Round and Round the OODA Loop: Folk Boyd and the Brexiters

So we’re having a moment about John Boyd:

If this was an adequate summary of Boyd’s ideas there wouldn’t be much point quoting him. Do what the enemy doesn’t expect? Huh, I never. Do stupid things faster with more energy, as the caffeine joke goes? As Adam Elkus said on twitter, “Folk Boyd” theorising rarely amounts to more than pulling a giant wheelie and collapsing dead on the pavement. Boyd, who I blogged about at length here, was much more subtle than that, and this is why anyone bothers to remember him.

Perhaps the best way to address this is to discuss what Boyd did not advise. His celebrated Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop is usually taken to mean that he advocated taking decisions and moving to action quickly in order to get ahead of your opponent. This is the basis of much of the folk Boyd thinking I was mocking. But he very much did not argue for a rush to judgment. The most important element of the loop is the orientation bit, the process of integrating your observations into a coherent model of the world, and as he refined the concept, this tended to grow until it overshadowed the loop itself. The late-model graphic I used in the 2015 book review above is a case in point. Someone who is oriented is able to act in the moment, intuitively, and get it right; this isn’t the case of someone who is merely hurrying or throwing out disconnected tactical wheezes. Boyd spent a lifetime trying to identify the sources of such orientation.

Boyd’s other enduring idea, the energy-manoeuvrability concept, is harder to generalise than OODA because unlike it, it’s well-specified and defined in terms of measurable physical quantities. For the same reasons, it has probably had more practical consequences. It’s important, though, to take the two ideas together. In Boyd’s fighter aircraft, some manouevres (those involving positive G, like climbing or turning) expend the available kinetic energy and some (straight line acceleration, any dive) regain it. More available energy therefore means more potential manoeuvres, and therefore more options. At any time during combat, the party in a higher energy state has an advantage. Boyd reasoned from this that you could design for an advantage by maximising the aircraft’s ability to regain energy once spent – if you can easily add more energy, you are freer to use it, and critically in the context of the OODA loop, to recover from mistakes or surprises.

I’m fairly sure nobody will still be reading after that chunk of certified Boy Stuff, but if anyone is, the point I am driving at here is that Boyd’s thinking was certainly not an argument for “move faster and break things” or anything that glib. If OODA can be construed (but only superficially) as a case for action, now, E-M is all about the cost of action.

It’s difficult to apply this to politics, because politics is not an aeroplane. What is “energy” in a political context? It is actually easier in business terms – the analogy to capital is fairly obvious and you can count that in pounds sterling.

An important distinction that emerges from the combination of the two, though, is between actions that can be easily reversed and ones that cannot. In some sense, the first are in the realm of OODA (“why not try this? we can always try something else”) and the second in E-M (“if we do that, we won’t have the energy to go back on it, so we better be sure we’re right”). Another important point is that a decision not to respond is still a decision. A consistent Boydian can very well choose to ignore an opponent’s initiatives and economize energy. If you want a political example, the so-called dead cat strategy can be defined in these terms as a deliberately irrelevant decision intended to cost the opponent energy (and this is good advice).

The third big Boydian theme is his wider views on the nature of knowledge. I can almost hear the groan now. If anything lends itself to poorly defined maunderings, this would be it. One common theme in people’s efforts to apply Boydian ideas to reality, though, is that they underestimate how difficult it will be to reconstitute a coherent model of reality having successfully exploded the previous one – how many trips around the OODA loop it will take to cope with the chaos you have yourself unleashed.

2 Comments on "Round and Round the OODA Loop: Folk Boyd and the Brexiters"


  1. (My god, I realise this is a scattered bunch of thoughts… but that’s what you get early in the morning.)

    If you want a Boyd influenced but actually quite well though through setup to think about various states of a system and actions therein you can do worse than look at Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework.

    Your last point is very important I think in regards to entropy and systems. You can only having a meaningful discussion about blowing up the current system to build a new one if you have a solid understanding of just how much energy you’re going to need to do that rebuilding.

    My basic disagreement with the Cummings wing has always been that they have no clue how much energy is going to be needed under their scheme, nor where that would come from. (see also Lexiters). This is not a “this is impossible” critique, it’s a basic (some would say Iraq War style) critique that says “so… what is the plan exactly and where will the resources come from.)

    Incidentally, as I write this, I realise that the lesson much of the UK Left learned from Iraq was “We were morally correct.” But the lesson I wish they had learned was “going light on the planning and resourcing leads to bad things.” i.e. Both for Lexit & Iraq the goals, while unlikely, were not intrinsically impossible, but refusal to try some planning was basically a wheeze to avoid facing up to the fact of the size of resources required to achieve them.

    Coming back to Boyd, people continually forget that he was an air guy. That’s why OODA enthusiastically translates down to tactical activity (hence the embrace at a certain level of US infantry ops, arguably sometimes Division, but mostly below) but has always sat uneasy higher up because somewhere “strategy” and “goals” have to be brought into the process. Boyd I feel tended to think of all this (emergent and pre-existing) in terms of Orientation, hence his emphasis there, but never quite fleshed it out. In air war, the goals are usually fairly clear as the strategy of sorties is bound by all sorts of logistics on both sides.

    Which leads I think to the key question: are the goals of (eg) Cummings and Johnson actually the same, or are there mismatches which can be exploited? Which, perhaps, is to say their collective “Orientation” phase has tensions and that’s maybe where their loop can be disrupted.

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  2. “Incidentally, as I write this, I realise that the lesson much of the UK Left learned from Iraq was “We were morally correct.” But the lesson I wish they had learned was “going light on the planning and resourcing leads to bad things.” i.e. Both for Lexit & Iraq the goals, while unlikely, were not intrinsically impossible, but refusal to try some planning was basically a wheeze to avoid facing up to the fact of the size of resources required to achieve them.”

    In my view, anyone doing a realistic planning exercise for Regime Change would conclude “Don’t do it”. The chances of the required resources being available to rebuild the basic institutions of a new regime would always be small while the risks would always be high. You’re right though to say that the refusal to plan is basically a wheeze to avoid facing up to the enormous challenges of creating a new regime. (And meanwhile some people obviously get a lot of pleasure out of denouncing others as “Assadists” etc. which wouldn’t be possible if you were thinking about the tangled web of different conflicts in Syria in 2019.)

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