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Boyd: A Discourse on Winning and Losing

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John R. Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, (1987)Edit

Context: Hammond writes about Boyd’s accomplishments in aviation and especially on war theory. As a fighter pilot, Boyd begins his interest in winning, first in dogfights (tactical level), then at the strategic level. As he progresses in the military, he becomes singularly focused on war and uses his theory to fight the bureaucracy associated with aircraft development and acquisition.

Thesis: Observe – Orient – Decide – Act: insight and vision to unveil the adversary’s plans; focus and direction to achieve aims; adaptability to cope with uncertainty; security to remain unpredictable; ORIENT IS SUPREME!


First Presentation, Slide 185: “Evolve and exploit insight/initiative/adaptability/harmony together with a unifying vision, via a grand ideal or an overarching theme or a noble philosophy as a basis to: Shape or influence events so that we not only amplify our spirit and strength but also influence the uncommitted or potential adversaries so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success.”

Third Presentation, Slide 51: “Shape or influence the moral-mental-physical atmosphere that we are part of, line in, and feed upon so that we not only magnify our inner spirit and strength, but also influence potential adversaries and current adversaries as well as the uncommitted so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success.”

1. Energy-Maneuver Theory (Specific Energy Rate)—pilots must think in terms of energy levels.

a. Recognize the difference in energy levels between you and your opponent.

b. Also, use this to develop future aircraft that can shift from offense to defense faster than your enemy’s aircraft—F-15/16.

2. Patterns of Conflict brief—His war theory that used analytical reasoning to guide actions/decisions.

a. Boyd’s war theory is a confluence of theories from thermodynamics, systems and mathematics (Gödel), uncertainty/indeterminacy (Heisenberg)

b. Developing new ideas requires analysis, then synthesis, which leads to creativity.

i. Analysis (Deduction) - reducing to constituent parts
ii. Synthesis (Induction) - forming a new "whole" from discrete parts
iii. Ex, differentiation, and then integration

c. Use uncertainty as a weapon, select the must unlikely action

d. Strategy: Penetrate the adversary’s moral, mental and physical being to dissolve his moral fiber, disorient his mental images, disrupt his operations, and overload his system. This action destroys enemy’s internal harmony, producing paralysis, which collapses the adversary’s will to resist.

e. Boyd highly influenced by Sun Tzu .

f. Became the foundation for speed and maneuver theory, which seeks to keep the enemy “off balance” in actions. USMC adopted Boyd’s theories as the foundation of fighting.

3. OODA Loop—Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

a. Purpose was to operate inside your enemy’s decision timeline.

b. The most important step is orientation.

c. The OODA loop has embedded feedback mechanisms. It is not the one-dimensional four-point list that we have been taught in previous PME, i.e. it is complex. See diagram pg 190.

d. Reorient your way of thinking during/in any dynamic environment

4. Views on technology—Technology used to reinforce desired behavior and not drive it. Thus, start with people, ideas, and then technology .

Class Notes:

· Isolate enemy and orient your thinking in an ever changing environment

· Dr. Winton argues that Boyd falls short of creating a full theory because he never tests the null hypothesis

o Boyd considered his presentation to be a full theory

Implications for Strategy

Boyd and adaptation

Perhaps no military theorist seized on the implications of complex adaptive systems as closely as John Boyd, a US Air Force fighter pilot who literally wrote the book on modern aerial combat, and later took his insights to propose more general theories of war in a series of informal written abstracts and presentations.[1] John Boyd also saw the world as a series of interactions between adaptive systems, describing the “the nitty gritty” reality of a world that is “uncertain, everchanging, unpredictable”, admonishing those who resisted this with the following: “There is no way out… That’s the way it is guys. Sorry.”[2] His method for conceptualizing this adaptation is popularly known as the OODA loop, a model whose merits are described by Colin S. Gray in Modern Strategy:

The OODA loop may appear too humble to merit categorization as a grand theory, but that is what it is. It has elegant simplicity, an extensive domain of applicability, and contains a high quality of insight about strategic essentials, such that its author well merits honorable mention as an outstanding general theorist of strategy.”[3]

The OODA loop, shown here in Boyd’s own graphic, is not actually a loop, but rather an open system that allows for continuous reframing of one’s concept of one’s self, the opponent, and the environment: [4]


Boyd's OODA Loop

According to Boyd, “The most important part of that OODA loop is the orientation. It’s the driver, it’s the Schwerpunkt, it’s the key.” [5] In Boyd’s formulation, the only way to survive as an actor in competition with other adaptive actors in a complex, often chaotic environment was not only to react faster than one’s opponents, but to adapt one’s mental model of the world faster as well. As analyzed by Antoine Bousquet in The Scientific Way of War, Boyd concept is not merely a cybernetic loop, but rather a model of an adaptive organism,

“Indeed it is crucial to note that when Boyd talks about a ‘quicker OODA ‘loop’’, he does not simply mean cycling through the sequence of observation-orientation-decision-action faster but rather is referring to all cross-referencing connections that make OODA into a complex adaptive system.” [6

Thus, for Boyd, the crucial function of his “Conceptual Spiral” and included OODA loop is the capacity of an adaptive system or individual for “Destruction and Creation”, in other words, the ability to reject outdated mental models of the world, and replace them with better ones to drive your reactions to both a completing opponent and a changing environment.[7] In Boyd’s own words, “You have to learn how to unlearn too. People who can’t unlearn, we call them dinosaurs, because they can’t relearn…The Conceptual spiral... is a paradigm for survival and growth…The name of the game is to survive and grow.” [8]According to Boyd, OODA is a “development loop”, not a decision loop. [9] This assertion is perhaps best explained by Bousquet:

A closer look at the diagram of the OODA ‘loop’ reveals that orientation actually exerts ‘implicit guidance and control’ over the observation and action phases as well as shaping the decision phase. Furthermore, ‘the entire ‘loop’, (not just orientation) is an ongoing many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection ‘in which all elements of the ‘loop’ are simultaneously active’. In this sense, the OODA ‘loop’ is not truly a cycle and is presented sequentially only for convenience of exposition (hence the scare quotes around ‘loop’). [10]

Thus, Boyd was the first military theorist to talk explicitly about looking at warfare under the lenses of complex adaptive systems, even if the terminology hadn’t caught up with him yet.

[1] Capt. US Air Force John Boyd, "Aerial Attack Study" (Nellis AFB: United States Air Force, 1964, photocopied). [2] John Boyd, "The Conceptual Spiral," speech delivered to Air University Students and Faculty, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL, video , (accessed 16 April, 2010). [3] Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 91. [4] John Boyd, presentation, The Essence of Winning and Losing. [5] John Boyd, "The Conceptual Spiral," speech delivered to Air University Students and Faculty, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL, video , (accessed 16 April, 2010). [6] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 195. [7] John Boyd, "Destruction and Creation" (Unpublished Abstract: , 1976, typed). [8] John Boyd, "The Conceptual Spiral” " [9] John Boyd, "The Conceptual Spiral [10] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 188-189.

  • OODA is a great concept for command and control.
  • When taken at the strategic level, application of the OODA loop is effective. However, it relies heavily on accurate intelligence. It does provide room for allowing the enemy to have a vote.

General/Specific views on war: Physically, mentally, and morally faster than the enemy. Karl Godel =observe from outside the system; Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle=can’t know position and speed at the same time (measurement problem); Entropy =low potential for doing work. Thus, build your OODA, destroy your enemy’s OODA; don’t use hierarchical C2, use distributed C2 (command them, then let them do their work).

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