but because one can appear ambiguous and confuse and disorder the adversary. 

Let's skip a bit. Boyd drew eclectically from a range of theorists as he developed his new understanding of warfare. "Boyd argued for non-linear tactics, avoiding and bypassing enemy positions, venturing deep into enemy territory without too much concern for one's flanks. The prize was not territory but time, surprise and shock. Such tactics would force the enemy to react. They would create the impression US troops were everywhere and could strike anytime anyplace" (p.45). "Boyd's ideas were translated after a decade of lectures, briefings and debates in Marine Corps doctrine" (p.47). 

These ideas relate to the OODA Loop. Osinga quotes the explanation of "a young captain" who attended Boyd's briefings:

Colonel Boyd observed that in any conflict all combatants go through repeated cycles of an observation – orientation – decision –action (OODA) loop […]The potentially victorious combatant is the one with the OODA loop which is consistently quicker than his opponent (including the time required to transition from one cycle to another). As this opponent repeatedly cycles faster than his opponent, the opponent finds he is losing control of the situation […] his countermeasures are overcome by the rapidly unfolding events and become ineffective in coping with each other. He finds himself increasingly unable to react. Suddenly, he realizes there is nothing else he can do to control the situation or turn it to his advantage. At this point he has lost. In essence his command circuits have been overloaded, thereby making his decisions too slow for the developing situation […] all that remain are uncoordinated smaller units incapable of coordinated action. The enemy’s defeat in detail is the eventual outcome. (qtd on p.49; my emphasis)
The method requires "continuous high-tempo operations, a focus on creating and exposing flanks and rears, and on weaknesses instead of enemy's strengths ... [and] mission tactics of Aufragstatik, for the party which can consistently operate the longest without new orders will inevitably have the greater advantage over an opponent awaiting orders after every action" (p.49). (cf. Alberts and Hayes.)

In Ch.3, Osinga tackles "Science," specifically examining OODA's roots in Polanyi, Kuhn, Popper, Godel, Weiner, Skinner, Heisenberg, Prigogine, and Piaget. Osinga notes the move away from Cartesianism and toward systems thinking.

Ch.4, "Completing the Shift," overviews Boyd's move to a new worldview, drawing a contrast between "traditional" and "emerging" views (see table on p.88, or if you don't have a copy, p.124 of Osinga's dissertation). Essentially, Boyd moved from a modernist to a postmodernist viewpoint, examining self-organization and non-linear interconnectedness (p.88). Boyd is influenced by Prigogine here, and later—deeply—by Maturana and Vela (p.92), particularly their discussions of autopoeisis and structural coupling (p.94).  Boyd writes: "Orientation is the schwerpunkt. It shapes the way we interact with the environment. ... Orientation shapes the character of present observations-orientation-decision-action loops —while those present loops shape the character of future orientation" (p.94).

Halfway through this chapter, Osinga draws the threads together, arguing that Boyd presented a unifying vision.

  • At the grand strategic level, it presented a unifying vision, a coherent paradigm, and an "agreeable ideology which fosters internal unity and offers a 'moral high ground' for creating alliances. It favors cooperation" (p.100). 
  • At the next level, the strategic aim is to "Diminish adversary's capacity while improving our capacity to adapt as an organic whole, so that our adversary cannot cope while we can cope with events/efforts as they unfold" (Boyd qtd in Osinga p.101). 
  • At the grand tactical level, Boyd argued for operating inside the adversary's OODA loops, creating mismatches between the adversary's observations and the conditions to which it must react. Doing so makes one appear unpredictable, keeping the adversary from adapting or coping with the unfolding strategic design (p.101). 
  • At the tactical level, Boyd said that units should "OODA more inconspicuously, more quickly, and with more irregularity" and "repeatedly and unexpectedly penetrate vulnerabilities and weaknesses exposed by that effort" (qtd in Osinga p.101). 

Now Osinga gets to Ch.5, where he overviews Boyd's "Core Arguments." Here, he follows the structure of the slide decks in Boyd's A Discourse on Winning and Losing. Essentially, he tries "to provide the content of his slides in reasonable prose" with little commentary (pp.128-129). As a side note, I sometimes had a hard time distinguishing between Boyd's original text from the slides and Osinga's interpretation throughout; I would have liked to see these set off visually. Rather than march lockstep through this section, let me pick out some of the more important things.

In Patterns of Conflict, Boyd synthesizes principles of guerrilla warfare and Blitzkrieg, arguing that one should avoid battles, instead focusing on shattering cohesion, generating surprise and shock, and paralyzing effort (p.164). Forces must be able to maintain internal harmony, operating in "a directed yet more indistinct, more irregular and quicker manner than one's adversaries," concentrating and dispersing inconspicuously and/or quickly (p.164).

Boyd also emphasizes moral conflict, arguing that a force must "create, exploit, and magnify" menace, uncertainty, and mistrust in the enemy, generating "many non-cooperative centers of gravity" and magnifying internal friction (p.171). Simultaneously, he argues that the force should set up internal "counterweights" of initiative, adaptability, and harmony (p.172). Adversaries must be isolated from allies and each other, morally, mentally, and physically (pp.178-179).

In Ch.6, "Exploration and Refinement," Osinga presents the other five briefings, again presenting rather than commenting on these briefings. As in the last chapter, I'll hit what I thought were the highlights.

In Organic Design for Command and Control, Boyd argues (in Osinga's paraphrase) that "interactions in various forms are the glue that binds the various nodes of a social system together" (p.192). In Boyd's own words, "interactions represent a many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection" (qtd in Osinga p.192). Osinga argues that "this insight into the nature of interactions is the first step toward a definition of orientation" (p.193). Boyd again: "Orientation, seen as a result, represents images, views, or impressions of the world shaped by
genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences, and unfolding circumstances." (qtd in Osinga p.193).

Boyd then synthesizes the two statements: "Orientation is an interactive process of many sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections that is shaped by and shapes the interplay of genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences and unfolding circumstances." (qtd in Osinga p. 193).

Orientation, as Boyd says elsewhere, is the Schwerpunkt or center of gravity. He argues that if a force can "create many non-cooperative centers of gravity" in the adversary, that force can magnify friction because the adversary must focus inward, thereby creating confusion and disorder (qtd in Osinga p.195). Thus, as Boyd argues in Strategic Game of ? and ?, "The Strategic Game is one of Interaction and Isolation" (qtd in Osinga p.209, Boyd's emphasis).

Yet, just as Engestrom argues that contradictions are engines of change, Boyd argues that "The presence and production of mismatches are what sustain and nourish the enterprise of science, engineering, and technology, hence keep it alive and ongoing — otherwise there would be no basis for it to continue. (qtd in Osinga p.225).

Orientation, clearly, is a critical part of the OODA loop. And since this chapter is called "Exploration and Refinement," we can see a refined version of the OODA loop on p.231 (or see the dissertation p.270). Unlike the simplified OODA loop that we usually see in secondary literature—a loop that seems to simply focus on tempo as it cycles in lockstep—this one elaborates feedback loops at each state and details subcomponents of Orientation. The entire loop is a "cross-referencing process" (Boyd, qtd in Osinga p.232).

In Chapter 7, "Completing the Loop," Osinga provides the commentary that he withheld from Ch.5-6. The OODA loop, he argues,
represents and means more than a decision process, and the model contains more for victory than information superiority and speed. The OODA loop is much less a model for decision-making than a model of individual and organizational learning and adaptation in which the element of orientation—made up of genetics, experience, culture—plays the dominant role in the game of hypothesis and test, of analysis and synthesis, of destruction and creation. (p.235, my emphasis)
He goes on to address misconceptions. First, yes, one usually wants to get "inside" the adversary's OODA loop; but this doesn't just mean "out-looping," it also means "altering the tempo" (p.235) because "Changing OODA speed becomes part of denying a pattern to be recognized" (p.236).

Second, focusing on speed misses the critical interrelationship between "physical action and the mental and moral component": if one has access to more timely information, but cannot react as quickly, the advantage is lost. (e.g., imagine an army with up-to-the-minute intelligence but a bureaucracy that makes operational decisions hourly or daily). (p.236)

Third, tempo is not the only control dimension. (p.236).

Beyond that, Osinga argues, narrow interpretations of OODA miss the critical issue of "developing, maintaining and reshaping one's orientation" (p.236). Osinga argues that "it is essential to have a repertoire of orientation patterns and the ability to select the correct one according to the situation at hand while denying the opponent the latter capability. Moreover, Boyd emphasizes the capabilityy to validate the schemata before and during operations and the capability to devise and incorporate new ones, if one is to survive in a rapidly changing environment" (p.236, Osinga's emphasis).

(Related note: I've noted in recent studies that participants sometimes relate to rapidly changing environments by developing relatively stable patterns and stable sets of transformations.)

The remainder of Ch.7 discusses Boyd's legacy in fourth-generation warfare (Hammes, Lind, Arquilla and Ronfeldt). 

Okay, so what can we take from this? As I mentioned in the previous review, I'm interested in the question of how Boyd has developed this systemic "model of individual and organizational learning and adaptation" to increase what activity theorists would call internal contradictions. Activity theory comes from a lineage of educational psychology, and it has traditionally focused on decreasing rather than increasing contradictions, ideally resulting in more harmonious work and positive learning outcomes. Yet AT has moved into workplace research, IS research, UX research, and other areas that are not specifically focused on education—and that often encompass competitive relationships. Surely some of these linkages between activity systems aim at disruption, but to my knowledge, AT has not been applied to examining them. 

Along these lines, ever since Engestrom introduced the idea of the activity network in third-generation activity theory (3GAT), we have been examining interactions between activity systems. We have even discussed how different activity systems have to match cycles. (For instance, in my undergraduate field methods class, we regularly discuss how student organizations have synchronized their transformation cycle to the school year.) But I can't think of many AT studies that discuss the question of interfering cycles, let alone deliberately interfering ones. 

Can OODA be applied productively to AT? If so, would the application be a synthesis? Or would it be more fruitful as an analogical application? 

In any case, if you're interested in Boyd's work, Osinga's book is probably the best and most comprehensive overview. I recommend it.

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