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Chet Richards on “Who Still Reads Boyd?”

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Dr. Chet Richards had an excellent blog post on the continuing relevance of Colonel John Boyd’s strategic concepts:

Who still reads Boyd?

Apparently the Russians. In “The Moscow School of hard knocks: Key pillars of Russian strategy,” 17 Jan 2017,  CNA analyst and former NDU program manager Michael Kofman
offers vivid illustrations of ideas that Boyd developed in his various papers and presentations (all available on our Articles page).  He doesn’t cite Boyd, but you’ll recognize the concepts.

I have no idea of how Kofman came across these ideas — Boyd has nine pages of sources at the end of Patterns of Conflict, so he isn’t claiming that he thought most of them up. Regardless of how Kofman discovered them, he establishes that they certainly do work, but unfortunately not for us.

For example, when describing Russia’s overall approach to strategy, he notes that

Russia’s leadership is pursuing an emergent strategy common to business practice and the preferred path of startups, but not appreciated in the field of security studies. The hallmarks of this approach are fail fast, fail cheap, and adjust. It is principally Darwinian, prizing adaptation over a structured strategy.

This should leap out at anyone even casually familiar with Boyd since Patterns of Conflict cites the theory of evolution by natural selection as one of its two foundations (war is the other).

Boyd’s whole approach to strategy was emergent. This is clear not only from how he uses strategy but in how he defines the term, at the end of Strategic Game:

A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.

In other words, there is an overall objective — it’s not just random actions, even very rapid actions, for action’s sake — and the pattern emerges as our “efforts” interact with the “unfolding and often unforeseen world.” You see a similar philosophy in Kofman’s description of the Russian approach:

This is confusing to follow when Russia’s goals are set, and yet operational objectives change as they run through cycles of adaptation. It is also a method whereby success begets success and failure is indecisive, simply spawning a new approach.

Compare to Patterns 132: “Establish focus of main effort together with other effort and pursue directions that permit many happenings, offer many branches, and threaten alternative objectives. Move along paths of least resistance (to reinforce and exploit success).”

Why take such an approach? Right after his definition of strategy, Boyd suggests an answer:

Read the rest here

Is 4GW Dead?: Point-Counterpoint and Commentary

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

4GW theory has always attracted overenthusiasts and  raging haters ever since the concept emerged way back in 1989, so debates about the merit of 4GW are nothing new; in fact, the arguments became so routine that they had largely gone sterile years ago.  After T.X. Hammes published his excellent  The Sling and the Stone and John Robb  went to the next level with Brave New War , it seemed that  little new was left to be said. In the late 2000’s, intellectual energies shifted to arguing the nuances and flaws of Pop-centric COINwhich proved in time to be even more bitter than those about 4GW.

Generations of War Theory Visualized by Chet Richards

What is different recently is that the person taking the affirmative on the question “Is 4GW dead?” was Dr. Chet Richards, who for years ran the premier but now defunct 4GW site, D-N-I.net, now archived here by the Project on Government Oversight.  Richards is no Clausewitzian true-believer or Big Army MBA with stars, but a former collaborator with John Boyd and a leading thinker of the 4GW school who had written several books with that strategic theme.

Therefore, not a critic to be dismissed lightly. Here’s Chet:

Is 4GW Dead? 

….The first thing to note is that 4GW is an evolution from 3GW, which they equate to maneuver warfare and the blitzkrieg as defined in MCDP 1 and Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict. These are styles of warfare conducted by state armies against other state armies, although the paper does invoke the notion of transnational terrorists near the end.

At some point in the late 1990s, the theory bifurcated. Bill Lind and Martin van Creveld began to emphasize the decline of the state and focus on transnational guerrilla organizations like al-Qa’ida. Tom Barnett called this the “road warrior” model. T. X. Hammes, on the other hand, characterized 4GW as “evolved insurgency” and envisioned the techniques described in the paragraphs above as also useful for state-vs-state conflicts.

….The 9/11 attacks, by a transnational guerrilla movement, seemed to confirm 4GW in both of its forms. In the last few years, however, everything has gone quiet. Transnational insurgencies, “global guerrillas” as John Robb terms them, have not become a significant factor in geopolitics. “Continuing irritation” might best describe them, whose primary function seems to be upholding national security budgets in frightened western democracies. The state system has not noticeably weakened. So it might be fair at this point to conclude that although 4GW was a legitimate theory, well supported by logic and data, the world simply didn’t develop along the lines it proposed.

A prominent critic of 4GW, Antulio J. Echevarria, may have been correct:

What we are really seeing in the war on terror, and the campaign in Iraq and elsewhere, is that the increased “dispersion and democratization of technology, information, and finance” brought about by globalization has given terrorist groups greater mobility and access worldwide. At this point, globalization seems to aid the nonstate actor more than the state, but states still play a central role in the support or defeat of terrorist groups or insurgencies.

Why? I’ll offer this hypothesis, that the primary reason warfare did not evolve a fourth generation is that it didn’t live long enough. The opening of Sir Rupert Smith’s 2005 treatise, The Utility of Force, states the case….

Chet’s post spurred a sharp rebuttal from William Lind, “the Father of Fourth Generation Warfare”:

4GW is Alive and Well 

So “the world simply didn’t develop along the lines it (4GW) proposed”? How do you say that in Syriac?

The basic error in Chet Richards’ piece of April 19, “Is 4GW dead?” is confusing the external and internal worlds. Internally, in the U.S. military and the larger defense and foreign policy establishment, 4GW is dead, as is maneuver warfare and increasingly any connection to the external world. The foreign policy types can only perceive a world of states, in which their job is to promote the Wilsonian nee Jacobin, follies of “democracy” and “universal human rights.” They are in fact, 4GW’s allies, in that their demand for “democracy” undermines states, opening the door for more 4GW.

In most of the world, democracy is not an option. The only real options are tyranny or anarchy, and when you work against tyranny, you are working for anarchy. The ghost of bin Laden sends his heartfelt thanks.

Third Generation doctrine has been abandoned, de facto, if not de jure, by the one service that embraced it, the U.S. Marine Corps. The others never gave it a glance. The U.S. military remains and will remain second generation until it disappears from sheer irrelevance coupled with high cost. That is coming much sooner than any of them think.

….In many of these cases, including Egypt and Pakistan, the only element strong enough to hold the state together is the army. But the “democracy” crowd in Washington immediately threatens aid cut-offs, sanctions, etc., if the army acts. Again, the children now running America’s foreign policy are 4GW’s best allies.

Fourth generation war includes far more than just Islamic “terrorism,” and we see it gaining strength in areas far from the Middle East. Gangs have grown so powerful in Mexico, right on our border, that I predict the state will soon have to make deals with them, as the PRI has done in the past. Invasion by immigrants who do not acculturate is a powerful form of 4GW, more powerful than any terrorism, and that is occurring on a north-south basis (except Australia) literally around the world. Remember, most of the barbarians did not invade the Roman Empire to destroy it. They just wanted to move in. In fact, most were invited in. Sound familiar?

What should concern us most is precisely the disconnect between the internal and external worlds. Externally, 4GW is flourishing, while internally, in the US government and military, it does not exist. This is the kind of chasm into which empires can disappear….

Fabius Maximus – who is a both a pseudonymous blogger and a group blog, also responded:

Update about one of the seldom-discussed trends shaping our world: 4GW 

One of the interesting aspects of recent history is the coincidence of

  1. the collapse of discussion about 4GW in US military and geopolitical circles,
  2. victories by insurgents using 4GW methods over foreign armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, &
  3. most important, the perhaps history-making victory by Bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

The second point is important to us, but the usual outcome since WW2 (after which 4GW became the dominate form of military conflict; see section C below).  The third point is the big one. Based on the available information, one of Bin Laden’s goals was to destabilize the US political regime. Massive increase in military spending (using borrowed funds). The bill of rights being shredded (note yesterday’s House vote to tear another strip from the 4th amendment). Our Courts holding show trials of terrorists — recruited, financed, supported by our security services. Torture and concentration camps.

….We — the Second American Republic — have engaged in a war with nationalistic, Islamic forces using 4GW.  So far we are losing.  For various reasons we are unable to even perceive the nature of the threat. In DoD the hot dot is again procurement of high-tech weapons — new ships, the F-35, the hypersonic cruise missile, etc.  All useless in the wars we’ve fought for the past 50 years, and probably in those of the next 50 years….. 

A few comments.

4GW has been heavily criticized – and accurately so – for making selective use of history, for unsupported maximal claims, for an excessively and ahistorically linear argument and for shifting or vaguely defined terms. Presented rigidly, it is relatively easy for critics to poke holes in it simply by playing “gotcha” (some of the criticism of 4GW did not get beyond ad hominem level garbage, but more intellectually serious detractors made very effective critiques of 4GW’s flaws).

That said, there were a number of useful elements or insights in the body of 4GW writings that retain their utility and I think are worth recalling:

  • Whatever one thinks of 4GW as a whole, the school drew attention to the threat of non-state irregular warfare, failed states and the decline of state vs. state warfare and did so long before it was Pentagon conventional wisdom or trendy Beltway talking head spiels on Sunday morning news programs.
  • While the state is not in decline everywhere in an absolute sense, it sure is failing in some places and has utterly collapsed elsewhere. Failed, failing and hollowed out states are nexus points for geopolitical problems and feature corruption, black globalization, insurgency, tribalism, terrorism, transnational criminal organizations and zones of humanitarian crisis. Whether we call these situations “irregular”, “hybrid”, “decentralized and polycentric”, “LIC”, “4GW” or everyone’s favorite, “complex” matters less than using force to achieve political aims becomes increasingly difficult as the interested parties and observers multiply. Some of the advice offered by the 4GW school regarding “the moral level of war”, de-escalation and the perils of fighting the weak in such a conflict environment are all to the good for reducing friction.
  • The emphasis of the 4GW school on the perspective of the irregular fighter and their motivations not always fitting neatly within state-centric realpolitik, Galula-ish “Maoist Model” insurgency, Clausewitzian best strategic practice or the Western intellectual tradition, were likewise ahead of their time and contrary to S.O.P. Even today, the effort to see the world through the eyes of our enemies is at best, anemic. Red teams are feared more than they are loved. Or utilized.
  • The bitter criticism the 4GW school lodged of the American political elite being allergic to strategic thinking and ignorant of strategy in general was apt; that American strategy since the end of the Cold War has been exceedingly inept in thought and execution is one of the few points on which the most rabid 4GW advocate and diehard Clausewitzian can find themselves in full agreement.

The lessons of 4GW will still be relevant wherever men fight in the rubble of broken societies, atomized communities and failed states.

Perception and Strategy Part I.

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Jason Fritz at Inkspots had a thoughtful post about Afghanistan in light of recent events and made some points regarding strategy well worth further consideration. I suggest that you read his post in full, but I will comment on excerpts of his remarks below in a short series of posts. Here’s the first:

Delicate strategic balancing: perception’s role in formulating strategy

…..That all said, incidents in Afghanistan these past few months have caused me to question the validity of strategies that hinge upon the perspectives of foreign audiences*. This is not to negate the fact that foreign perspectives affect nearly every intervention in some way – there has been plenty of writing on this and believe it to be true. I firmly believe that reminding soldiers of this fact was possibly the only redeeming value of the counterinsurgency manual. To say nothing of this excellent work. But strategies that hinge upon the perspectives of foreign populations are another matter altogether. 

I think Jason is correct to be cautious about either making perception the pivot of strategy or throwing it overboard altogether. The value of perception in strategy is likely to be relative to the “Ends” pursued and the geographic scale, situational variables and longitudinal frame with which the strategist must work. The more extreme, narrow and immediate the circumstances the more marginal the concern about perception. Being perceived favorably does not help if you are dead. Being hated for being the victor (survivor) of an existential war is an acceptable price to pay.

Most geopolitical scenarios involving force or coercion though, fall far short of Ludendorf’s total war or cases of apocalyptic genocide. Normally, (a Clausewitzian would say “always”) wars and other violent conflict consist of an actor using force to pursue an aim of policy that is more focused politically and limited than national or group survival; which means that the war or conflict occurs within and is balanced against a greater framework of diverse political and diplomatic concerns of varying importance.  What is a good rule of thumb for incorporating perception into strategy?

According to Dr. Chet Richards, the advice offered by John Boyd:

….Boyd suggested a three part approach:

  • With respect to ourselves, live up to our ideals: eliminate those flaws in our system that create mistrust and discord while emphasizing those cultural traditions, experiences, and unfolding events that build-up harmony and trust.  [That is, war is a time to fix these problems, not to delay or ignore them. As an open, democratic society, the United States should have enormous advantages in this area.]
  • With respect to adversaries, we should publicize their harsh statements and threats to highlight that our survival is always at risk; reveal mismatches between the adversary’s professed ideals and how their government actually acts; and acquaint the adversary’s population with our philosophy and way of life to show that the mismatches of their government do not accord with any social value based on either the value and dignity of the individual or on the security and well being of society as a whole.  [This is not just propaganda, but must be based on evidence that our population as well as those of the uncommitted and real/potential adversaries will find credible.]
  • With respect to the uncommitted and potential adversaries, show that we respect their culture, bear them no harm, and will reward harmony with our cause, yet, demonstrate that we will not tolerate nor support those ideas and interactions that work against our culture and fitness to cope. [A “carrot and stick” approach.  The “uncommitted” have the option to remain that way—so long as they do not aid our adversaries or break their isolation—and we hope that we can entice them to join our side. Note that we “demonstrate” the penalties for aiding the enemy, not just threaten them.]

I would observe that in public diplomacy, IO  and demonstrations of force, the United States more often than not in the past decade, pursued actions in Afghanistan and Iraq that are exactly the opposite of what Boyd recommended. We alienated potential allies, regularly ignored enemy depredations of the most hideous character, debased our core values, crippled our analysis and decision-making with political correctness and lavishly rewarded treachery against us while abandoning those who sacrificed at great risk on our behalf . We are still doing these things.

Most of our efforts and expenditures at shaping perception seem to be designed by our officials to fool only themselves.

More on Boyd & Beyond II and Boydian Theory

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Two posts of note:

USNI Blog (Lucien Gauthier) – Training Sailors to be Autodidactic

….The conference spent a lot of time on the first half of the OODA-Loop, Observing and Orienting.  At some point I became convinced that the type of Sailor we need is one that is a “situational autodidact”.  Major Marcus Mainz, USMC, during his presentation made the brilliant comment that “training is for the known, education is for the unknown” in this sense, the spirit in which we must educate our Sailors must be towards making them capable of educating their self as needed when the unknown presents itself to them.

….For Sailors to take greater advantage of their experiences, they need to actively question their actions.  By this, I mean that a person analyses a question more than they do a statement.  But, it has been my experience that when someone recants an experience they had, it is a rare thing to hear someone say anything in terms of ‘why’ they did something.  Much more often someone only tells the ‘what’ of their actions.  Think of the Socratic Method, where Socrates would answer his students questions with another question.  A Sailor who has internalized such a ‘Socratic process’ would be in a position to provide more cogent feedback as well as learn from their mistakes more often than we do today.

What I am saying is not that the training we offer Sailors falls short of its objectives as they stand today.  But, that the spirit of the training is not where it needs to be-we focus our objectives too much on acting rather than orienting.  The training our Sailors receive are based on concrete and testable objectives that can be measured, quantified and turned into metrics, that fit well into powerpoint.  We do no help Sailors to become autodidactic-we are not training them to become students of their environment, but rather students of their school house.

We start to approach training Sailors to be autodidacts of their environment in the Operational Risk Management training we receive (One thing about ORM:  It is Boyd’s OODA-Loop operationalized.  The Navy has totally ripped off Boyd, and yet we never mention his name outside of the Warfare Universities-shame on us).  We need more and deeper training on ORM and how this method applies to everything we do, whether we consciously realize it or not.  In giving this deeper level or ORM, we should also find Sailors able to be more articulate of the process they’ve gone through.  Thereby becoming able to better train others of their experiences….

Naval affairs is not my bailwick, but my understanding of following online discussions by experts in the field like General Robert Scales, is that Professional Military Education across all the services is a) in need of significant reform and b) is facing a future of restricted budgets and possible deep cuts. My only firsthand knowledge of PME comes from a brief stint in June at The Army War College, courtesy of Dr. Steve Metz. The AWC curriculum was explained to me in detail by Col. Bill Lord, and while they were hitting the right notes in terms of trying to inculcate a strategic epistemology, the time frame allowed for doing so is extremely compressed.

Fast TransientsBoyd’s Conceptual Spiral – New Edition

This is from Dr. Chet Richards as well as Chuck Spinney….

Download Conceptual Spiral (152 KB PDF), Boyd’s take on the origin and importance of novelty:

Novelty is not only produced by the practice of science/engineering and the pursuit of technology, it is also produced by the forces of nature, by our own thinking and doing as well as by others. Furthermore, novelty is produced continuously, if somewhat erratically or haphazardly. Now, in order to thrive and grow in such a world, we must match our thinking and doing, hence our orientation, with that emerging novelty. (28)

Adds the original page numbers, which may seem a little odd because for readability this edition spreads several of Boyd’s originals over two or even three pages.  All of these will have the same number.

We are wired to crave and be attracted to novelty, it sets us thinking and generates insights and stimulates our creativity.

An OODA Loop Made of Straw

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

From AFJ:

…This notion that there are specific knowable causes that are linked to corresponding effects dominates military thinking and manifests in our drive to gather as much information as possible before acting. This concept was captured by Air Force Col. John Boyd’s decision loop: observe, orient, decide and act. In this OODA Loop, an endless cycle in which each action restarts the observe phase, it is implied that collecting information would allow you to decide independent of acting. Also implied is the notion that you can determine measures of effectiveness against which to observe each action’s movement toward achievement of your goal so you can reorient. The result of this type of thinking is to spend a lot of time narrowing the focus of what we choose to observe in order to better orient and decide. This drives one to try and reduce the noise associated with understanding the problem. We do this by establishing priority information requests or other methods of focused questions aimed at better understanding the core problem so we can control it.


The OODA Loop is not a linear process, orientation is the key and the OODA Loop does not by default “narrow your focus”. WTF?

Maybe the military or, more likely, some brigade commander, instituted a process like this in Iraq for their information-intel analysis, maybe not, but if they did it was not what Colonel John Boyd argued they ought to do. Nor is it an understanding of what the OODA Loop is or how it works.

Here’s an OODA Loop for Dummies level brief from Dr. Chet Richards intended for businessmen but there are more sophisticated explanations out there by Chet and others. Google is your friend. 🙂

Operating Inside Their OODA Loops

This post might help as well:

Chet on TEMPO….Rao on OODA

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