Tactics 101 090 – The OODA Loop
THE OODA LOOP
“Any man facing a major decision acts, consciously or otherwise, upon the training and beliefs of a lifetime. This is no less true of a military commander than of a surgeon who, while operating, suddenly encounters an unsuspected complication. In both instances, the men must act immediately, with little time for reflection, and if they are successful in dealing with the unexpected it is upon the basis of past experience and training.”
Ernest J. King
Admiral of the Fleet
Our last article concluded our discussion of the ambush. In the two articles, dedicated to the topic, we focused on many areas. These included the following:
• Definition of an ambush
• The purpose of an ambush
• The critical actions within an ambush
• Ambush fundamentals
• Ambush categories
• Types of ambushes
• Ambush formations
• Planning an ambush
• Preparing an ambush
• Ambush execution
Hopefully, these articles highlighted a few key points. First, a commander has many options when it comes to selecting a category, type, or ambush formation. Second, as in all things tactics, quality planning and preparation set the conditions for a successful ambush. Finally, a successful ambush can have a huge impact on the future operations of both sides.
During the next two months, we will focus on a topic which was certainly in vogue many years ago– the OODA Loop. It seems years ago, every profession was discussing the OODA Loop and how it could transform the way they did business. There were hundreds of self-proclaimed OODA Loop experts out there, each claiming they understood the nuances of the OODA. In many cases, they complicated something that in reality was relatively simplistic.
As the years have gone by, the infatuation with the OODA Loop has diminished somewhat. There is still exists a contingent, who still espouse the utility of the OODA Loop and possess a clear understanding of it. Fortunately for us, there is also a select group who spent valuable time with the originator of the OODA Loop – John Boyd. They continue to “spread the word” on Boyd’s ideas (not just the OODA Loop) to a new audience.
In our following articles, we will strive to provide a basic understanding of the OODA Loop. As a disclaimer, we do not claim to be the ultimate experts on the OODA. However, in our careers we have seen how the principles of OODA Loop have changed the results of many a battle. In our first article, we will look at the OODA Loop and provide an example in history (The Battle of Gaugamela) where it was clearly on display. We will try to not over-analyze the OODA. Certainly, the beauty is in its’ simplicity. It is a simplicity that you can utilize on your battlefield. Next month, we will neck it down a bit and provide you ways in which you can speed up your OODA Loop and slow down your opponent’s.
Additionally, in this article, we will take the opportunity to dissect The Battle of Gaugamela. We will provide a few lessons learned. Lessons still extremely relevant today.
A CASE STUDY
The Battle of Issus
5 November 333 BC. Alexander the Great won the Battle of Issus, effectively cutting off the east coast of the Aegean Sea. This denied Darius and his Persian Empire the use of their Navy. Alexander turned south to conquer Egypt next. His next target was the Persian Empire itself.
As Days Went By
Emperor Darius knew he could defeat the Macedonians, if he could lure them into a fight on open ground where he could deploy his entire army. If Alexander would accommodate him, he could capitalize on his overwhelming numerical advantage. He planned to do it at Gaugamela in modern day Northern Iraq.
Darius marched his Army north to a location on the east bank of the Tigris, some 70 miles west of the city of Arbela. Darius selected a wide and level plain allowing him to array and use his full force. He even ordered engineers to level some of the rough terrain that did exist. The ground would allow his army to maneuver, his cavalry to ride, and his chariots to charge. If only Alexander was foolish enough to accept the challenge!
As anticipated, Alexander got word of the movement of the Persian Army and, as planned, he moved to them. When he arrived, Alexander found the Persians deployed on the plain in a conventional manner on the battlefield. He faced an army with 200,000 infantry, 50,000 cavalry, 200 fearsome scythe-chariots, and 15 war elephants. The elephants had never been used in battle outside India up to this time.
Alexander’s army was considerably smaller; 40,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry. He was outnumbered five to one. Alexander’s commanders were undeterred and urged an immediate attack. Alexander wasn’t deterred either, but he was far more deliberate. He ordered a detailed reconnaissance before attacking. Darius knew the Macedonians had arrived and when they failed to attack he figured they were planning a night assault so he kept his army up through the night. Alexander did not attack that evening. On the day of the battle, the Persians were tired while the Macedonians were well rested.
The Battle of Gaugamela
1 October 331 BC. As the sun rose, Alexander surveyed the field. He saw the Persians to the south with their deployed infantry in the center, cavalry on the flanks, chariots dispersed along the entire front, and the ominous war elephants front and center. Darius centered himself for command and control of his massive force.
Alexander arrayed his army in much the same manner. His problem was that his army was too small to match the Persians flank to flank—the Macedonian line was basically only as wide as the Persian center. Alexander planned for this by angling his cavalry on the flanks in order to guard against encirclement. He also placed an infantry phalanx in depth, behind the lines, that could pivot to reinforce either flank facing envelopment or encirclement.
Alexander opened the battle by, advancing in echelon, on the Persian left. Alexander led his elite Companion Cavalry during the advance on the Persian left. As the Macedonians pressed the fight, Darius had to respond by extending his forces on the left farther and farther to prevent Alexander from going around his flanks—he was reacting to Macedonian maneuver.
Darius wasn’t totally on the defensive. He spotted a gap emerging on Alexander’s left, between his defending left and attacking right. Darius seized the opportunity and ordered his cavalry through the gap. It was the right order, but the wrong execution. His cavalry broke through the Greek lines, but they failed to turn to attack the flanks or rear of the troops in the fight. Instead, they proceeded north to raid the baggage trains. The enemy trains were the prime source of war booty in antiquity, but this was a grave missed opportunity.
Darius had done to Alexander what Alexander proposed to do to Darius. The difference is that Alexander planned what was about to happen — Darius didn’t.
Just as Darius had seen a gap in Alexander’s lines, Alexander saw a gap forming in Darius’ lines—this was by design. As Darius extended his left flank to meet the Greeks, a gap opened up. Alexander, at the head of the Companion Cavalry had been waiting for this moment and, like Darius, he acted on it. Alexander made a sharp cut in his cavalry charge and headed right for the gap, but he didn’t go for the rich Persian trains—he went for the Emperor.
Darius held his ground until it became apparent that Alexander was going to get through so he fled. Given the highly centralized, non-initiative oriented, nature of the Persian Army, the loss of Darius meant the loss of direction. Panic ensued as the soldiers around Darius also fled. Morale imploded and the Persian leviathan began to disintegrate.
Alexander was determined to pursue and capture or kill Darius, thus conquering his empire. He gave chase until word reached him that his defending left flank was in deep trouble. The battle on that side had not ended and the Macedonians were in danger of losing half the army. Alexander broke off the pursuit and went back to successfully rescue his right flank.
Gaugamela was a decisive victory for the Macedonian led Greek Army. The Persians suffered some 40-50,000 casualties, while the Greeks lost around 1,500; Darius was killed by his own officers while in flight; and Persia fell to Alexander.
Gaugamela also happens to be an excellent example of the Boyd Cycle or OODA Loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Let’s address the OODA Loop itself first. After that, we will look back at how it played out in The Battle of Gaugamela.
COL John Boyd USAF (Retired)
The OODA Loop — Origin
The OODA Loop is a decision- making process that has been around as long as conflict has been around. It was formally described by Air Force Colonel John Boyd during the Korean War. Boyd was an F-86 pilot and fighter commander during the War. The flight characteristics of his F-86’s were inferior to the communist MIG 15’s his pilots faced. However, Boyd believed he could overcome the disparity by out-thinking the opponent. It turned out that the F-86 design played right into his theory since the F-86 had a bubble canopy that provided better visibility to the pilot. This enhanced his overall awareness and allowed him to cycle through the decision cycle more quickly than his opponents. Boyd’s pilots learned the decision cycle and used it to accelerate their reaction time. The result was a 10 to 1 kill ratio advantage over the MIGs.
As the years progressed, Boyd thought more and more about his experiences. In 1986, he began formally developing briefings on his thoughts. These briefings were type-written slides with hand-drawn graphics. To the uninitiated eye, they would appear to be very rudimentary and of little value. They would be wrong. To those who would come in contact with Boyd and be indoctrinated with the slides – they would find genius. In fact, when he died in 1997, there were many who proclaimed him as one of America’s greatest theorists and strategists. (The purpose of this article is not to detail all the contributions of Boyd. For those who would like to learn more about the man; there are several superb books written on this very complex and brilliant man).
In Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict (1986), he first mentions the concept of the OODA Loop. He emphasizes two key points in the briefing. First, he states that in order to win on the battlefield you should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than your opponent. Second, more importantly he believes that success is better achieved by getting inside your foe’s OODA Loop.
Boyd continued to address these concepts in his work. It was not until 1996, that his only sketch of the OODA Loop appeared. In a small briefing entitled The Essence of Winning & Losing, there it was. Since that time, there have been many interpretations of the diagram. We believe two points must be emphasized. First, it is a set of interacting loops which are continually running. Second, and perhaps the biggest misconception is that the Loop does not seemingly move effortlessly from O>O>D>A. It is not Observe then Orient then Decide then Act. Sure, there will be instances where this occurs on the battlefield. However, most times there will be many jumps between parts of the loop before an action is even conducted. For instance, a commander may be prepared to make a decision and then is exposed to another observation. This observation in turn generates new orientation and may make the decision mute. Below we will add a little meat to the OODA components.
OODA Loop – Not This
Boyd’s Only Depiction of His OODA Loop
O (Observe) – This is the input data. This is the information that is coming in. This information can come from a variety of sources. In today’s environment, technology certainly increases the ability to observe. The battlefield can be filled with sensors of all types. As we have seen, many can be consumed by information overload. This can cause paralysis. This is good if are attempting to slow your enemy’s OODA Loop. Not so good if it is happening to you. It is important to note on the OODA Loop, the feedback links from the other actions and observations. This is especially important once an action has taken place. There must be an observation mechanism do see the result of the action. Some additional thoughts:
- Use all of your senses and sensors to maintain a comprehensive awareness of the battlefield.
- You cannot act decisively if you don’t have a sense of what’s going on.
- The observer looks to determine his forces relative position to the terrain, the enemy, and to adjacent friendly units.
- It is an active process.
O (Orient) – There is no more important action in the OODA Loop than orientation. Orientation puts meaning to the information that has been observed. It is the filter which synthesizes and analyzes. Because it is a little difficult to read from the slide above; here is a blow-up of the Orient action:
As you can see, all of the pieces play off one another. We have addressed new information and analyses & synthesis; so let’s discuss the other parts. These (cultural traditions, genetic heritage, previous experience) all heavily influence how a person interprets the data he sees. Two commanders on the battlefield may be exposed to the same raw information. However, based on these factors, they interpret the data differently. This obviously is an ingredient which, in history has made that select group of commanders – great. As Boyd stated, “Orientation shapes the way we interact with the environment—hence the way we observe, decide, and act.” It is orientation which transforms information to understanding. The more in sync a commander’s orientation is with what is actually happening; the better the decision (in most cases).
D (Decide) – The above orientation forms the basis for making a decision. Of course, there are two parts to this. First, is a decision actually required? To decide to decide is an important decision in itself. Second, is to make the actual decision. These decisions are far easier to make and subsequently, implement if they have been contemplated and discussed earlier. This is why we conduct planning and develop viable courses of action. These courses of action, if time permits, are wargamed. Obviously, on the dynamic battlefield there will be many times when a situation occurs which was not anticipated. This is truly when the orientation of the commander takes over.
The other critical piece to the decide action is to communicate the decision throughout the unit. It is not a decision if no one knows about it. This “communication” piece is a common theme throughout Boyd’s diagram. As you can see, feedback and implicit guidance and control are highlighted many times in the Boyd Cycle. More on this shortly.
A (Act) – The Act action is the execution of the decision. It is easy to see the influence of the other actions on execution. In observation, you may not obtain the information you need to act or vice versa, you may obtain too much information which may lead you not to act or act in a way which causes defeat. In observation, the commander may get the wrong meaning from his observations. He may also take too much time in deriving this meaning. Both obviously impact the quality and timeliness of a decision and ultimately, the act.
As highlighted earlier, feedback and implicit guidance and control are imperative in the OODA Loop. Without feedback (effective two-way communication), the actions get bogged down or the end result can be disastrous. Implicit guidance and control tie principally to areas which can be addressed prior to that first observation. These include things such as trust, understanding of a common doctrine, teamwork, understanding of the commander’s intent, training, etc…. These set the conditions for an efficient and timely OODA Loop. We will go into far greater detail on this next month.
Other OODA Discussion Points:
• The OODA loop works at all levels of war and certainly can be applied by individual soldiers. When given coherence by a well-defined scheme of maneuver and a vision for victory, a well understood OODA loop allows the commander to get ‘inside’ his opponents mind.
• The decision cycle is continuous and is being used by both sides. Every combatant observes the situation, orients himself based on his observation, decides what to do as the two forces move in relation to one another, and takes action based on the decisions he makes.
• A NATO study interviewed a number of Eastern Front German Generals who managed to fight successfully against vastly larger Russian forces for years. They were asked to fight a wargame against a notional Soviet attack and the results were compared to NATO performance under the same circumstances. It turned out that the Germans had a much shorter decision cycle which allowed them to dictate the terms of battle more often than not.
Let’s put the OODA Loop in practice. We will go back to Gaugamela and dissect how it applied to Alexander and Darius.
Observation. When Alexander got the word that Darius had deployed his army and was waiting for the Greeks, he answered the challenge by closing on the Persians. When he arrived, his commanders urged an immediate attack from the march, but Alexander demurred. He wanted to do a recon of the Persian position. He saw that Darius’ placement of his forces was oriented on risk avoidance rather than decisive victory. Darius was using his superior numbers to create width without depth. He seemed to be counting on enveloping the smaller Greek Army—let them attack and then fold in on them. Alexander could not spread out his army to match the Persian front without creating a paper thin front. Lastly, Alexander took note that Darius’ Greek mercenaries were placed on his left flank—Alexander’s right. The Greek Mercs would hold the flank together and would maneuver precisely.
Orientation. Given his recon; Alexander formed a plan. He wouldn’t attempt to match the Persian front. He would form a line that would center on the Persians, but would expose both flanks. He would protect his exposed flanks by bowing them inward and reinforcing them with Cavalry to prevent a Persian end around. He created a mobile reserve by posting a Phalanx in depth behind the line that could block envelopment from either side. Alexander’s development minimized his relative vulnerabilities, but he also maximized his potential advantage.
Alexander figured that Darius was being cautious and thus, would cede the opening move to the Greeks. He placed his most capable general on the Greek left/Persian right to refuse the line. Alexander led the elite Companion Cavalry in the center. They would lead an aggressive move to the Persian right in an apparent move to envelope the Persians—an obvious fear of Emperor Darius. He was counting on a disciplined Persian counter maneuver to the Persian right—one that would open up a gap exposing Darius in the center.
Alexander’s orientation of his troops was based on Darius’ deployment.
Decision. Alexander initiated the engagement by beginning a deliberate and obvious movement to the Persian right/Greek left. Darius countered by pressing the Greek right where Alexander’s flank Phalanx fought desperately to hang on. More critically, Darius ordered his left flank to extend to prevent a Greek envelopment. As the smaller Greek Army extended to the right, they opened up a gap in their lines that Darius immediately exploited, sending his cavalry through. Luckily for Alexander, the Persian cavalry decided to raid the Greek trains in search of booty rather than enveloping the forces on the field.
Alexander didn’t waiver. He continued his push to the right/Persian left knowing that Darius would extend his line to prevent a Greek envelopment. Just as the Greeks had already done, the Persian lines began to open up a gap as they maneuvered to match the Greeks. Alexander saw the gap and knew that Darius was now exposed. This was what he was waiting for—he decided to attack the Persian Gap. His patience paid off.
Action. Alexander was personally leading the decisive force; the Companion Cavalry. Seeing the gap in the Persian lines, Alexander led his cavalry in a hard left cut—charging through the gap directly at Darius. Darius’ defenses were dispersed. He watched in horror as Alexander bore down on him. He fled. As usual with dynastic armies, when the leader flees, the adjacent forces flee as well. Panic spread as the ‘God King’ ran. The Persian army disintegrated.
Even though Alexander had executed his decisive maneuver and it was having the desired effect; it wasn’t over. Even as the Persian left was collapsing, the Persian right was on the brink of victory. The decision cycle was closed for Darius; he was in flight from the battlefield. It was still on for Alexander the Great.
Observation. Alexander knew his moment had arrived. He would realize his father’s (Philip of Macedon) dream of conquering the mighty Persian Empire. All he needed to do was kill or capture the Emperor.
As he pursued Darius, reports made it to Alexander that the Persian right flank was close to overpowering the Greek left—they were decisively engaged and maybe not aware of their Emperor’s flight. Alexander looked back and realized that his victory could rapidly degenerate into defeat if he failed to rescue his beleaguered general.
Orientation. Alexander was exploiting the disintegration of the Persian right flank but his left flank was outnumbered and under siege. He could see that half of his army was free to maneuver while the other half was in danger of being overrun. The only cohesive Persian maneuver was against his left, but it was enough to endanger his future operational capability. Alexander abandoned the chase for Darius and positioned his army to extricate his left.
Action. Alexander broke off his pursuit and initiated an attack on the Persian forces pressing his left flank. He routed them. His decision preserved his army’s ability to continue the offensive. Alexander’s victory was assured and the fall of the Persian was only a matter of time.
Out-OODAing the Enemy. Alexander achieved a historic victory over the wealthier and more powerful Persian Empire by thinking faster than its commander. Alexander surveyed the battlefield (Observation). He assessed the enemy’s disposition and predicted his actions and reactions and, from his analysis, knew what to look for during the fight. He positioned his forces in a manner that would allow him to maneuver to a position of advantage, while also being able to protect his own force. He maintained his position relative to the enemy and patiently waited for the conditions that would enable victory to unfold (Orientation). Once the enemy’s actions met his conditions for decisive maneuver, he gave the order without hesitation (Decision). Alexander then led the decisive attack; ensuring that he was personally present to influence the most important maneuver of the day (Action). At Gaugamela, Alexander proved the truism that the side with the shortest decision cycle tends to win. Alexander took the initiative and maintained it. He didn’t panic when faced with an unexpected maneuver by the Persian cavalry. He recognized that it was not decisive. His shorter decision cycle placed him inside Darius’ decision cycle making the Emperor reactive rather than proactive.
The OODA loop was alive and well at Gaugamela in 331BC. It’s natural. Commanders were doing it long before Boyd defined it, even if they didn’t know it. We can now do it better because we are aware of it. Boyd’s pilots used their superior visibility to outmaneuver the MIG’s. NATO learned to compress their decision cycle to gain an advantage against the Soviets.
You can gain the advantage if you maintain awareness of the decision cycle. Watch the enemy and look for vulnerabilities. Arrange your forces to minimize your vulnerabilities while maximizing the enemy’s weakness. When your opportunity arrives, be decisive. Put your forces in motion. Move deliberately. Exploitation can be disaster when not managed by an able commander. A foolhardy exploitation can lead to disaster as was exemplified by Alexander’s decision to rescue his flank rather than pursuing Darius.
The decision cycle allows you to dictate the terms of battle if you can navigate it more quickly than your enemy. Both of you are cycling through, but he who is quicker dictates the terms of the engagement. A shorter decision cycle allows you to get ‘inside’ the enemy decision cycle which means they react to you rather than the reverse.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE BATTLE OF GAUGAMELA
We will conclude this month with some random thoughts on our case study. There is much to reflect upon.
* Alexander sped up his decision cycle in several ways:
- He deployed in a manner facilitating his decision to the action phase of battle. His forces were postured to execute the decision he thought he would likely make.
- Given the nature of war in antiquity; both commanders observed the field. However, Alexander moved to the decisive point while Darius stayed in the center.
* Alexander could maneuver with his main effort towards the decisive point because he trusted his commander on the left flank (Parmenio) to do his job without supervision. Mission orders and initiative oriented command were not common in any other army–the Persians embraced total control by the Emperor or his designated representative. Furthermore, in
the Persian Army failure could lead to your execution.
* Darius seemed to be over confident given his 5 to 1 advantage and battlefield prep. He wanted a direct frontal clash (battle of attrition) that would obviously expose one or both Greek flanks…he didn’t get it and seemed not to have a viable alternative in hand.
* Darius also was aware of Alexander’s arrival the day before the actual battle. He kept his army up all night, fearing a night attack while Alexander bedded his troops down. The Greeks were fresh and the Persians were wiped out.
* The Greeks fought for each other and for their culture. The Persians were slaves to the Emperor and his desertion precipitated their defeat. If Alexander had been killed, the Greeks would have continued to fight, just with less capable leadership.
The Charge of the War Chariots
* The Persians put great faith in their scythe war chariots as a weapon that would create shock and panic. They were wrong. The Greek Macedonian Army developed tactics to counter the war chariots. The first line would step aside creating a gap for the chariot to enter; like a horse shoe. The chariots would be facing the rear rank armed with long spears that the
horses would refuse to charge. The “mouse trap” would close and the charioteers and their horses were surrounded and killed. The lesson learned — Don’t rely on key weapons to win the day.
* The Greeks historically defeated the Persians by finding confined spaces to do battle like Marathon and Thermopylae. Thus, Darius’ plan of getting them on open ground was a good move. He went to work leveling it off even more so he could maneuver. In doing so, he had also made it more maneuverable for the Greeks. This maneuver space was greatly needed given their inferior numbers. Darius should have spent some time on counter-mobility to his flanks. The relative sizes of the armies favored a frontal engagement for the Persians.
* If Darius had built a super Phalanx with width and depth, his force would have been much more formidable.
* A true military genius is a once a generation occurrence: Alexander, Caesar, Belisarius, Frederick, Napoleon… It’s hard to counter such a force. When Xenophon and the 10,000 entered Persia 70 years earlier, he was defeated in a war of attrition. Like the Russians of 1812, the Persians used depth. They allowed him to advance and harassed him every step of the way while refusing decisive battle. Xenophon was forced to head north to the Black Sea where he evacuated by sea. A Persian ‘Army in being’ could have harassed Alexander in the same manner.
LESSONS FROM ALEXANDER:
- Recon before you fight: know the terrain and get the enemy laydown before you commit.
- Make a plan based on the above and build in flexibility with a well-placed reserve.
- Put yourself at the decisive point and know what you’re looking for and what decisions it will trigger when you see it.
- Place your most capable subordinate at the most dangerous place that you will not be.
- Seize the initiative when and where you can: move first if you can, change the terms of battle if you can’t.
- Make sure your subordinates know the scheme of maneuver.
- Make sure your subordinate commanders know the decisions you are looking to make and what triggers them–they might see something you miss during the fight.
- Don’t attack on the fly; Alexander’s generals wanted to go in upon arrival, but he made them wait and plan
- When the conditions at the decisive point are right, don’t hesitate. These are windows that open and close.
- Don’t be unnerved by enemy actions; unless they are incompetent, they will surprise you. Don’t over-react to a surprise that is actually irrelevant. The Persian Cavalry breakthrough could have ruined Alexander’s plans had he panicked at the thought of enemy forces to his rear…he didn’t.
- Be aware of the entire battlefield through constant communications. Had Alexander abandoned his struggling left flank to pursue Darius he may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. He made a tough and accurate decision to turn back. Tactical patience is as important when seizing the initiative as it is when keeping it. It has been said that an army is most vulnerable at the moment of victory…this is largely true given the tendency to let your guard down once you’ve ‘won’.
- Have a plan to deal with the enemy’s most dangerous weapons like the war chariots. Every weapon and tactic has a vulnerability, it is your job to find and exploit it. At a minimum, avoid it.
- Remember that the decision cycle is not a single closed system. It is repetitive and it interacts with the opponent’s decision cycle.
- Act, don’t react. That’s how you get ‘inside’ the enemy decision cycle. The tide has turned when the enemy is responding to you rather than the opposite.
Our next article will focus on two key questions tied to the OODA Loop. First, how do you speed up or make your own OODA Loop more effective? Second, how do you slow down or make your adversaries OODA Loop less effective? We will provide many recommendations in a wide variety of areas. You will find that many things are done well before you make first contact on the battlefield. Click here to read Part 2 of The OODA Loop.