Saturday, December 05, 2015

Not So Fast! Boyd OODA Looping Is More Than Speed

The name "John Boyd" and the term "OODA Loop" are probably familiar to many of the readers of this blog. I've mentioned one or the other in 2006, 2007, 2009 (twice), and 2014. Boyd was a fighter pilot in the Korean war and revolutionized thinking on topics like fighter design and military strategy. His OODA loop -- an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act -- is the contribution that escaped from the military sphere into other fields of thought. In a world that has finally realized prevention eventually fails, the need for a different strategy is being appreciated.

I've noticed an increasing number of vendors invoke Boyd and his OODA loop as an answer. Unfortunately, they fixate on the idea of "speed." They believe that victory over an adversary results from operating one's OODA loop faster than an opponent. In short, if we do something faster than the adversary, we win and they lose. While there is some value to this approach, it is not representative of Boyd's thought and misses key elements of his contribution.

Before continuing I'd like to mention a recent talk on OODA within the security community that didn't fall into the "speed rules" trap. At the last Security Onion conference, Martin Holste presented Security Event Data in the OODA Loop Model. His spoken remarks reflected the issues I raise in this post, and for a hint in his Prezi material you see statements like "At higher levels, OODA speed is less important than accurate mental models." I was glad to see Martin avoid the speed trap in his talk!

The best reference for gaining a deep appreciation for Boyd's strategic thought is the book Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd by Frans P.B. Osinga. I have the Kindle and paperback editions. The Kindle version is readable, but you may have trouble with some of the tables and figures.

The following is a selection of quotes from the book, re-ordered, highlighted, and lightly edited to capture the author's message on properly appreciating Boyd and OODA.

[T]he common view that the OODA loop model, interpreted as an argument that victory goes to the side that can decide most efficiently, falls short of the mark in capturing the meaning and breadth of Boyd’s work...

The first misconception about the OODA loop concerns the element of speed. The rapid OODA looping idea suggests a focus on speed of decision making, and ‘out-looping’ the opponent by going through consecutive OODA cycles faster. This is not incorrect, indeed, Boyd frequently suggested as much, [however]...

Whereas rapid OODA looping is often equated with superior speed in decision making, Boyd employs the OODA loop model to show how organisms evolve and adapt.

[U]ncertainty as the key problem organisms and organizations have to surmount...

One may react very fast to unfolding events, but if one is constantly surprised nevertheless, apparently one has not been able to turn the findings of repeated observations and actions into a better appreciation of the opponent, i.e. one has not learned but instead has continued to operate on existing orientation patterns...

[T]he 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...

This points to the major overarching theme throughout Boyd’s work: the capability to evolve, to adapt, to learn, and deny such capability to the enemy...

It is not absolute speed that counts; it is the relative tempo or a variety in rhythm that counts. Changing OODA speed becomes part of denying a pattern to be recognized...

The way to play the game of interaction and isolation is [for our side] to spontaneously generate new mental images that match up with an unfolding world of uncertainty and change...

In order to avoid predictability and ensuring adaptability to a variety of challenges, it is essential [for our side] to have a repertoire of orientation patterns and the ability to select the correct one according to the situation at hand while denying the opponent the latter capability...

[In Boyd's words, one should] "operate inside [an] adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action loops to enmesh [the] adversary in a world of uncertainty, doubt, mistrust, confusion, disorder, fear, panic, chaos . . . and/or fold adversary back inside himself so that he cannot cope with events/efforts as they unfold...

[We should ask ourselves] how do we want our posture to appear to an adversary, i.e., what kind of mental picture do we want to generate in his mind?

Designing one’s defense on this basis is obviously quite a departure [from current methods].

My take on these points is the following: Boyd's OODA loop is more about affecting the adversary than it is about one's own operations. Our side should take actions to target the adversary's OODA loop such that his cycle becomes slower than ours, due to the adversary's difficulty in properly matching his mental images of the world with what is actually happening in the world. On our side, we want to be flexible and nurture a variety of mental images that better match what is happening in the world, which will enable more efficient OODA loops.

In brief, the OODA concept has a speed component, but it is much more about coping with perceptions of reality, on the part of the adversary and ourselves. This approach can be used offensively and defensively.

What might this look like in the security world? That is worth one or more future posts.

If you'd like to learn more, in addition to Osinga's book I recommend reading Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram and listening to the Pattern of Conflict videos on YouTube. All 14 parts occupy about 6 1/2 hours. I recommend extracting them to audio format and listening to them on a long drive or flight. I listened to them driving to and from the aforementioned Security Onion conference. There is really no substitute to listening to the master at work. It brings the books to life when you have Boyd's voice and mannerisms playing in your mind.

2 comments:

Charlie Meetze said...

I think a perfect example of this (affecting the 'adversary) was Gary Kasparov's famous defeat by IBM's Deep Blue. Gary was denied access to games played by Deep Blue leading up to the match. It was a critical error on Gary's part (probably due to money and ego) to go ahead with the match when IBM hadn't fulfilled that request which i believe they said they would beforehand. I am fascinated by this concept of OODA (which was unknown to me before your post) and am thinking about the integration of it with 'security'. I have read a few attempts online but am still unsatisfied. But that may be because it is so fresh in my mind.

Anonymous said...

Highly interesting topic.

Sooo ... mental picture I'd like to generate in their minds?

I'd love the bad guys already having reported to their bosses
that everything is going smoothly, wait some more until the
bosses have reported it to their bosses, and then spoil
their fun. Spoil it badly, very badly.

Sadly, the information needed for this timing is hard to come by.