Asleep at the Switch in Versailles .. or ... Why Nonlinear Realities
Overwhelm Linear Visions ... or ... Why did Slobo Cave?

September 6, 1999

Comment: #317

Discussion Thread:  #s 199 & Reference 2 of 244, 252


[1] ROBERT WRIGHT, "Private Eyes," New York Times Magazine, September 5, 1999

In Reference 1, Robert Wright reports that timely, high resolution satellite images (about 1 meter) are about to go sale to the private sector.

Coupled with the flood of open-source information on the internet, this kind of imaging capability illustrates the transformation of communications in the private sector that will create a huge increase in the speed, coverage, and fidelity of observations flowing into the Observation - Orientation - Decision - Action cycles (OODA Loops) of competing state and non-state actors in the conflicts of the future.

It is important to begin thinking about what these changes might mean for the American military.

OODA Loops & Co-evolution

The concept of the OODA loop, first developed by the late American scholar-strategist Col. John Boyd (USAF Ret.) [Comment #199], is used increasingly by the military to describe the nature of conflict and the conduct of war. [e.g., "A View from the Top," briefing on lessons of Serbo-NATO War by Adm J.O. Ellis, CINC U.S. Naval Forces Europe.] Boyd argued that any conflict can is a duel wherein each adversary observes (O) his opponent's actions, orients (O) himself to the unfolding situation, decides (D) on the most appropriate response or counter-move, then acts (A). What follows is a brief description of his theory as I understand it.

Boyd's research showed WHY a competitor who moves through this OODA-loop cycle the fastest disrupts his enemy's ability respond effectively. Boyd showed HOW these cycles can create continuous and unpredictable change, and he argued that our tactics, strategy, and supporting weapons' technologies should be based on the idea of shaping and adapting to this change -- and doing so faster than one's adversary.

Understanding the WHY and the HOW is crucial to appreciating the power of the OODA loop and its implications for tactics, strategy and weapons technologies.

While the concept of disrupting an opponent's decision cycle is an old idea in military affairs, Boyd's theory of operating INSIDE an adversary's OODA loop was a bold new conception. Boyd's goal is to isolate one's adversary from his external environment by penetrating his mind to destroy his view of the world. The key to appreciating the power of Boyd's idea is to understand why the orientation function is the door through which a competitor can penetrate an opponent's decision cycle.

Each of us bases decisions and actions on observations of the outside world that are filtered through mental models that orient us to the opportunities and threats posed by these observations. As Konrad Lorenz and others have shown, these mental models, sometimes called paradigms, SHAPE and are SHAPED BY the evolving relationship between the individual organism and its external environment. This two-way interaction is at the center of most of the confusion about the nature of the OODA loop.

Evolutionary biologists, ethologists, and cyberneticists will immediately recognize that the words "SHAPE" and "SHAPED BY" tell us the OODA loop is the product of a co-evolutionary interaction. Since all co-evolutionary processes embody positive as well as negative feedback loops, the OODA loop is necessarily a non-linear system and will exhibit unpredictable emergent behavior. As we will see, this crucial fact has been lost on the designers of the so-called "System of Systems" who use the OODA loop to justify their conception of negative-feedback command and control architectures.

In conflict, each participant, from the dogface in the foxhole to the general in the chateau, must make decisions based on his orientation to reality, or his appreciation of the external circumstances he must act on. Boyd argued that each adversary's orientation changes and evolves because it is formed by a continuous interaction between one's observations of unfolding external circumstances and his interior orientation processes that make sense of these circumstances. He showed how these interior processes are a natural dialectic embodying two very different forms of mental activity: ANALYSIS (understanding the observations in the context of pre-existing patterns of knowledge) and SYNTHESIS (creating new patterns of knowledge when existing patterns do not permit the understanding needed to cope with novel circumstances).

The synthetic side of the dialectic is crucially important to one's orientation, because it is the process by which the individual (or group) evolves a new world view if and when one is needed to cope with novel circumstances. But, as the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn and others have shown, the synthetic process can be disruptive and time consuming, because its nature is to build a new paradigm by destroying the existing one. In war, destroying a paradigm can remove the basis for converting observations into action, and when this happens, one becomes vulnerable to the devastating effects of paralysis, assuming action is needed to survive. Therein lies the key to understanding the power of the of operating inside your adversary's OODA loop.

Boyd's idea was to use multiple, quick-changing destructive thrusts (and a multiplicity of other ambiguous/deceptive activities) to disrupt or destroy his opponent's existing paradigm and thereby isolate his adversary from reality, and at the same time, deny that adversary the opportunity to synthesize a new paradigm. The combination of menacing pressure and an inability to cope with the kaleidoscope of quick changing observations will cause the adversary to over and under-react to changing conditions. Put under pressure to act, he will begin to experience various combinations of uncertainty, doubt, confusion, self-deception, indecision, which can expand into discouragement, fear, panic, and despair, to ultimately overload his capacity to adapt in a directed manner to menacing conditions (or even endure).

[Excerpts from Boyd's "A Discourse on Winning and Losing" as well as his paper "Destruction and Creation" that describes the analytical/synthetic dialectic and my interpretation of it, "Evolutionary Epistemology," can all be found at War, Chaos, and Business.

Proliferating Open Source Intelligence Capabilities: Implications

No one knows how the proliferation of high resolution surveillance capabilities like those described in Reference #1 (and the open-source intelligence revolution in general) will shape the evolution of conflict or the conduct of war in the 21st Century [see Reference #2 of Comment #244 for a discussion of the changing character of war]. It is prudent, however, to ALWAYS assume our adversaries will try to exploit any means to increase the speed and fidelity of their OODA loops relative to our own.

The changes discussed below have at least two implications for the U.S. military:

First, U.S. conventional forces are easy to see with satellites, particularly when they are mobilizing for a deployment or assembling for an attack, because their massive size and huge distinctive baggage train generate distinctive signatures. Moreover, deploying and assembling U.S. forces takes a long time. The one meter resolution satellite surveillance capabilities described in Reference #1, as well as the flood of information on the internet, will make it much easier for our potential adversaries to observe our preparations, orient themselves to the threat posed by these preparations, and take counter actions in time to neutralize our plans and actions. In this sense, the widespread availability of private intelligence capabilities threatens to speed up our adversaries' OODA loops relative to our own.

Second, the ready availability of these private intelligence gathering capabilities also threatens to slow down or disorient our own OODA loops in relation to those of our adversaries. This is a more subtle point and requires some development.

The United States military and its supporting technical community continue to base its doctrine, operations and supporting hardware on a methodical OODA loop embodied in a "System of Systems" consisting of (1) observation systems to identify enemy forces and targets, (2) orientation processes that filter observations through computerized target recognition templates based on the predicted 'signatures' we expect our adversary to exhibit on the battlefield, (3) centralized command and control systems to orchestrate the mix of attack options on the selected set of enemy signatures (the array targets), and (4) a mix of hi-tech precision-guided weapons to execute the desired attack options.

The surveillance/reconnaissance capability serves two functions: it is necessary for finding targets and it provides feedback to assess the damage caused by the attacks on the targets selected for destruction. In theory, the assessment feedback loop shapes the unfolding operational-level of decision making by setting the stage for structuring subsequent attacks.

At least three assumptions are necessary conditions for the successful operation of this entire "system of systems." First, the template must embody accurate predictions of the signature pattern emitted by our future adversary. Second, the design of this template is also premised on the assumption that wide-area surveillance and reconnaissance systems have the technical capability to reliably distinguish our adversary's forces from the vast background clutter made up of friends, foes, non-belligerents, and the variety of natural and cultural features. Third, although this "system of systems" is a complex amalgam hi-tech hardware and complicated organizational arrangements and procedures, the underlying OODA loop is based on a simplistic cybernetic model that assumes the conduct of war can be methodically monitored and minutely regulated by a system of sensors and negative feedback control signals, much like the temperature of a room is monitored and regulated by the predicted target temperature (or template) and negative feedback signals of a thermostat.

One consequence of these assumptions is that the exclusive reliance on a negative feedback control architecture eliminates the possibility of adapting to unforeseen circumstances. This limitation can turn Boyd's conception of a dialectical non-linear OODA loop based on the idea of co-evolution into a one way non-adaptive road to confusion and disorder if the enemy chooses to act unpredictably.

The bombing of Serb forces in Kosovo illustrates the consequences of this problem. It showed how a wily adversary can disorient negative feedback control system by pumping unexpected signatures into the recognition templates. In this case, the Serbs used a variety of counter measures to reduce or distort the predicted distinctions (camouflage, decoys, fleeting emissions, decentralized small unit shoot and scoot tactics, etc.) separating military targets from non-targets.

It is now clear that Serb countermeasures undermined the fidelity of the information flowing through feedback control loop and produced a disorientation in NATO Headquarters. This disorientation is evident in the NATO slide briefed to the press on May 19, 1999. The slide shows that NATO war planners believed their bombers had destroyed, neutralized, or damaged 31% of the Serb's heavy forces, 11 battalion/brigade command posts, 556 pieces of military equipment including 312 armored vehicles and artillery pieces.

But, on-the-scene news reports made right after the war ended in mid-June indicated Serb forces left Kosovo virtually intact with less than 10 tanks destroyed (see Comment #s 293, 294, 295, 297, 305). No one knows the true numbers yet, but one thing is clear, the misinformation in the slide proves the OODA loop in NATO Headquarters was unable to accurately monitor the progress of its bombing campaign against Serbia's forces in Kosovo. [see #252 for additional information describing how the Serbs penetrated the NATO's OODA loops in the early stages of the war.]

Put in abstract terms, the feedback control signal shaping NATO's OODA loop was not connected to events in its environment. Taken together, the sensors and signature templates could not separate false signals from true signals and this produced a flow of feedback that incestuously-amplified the distortions the Serbs introduced into the system.

The availability of high resolution satellite imagery discussed in Reference #1 will not only make it easier for future adversaries to see U.S. forces, it will also proliferate knowledge about the nature and limitations of hi-tech sensing capabilities in general. Countermeasures and spoofing like those experienced in Kosovo should be expected to become even more sophisticated and effective as this knowledge becomes more widely available and better appreciated.

Given our doctrinal predilection to linear cybernetic negative-feedback control model, such a development would have the effect of making our future OODA loops even more vulnerable to disruption. Future adversaries may find it easier to penetrate our OODA loops by evolving forces and operations that are smaller, quicker, more indistinct, and more decentralized in order to blend more inconspicuously into the background of the cultures surrounding a conflict.

Should they be successful, the United States military might find itself without any meaningful capability to respond short of escalating to another primitive strategic bombing campaign aimed at breaking the will of a civilian population by destroying large fixed economic and infrastructure targets at known locations. This is what happened during the Serbo-NATO War.

A military that can do no more than blow up civilian targets may not be very useful in dealing with the looming chaos of the 21st Century.

It is time for each of the services to begin experimenting with small, dispersed, highly mobile forces capable of fighting in the irregular operations sometimes known as 4th Generation Warfare [see #244, Atch #2]. To date, only the Marines seem remotely interested in this possibility.

The upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review is the proper forum in which to begin this kind of exploration, but if past is prologue, the QDR will degenerate into another effort to protect the status quo, with the Pentagon asleep at the switch, resting comfortably while the military - industrial - congressional complex cashes in by milking fears of threats that no longer exist ... oblivious to the emerging art of 4th Generation Warfare that is evolving quietly by trial and error, awaiting for the moment its marriage of private technology and creativity can blossom to our disadvantage.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Boyd and Military