Is America Inside its Own OODA Loop
October 29, 2003
Discussion Threads - Comment #: 199
Current decision cycles—i.e. Observation - Orientation - Decision - Action (OODA) loops—are shaped fundamentally by what military theorists call an "appreciation" of one's own condition in relation to the constraints, opportunities, threats, and uncertainties in the unfolding environment that will determine one's success or failure.
An appreciation shapes the current Orientation, and as we have seen in many earlier comments, Colonel Boyd has shown why Orientation shapes and energizes the entire OODA loop [new readers: see Comment #199 for a general introduction to Boyd's theories and Thread 2 for greater elaboration]. An appreciation can be thought of as the filter through which the military organization views current events, and the presence of uncertainty and menace means that there is always a danger that a faulty appreciation will infect one's Orientation like a virus and thereby produce a dangerous disconnect between one's observations of the real world and the consequent decisions and actions directed toward coping with the contingencies of that world.
Such a disconnect can take several general forms: (1) It can be a self-inflicted wound caused by an inwardly focused OODA Loop when, for example, the Orientation is shaped by the self-referencing blinders of obsessions or preconceived notions (as was the case in Lee's frontal attack on Day 3 at Gettysburg), or ideological fixations (as was the case with French doctrine of audacious attack before 1914). (2) It can be a wound inflicted externally by the wiliness of one's adversary (as was the case in Grant's operational-level maneuver that set up the siege of Vicksburg. (3) It can a combination of (1) & (2) as was clearly the case in May 1940 when a quicker 3GW German army out maneuvered and defeated a larger 2GW French/British army.
In all cases, however, the disconnect between observations on the one hand and decisions and actions on the other causes the entire OODA loop to respond more to the fluctuations in its internal dynamics than to the unfolding threats of the real world. As Boyd has shown, the inevitable result is confusion, disorder, and taken to extremes, eventually panic and collapse.
Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW - see Thread 1) challenges the art of appreciation even further than is usually the case in a 2GW or 3GW war between nations, because non-national character of 4GW combatants embodies a far higher content of squishy political, cultural, and economic factors and relatively less of the traditional military factors. 4GW "terrorists," like the warriors of Al Qaeda, do not form a conventional army that sets up in military arrays to fight battles, for example. They hide in the cultural and political shadows, and aim to by-pass the military to suddenly strike economic, political, and cultural centers of power, before melting back into the shadows.
The increased subtlety implicit in any 4GW appreciation makes it particularly difficult and dangerous, because the increased ambiguity magnifies the temptation to collect information about the enemy that falls into the comforting pre-conceptions of an inwardly focused OODA loop. Moreover, in 4GW, the slightest tactical mistake flowing from a flawed appreciation can have a large strategic or even grand-strategic repercussions, the mistaken bombing of the Afghan wedding party being a case in point.
Recent events unfolding in Afghanistan and Iraq raise serious questions about the efficacy of the America's OODA loops in two highly dangerous 4GW conflict situations. The situation in each country is clearly deteriorating. Statements of staying the course are not enough to support a coherent OODA loop, for the simple reason that such statements imply there will never be a need to adapt the assumptions underpinning one's Orientation to unfolding conditions. I personally believe such statements also telegraph weakness. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: Soundly-balanced appreciations relating internal conditions to external conditions are needed ... and they are needed NOW.
This comment transmits two examples illustrating the current state of the art in making or rethinking a strategic/grand strategic appreciation of these conflicts. The first is an on-the-scene appreciation of situation in Afghanistan by Paul Barker, the Afghan director of CARE. The second is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's famous memo questioning progress in the war on terror. This memo reflects Mr. Rumsfeld's ongoing effort to obtain a relevant appreciation of that war. While Rumsfeld's memo takes the form of a checklist-like series of somewhat disjointed questions, it nevertheless reflects an Orientation that will shape whatever appreciation flows out of the high-level meeting he requested.
Compare and contrast these two approaches to forming an appreciation. Then judge for yourself if either approach will lead toward the dangers implicit in an excessively self-referencing, or inwardly focused OODA loop.
Example 1: Afghanistan
Running out of time for a stable Afghanistan
For the first year after the November 2001 collapse of the Taliban government in Kabul, the fundamentalist opposition seemed intimidated into passivity. The "B-52 factor" seemed enough to dissuade serious attacks on the new government and its coalition supporters.
But during that year, not enough was done to:
The consequences of this underinvestment have now emerged in a crescendo of attacks, first against government installations and then against the aid community. Isolated incidents have spread until a broad swath of southeast and south-central Afghanistan is now considered too insecure for aid agencies to work.
The struggle for Afghanistan's future is much more than a war of bullets and bombs; it is a contest of values and interests. Afghans face many threats, most of which are created by those with vested interests in an insecure Afghanistan: narcotics merchants, militia commanders, smugglers, highway bandits, urban gangs and radical Islamists (Taliban, al Qaeda, Hekmatyar, etc.). The appropriate response for the criminal elements is a fully staffed, paid, disciplined and professional Afghan security force.
An expanded foreign military presence may dissuade some opposition elements, but it is also likely to embolden others. An expanded international security presence is at best an interim step. To have longer-term value, it needs to be integrated into police training and reform of the judiciary system.
It needs to help establish the checks and balances necessary to ensure that promotion of a national police force does not also promote a national police state.
Example 2: Iraq
Rumsfeld's war-on-terror memo
"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - James Madison, from a letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822
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