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Osinga, Science, Strategy and War (XXI)

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Matt Domsalla

SAASS 600/14

Science, Strategy and War Precis

In Science, Strategy and War, Frans P.B. Osinga provides an analysis of the strategic thought development of John Boyd. Osinga explores Boyd’s professional background, the strategic and defense-political context of the US in the period during which Boyd developed his ideas, Boyd’s study of military theory and history, and Boyd’s involvement in the scientific developments and the scientific Zeitgeist during which Boyd developed his ideas on military strategy. Osinga then explores Boyd’s work (A Discourse, Organic Design for Command and Control, The Strategic Game of ? and ?, The Essence of Winning and Losing) through the contextual lends of Boyd’s background. Osinga concludes by arguing that Boyd’s work contains many more arguments and insights concerning successful strategic behavior beyond the OODA loop.

Data: Osinga, Frans P.B. Science, Strategy and War. (New York: Routledge, 2007)

Author: Frans Osinga is a Royal Netherlands Air Force Officer and F-16 pilot. He attended SAASS and completed the work while service as the Netherlands MoD Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in The Hague.




Central Proposition:

· OODA Loop – observation, orientation, decision, and action. War can be construed of as a collision of organizations going through their respective OODA loops, or decision cycles. War depends on the ability to out-pace and out-think the opponent. (1)

· “Boyd’s OODA loop concept, as well as his entire work are more comprehensive, deeper and richer than the popular notion of ‘rapid OODA looping’ his work is generally equated with.” (7)

Other Major Propositions:

· Boyd’s work shows richness in ideas and freshness in approach. Boyd covers tactical and operation level war fighting. He addresses a vision of the proper organizational culture of the armed forces. Organizations must be agile and adaptive to survive and prosper. (7)

· Value of Boyd’s work lies in great measure in the way he constructs his argument, in the sources that he uses and in the argument he develops concerning the nature of strategic thinking. He aimed to create a way of thinking, a thought process. (7)


· Internal Consistency and Comprehensiveness –defined, categorized, xplain, connect, complete?

· External Validity –

Comparison and Synthesis:


Personal Significance:


· “Like Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, [Boyd’s] work is more heard of than read or understood… the neat graphical depiction of the OODA loop had become the symbol of Boyd’s entire work, indeed it is often regarded as the concise representation of his ideas.” (5)

· “Boyd’s OODA loop concept, as well as his entire work are more comprehensive, deeper and richer than the popular notion of ‘rapid OODA looping’ his work is generally equated with.” (7)

· “Military theory is the aggregate of theories, doctrines, and beliefs belonging to a particular individual, community or period. It refers to the concepts, hypotheses, or principles developed by soldiers and civilians to solve military problems.” (9)

· “Strategy thus provides the conceptual link between action and effect and between instrument and objective. It is an idea. Strategy is a plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment.” (9)

· “Strategy is the essential ingredient for making war either politically effective or morally tenable. Without strategy there is no rationale for how force will achieve purposes worth the price in blood and treasure. Without strategy, power is a loose cannon and war is mindless.” (10)

· “If strategic theory offers better ways of explaining victories and losses it already has much utility for evaluation and policy making; if it can provide some measure of plausible conditional prediction that a certain mode of behavior will result in a higher probability of success, it is extremely useful. Theory assists in deciding whether and how to employ a particular strategy by offering an abstract conceptual model (or a quasi-deductive theory) of each strategy, and general knowledge of the conditions that favor the success of a strategy and conversely, the conditions that make its success unlikely.” (11)

· “General strategic theory educates politicians and commanders broadly as the nature, structure, and dynamic workings of the instrument to which they might have to resort. The chief utility of a general theory of war and strategy lies in its ability not to point out lessons, but to isolate things that need thinking about. It must provide insight and questions, not answers.” (12)

· “The common expectation of military strategic theory today… is to educate the mind by providing intellectual organization, defining terms, suggesting connections among apparently disparate matters, and offering speculative consequentialists postulates.” (12)

· “Strategic theory often has an impact on the formulation of strategy in the real world. Good theories provide relevant and useful conceptual frameworks by means of which to understand the general requirements of a strategy and the general logic associated with its effective employment. Such theoretical conceptual knowledge is critical for policy making.” (13)

· “Strategic theory is evolutionary in the sense that theories are developed that take into account novel actors, such as states or terrorist groups, new technologies such as tanks, aircraft or nuclear weapons, or phenomena such as the impact of the industrial revolution or the rise of mass emotions in nationalistically and ideologically inspired wars.” (13)

· “The contemporary social context determines what the actors, weapons, aims, norms, etc. are that are employed in a purposeful manner in war, and as this social context evolves, so does (or should) the strategic theory. Strategists have had difficulty abstracting themselves from the features of a given war or period, and identifying the lasting characteristics that would apply to all contexts and all periods. As a result their work generally reflects the war, or factors that affect it, as seen through the eyes of people living in their own time, imparting a contemporary color to their military thinking.” (13)

· “Strategic theory development does not follow a clear cumulative growth path in which new theories built upon former ones, improving the older ones or expanding their range of application. The reader, then, is left with an expanding number of partial theories, each of which has a limited range of applicability, be it bound by geography (continental, maritime, urban, jungle) dimension (air, land, sea), weapons technology and combat method (nuclear, terrorism, counter-insurgency, guerrilla), etc.” (14)

· The paradoxical nature of strategy and strategic theory reinforces the problematic nature of strategic theory… once such a generalization has been formulated and has become known to the persons whose behavior it attempts to predict, those persons may react in ways different from their past behavior, the observation of which justified the generalization… Precisely because a strategy worked once, it will likely be emulated or at least learned from , and subsequently strategists must devise new constructs and hypothesis that provide a plausible expectation for success… in matters of war, even if an underlying pattern is discovered and some level of predictability established, the paradoxical nature of strategy guarantees that the pattern will be altered.” (14)

· “The nature of war deeply affected the influential writers of the past two centuries. Clausewitz and Jomini were deeply affected by the drift towards total war… and their thinking is dominated by the role of the masses in war. The works of Liddell Hart, Fuller, Douhet and Mitchell reflect the trauma of World War I, the mechanization of the battlefield and the increasing and intensifying involvement of society in war, despite the fact that they develop different solutions to the problem of the vast destruction of modern war.” (15)

· “Specific strategic circumstances of the home country also affect the formation of strategic theory of an author. Clausewitz’s work is distinctly continental, reflecting both his experience and the Prussian geo-strategic predicament… Personal experience is particularly evident in the works of Clausewitz and Jomini…” (15 – 16)

· “According to Gat, ‘both [Clausewitz and Liddell Hart] reacted to cataclysmic and epoch-making wars which had resulted in a national trauma and profound intellectual transformation. In both, their experiences produced a violent reaction against past military theory and practice, held to be responsible for the disaster. Both advanced a new model of military theory, which they held universally valid and which involved an unhistorical approach to the special conditions that had determined the patter of the past. Both were not just ‘idly theorizing’ but developed and preached their ideas out of consuming commitment to their countries’ future.’” (16)

· “Dominant scientific currents, too, can, as part of a Zeitgeist, have a significant impact on the formulation of military theory… The ideal of Newtonian science excited the military thinkers of the enlightenment and gave rise to an ever-present yearning to infuse the study of war with the maximum mathematical precision and certainty possible, maintaining that the art of war was susceptible to systematic formulation, based on rules and principles of universal validity, which had been revealed in the campaigns of the great military leaders of history… In contrast, and in response, the Romantics stressed the complexity and diversity of human reality, which could not be reduced to abstract formulas and which was dominated by emotions, creativity, and the historic conditions of each period.” (16 - 17)

· “Pellegrini expects that the shift from the Newtonian framework of cause and effect determinism to the new science concept of probabilities and trends (as embedded in chaos and complexity theory), will change man’s concept of the battlefield, emphasizing the capability for rapid observation and action.” (18)

The seeds of a theory and the fertile soil

· Second Law of Thermodynamics – in a closed system the transfer of heat (energy) goes in one direction, from a high temperature to a low temperature… this change is non-reversible. (23)

· “EM theory revolutionized fighter design and cause some stir on the sides when first comparisons of US fighters with latest generation Soviet fighters indicated that the latter (MiG-17, -19, -21) possessed superior energy-maneuverability characteristics.” (23)

· “The notion of fast transient maneuvering as the key to winning was to remain with Body when he developed his thoughts on military success in general.” (25)

· “Goedel’s Proof, The Heisenberg Principle and the Second Law of Thermodynamics… posit… that we cannot determine the character and nature of a system within itself and efforts to do so will only generate confusion and disorder.’” (27)

· “When it comes to [Boyd’s] views on combat, he found inspiration in authors who are united in their focus on the mutual process of adaptation, on perception, on the mental and moral impact of one’s moves, feints and threats, and on achieving destabilizing effects throughout the enemy system instead of the more traditional focus on attritting the enemy in a prolonged head-to-head battle.” (29)

· “Fuller added that forces operating within these spheres [physical strength (fighting power), mental processes (thinking power), and moral will to resist (staying power)] did so in synergistic, not isolated, ways… paralysis should be the aim in war and the mental and moral dimensions should be the prime target of a military operation.” (32)

· “Boyd’s work can be easily understood as stranding in a direct theoretical line with that of Liddell Hart.” (35)

· “Sun Tzu… must be considered the true conceptual, albeit ancient, father of Boyd’s work.” (35)

· “[The Military Reform Group] rallied against the every-upward-spiraling complexity can costs of military equipment. Weapon development was not necessarily driven by sound operational requirements so much as by industrial interests and a faith in technology on the part of Pentagon officials.” (43)

· “A tendency existed to seek refuge in technology from hard problems of strategy and policy.” (43)

Science: Boyd’s foundation

· “Popper named his theory an ‘evolutionary epistemology.’ [He] claimed that growth of our knowledge is the result of a process closely resembling what Darwin called ‘natural selection,’ that is the natural selection of hypotheses: our knowledge consists, at every moment, of those hypotheses which have shown their (comparative) fitness by surviving in their struggle for existence; a competitive struggle which eliminates those hypothesis which are unfit.” (58)

· “Polanyi asserts that the individual changes, ‘adapts’, the concepts in the light of experiences and reinterprets the language used.” (59)

· “While Popper looked at scientific progress within a paradigm, Kuhn thus looked at scientific progress as a succession of paradigms.” (63)

· “The shift [with chaos theory] can be described as a movement away from a scientific world view entirely based on what are often and variously labeled Cartesian, Newtonian, linear, analytical, objectivistic, reductionist, deterministic or mechanical concepts, towards a focus on change, diversity, evolution, unpredictability, complexity, uncertainty, non-equilibrium and non-linearity.” (65)

· “According to Piaget, they all explain their subject in terms of systems or structures and in terms of processes of transformations that sustain these structure or systems; structure is a system of transformations; a structure is systematic whole of self-regulating transformations; there is no structure apart from construction, views entirely congruent with Boyd’s comprehensive OODA loop model.” (69)

· “Cybernetics focuses on how systems function, regardless of what the system is – living, mechanical, or social… the same general principles that controlled the thermostat may also be seen in economic systems, market regulation and political decision-making systems.” (72)

Completing the shift

· “The emergent theory characterized each species up the evolutionary chain as better adept at processing greater stores of information in shorter spans.” (86)

· “[Progoine noted] in certain chemical reaction… as the system moved farther away from equilibrium, it reached a critical point of instability, at which certain ordered patterns in the fluid emerged, such as hexagonal patterns. This was a spectacular example of spontaneous self-organization.” (89)

· “The point of chaos theory is that the fate of the system is determined by small factors, which become magnified over time. It is the fact that these factors are too many and too small to know that causes the system to be unpredictable.” (90)

· “Change is the result of perturbation beyond a boundary.” (91)

· “The move into the chaotic regime, to the bifurcation point, may also lead to a fatal perturbation that causes the system to disintegrate. Thus bifurcation also denotes a critical state in which the system either evolves or becomes extinct.” (92)

· “Autopoietic system are ‘organizationally closed’ in the sense that their order and behavior are not imposed by the environment but are established by the system itself. In other words, living systems are autonomous.” (93)

· “[Complexity theory] points to fundamental limits in our ability to understand, control and manage the world, and the need for us to accept unpredictability and change.” (96)

· “A schema has several functions: a description of an observed system, a prediction of events, or a prescription for behavior of the complex adaptive system itself.” (98)

· “Indeed, change, novelty and mismatches are what keep the evolutionary process going. IF the discovery of uncertainty was the start of the paradigm shift, the discovery of the essence of perpetual novelty may be considered one of the key themes of the Prigoginian era. Instead of chance and random mutation driving evolution, as classical Darwinist theory asserts, it is the capacity to learn, to propagate successful traits and schemata, and to recombine in novel relationships, that leads to the emergence of adaptation and evolution.” (103)

· “These key figures of postmodernism claimed that the modern mechanistic, reductionist and determinist worldview of Newtonian physics was giving way in the twentieth century to a new mode of scientific thinking based on concepts such as entropy, evolution, organism, indeterminacy, probability, relativity, complementarity, interpretation, multispectrality, chaos, complexity and self-organization.” (106)

· Giddens and structuration theory. “Agents act according to the structural factors that constrain them and they form structures by abiding by them, but also by changing them.” (108)

· “Deconstructionism acknowledges that the observer of social events and artifacts cannot possibly be objective, because he himself is entangled in a history, with particular prejudices, language with specific meanings, ritual and symbols etc, that color his perception.” (110)

· “While a society may be defeated militarily, deep cultural and political powers are almost immune to military force, short of prolonged occupation.” (120)

· “Strategic theory development is like the scientific enterprise, which is like the way organisms develop, modify, or discard schemata.” (122)

· Boyd’s metaphors – organic metaphor, armed forces as open systems. (124)

Core Arguments

· “Boyd departs form the rapid OODA loop idea in recognition of the fact that other factors come into play at the higher levels of war… [Boyd turns] his military theory into a general theory of strategy, or rather, a general theory of organizational survival.” (128)

· “The uncertainty values represent the inability to determine the character or nature (consistency) of a system within itself.” (137)

· “We can expect unexplained and disturbing ambiguities, uncertainties, anomalies, or apparent inconsistencies to emerge more and more often.” (138)

· Art of Success – shape or influence events so that we not only magnify our spirit and strength but also influence potential adversaries as well as the uncommitted so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success. (187)

Exploration and refinement

· “Only open systems can adapt adequately to change, so an organism needs to maintain interaction with its environment if it is to survive… In military organization this is the remit of the command and control system.” (189)

· Orientation – “his focus on interaction lies in their function: interactions in various forms are the glue that binds the various nodes of a social system together.” (192)

· “Restricting interaction, and loss of subsystem cohesion will lead to the organizational equivalent of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.” (195)

· “Orientation… is the most important part of the OODA loop since it shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act.” (197)

· Strategy is “a mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts, as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.” (217)

· “Not only do the statements representing a theoretical system for explaining some aspect of reality explain that reality inadequately or incompletely but, like it or not, these statements spill out beyond any one system and do so in unpredictable ways.” (222)

· “Without OODA loops embracing all the above and without the ability to get inside other OODA loops, we will find it impossible to comprehend, shape, adapt to, and in turn be shaped by an unfolding, evolving reality that is uncertain, everchanging, unpredictable.” (230)

· “Without the context of Orientation, most Observations would be meaningless.” (230)

· “Boyd’s work givens a novel interpretation of military history and strategic theory. Moreover, it deals with organizational culture and leadership and offers a new conceptualization of tactics, grand tactics, strategy and grand strategy, showing how systemic interaction and isolation is the name of the game of strategic behavior.” (233)

Completing the loop

· “For Boyd, uncertainty is the pervasive element of human endeavor, indeed it is the prime characteristic of life… so to his insistence that thinking strategically under such a condition requires a continuous combination of analysis and synthesis, induction and deduction, destruction and creation, and a multidisciplinary and multi-spectral approach.” (234)

· “The abstract aim of Boyd’s method is to render the enemy powerless by denying him the time to mentally cope with the rapidly unfolding, and naturally uncertain, circumstances of war, and only in the most simplified way, or at the tactical level, can this be equated with the narrow, rapid OODA loop idea.” (237)

· “The major overarching theme throughout Boyd’s work: the capability to evolve, to adapt, to learn, and deny such capability to the enemy.” (237)

· “Boyd searched not for one particular optimum, but instead acknowledged the contingent nature of war, and focused on the universal processes and features that characterize war, strategy, and the game of winning and losing.” (240 – 241)

· “[Boyd] introduced into strategic theory the concept of open complex adaptive systems struggling to survive in a contested, dynamic, non-linear world pregnant with uncertainty, constantly attempting to improve and update its schemata and repertoire of actions and its position in the ecology of the organization.” (241)

· “Boyd as the first postmodern strategist.” (242)

· “Postmodern war revolves around the importance of knowledge, situational awareness, exploiting information superiority and adopting network structures because of the inherent flexibility of such arrangements.” (243)

· “Avoiding casualties and destruction is a humanizing trend and the only way to maintain legitimacy for conducting combat operations.” (244)

· “A theory of great scope is one from whose premises many implications may be drawn. Theories that correctly account for many phenomena that had previously been poorly understood, or that adumbrate new paths to explanation, are obviously better than those that illuminate a very narrow range of questions, or questions to which we already have satisfactory answers.”(257)

· “Often the most important contribution a scientist can make is to discover a new way of seeing old theories or facts. A change of vision can usher in a whole climate of thinking in which many exciting and testable theories are born, and unimagined facts laid bare.” (257)

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