Fifth Generation Maneuver: Re-visiting Boyd’s Brain Gym
As the political structure of the world changes, we confront an unknown military future.
This fact is as old as war.
However, the speed of change is new.
In The Swarming Mind, we examined how the new paradigm of networked systems and mass inter-connectivity drives a need for military professionals who think and see the world in a fundamentally different way. The threats the ADF is expected to counter — hypersonic weapons, instant cyber-attacks, dysfunction in the electromagnetic spectrum — possess different characteristics to the physical threats of the age of industrial warfare. The ADF must, therefore, train warfighters through constant practice in decision-making, for this is where the advantage will lie in future conflicts.
The focus must be not on faster decision-making but more effective decision-making.
Moreover, the way to train warfighters is through constant, deep practice in decision-making — not part-task training.
Like the body, the mind must constantly be trained in order to reach peak performance.
A mental ‘gym’ would provide appropriate mental exercises to treat decision-making as a skill that needs constant practice.
How would this gym be equipped?
The answer lies in part with the United States Air Force fighter pilot and later organisational theorist, John Boyd. Boyd’s ‘thinking model’ of a loop, consisting of a mechanism using Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action (OODA) is an essential piece of equipment for cognitive training.
In essence, Boyd’s process uses ‘orientation’ to frame a decision.
Through practice, one can develop the intuition that allows individuals and organisations to decide and act without the need for conscious reasoning.
It uses the science of analytics and assessment to understand what is now happening and what is about to happen.
It is easy to simplify the ‘OODA loop’ and reduce it to a basic process.
The initial simplicity is the brilliance in Boyd’s idea because it introduces a far more complex set of ideas in an accessible manner.
At a superficial level, the loop describes the essence of fighter combat — choose a course of action and decide faster than an adversary.
The winner will turn through the loop faster and ‘get inside’ the adversary’s decision cycle.
Decisiveness and reaction is the basis of ‘decision superiority’ and speed is the key to victory. However, there is more to ‘OODA’ than decision superiority.
The term decision superiority was in vogue for several years after the Second Gulf War in 2003.
The concept involved moving faster through a decision tree to introduce paralysis into an adversary’s system. It drew partly from John Warden and partly from a new awareness of the interconnectedness of society, drawing on ideas from complex RAND studies such as ‘netwar.’ Decision superiority was a function of speed. By adding superior technology, a warfighter would develop and maintain complete battlefield awareness which, coupled with rapid precision strike, would break an enemy decision-making apparatus (their command and control). While kinetic effects were useful, the preferred operational effect was in the human, or ‘cognitive’ domain.
The destruction of Iraq’s army in 2003 appeared to validate this thinking.
However, the operational concept was cast into significant doubt by 2006, following the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah. The Israel Defence Force (IDF) adopted a doctrine combining ‘effects-based operations’ and ‘systemic operational design’. This aim of this doctrine was to use speed, technology and ‘effects’ to force the ‘cognitive collapse’ of Hezbollah and paralyse the organisation’s decision-making. The IDF’s plan was based on the putative lessons of Iraq in 2003 where fast-moving armour, backed by long-range artillery and the devastating use of air power, caused the collapse of organised Iraqi military operations.
Unfortunately for the IDF, Hezbollah chose not to engage in an action/reaction cycle. Instead, it fell back on extensive defensive preparations, absorbing the brunt of the IDF’s air and artillery strikes and hiding from persistent surveillance by using low-signature (and low technology) communications. When IDF armoured columns pushed north into the complex terrain of southern Lebanon, they were attacked by small, lightly armed teams based using accurate and lethal anti-tank guided missiles. Meanwhile, Hezbollah used ‘human terrain’ to good effect, placing long-range rockets, weapons caches and fighting positions in apartment buildings to neutralise the Israeli Air Force’s precision targeting capability.
While the IDF met its operational goals, the subsequent Winograd Commission was highly critical of the IDF’s over-reliance on the pursuit of ‘decision superiority’. Hezbollah claimed victory at the cessation of hostilities as it kept key leadership intact and won the ‘information battle’ in the Arab world. At the tactical level, Hezbollah’s distributed networks of small teams neutralised the IDF’s advantage in persistent sensing, precision strike and combined arms manoeuvre. After-action reports noted the IDF made rapid decisions and moved aggressively on the ground backed by precision fires. The operational design followed a successful template of combined arms manoeuvres refined since the Six-Day War in 1967.
However, now the decision cycle was unilateral — Hezbollah did not react to the IDF’s ‘tempo’; instead, it executed a well-established plan based on careful observation of the chosen battlefield.
What went wrong?
Hezbollah owned the environment and had tailored their OODA loop by careful study of the battlefield and the adversary — their observation and orientation were superior. When the fighting commenced, Hezbollah was able to decide and act more effectively within an environment of their choosing.
They intuitively understood the changes occurring within this environment and could adapt better than the IDF.
The decision cycle was not faster – it was not decision superiority in the advertised sense.
Instead, it was situational understanding that allowed the right decisions to be made, irrespective of ‘tempo’ in the fight.
Fighter combat and the environment
John Boyd began considering decision advantage around 1952.
At the time he sought to understand why the F-86 Sabre was achieving significant kills over the Soviet MiG-15 — in the order of a 10:1 kill ratio — during the Korean War. On paper, the MiG-15 was faster, had heavier weapons and a tighter turn radius than the Sabre. What then, did the F-86 have as an advantage?
By 1962 Boyd was granted access to the USAF’s new computer systems at Eglin Air Force Base. What he found was the critical variable enabling the edge in fighter combat: the ability to transition from one state to another. Boyd labelled the combination of energy and manoeuvrability (EM) ‘fast transients’. While the MiG had a tighter turn radius than a Sabre, it could not reverse, climb and descend in a non-linear way. The MiG was inferior in the turning fight, where the ability to change energy was more important than outright speed.
Victory for Sabre pilots in air combat over Korea was enabled through two cognitive processes: the ability to understand the rates of change (the EM theory); and adapting to the unfolding picture. Nothing has changed. Instead of following an opponent’s action and locking into a spiralling action-reaction cycle, the victor in air combat senses changes in the environment that are precursors to an opponent’s action (the observation), and adapts accordingly to move to an advantageous position (the orientation). In fighter combat this can be as simple as visual condensation from an opponent’s wing indicating an increase in loading and decrease in laminar flow, thus reducing lift. The opponent must trade speed or altitude.
The victor observes this change in the environment and can place it in the appropriate context through superior orientation. They can then make their decision before the opponent’s next manoeuvre, regardless of tempo. Experienced aircrew can even ‘get ahead of the jet’, like a fluid chess game, understanding their next moves within the airframe’s capability and evaluating adversary options. This type of deep intuition comes from hundreds of hours of deliberate practice and training.
The point often missed in discussions about Boyd’s theory is that ‘decision superiority’ (the decide and act parts of the loop) is not the key to success.
Success is a function of observation and orientation.
The complete OODA cycle is a process that uses continuous feedback loops.
This allows the victor to understand changes in the environment before the opponent. They decide and act based on environmental signals — not on adversary action.
Boyd scales up
Boyd’s thinking model is equally relevant at the operational level. Fighter combat is about recognising sight pictures and adapting ng accordingly.
Scaling up from the tactical to the operational level of understanding relies on sensing the components of an environment and recognising change as it is about to happen.
Operational decision-makers must stay ahead of the environmental changes that force an opponent to act a certain way.
Just as physics constrains choices in fighter combat, the warfighting domains shape the choices an adversary can make.
Implications for training
To train and prepare to decide and act using intuition at the operational or campaign level is complex and difficult.
However, it follows the same pattern as basic fighter manoeuvre training: start with simple actions, follow with repetition until each component is mastered, then increase the complexity. Fighter aircrew do not lead and innovate straight out of flight training school.
Instead, they are taught within a controlled environment. This environment progresses from simple pre-planned manoeuvres by two aircraft within visual range, to more difficult long-range intercepts by multiple aircraft, all the way up to training against ‘dissimilar’ adversaries using fighter aircraft with different flight characteristics and EM.
Each environment must be understood, and each picture intuitively recognised before the aircrew can progress.
These are the weights and bars in the brain gym.
The joint force can scale up the concept of fighter combat training using a similar stepped approach: start light, add volume and repetition. Modelling and simulation could be used to provide a model of the operational training environment and present ‘pictures’ for decision-makers that can increase in complexity as each variable is changed.
The ‘weights’ could more lethal weapons, more disruption to communications, less reliability in the information for the commander. The repetition is just that – a series of pictures to practice and refine intuitive decision-making.
As the fifth-generation force becomes a reality, we will have to operate and sense in the environmental layer and respond, not to adversary actions, but environmental factors.
Boyd’s model stresses the importance of observation and orientation to frame and shape decisive action.
Decisive action must be underpinned by situational understanding – not just awareness or speed. Understanding comes through practice in intuitive thinking and increasing volume and repetition when training the mind.
The brain gym uses practice to reinforce knowledge and build intuition and capacity. Exercising the mind through practice, linking actions and their consequences back through decisions to observation and individual orientation.
This approach is the foundation for the ADF’s tactical excellence – but it remains largely absent at the operational level. A close reading of classic texts in strategy and operational art provides the baseline. The extension of professional mastery is developing the swarming mind.
We practice tactical decision making; we need to practice operational decision making.
Dougal Robertson is a Royal Australian Air Force Reserve Intelligence Officer and a graduate of the 2013 Fighter Intelligence Instructor course. He works as a consultant for Defence industry specialising in analytical services and advanced training and tweets as @Mondo_Cogno.
This article was published by Central Blue on February 9, 2020.