Dr. James Holmes, a USNI Member and author of both articles and books at the Institute, has a series of posts over at his blog The Naval Diplomat about the strategic thinking of Colonel John Boyd and strategy in East Asia. As an occasional student of Boyd’s work, I always love reading thinkers who use his ideas to attack today’s challenges. Aviators are all aware of Boyd’s work because to this day we study the Energy/Maneuverability diagrams for our aircraft (which he discovered and first mapped as a Major) and those of our opponents to learn how to get the most out of our airframes. As Holmes outlines, Boyd is also the father of the OODA Loop, sometimes called The Boyd Loop. Starting at the tactical level, but also moving through the operational to the strategic, Boyd identified four phases that occur in any competition: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

Many people who have studied Boyd’s work focus on the speed element. Speed plays an important role in his thinking. He focuses on “fast transients” in a lot of his work, or the ability to move through the loop faster than your adversary. He suggests that success comes with the ability to change directions or adapt most quickly. The element of speed draws a lot of people in, from business strategists and writers to military strategists who suggest that out-speeding your opponent will result in a shock to their system that can end fighting quickly. However, this focus ignores an important question: Can you speed in the wrong direction?

Boyd students frequently debate which element of the OODA loop is the most important. Each one has a role to play, but without accuracy in each the speed of the cycle doesn’t necessarily matter. You could be speeding off a cliff. This all brings me to something that our esteemed blogger here at USNI, H. Lucien Gauthier, brought up a couple weeks ago…the perils of the information age. While his discussion took us in another direction, it got me thinking about the Boyd Loop and the networked navy.

The OODA loop continues unabated in today’s maritime environments. We continue to develop new TTPs and new weapon systems (and should continue to develop them), which help us Act. Sensor systems have ever increasing range, from BMD capable Aegis to unmanned systems that will take our sensor net out even further, which allows us to Observe. However, turning all of that observation into action becomes the trick. In my reading and experience, I think that orientation and decision have become the harder parts of the loop for today’s navies.
Building situational awareness (SA) is the link between observation and orientation. What is all that information telling us? The more information flows through the network, the harder it becomes for the individual, whether the TAO in Combat or the Captain on the bridge, to prioritize the information and decide which parts are important. What is it all telling me? Alfred Thayer Mahan warned that “headlessness of conditions, or recklessness of dangers, defeats efforts everywhere,” however in today’s networked maritime world we tend to look at ourselves as conduits of information, not the users. Pass the info in chat, make sure the Battlewatch is up to date on what’s going on, let them decide what is important. This creates two issues. First, we’ve now increased the flow up the chain of command and made it harder for them to know what is going on. Second, Officers and Sailors learn to pass the buck, move the decision up the chain, in a zero-defect world it’s so much easier to make your boss make the call, especially when she already has a 5000-mile-long screwdriver on the tool belt. The result is a lack of orientation, which leads to poor decisions made at the wrong level.

In his great article “The U.S. Navy’s Leading Edge,” in the September Proceedings, LT Kermit Jones points out that:

The advent of communication technologies such as email, chatting, and voice while under way has created a capacity for direct contact between much wider gaps in the chain of command than ever before. But the presence and integration of these technologies presents a difficulty in maintaining boundaries. It is harder to define or maintain decentralized command when the higher authority has immediate access to information and operational elements. This may be caused in part by the increased rate of information flow.

In our desire for speed through the OODA loop, are we causing our orientation to suffer? Are we sure we know what is happening? Jones also warns:

…there is a danger of breeding a generation of officers who do not process but simply pass along information. This raises questions about the knowledge level of current commanders. Specifically, if you don’t actually make decisions (because your simply a conduit of information) why study your craft?

So, if we don’t build our SA, or develop our own orientation, and we pass the decision making ever deeper through the chat rooms, how can we ensure that the Boyd Loop works properly? In naval circles the tendency toward technological determinism causes us to focus on the Observation and Action in the loop, because in those places our dominant technology gives us the asymmetric advantage. However, If the focus is on speed of the system, then there is a tendency to move from observation straight to action. But without orientation and decision making at the proper level you end up in the position of the French Fleet at The Battle of the Nile, as LT Jones describes in his article. Or you end up in CIC aboard USS VINCENNES while an Iranian airliner flies its daily scheduled flight.

The work of Colonel John Boyd gives us a great framework to assess naval operations in the 21st century. Our technological focus and desire for speed of operations are both things that a surface reading of Boyd would encourage. However, deeper study helps us to understand that each part of the Boyd Loop is important for success in naval combat.

[Photo credit U.S. Navy]

Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in Navy

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  • In his briefings in the 80s, he would talk about having done audit/reviews of large-scale wargames. He would characterize Admirals and Generals having spent all year playing golf while their staff practiced in the warrooms. When it came to the actual wargames, the Admirals&Generals lacked “finger-feel” for the flow of the wargames (situational awareness, dynamic flow of information and being able to orientate).

    He also used as an example being strongly opposed to adding heads-up display to the F16. The issue was that the engineers had displays of scrolling digital numbers in the displays … which was not synergistic with pilot operation … lots of pilot mental distraction attempting to convert the scrolling digital numbers into useful information.

  • Good post, BJ.

    The relationship between Observe and Orient in Boyd’s OODA is symbiotic—can’t do one without the other. I’m working on this relationship in my book, To Be or To Do, Considerations in Command (new working title).

    To Orient implies the power/freedom to position for competitive advantage (Boyd said, “survive on our terms)—the more agile, the better. This power is conveyed at the individual level by what we “see” (observe/insight/insight) day-to-day within our respective groups/commands. This insight shapes our ability or inability to effectively orient—-one reason, culture is vital in achieving a collective vision.

    I may do an expanded post of this line of thought latter in the week, thanks for sharing!

  • virgil xenophon

    The French sociologist Crozier, in his famous study of decision-making in the French Postal System (pre-computer age) observed that the people with all the information (the front-line operational staff) had no authority/flexibility to make timely decisions, while those higher-ups with the authority had no timely and/or accurate information. Crozier concentrated on the role of the function of “middle-management” as the vital “linking-pin” marrying information up the line with requisite authority and transmitting resultant decisions back down in a timely fashion. In the armed services said “middle-management” is best described as those at O-6 level in command of operational units (this is a very “scalable concept. e.g., down-scale, in the USAF fighter Wing the “middle management” types would be the O-5 squadron commanders, etc.) Sadly, with the advent of computerization and with the need in the nuclear age to concentrate all decision-making powers for authorization of nuke wpns release at the highest levels possible, the impetus has been to strive for the “flat” organizational structure shoving all decision-making to higher levels with the power of the computer giving the illusion of the omnipotence of higher command. But no one individual or small group/cadre of individuals
    can POSSIBLE evaluate the torrent of information now shoved upwards in a timely and/or intelligent manner. The thrust of the worry demonstrated here is, imho, HIGHLY justified. Generals today make decisions once made by Colonels; Colonels now decide things Majors used to and Captains now carry coffee. In WII during the Aleutian Campaign, because of wx and limited communications FOB B-24 Squadron Commanders and their own intelligence/ops staffs made their OWN decision as to which tgts would be selected, the ordinance mix, wpns fusing and time and manner(tactics) of attack. Today such an operational approach would be to think the unthinkable..

  • virgil xenophon

    PS: I should also comment about the effect modern communications has had on command authority by by the perversion of terminology and resultant location of command authority by citing the Pueblo incident. When the Pueblo came under attack the nearest “on-scene” (as defined by Naval regulation) commander with SOLE authority to assess the situation and authorize an armed response was a joint Naval/air component located in Tokyo. (Cong. hearings on Pueblo/EC-121 shootdown)

  • virgil xenophon

    And PPS to my original post. In WWII there were 26 yr-old USAF Lt Colonels.
    Just for perspective..

  • virgil xenophon

    Further perspective on the ossification of our command structure (which goes hand-in-hand with the history of technological advances, historically speaking,) is the fact that the year my cousin C.M. Talbott (Lt Gen-Ret) won the Bendix Air Race in an F-100C in 1955 @age 32 he had been an O-6 for three yrs..

  • from Boyd (linkedin) discussion: http://lnkd.in/9g2Ggz

    … free kindle book from 1846 … has lots & lots of minutia, but loc5019-20:

    A rapid coup d’oeil prompt decision, active movements, are as
    indispensable as sound judgment; for the general must see, and decide, and act, all in the same instant.

    … snip …

    followed by long discussion of lots of great conquerors started in
    their teens; that Napoleon started as officer in his teens as did many of his generals (and were still quite young) … most of the
    opposition was headed by generals in their 60s-80s …. does mention
    that Wellington was same age as Napoleon and studied at the same
    military schools in France.

    One of the stories from Iraq and Afghanistan is theoretical pushing decisions to lowest level as possible (something Boyd would repeat in briefings) … but reality was lot of hovering by higher-ups who believed they needed to avoid any blemish on their record to get promoted.

  • Mike M.

    It’s also worth noting that Nelson relied on total delegation of tactical decisions at both the Nile and Tralfalgar. He had communicated to his captains his tactical doctrine and battle plan…and gave them the freedom to use their initiative to ditch the battle plan if opportunity to execute doctrine more efficiently arose.

    The Battle of the Nile being the classic example. The tactical doctrine was to engage the French fleet in their anchorage, with two British ships engaging one French ship at an angle. When the British found the French had anchored far enough from shore to slip in, they grabbed the opportunity to sandwich French ships (a more efficient approach).

    I wrote an article on Nelson, Napoleon, and network-centric warfare. Never got published…but perhaps it was too far ahead of its time.

  • Hi Mike M.

    Your article sounds interesting. Would you consider posting on a blog?

  • One of things that Boyd would cite as example in briefings was Guderian’s “verbal orders only” … not only wanting person on the spot to make the decision … but not having to worry about needing a paper trail for cya afterwards. He would contrast it with US military rigid, top-down command and control infrastructure used in WW2 … (assuming only those at the very top knew what they were doing) relying on logistics and overwhelming resources. Boyd would then point out that military officers, returning to civilian life, were polluting US corporate operations with similar rigid, top-down command and control infrastructures … again assuming only the very top executives knew what they were doing … has been used more recently to explain enormous executive compensations.

  • Rob McFall


    I really enjoyed your blog post. Well done.

    It struck me that the Surface Navy in particular places a lot of emphasis on the Detect to Engage sequence and little on the OODA loop. I believe that we are too linear in our thinking. We are still focused on processing a single threat and going step by step through the sensors and weapon systems that can engage it. Although good to know, the threats to the surface navy are increasing and the time that we have to process information is decreasing rapidly. The better we understand Boyd the better we will be able to decrease our OODA loop and improve our ability to address the multitude of high speed threats that we could face.


    Rob McFall
    LT USN

  • I was very impressed with the way the 19th century UK responded to the Dervishes in the Sudan after Khartoum.

    Instead of an immediate “knee jerk” response there was a deliberate but very effective response that took years, building ships and a railroad before going back to wipe them out.

    Politics and the media now seem to demand immediate action, when maybe we should stop and consider. Is an immediate response really necessary? or wise?

    On the other hand if we don’t act quickly, will national will still support action or have they already moved on?

  • Mike M.

    I’d have to update the article, but I’d consider it.

  • Hi Mike M.,

    Drop me a note via my website when/if you’re ready, and we’ll see what we can do.

  • Herbal


    Good post. Acedotally looking back on time spent watching Fallon events or observing simulator events, I’d say that the ability to quickly and effective “Orient” was probably the most important skill in the cockpit or in “the tube.” Those who could digest the vast information on scopes or radios the fastest made effective (if not best) decisions. Again, just an observation.