O-O-D-A Loop: An Introduction

The late Col. John Boyd USAF, gave the world the O-O-D-A Loop. In Robert Coram’s book Boyd the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Coram writes:

“The OODA Loop is often seen as a simple one-dimensional cycle, where one observes what the enemy is doing, becomes oriented to the enemy action, makes a decision, and then takes an action. This “dumbing down” of a highly complex concept is especially prevalent in the military, where only the explicit part of the Loop is understood.1

O-O-D-A stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, & Act. Growing up in Law Enforcement which is a quasi military organization, I have learned through experience simple and aggressive are often – a – winning – combination. Under stress we want to keep things simple, perhaps even “dumb things down” a bit. When we’re not under stress then we ought to set about learning that body of knowledge which makes the OODA Loop a bit more complex. Coram goes on to say:

“The key thing to understand about Boyd’s version is not the mechanical cycle itself, but rather the need to execute the cycle in such fashion as to get inside the mind and the decision cycle of the adversary. This means the adversary is dealing with outdated or irrelevant information and thus becomes confused and disoriented and can’t function.2

I agree with Coram on disrupting the enemy’s mind and again through experience I have learned it comes down to a mans “will.” The adversary always gets a vote. When it cannot be avoided or escaped for a variety of reasons then an innocent defender must forcibly remove the adversary’s hope, his will to continue attacking, or his capacity to continue attacking. By achieving and maintaining relative superiority an adversary rapidly experiences discouragement, giving way to despondency, and despair. Those all have to do with hope. When the unjust aggressor presents a deadly force threat an innocent may achieve this via means of lethal defensive blows oriented towards bringing about a physiological stoppage. If the unjust aggressor should suffer a psychological stoppage meaning he gives up (despair), stops, or flees, then the innocent stop delivering lethal blows. No more lethal blows. What might that look like? He purposely drops the gun, knife, or blunt weapon, and ceases his attack. This is not and cannot be about vengeance. The last Coram excerpt for this post;

“Even Boyd’s acolytes3do not always agree on what Boyd meant with the OODA Loop.4

I had to look up the word acolyte to figure out it means follower. This problem solving model (that’s what I’m calling it) applies to far more than the topic of legitimate defense of self or others. So if this is a problem solving model, what’s the problem? In legitimate self-defense or defense of others, it’s an unjust aggressor presenting a threat of bodily harm (less than lethal force), great bodily harm (lethal force in Illinois), or death to innocents.

We first have to observe something that concerns us – a potential threat. Then we have to orient (analyze and correctly understand) whether it is a legitimate threat, something requiring more observation & maneuver to avoid, or nothing to worry about at all. Boyd’s work concerning orientation revealed cultural traditions, genetic heritage, new information, previous experiences, and analysis and synthesis all factoring into how a person is going to perceive what they see. Boyd also believed these parts are interconnected. I would add they compenetrate5 one another. Meaning pervade or penetrate throughout. I see Boyd’s cultural traditions and genetic heritage as what I call a persons filter. The filter being the sum total of a persons upbringing, education, religious beliefs (or not), training, and experiences. Their philosophy or world views. All of these have a part to play in how a person perceives what they observe. The important thing to note is by education and training we can build in a trained response. When stressed we often default to our level of training or that trained response. Experience quite literally convinces a man. Experience often raises a mans propensity for violence.

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers…” ― C.S. Lewis

I can attest to the fact that experience will change your mind, providing you live through it. If you believe all people are basically good and that you can trust in everyone’s mercy when the chips are down – you error, you error.

Is there a gap in the orientation stage between reality and a persons perception of reality? A persons perception can be right or it can be wrong. A particular person might buy into things like political correctness or false compassion for robbers, rapists, and murderers. Those errors are going to need to be educated and trained out of that individual so that they observe, orient, decide, and act based upon sound principles and not some social construct that inspires fear, hesitation, and a loss of innocent life. The orientation stage will interconnect with the observation stage as a persons filter has it’s way with a persons perception. The orientation stage will interconnect with the decision making stage as the persons decides correctly or incorrectly based upon their perception. The orientation stage primarily has to do with knowledge. Education, training, and experience can forever alter how we deal with particular problems. Where there is a breakdown in any of these stages things can begin to unravel and as we go through a succession of Loops the end result can be a tragedy. Saint Thomas Aquinas said: An error in the beginning is an error indeed. That’s because the error compounds. That is why it’s more important we get orientation right in the beginning. We can have all the skills in the world and they’ll do us no good if we haven’t yet addressed and dwelt with questions or problems having to do with our perceptions. All of the factors Boyd identified in the orientation stage will impact the decision making stage. We tend to think of just one loop. There are often many loops. We’re going through the loops as well as those around us. Think about how this would apply to something like defensive driving. In defensive driving we’re constantly observing, orienting, deciding, and acting. We’re analyzing and we’re synthesizing changing conditions and new information. Our past driving experiences influence our perception, decisions, and actions. It’s not just one loop! It’s not just one decision! Sometimes multiple decisions come at us at the same time. Then have to prioritize what decision has to be made now and act on that decision. Are we making sound decisions or are we beginning to stack errors? What was a persons training like? Was formation based upon first principles? Was a trained response built in? The real work for preparing a person to make good decisions comes during formation in the orientation stage. It comes from proper education, training, and depending on the line of work experience. The act stage has much to do with skills. This stage also has much to do with the application of the body of knowledge purportedly learned during the orientation stage. Can we put all that together? Can we make it happen, as it were? How competent are we at all that tactical knowledge we ought to have learned during our formation? Do we continue to strive to learn as a student? Do we care enough to learn our craft? Do we care enough to do the work to become a craftsman? The orientation stage has much to do with growing in these competencies. The action stage is where we have to begin applying these things. Nothing less than perfect practice, right? How are our firearms skills? Have we correctly prioritized the four safety rules and then sought out scenario based training to pressure test these safety skills? Can we move and administratively handle a firearm safely for the benefit of any and all innocents nearby? An emphasis ought to be placed on this aspect of firearms handling. The goal is to defend the innocents we’re gravely responsible to protect. We ought to place more of an emphasis on the four safety rules. On a live square range do we have an ability to get our gun working and keep our gun working? Have we grown in competency as it relates to marksmanship? Have we advanced in competency to a combat style of shooting? Some public and private ranges may not permit this type of skill building. Have we continued advancing as it relates to drawing and shooting? Many ranges will not permit drawing from a holster. Do we have an ability to keep the firearm working, meaning have we been educated, trained, and had an opportunity to practice malfunction drills? Have we received education, training, and an opportunity to practice speed loads and tactical loads?

We can begin to see Coram’s assertion that this problem solving model is highly complex. Yet in managing or dealing with unjust aggressors it’s good to keep things simple. So we have to learn all of these things, practice perfectly, grow in wisdom and then strive to keep things simple.

It’s my understanding Boyd believed, the orientation stage was the most important stage. I hope I helped you to see above how and why that is a true statement. If we fail to orient correctly then we’re not going to make right decisions. Going through the OODA Loop at a faster tempo doesn’t really matter if we’re arriving at bad decisions. If the right decision is to shoot an unjust aggressor in defense of self or others, and I come to a conclusion other than that, then I and my people may suffer great bodily harm, or death.

Additionally, there are exchanges that must be considered. There is the moral battlefield which in my opinion is the most important of all the battlefields. Did we do the right thing before God? There’s the physical battlefield – did we consider subject factors, timing, and positioning to name just a few concerns as it relates to winning the physical fight? There’s the legal battlefield which increasingly today seems to be in direct conflict with itself and with the moral and physical fundamental principles of legitimate self-defense. Due to activist prosecutors the legal battlefield seems to be at war with it’s own precedent6 and jurisprudence7. Police and innocent citizens may get indicted unjustly, and even lose their freedom. There’s the civil battlefield – where police and innocent citizens may be litigated into bankruptcy. There is the social battlefield – some special interest group may bear down with an unjust pressure of physical threats, a burning, and destroying. The truth is we have to weigh these things and we must be willing to make exchanges as it relates to risks from one battlefield to another. Sometimes we have to assume higher risks on a particular battlefield so that we might still do that next right thing. The orientation stage includes a large body of knowledge. You cannot and will not, learn that body of knowledge in a 16 hour introductory level course for concealed carry. That is a bare bones introduction. I have identified twelve fundamental principles that I believe are critical to that body of knowledge. Some of these principles contain more than one subject matter and additional principles are contained within. These principles interconnect and compenetrate:

  1. Leadership
  2. Mindset
  3. Problem Solving
  4. Jeopardy Testing
  5. Threat Awareness
  6. Tactical Staging
  7. Time, Distance, Cover (concealment)
  8. Giving Loud Rebuke
  9. Relative Superiority
  10. Surprise, Speed, Violence of Action
  11. Action Beats Reaction
  12. Throttle Control

John Lovell of the Warrior Poet Society, former Army Ranger and professional trainer once gave what I consider a very good working definition of tactics. As I recall he said: Tactics are to gain an advantage in timing, positioning, or psychology. If what he meant by psychology was to gain a tactical advantage over the “will,” of an enemy then that’s the best working definition of tactics I’ve ever heard.

For those who lack knowledge, training, or experience in violence, things will most likely breakdown during the orientation stage, of the O-O-D-A Loop. Why? They can’t give what they don’t have – nemo dat quod non habet meaning no man gives what he does not have. They may see a threat but not perceive it as a threat. They may see a threat, perceive it correctly, though not know what to do about it and freeze. A goofy loop is when a person repeats the same thing over and over seemingly expecting a different result. That’s not a good a plan. I was first introduced to the term goofy loop which came out of a book called Training at the Speed of Life, Volume 1, by Kenneth Murray. For the untrained citizen a goofy loop may sound a lot like pleading; Please don’t kill me. Please, I have children. Please, I’m begging you. No, don’t do it, don’t do it…

For a trained police officer things are going to break down during the decision making stage, of the O-O-D-A Loop. With police officers you’ll hear something like: Drop it! Drop the gun! Drop it right now! I’m not telling you again! Put it down! Put the gun down! That’s a goofy loop. It’s far less likely a police officer will experience a break down in the orientation stage of the OODA Loop due to their training and experience. It could happen, with poor training, or complacency, or a really good ambush sunk in deep. However it is far more likely to occur during the decision making stage. Why? Fear. Fear is at the root of a break down in the decision making stage of an OODA Loop. Fears often flows forth from bad leadership. That may come from the top boss of your organization or it may come from outside; say from an activist local states attorney. It may come from some other politician having influence and the means. For instance say a governor who uses his attorney general and his state police when local authorities deem a case of self-defense to be justified. There are many and various politicians acting unjustly in these dark and crazy days. Many have begun to call good – evil, and call evil – good. Bad or improper training also flows forth from a crisis in leadership. Now-a-days officers have to fear being charged with a crime even when acting rightly in the best interest of innocent citizens, innocent brothers or sisters in arms, and also out of self defense for their own life. Why? Activist local prosecutors who have clogged up filters, as it were. Activist politicians bowing down to the false idols of political correctness. A false compassion or false pity for robbers, rapists, and murderers. We have a crisis of leadership today.

The decision stage will often involve many little decisions. There are often many OODA Loops occurring for all parties involved in a violent confrontation. We want to avoid stacking errors.

The act stage reveals whether you can apply or make happen all that knowledge base gained in studying and building in the trained responses learned in that body of knowledge during your education, training, and experiences – in other words your analysis and synthesis of the orientation stage. Skills matter. This is where we begin to find out through well scripted scenario based training under some artificial pressure (stress inoculation) where the deficiencies are. Or where you might shine. Vetting then getting to work strengthening your weaknesses.

Boyd found that his enemy’s desire to defeat him could be used to lead his enemy into a position of disadvantage. Bill Whittle wrote this regarding John Boyd:

“In the mid to late fifties, a fighter pilot could earn himself a quick forty bucks and perhaps a nice steak dinner in Vegas – not to mention everlasting renown, which is to fighter pilots what oxygen is to us lesser beings – by meeting over the Green Spot at thirty thousand feet and taking position just 500 feet behind an arrogant and unpleasant man with precisely zero air-to-air victories to his credit. From that perfect kill position, you would yell “Fight’s on!” and if that sitting duck in front of you was not on your tail with you in his gun sight in forty seconds flat then you would win the money, the dinner and best of all, the fame. …And yet that forty dollars went uncollected, uncollected for many years against scores of the best fighter pilots in the world. ”

How might that apply in a concealed carry situation? Early on you see a potential threat compressing time and distance with you. So you maneuver away from that threat towards cover. Cover is simply defined as something that will stop bullets. Gaining cover is to gain a position of advantage. If the threat is lethal then we’re going to lean out so that all the unjust aggressor see’s is a slice of our face, our dominant eye, and the muzzle of our firearm. He now finds himself in a place he doesn’t want to be. You crossed an expanse making it to cover. He didn’t make it to cover. He’s big, meaning his whole body is subject to receiving incoming rounds. You’re small, meaning he only has a tiny sliver of your face to target.

An academy instructor at the police agency I retired from used to add a silent little “a” at the end of OODA-“a” which he said stood for accept. Can we accept what’s happening? How quickly can we accept what’s happening? This goes back to the previous post where I wrote about the grief process applying to any bad news: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance. Acceptance is the way around, over, under, or through bad news. Acceptance gives you more options and more time to maneuver, as it were.

As an introduction I’ve said a few things about the O-O-D-A Loop. God willing, in future posts I’ll paint a better picture of this fundamental principle of legitimate self-defense.

1Boyd the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Robert Coram

2 Boyd the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Robert Coram

3 Acolyte: one who attends or assists : FOLLOWER

4 Boyd the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Robert Coram

5 Compenetrate: to penetrate throughout : pervade.

6 Precedent: a judicial decision, a form of proceeding, or course of action that serves as a rule for future determinations in similar or analogous cases

7 Jurisprudence: the science or philosophy of law