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Guest Post: Beakley on Boyd, Aerial Combat and the OODA Loop

Ed Beakley is the Director and guiding spirit of Project White Horse and is student of the strategic thinking of John Boyd. Ed requested space to respond to criticism directed at the OODA Loop by Col. Jim Storr in The Human Face of War and assumptions made regarding the influence of aerial combat on John Boyd’s strategic thought.

Boyd, Aerial Combat and the OODA Loop

by Ed Beakley

While I’m sure most have read the basic story, it seems it might be worth recalling the details abit.  Boyd first characterized OODA, looking to understand and explain the differential in air-air kills between U.S. and North Korean pilots and realized that with the significantly better visibility from the F-86 bubble canopy than that from the MiG 15, the USAF pilot was more likely to see a MiG approaching from the rear quarter tan the other way around. (The Vietnam era MiG 17 and 21 had similar designs – narrow canopies extending straight back into the fuselage.  I can attest to this having flown a MiG 21 simulator in an air engagement with a German Col in an F-4 at Ling Tempco Vought some years ago).  This ability to see the fight early is critical and coupled with the F-86 significant advantage in roll rate meant rolling and turning into the MiG, then reverse rolling would eventually set up a misalignment in a/c attitude which the F-86 could exploit. Seeing led to the ability to exercise a  fast transient.

Boyd’s example of the F-86 and MiG 15 allowed him to address the four pieces and their impact and of having the ability to change state quicker than one’s opponent.  The fact that time wise the observation and action are nearly stacked on top of each other,  does not mean that “orientation” and decision” did not or do not occur.  One must realize that almost all engagements of aerial combat last only seconds. Data from the air war over Vietnam show that in most instances the shot down pilot never saw the shooter. Snoopy jousting with the Red Baron is a colorful idea but dogfights happen mostly only in training. Indeed, with certainly no disrespect meant, “Forty Second Boyd” is a characterization that could only come out of the training world. Forty seconds is multiple life times in actual air-air engagements.

So how then does OODA occur? Two things, one closely relating to martial arts – individuals must be completely immersed in their art. There exists no better representation of this than the fighter pilot. Any fighter pilot who wouldn’t claim he could kick your ass in forty seconds is not worthy of the name, and he trains hard to be able to back that up.  And there’s nothing worse than a guy who can back that up. (Frank ‘Whip’ Ault, the Navy Captain, fighter pilot whose report led to TOPGUN was no Ace but his call sign was well earned).  This leads to the second, that attitude, training AND being immersed with similar extremely competitive arrogant bastards, means he takes all the elements of orientation with him when he crosses the Yalu or the Red River Valley.  His observation of the enemy aircraft brings the only missing piece of the “orientation” into play – physical situational awareness and allows the quickness of decision and action. “Decision” also follows out of that training (think about the “ribbon” drawings in Boyd’s Aerial Attack Study that were and are studied and practiced).  He’s been there done that so many times, it’s truly Gary Klein’s recognition primed, but all parts of OODA are still in play. 

Indeed, if the mission and performance of the aircraft differ substantially, the OODA process may actually stretch out and be more easily discerned. By way of example would be an A-7 on a Sam suppression “Ironhand” mission attacked from below by a MiG 21.  The A-7’s performance is significantly less than that of the MiG. This is not the quick conversion to a kill of Boyd’s example where O-O-D-A are essentially stacked on top of each other time wise, rather survival of the A-7 pilot and completion of his mission to protect the strike group (i.e., survival of a number of planes), turns into a more spread out O-O-D-A process, in which working to gain proper orientation is crucial to the necessary timing of the decision and action to execute a “bug-out.”

This rolling reversal maneuver is extremely violent, involves applying negative G’s and can be disorienting to the executing pilot.  Done correctly, it creates the same misalignment of aircraft with the MiG nose high, the A-7 nose low gaining separation and running out to the MiG’s six o’clock.  The trick though is that you wanted to run toward the water.  Even with separation and 180 degrees out of phase, it’s no longer just guns, the MiG had Atol missiles.  Water meant possibility of pick-up if you had to eject.  And on top of all that, if the Ironhand a/c bugged out, the strike group was now more susceptible to Surface to Air Missile attacks.  Will anyone argue this is not a discernable example of observe, Orient, decide act?

As to Boyd’s stature and competence to analyze the air-air world in regard to a true Ace (5 confirmed kills):

1.      World War II was unique in air-air combat in light of the technical capability, the number of aircraft in the air and in a fight at the same time.  Many kills came without one pilot seeing the other.  Kills were achieved by pulling the trigger at the right time as planes crossed your nose chasing someone else.  To be sure there were some great deeds of derring-do and some great pilots and certainly intuitive actions played a significant part. Does Col Storr’s interviews with Aces indicating the falsity of the OODA in air-air combat counter Boyd’s analysis?  Hardly.  Boyd was not trying to expound a theory on OODA and Air-Air Combat, he used an example he knew well, which is appropriate in many instances, but certainly not all.  He simply intended to show that if you could move through the OODA flow at a better tempo than your enemy, you could create a mismatch that could be exploited.

2.      Was not being a true Ace important?  No matter how good the pilot, luck and mission assignment plays a huge part.  Ask any fighter pilot, anywhere this one.  Some of the best never even get a look.  True story ( I was in the same area earlier and it wasn’t nice) – one of the senior F-4 Commanders who’d been involved with all the early TOPGUN stuff, was so frustrated because he, unlike some of that group, did not have a MiG, hoping a MiG would come up, went “trolling” along the DMZ, the very last day of the war and got shot down and lost.  Good pilot? Former commanding officer of the Blue Angels.  Boyd’s work as an ACM instructor and developer/writer of the Aerial Attack Study at Nellis tells you all you need to know.  One of his best students was Ev Raspberry, one of General Robin Olds’ MiG killers who credited his success over Route Pack Six to John Boyd for what he taught him at Nellis.

One final note, Seydlitz questions anything following from Boyd, if the original thinking is flawed.  As noted above, the view of an Ace doesn’t necessarily contradict Boyd’s analysis.  This is an extremely situationally dependent context.  Would he dismiss my own experience in combat?  The first time I read Boyd’s analysis, it made perfect sense.  The fact that the flow can be almost unobservable due to speed of process is irrelevant.  If Boyd’s OODA is to be discarded, then one must dismiss a whole process and body of work coming out of the Naval Electronic Systems Command in the eighties stemming from Dr. Joel Lawson’s research and writing on command and control.  Boyd’s work  seems to fall prey to “if it’s not perfect for all situations then it’s all bad”????

As to Storr, I turn the question, how can one now trust his writing, given his pretty obvious shoddy research on Boyd.  One must go no further than page 12 and the critique of Boyd’s loop.  Poor form no matter what he thinks of Bill Lind and 4GW.

6 Responses to “Guest Post: Beakley on Boyd, Aerial Combat and the OODA Loop”

  1. seydlitz89 Says:

    Hi Ed-

    Two things.  First, you posted: One final note, Seydlitz questions anything following from Boyd, if the original thinking is flawed.

    No, I don’t, rather I was making a conclusion based on my short – and inadequate introduction to Storr’s argument.  Still I think my point was valid.  Let’s refer to my original initial comment on Zen’s thread:

    I think you are misreading Storr. Dismissing his critique of the OODA as "reflexive hostility" avoids confronting the serious issues he raises.  First off, Storr’s book is about modern warfare, not really about a general theory of war or even strategic theory (although he uses both).  So his view is a direct rival to 4GW and sons.  Second, his rejection of the OODA loop can not be so easily dismissed as you have indicated.  He points out that the OODA loop does not really describe how pilot aces operate, since their biographies "show almost no trace of iterative behaviour in combat . . . their effectiveness centres on rapid, decisive decision and action.  It is based on superlative, largely intuitive, situational awareness . . . Thus Lind’s concept of the OODA Loop does not adequately describe the observed fact for the activity under study – fighter combat – let alone any extrapolation from them."  (pp 13-14) So if the original observation is flawed, how can the theory drawn from it not be flawed as well? My own view, which is not as harsh as Storr’s, sees the OODA Loop applicable at the tactical level but highly restrictive at the operational and essentially a model of friction at the strategic.

    So, actually everything you posted here goes along with my view, does it not?  As I mentioned I don’t really have a "dog is this fight" strategically speaking . . . and was actually attempting to promote a useful discussion of Storr’s critique instead of simply (mis)labeling it and dismissing it.  Btw, have you read those actual pages (11-14) in Storr’s book?

    Second, you then dismiss Storr thus:

    As to Storr, I turn the question, how can one now trust his writing, given his pretty obvious shoddy research on Boyd.  One must go no further than page 12 and the critique of Boyd’s loop.  Poor form no matter what he thinks of Bill Lind and 4GW.

    Did Storr have to extensively research Boyd to question the way the OODA loop has become military doctrine?  You deal with the "ace" element of Storr’s argument that I brought up, but that is only one element of his critique, as you know if you have read Storr.  Did he have to understand Boyd as you do to deal effectively with what is essentially land warfare?  You would have to make that separate argument. 

    This same complant you make regarding Storr’s study of Boyd could be made in regards to Boyd’s critique of Clausewitz, which as Zen commented on that same thread, even Boyd’s best interpretor acknowledges:

    Boyd read every word of On War but Frans Osinga believed Boyd’s assessment of Clausewitz to have been flawed.

    It is demonstrably flawed, and there is little indication that Boyd understood Clausewitz’s achievement in terms of the general theory of war, so following your logic in dismissing  Storr, should you also not dismiss Boyd? 

    No, neither should be, since as you point out, strategic theory, or even strategic doctrine, do not have to be perfect and fool-proof, rather just better than the next best, that is "adequate" in dealing with the complex social action we are analyzing .  .  . Storr is attempting to show that 4GW is at most the "next best" in reference to his own . . .

  2. Ed Beakley Says:

    seydlitz89 thanks for comment, I had accepted that no one was picking up on this, and was in the process of writing a "thank you" to Mark for posting with a slight add about some future writing, so I’ll do that here, then comment separately.

    Mark, as stated on FB, most appreciate your posting my thoughts.  I "came to John Boyd" through what I guess a rather unique discovery "aha" moment in the early 80s starting with a Washington Post article on Boyd’s patterns of Conflict brief.  Yesterday, in looking through some old notebooks on command control, I found I have the snipped out article.

    Given my irritation at myself for not geting to the Boyd Conference in Quantico this October, the resulting start-up of the Linked-In Discipiles of Boyd discussion, your comments on Storr’s take on Boyd, and my current effort for a new PWH edition focused on leadership/decision making in unconventional crisis to include addressing Chet Richards’ question "what kind of an organization can operate with appropriate OODA tempo…?" I have determined to post a series of interim Blog pieces (PWH FORUM) on Boyd’s thinking as it might relate to unconventional crisis think "how does a community recover from the shovel to the back of the head – from a severe negative start OODA condition?"

    Much written on OODA is in light of going offensive – getting inside the other guy’s/team’s/competion’s cycle and winning.  A negative start relates to what if you’re on the other side of William McRaven’s (SPECOPS) relative superiority  concept. (Sullivan and Elkus articles on police operational art apply.)  Have discussed with Chet and no one has really taken this tack (BTW, discussion of OODA in defense sense related but not the same.)

    I have long believed there is more richness to Col Boyd’s use of the air-air example than explored.  It almost seems as if it was avoided because maybe even his acolytes thought the fighter pilot thing was trival or only useful in that area of conflict – I obviously disagree.  This dialogue  created some rethinking, rereading which cleared some fog.  So an additional  "Thanks," I’ll be in touch.   Ed at Project White Horse 084640

  3. slapout9 Says:

    #1-I can tell you this much about Police work it is more like and has more in common with the basic Maneuver Warfare Theory. You search for Surfaces and Gaps and then figure out where to put your main effort.#2- On the OODA loop with fighter pilots. One of the problems I think is that when you start observing your environment you already know what a threat looks like (Mig 15-21,etc) so once the threat is observed, physical orientation (best position to shoot or run) becomes easier to deal with. When you start the OODA loop and you DON’T know what the threat looks like it becomes a lot easier to attack the Boyd theory. Just my opinion.

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  6. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    Spinney’s time article from early 80s (gone behind paywall but mostly lives free at wayback machine, except for some reason pg8)

    one of my co-workers managed to get spinney’s phone number and called him to talk about the article, spinney suggested he call boyd. he talked to boyd for some time and then my co-worker con’ed me into sponsoring boyd’s briefings at ibm. i felt some affinity for boyd’s ooda-loop paradigm having done dynamic adaptive (feedback) computer resource management as an undergraduate in the 60s (which was picked up and shipped in commercial products) … it had to deal with lots of anomolous, unpredictable, and spontaneous activity. As undergraduate, I also got sucked into doing various kinds of security features, attempting to anticipate numerous kinds of attacks and provide countermeasures. The vendor would periodically suggest stuff for me to look at … in retrospect, some of the suggestions may have originated from this customer set (which I didn’t learn about until much later) … gone 404, but lives on at wayback machine

    Much of current computer security has gotten into providing never ending flow of frequent updates as a business model and keeping the money flowing … as opposed to eliminating numerous fundamental structural flaws (analogous to spinney’s theme of “perpetual wars” and MICC business model strategy for keeping the money flowing).

    Boyd would reference both finger-feel (fingerspitzengefuhl) and observing and instantly realizing (coup d’oeil) from having deep experience and instinctively being able to do the orientation/decide phases. There have been some discussion of this within the context of “Thinking Fast and Slow”. One of Boyd’s stories was US pilot being confronted with five migs and at same point in the maneuvers, all six pilots simultaneously realized that the US pilot was about to shoot down all five migs … as if it was chess game and the moves were going to happen regardless of who did what.

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