I’m So Sick Of The OODA Loop

The Long March

The OODA Loop is useless. Or more to the point, the way most people in the military talk about it is useless.


“We’re going to get inside the enemy’s OODA Loop.”

“He got inside my loop.”

People in the military can’t shut the hell up about OODA Loops.

In the military, the OODA Loop is often used as a synonym for “decision making.” Some will even break down the acronym, into “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act,” as if that makes it a more profound statement. “You see, first the enemy has to observe us, then he has to orient himself…”

Too many people use the OODA Loop to give credibility to otherwise blindingly obvious things. “So, if we lay down a smokescreen, the enemy won’t be able to observe us, and we’ll break down his OODA Loop!” So, it’s better if the enemy can’t see us? Thanks for that insight, Napoleon.

People say things like that because everyone in the military knows about the inventor of the OODA Loop, Colonel John Boyd. He was a modern-day Clausewitz, or Jomini, or some other dude they read about in their company-grade PME, but can’t remember what the hell they said because it was all really, really boring. Boyd also invented the A-10 or something, so BRRRT!

Describing decision making by prattling on about the OODA Loop is like saying things fall because of gravity. That’s true, as far as it goes, but knowing that doesn’t mean you understand physics. Almost everyone who talks about getting inside someone’s “loop” is just using the term to mean you need to make decisions faster than the other guy. If you can make decisions faster, you’ll have a better chance of winning. No shit, Sherlock.

It might be a little unfair to criticize the OODA Loop for being obvious. Many things are obvious only after someone says them the first time. After all, people bitched about apples falling out of trees for ages until Isaac Newton explained to those idiots why that kept happening.

Just like Newton is usually known as being the apple guy even though he was really the father of physics and calculus, Boyd is known as the OODA Loop guy, even though that’s not really the most important thing he did. After all, if he hadn’t come up with OODA, there are a dozen good ways of describing the same thing. Whether it’s plan-do-check-act or collect-process-organize-do-review or assess-balance-communicate-do-and-debrief or a dozen other ways of making the very simple very complicated, someone else would have made a perfectly acceptable substitute.

Colonel Boyd wrote a series of essays and presentations that range from the fascinating Patterns of Conflict to the virtually impenetrable rumination on ideas, thermodynamics, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle called Destruction and Creation. The creators of American maneuver doctrine gave a lot of credit to Boyd, but while the OODA loop is an important part of that, it is by no means the bulk of his contribution to maneuver doctrine. Beyond that, his work on energy-maneuverability theory shaped the design of every tactical aircraft flying today. Some people need to learn a little more about the background before bringing up OODA in a vacuum.

If tacticians bring the OODA Loop into a discussion, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a faux-profound statement is going to be said within the next 30 seconds, but it’s pretty likely. That mention of the OODA Loop had better be followed by immediately dropping some serious knowledge bombs about specific ways you plan to exploit it.

If those knowledge bombs could have been dropped without unnecessarily introducing the OODA Loop, please do so. And God help you if you say “get inside his Loop” unironically, just turn your laser pointer into the duty officer and consider yourself relieved.

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