OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop is the foundational concept which provides insight into successful conduct of all levels of war. It was discovered and described by United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd. He had the brilliance of mind to take something such as war which has been treated previously as an art and quantify it. Throughout history the human kind has been using OODA loop without realizing that they were doing it. All of the successful principles of war rely on the OODA. The best way to describe it would be as follows. Before Boyd’s OODA Loop all discussions of successful conduct of warfare would describe the effects of different principles of war without truly understanding why they were successful. As an example throughout history it is an accepted principle of war to attack the adversary’s flank in order to defeat them. It seems to make sense instinctively but why it truly works is the reason OODA loop is so important. With in-depth understanding of the OODA Loop one can see why that tactical maneuver is successful.
The discussion that follows is my interpretation of John Boyd’s Loop. All the credit is his. The OODA Loop itself consists of four different steps. Those steps being Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. The loop itself represents human decision process preset during conflict. The same processes are also present in everyday activities such as sports, business, and etc. However, for the purposes of this discussion the OODA loop will be limited to warfare.
The loop runs as follows. First, the person observes something happening. Once the person observes the event, he/she then orients what the event is. That is, recognizes what the occurrence is. Then, once the observer recognizes the event the next part is to decide what to about it. After the decision is made the last part is the actually act. After the act is done the loop returns back to Observe to see if the action was successful. This is what is would look like Observe -> Orient -> Decide -> Act -> Observe and so on in perpetuity until the task is accomplished. The key to the loop is that any break in chain will lead to task failure. In addition someone whose ability to close the OODA loop is faster will prevail over someone whose OODA loop is slow.
Observe is the first and key step. Without observation it is impossible to run the rest of the loop. Think of two boxers in a ring and one of them has a blindfold on. How well do you think he would perform without being able to observe his opponent? Observation could be something as simple as using your eyes to something as complicated as satellite surveillance. It can be visual, electronic, radar, or something yet to be invented. Understanding the need to observe first and observe correctly is important in that it should guide the training of the armed forces responsible for observations.
Sometimes observation disparity is clearly obvious. The drones over Afghanistan and Iraq observe the enemy with ease. While on the other hand the enemy does not come close to having the same capability. However on the ground the roles are reversed. The enemy observes US forces at will, while the US forces have trouble doing the same. They can’t tell by looking at a civilian if he is an insurgent or not. While the armored vehicles and uniforms of US and coalition forces make observation of their actions easy. In a major war between near competitors the means of observation could be close in capability. Therefore the side that can observe and prevent the enemy from observing its actions through as many means as possible will be able to run a faster loop and create conditions for success.
Orient is the second step in the loop. Orient is nothing more than understanding of what the observation is. There are a number of ways this can happen. The least probable is that the observer will intuitively understand what they observe. Think of someone who has a natural talent, such as a hall of fame professional quarterback. To say the least it is highly unlikely that the armed forces of any nation will consist only of such individuals. Just like no pro football team has a roster with just hall of fame players.
Rather it is training which allow for someone to build the ‘muscle memory’ to respond to any situation. Such training must be realistic and thorough. The most important part of the learning will take place during the after action debriefing. This must be conducted to get to the root cause of success or failure with no white washing. The feelings of the participants should not be considered in the search for root cause of why something did not go as planned. Depending on cultural influences that last step could be impossible for some cultures, where saving face takes precedence over figuring out what went wrong.
Training cannot be overemphasized. Just giving someone a weapon does not make them a soldier. Training is what makes that person with a gun or an airplane an effective soldier or fighter pilot. Training is not conducted for its own sake, but rather to build that memory of observed problems and solutions. This memory then can be used to orient correctly when a similar problem is observed during combat.
The next step in the OODA loop is Decide. Decide by itself is a straight forward concept. The true challenge comes in insuring the decisions are delegated to the lowest possible level of command. What this means is that in the high intensity of combat operations the force that can react quickly to the changing situation and respond will achieve its objectives. The way US Air Force describes it is: centralized control, decentralized execution.
The most effective decisions can and do occur at the lowest level of command. It is transferable across all services. The culture that promotes individual initiative has to be established and trained to. The German auftragtaktik or mission command is a prime example of this low level decision making. It involves the commander setting the mission objectives and letting the subordinates execute the mission. The commander uses specific objective, without using specific directions on how to achieve those objectives. Therefore, the lowest level commander is the one making the decisions in real time and in response to changing conditions that he/she observes.
This low level decision making, when compared to the adversary whose decision making is restricted to higher echelons of command, is the key to getting inside of the adversary’s OODA loop. This is the reason professional non-commissioned officers are always mentioned as the keystone of any successful military organization. There is nothing surprising there, as the NCOs that can make decisions at their level allow for a faster organizational OODA loop and by extension a successful mission accomplishment.
No decision can be perfect; however as long as one is made quickly and in accordance with mission objectives in mind the loop is continued.
The act portion is the final part of the OODA loop. Once a decision has been made the next step is to act. This part consists of both the physical ability to act and the mental willingness to act.
The physical ability to act is straight forward. One either can or cannot act against the adversary. The insurgents in Afghanistan can hear there are coalition fighter aircraft flying overhead. However, lacking any credible air defense, there is nothing they can do to prevent coalition from employing air power. In a major combat operations there a similar examples. An infantryman with a rifle can do nothing against a tank. An armored division without air defenses cannot defend itself against adversary air assets. A coast guard cutter cannot engage a guided missile cruiser.
The other part of the act comes from mental ability to do so. The ability to act is inherent in mission command as mentioned previously. As the decision making and authority to act is delegated to the lowest level the OODA loop is accelerated. The organizational structure has to be set up so that the mental ability to act is nurtured and rewarded.
Those leaders who can and do act without constant supervision should be promoted, while those who cannot should not. It does not mean they can’t serve, just that can’t serve as combat commanders. This is a two way street. If the higher echelon leaders do not allow the lower levels of command to act in accordance with mission command, then the top level commander has to be removed from command. What such micromanaging leaders do is slow down the OODA loop and therefore risk mission failure against an opponent that does not do so and can react faster.
Unfortunately since WWII the US military has been reluctant to remove high level combat leaders from command, despite their failures. Think General Franks and the failure to plan for post combat ops in Iraq or the US officers responsible for building the Iraqi army. All were probably promoted despite the fact that the army fell apart during first major combat against ISIS. The US would be better served if someone was held accountable for those failures.
Combined together the OODA loop is an exceptional way to describe why an operation at any level of war can succeed. The simplicity of Boyd’s loop and its ease of application is truly nothing short of amazing. Any operator or leader should try to understand and internalize the loop to guide them in the execution of their mission, whether it is a squad level combat patrol or or multi-corps major combat operation.