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6 min read

OODA Loop: A Blueprint for the Evolution of Military Decisions

OODA Loop: A Blueprint for the Evolution of Military Decisions
Part 6 of the JADC2 Blog Series

We welcome guest blogger Alison Buchanan, Director, Communications at David Pratt & Associates

Colin Gray once described the late U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) diagram as having an “elegant simplicity, with an extensive domain of applicability and contains a high quality of insight about strategic essentials”.  The OODA “loop” has now become a well-established blueprint for evolving decisions. However, Boyd’s thoughtful diagram is not at all the same as today’s simplified, circular, closed and iterative version of an OODA “loop”. 

With the large volume of data that is currently collected and integrated to create today’s intelligence, the end result begins to more closely mimic Boyd’s sophisticated diagram of evolving decisions, rather than the more anodyne loop version. The former is a blueprint for complex, speedy and evolving decisions, while the latter is arguably a representation of cyclical repetitions of decision points. 

In 1933, the educational philosopher John Dewey  argued that learning was an ongoing, active and collaborative process, where understanding is shaped by experience and experience feeds future understanding in a never-ending but irregular wave, of the kind generated artificially through sigma equations, such as: 𝜁 = ∑𝐴𝑛 𝑠𝑖𝑛(𝜔0𝑛𝑡 − 𝑘𝑛𝑥 ∙ 𝑐𝑜𝑠𝛽𝑛 − 𝑘𝑛𝑦 ∙ 𝑠𝑖𝑛𝛽𝑛 − 𝜀𝑛 ). Rather than a wave generated by random data, John Boyd initially envisioned a Hegelian cycle of decision-making, which he labelled Creation and Destruction in his 1976 essay of the same name.  This essay, Boyd’s self-described alpha and omega, lacked any illustrative sketch. His 20-year evolution from that point led to his single illustration in a 1996 presentation of the now famous OODA diagram, initially known as the “Boyd Cycle”.  In short, decisions are not a straight line or a circle – they are very complex and irregular. Boyd’s diagram attempted to capture this complexity in a graphic that could illustrate the decision-making cycle in its simplest terms. 

In a way, Boyd’s journey toward the production of the OODA diagram was a real-life version of the OODA paradigm itself. Experience and feedback from peers and students constantly informed and shaped his thinking. From his nascent ideas about winning and losing in a competitive environment where survival is the dominant imperative, Boyd adapted philosophy, game theory and evolutionary theory to military strategic thinking. Boyd occupied a position as a maverick and vocal critic of the Air Force, and was widely scorned by them throughout his years of service.


Figure 1.  Colonel John Boyd’s graphic of his OODA Loop

The modern OODA-for-dummies version is very different, based on an adapted and simplified version of the graphic from Boyd's 1996 presentation called “Winning and Losing”.  The illustration above in Figure 1 is the only visual representation of OODA as drawn by Boyd.  Note that this was not called a “loop” at this time.  As such, it represents very clearly the layered complexity of what Gray described as a “grand theory”, on a par with the great strategies and theories of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. Frankly, the simple loop version does not do it, or military decision-making, justice. 

Boyd's version is a more sophisticated paradigm, taking into account multiple levels of experience, knowledge and what we might now call evolving plasticity. This is exactly what a data connectivity framework like the Data Distribution Service (DDSTM) standard aims to do, which is to enable the aggregation of data and to orient intelligence within existing and developing algorithms of interpretation, dependent on a subscriber’s level of need and historical and immediate experience. As the outcome of a complex and very dense philosophy-based essay about how humans seek to impose order on chaotic situations, Boyd's version acknowledges the complexity and dynamic nature of data and information, as well as the fluidity and individuality of the orientation process. This is dependent not just on incoming data, but also on data already held and observed, and on the algorithm or human doing the orienting. All of this will influence the decision, which will in turn change the data flowing in.  The current Sense, Make Sense, Act process currently used by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) shown in Figure 2 below more closely maps to Boyd’s original thinking.

Figure 2. Detailed Sense, Make Sense, Act Loop: Accelerating the decision-making process

Modern defense systems ingest data in real-time from a range of sources into information management systems, which provide real-time intelligence into multiple “orient” processes. Various questions arise: What can we infer from this data and derived intelligence?  Should we act?  Is an adjustment required? What is the enemy thinking? How does this correlate with existing data and past intelligence? This then creates a foundation of knowledge to enable ongoing intelligent  decisions (should/can/how do we act?). Shaping the action is much more complicated than a simplified OODA loop. Equal weight should not be given to each aspect. The action part is largely uncomplicated, but has repercussions for the data situation. For these reasons, Boyd's sketch above relates much more closely to actual combat situations than the simplified version. 

Evolving to a Data-centric Real-Time Environment  

Today’s fighting forces need  more sophisticated decision-making tools than those implied by the simple anyone-can-download-and-apply version of OODA. These tools require a software connectivity framework that enables the rapid delivery and integration of a high volume of complex and diverse data. This connectivity framework could then transform this data into a quantity of information and instantly makes it usable, scalable, integratable and interoperable in a dynamic, fluid and evolving real-time environment. The simplified loop only goes in one direction, and although it flows from one section into the other, it is sequential and neither interactive nor dynamic. Therefore, it is a closed system. There is no 3D aspect to the simplified loop, whereas multi-dimensionality is implied in the original.

“Data is the new oil”, said mathematician Clive Humby in 2006. Not useful in its raw state, but with the potential for yielding global power in its refined form, data and its derived intelligence drive almost every aspect of our modern lives. Modern life finds us inundated with information that is tailored to our exact needs to deliver diverse experiences. Nowhere is the need to assess a multiplicity of data rapidly, accurately and repeatedly more important and pressing than in a theatre of operations. In Boyd’s era, when he was developing his thinking, data may have moved more slowly, but it was no less complex. He originated the Aerial Attack Study, which revolutionized a fighter pilot’s understanding of his environment based on data. In addition,he co-opted a civilian mathematician to formulate the Energy-Manoeuvrability theory to redefine the design of fighter aircraft. Data was central to all Boyd’s thinking, and his vision of a  data-centric fighting force absolutely aligns with the evolution we are seeing today. 

Endpoint systems of learning in which knowledge acquisition is a linear process, even if it is presented as a circle, are not sufficient to ensure battlefield superiority. Compare the simplicity of the equation for graphing a circle (x – h)2 + (y – v)2 = r2 to the complexity of producing ongoing irregular waves as in the equation above. It is evident that in a data-centric world that is both rapidly changing and globally integrated, linear knowledge acquisition could be fallacious and fatal. A constant evolution of learning through a rapid process of assessing and interpreting data in real time is necessary for survival. Military operations are never a simple loop, regardless of time. No one who has engaged in combat doubts the truth of the saying: “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”. However, those who have access to real-time data to shape their changing plans are far more likely to survive. Boyd’s diagram is all about survival, winning, and NOT losing. Today’s simplified OODA is merely a visual representation of doing the same thing in a never-ending circle.

To fulfill its mission statement, the current JADC2 (Joint All-Domain Command and Control) initiative requires a vast network of sensor-to-effector entities to support fully integrated decision-making across all Joint Forces. By definition, the data is complex, constant, fast-flowing and in need of differentiation. A proven, robust, scalable and open software connectivity framework  is the most efficient way to manage such a vast network, which requires that all sensor-to-shooter aspects be simultaneously individual and integrated. Ironically, the complexity of Boyd’s 45-year-old diagram more accurately captures the capabilities of 21st century AI algorithms than the younger, but arguably already outdated, loop version. Boyd’s diagram can, in fact, manage the data of the 21st century.

In today’s defense arenas, data is generated in real time. This enables the ability to drive immediate adoption in operations and relay the changing dynamics in the battlespace, whether at sea, on land, in the air, in space or in a cyber domain. The threat landscapes faced by modern militaries are far from static and generate data as rapidly as they absorb it. The evolution and maturation of data therefore cannot be represented linearly. This effort requires a dynamic data connectivity framework that delivers the data-centric intelligence that empowers faster decision-making and responses than adversaries can create. 

Boyd’s OODA diagram presciently envisioned the modern military requirement for data-capable frameworks. Built on DDS, RTI Connext delivers precisely this type of open standards-based software framework, which is needed to keep data secure and in motion for JADC2 decision-making in modern cross-platform environments.


For more on JADC2 and the OODA Loop, please click here.  

Stay tuned to this JADC2 blog series as we continue to explore the requirements, challenges and successes of building and deploying JADC2 systems. Subscribe to the RTI Blog at the top of this post to ensure you receive the latest posts.



About the author: 

Allison Guest Blog-1Alison Buchanan is Director, Communications at David Pratt & Associates. Alison is a UK educated academic. She obtained her PhD from Durham University in Politics and Literature working on the intersection of democratic theory and popular culture—specifically how to imagine a virtuous man. She has taught and researched at Durham University and Carleton University, been a researcher at Stanford University and University Library at Cambridge University. She has written and edited professionally for more than 20 years.