T. Kearny Vertner, III
OODA? I Hardly Knew Ya!
While many in the military have (finally) learned about the OODA Loop and the man that created it, it's still an understudied approach that deserves more analysis.
As I recently discussed, I entered the Air Force in a long training pipeline and sought inspiration to keep me pushing forward. While many writers, thinkers, poets, etc. entered my world, none influenced me more substantially than Col. John Boyd (Ret.). Boyd was known by many names due to his reputation as a skilled fighter pilot; the Mad Major, 40-Second Boyd, Ghengis John, The Ghetto Colonel, etc. In the middle of his career, he taught himself advanced calculus and literally rewrote the book on aircraft energy management theory. Energy management, for the non-aviators reading this, is all about acting upon the four primary forces acting on an aircraft in flight: thrust, drag, lift, and gravity. A pilot's ability to deftly and intuitively manage these four forces - or energy - is what defines greatness within their field.
That was merely the opening salvo of his genius. A decorated Korean War veteran, he sought to apply the lessons he learned in his experience to training the next generation of skilled tactical aviators and building the next generation of fighter aircraft. Core to that goal was what he called his "OODA Loop."
The OODA Loop breaks down as follows: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. The Observe phase is simple: take a look around you and describe what you see. Orient is slightly more complex: based on what you see around you, determine where you fall in position. As Duke Wellington once famously asked in response to Earl Uxbridge's query of his plans before the Battle of Waterloo, "Who will attack first, I or Bonaparte?" When Uxbridge (quite smartly) responded that Bonaparte would move first, Wellington replied, "Well, Bonaparte has not given me any idea of his projects, and as my plans will depend on his, how can you expect to tell me what mine are?" In a fighter aircraft, this defines your position relative not to where your enemy is, but where they intend to be.
Decide is all about making a choice based on what you have observed and your orientation to your foe. Act is merely about translating all of this into action. The idea that this is a loop explicitly states that this process will repeatedly occur in a single tactical engagement. Iy may occur a handful or thousands of times. Like many tactical ideas, it can apply to a strategic approach, and this one does so wonderfully. Before we consider that, how did Boyd arrive at such a simple concept?
F-86 versus the MiG-15
The Korean War, like many 20th-century conflicts, featured a pair of fighter aircraft squared off against each other. In this case, it was the U.S. F-86 Sabre versus North Korea's employment of the Russian-designed MiG-15 Fagot. On paper, the MiG-15 was absolutely the superior fighter. It had a better climb rate, higher ceiling, and could turn more sharply; it should have dominated the skies. Why did the F-86 enjoy a staggering 15:1 kill ratio? Boyd - an experienced F-86 Korean War veteran, sought to figure this out.
In his studies, he determined that two key capabilities the F-86 enjoyed were 1) a raised bubble canopy, giving the pilot improved visibility of the airspace around them, and 2) hydraulic flight controls. While the bubble canopy clearly aided in the Observe and Orient phases, the hydraulic flight controls were less tangible. The advantage of hydraulic flight controls meant that a trained pilot could bring an F-86 close to its operating envelope intuitively with little effort, a MiG-15 was going to require substantially more effort to achieve the same level, much less what it was fully capable of. A good example - for the car drivers in the crowd - is BMW versus Audi. A BMW (or MINI for humble people like me) will have a higher limit and more demanding on the driver. An Audi (or Volkswagen, again, for people like me) will be trivial for even a casual driver to approach its limits. Anybody can drive an Audi really fast and a BMW kind of fast, but a skilled driver can bring a BMW to limits that the Audi will only dream of.
Hydraulic flight controls are critical to a fighter pilot, because the less time they spend fighting with their aircraft, the more time we can spend Observing and Orienting. This was the crux of Boyd's master thesis: if we are to master our foe, we must spend our time enhancing anything that develops the speed of our OODA Loop while working hard to degrade theirs. Like most tactical doctrine going back to Sun Tzu, it had stark strategic implications that were realized on 6 March 1989, when Boyd directly influenced the Marine Corps' future by the hand of General Al Gray. At that moment, the then-commandant of the Marine Corps effectively transitioned the Marine Corps from the attrition-style warfare that plagued the twentieth century to maneuver-style warfare defined by the OODA Loop.
The U.S. Air Force, Moving Forward
Even though Boyd retired as a Colonel in 1975, he continued to push his ideas as a lifelong Airman. His then-radical OODA Loop and concepts of energy management would directly inform the designs of the A-10 Thunderbolt II (or Warthog), the F-15 Eagle, and the F-16 Fighting Falcon (or Viper). As a matter of principle, he rejected heavy designs whose weight and complexity impact on energy management overrode any benefits. An excellent study is the F-15, to which Boyd was late on the party of consultants, and helped narrowly avoid making it a variable-geometry (or swing-wing) fighter. According to his calculations, such equipment would add so much weight to negate the benefits in lift and reductions in drag earned by the ability to change the wing's shape. You'll notice that such an idea as quietly faded from current fighter aircraft prototypes.
The F-16, on the other hand, was a project that benefited substantially from Boyd's hand. Flying off against the YF-17 (what later became the Navy and Marine Corps' F/A-18 Hornet), the YF-16 prototype was far more maneuverable and efficient, benefitting gratuitously from only having a single engine, much to the chagrin of risk-averse planners that preferred a second engine in the event of an unlikely engine failure. Like the combat fly-off of the MiG-15 and the F-86, the F-15 on paper appeared to be the better fighter, but the F-16 retains its spot as the platform used by the U.S. Air Force's aerobatic demonstration team, the Thunderbirds. You can be the judge on what that means.
Edit: I received some great feedback from a friend, mentor, and extremely well-read Airman, Lt Col Matt Ziemann, on comparing the F-15 and F-16 as weapons systems. He acknowledged that the F-16 is more aerobatic and cheaper to fly, but just as the A-10 was built around the GAU-8 Avenger autocannon, the F-15 was built around a world-class radar system that - much like the modern F-22 - allows it to engage and dominate targets "beyond visual range" (BVR). The F-15 is still quite capable "within visual range" (WVR), but its goal is to strike targets before they become a threat. The F-16 is an incredible dogfighter, but lacking (at least initially) a similar BVR capability relegated it to a WVR role that has narrowed significantly as radar systems and missile technology continue to advance. This has allowed the F-15 to carry a staggering kill ratio of 104 to zero losses.
War as a Dynamic System
Boyd's OODA Loop represented a massive departure from most strategic theory. At the time (and even today), a lot of military strategy is rooted in the Prussian strategist's work, Carl von Clausewitz and his seminal work, Vom Krieg or On War. Clausewitz's primary preoccupation was on static facts and figures; how many troops and supplies, in what locations relative to the enemy. He relegated the unknowns to the Fog of War, which Leo Tolstoy painted in War and Peace quite literally as the smoke that clouds the field after the first volley of musket fire.
Boyd, on the other hand, considered conflict as a dynamic system, always evolving. In a sense, he viewed the entire conflict as a Fog of War and sought to improve his allies' ability to see through and analyze the fog while degrading his foes' ability to do the same. This is arguably one of the grandest departures in military thinking in hundreds of years. It is made all the more impressive that Boyd never published a single book on the subject. In true Air Force fashion, his ideas were encapsulated within a series of continually-evolving slide shows, at one point allegedly going on to upwards of 14 hours. That Boyd should have become a military luminary shortly after his 1975 retirement should surprise nobody. That it was primarily among the Marine Corps as a civilian is a certain shame to the Air Force.
Knowing a bit more about The OODA Loop, its background, and its myriad applications have made me a substantially better Airman. I've come to appreciate some of the finer elements of fighter aircraft design and implementation, but more importantly, I've come to realize just how important the speed of accurate intelligence is to achieving decision advantage. Intelligence is utterly key to ensuring the potency of one's OODA Loop; counter-intelligence and information operations are critical to the degradation of one's opponent. While this is an idea with sharply military applications, just as Sun Tzu has become required reading among private industry disruptors as an allegory for human conflict and negotiations, so should John Boyd's ideas.
As a humble amateur, I sometimes struggle with Boyd's theories and how to utilize them at a lower level. If you have successfully implemented OODA Looping strategies in your organization, let me know how!