Saturday, January 29, 2011

Maneuver Warfare: A Wargamer's Notebook - OODA Cycles - A Brief Intro

This series of blog entries are about the so-called "maneuver warfare" as explained by William Lind. The writings of Robert Leonhard will also be included. I claim neither expertise in the subject nor devotion to this way of waging wars and thus I am not trying to convert you into anything. This series is not an analysis or a review of all ideas about maneuver warfare but rather some explorations about the topic based on computer war games and simulations. Future entries will be delivered based in readership.

Veni, vidi, vici.
Shortest OODA cycle ever.
As the theories of other influential military thinkers, the thoughts of John Boyd are commonly summed up in a short catch word or phrase. In this case, the OODA loop. Not much of a loop but rather a cycle, OODA cycles are the central piece of Boyd's theory and the very foundation stone of the maneuver warfare school of thought.

OODA is an acronym for:

  • Observation
  • Orientation
  • Decision
  • Action
These are the steps any entity in a competitive environment has to go through in order to gain an advantage over a rival. The OODA cycles of competing entities affect each other, as each entity will be starting a cycle based in the actions of the other. In general the entity with the fastest cycle will win, but not all is about speed. The maneuverist seeks not only to speed up his OODA cycles but to frustrate the efficiency and the output of his opponent's cycle. In an ideal situation, one could eventually force the opponent into OODA cycles that generate actions more and more inadequate. Think of the judo martial art, where the energy of every punch thrown at you is used   against the other guy, but with the addition of forcing the other guy to throw certain punches at a certain sequence that you know you can use to complete his defeat.

The OODA cycle is a deep and far reaching concept. In the present day is used in almost every competitive environment, including business. Unfortunately is often trivialized and misinterpreted. I already mentioned the popular interpretation of it as a "loop" rather than a cycle. For a complete discussion please check Science, Strategy and War by Frans Osinga (the most complete study of Boyd's military theories). A link to this book is provided below.

No less important than the ideas themselves are the ways these come to life. John Boyd's life and the origin of his ideas are described in Robert Coram's biography (link provided below). Boyd's intellectual pursuit on land warfare originated from the following observation about the kill ratios during the air war over Korea: the Mig-15's specifications (ceiling, max speed, thrust, climb rate, etc) toped the ones of the F-86 Sabre, yet the Sabres shot down more Migs.

The quest for the answer to this question is really fascinating. By this time, Boyd was perfecting his energy maneuverability theory (a theory about air combat that is another outstanding contribution) but the numbers from that theory favored the Migs. It had to be the men flying those aircrafts. Training? Nah, the North-Koreans were not bad fighter pilots and their training was almost identical to the one of the Soviets. Boyd's interpretation of the kill ratios was that the F-86 pilots could see better (the F-86 canopy had a better field of view) and change maneuvers faster because of the hydraulic controls of the aircraft (the Mig-15 had sluggish controls that resulted in a delayed aircraft response). In short, the F-86 pilots could see better (observe, orient, decide) and have their aircraft to respond faster to their decisions (action). A shorter OODA cycle.

These ideas are so deep that a whole dedicated blog would just scratch the surface. For the sake of brevity, I will just leave to you the task of exploring them. But please comment for inaccuracies above, ideas that you want to add just plain fun of discussion.

And now, let's go for some fun themed along the lines of the paragraphs above. Stay tuned.



Dimitris said...

You should see something about OODA cycles from us at some point :)

JC said...

Hi Dimitris!

You have me intrigued now. Expand that comment, please. :)