Opening the Loop

By Maj Ian T Brown

Many Marines are familiar with the name of John Boyd. Most associate Boyd with the “OODA loop,” (observation, orientation, decision, action) a decision-making cycle that was born from air-to-air combat tactics. It later spread as an analytical tool for all levels of war, making its way into the business world and beyond. Others are aware of his connection to the Marine Corps’ maneuver warfare doctrine as encapsulated in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, War fighting (Washington, DC: HQMC, 1989). But few know of the deep historical and philosophical foundation upon which these seemingly simple concepts are built. This article delves into the rich historical synthesis and analysis that John Boyd cultivated in himself and the lucky few who experienced his briefings firsthand. It will examine the intellectual progression that contributed heavily to the doctrine of maneuver warfare and shed additional light on the OODA loop, a much more complex decision-making system than is commonly appreciated. It is my hope that the reader will gain greater appreciation for a mind that, more than any other, shaped how the modern Marine Corps thinks about war.

Boyd’s theories (along with the manic enthusiasm with which he promoted them) were a product of his military career; therefore, a brief outline of it is in order. He was born 23 January 1927, in Erie, PA, and shared the hard circumstances experienced by many Americans during the Great Depression.1 Enlisting in the Army Air Corps at the end of World War II, he arrived in Japan too late for the fighting.2 He was discharged in 1947 but later commissioned in the newly independent Air Force in 1951 after the outbreak of the Korean War.3 Selected to fly the F-86 Sabre, he finally reached an active combat theater in Korea, but the war ended before Boyd was able to establish himself in a flight leadership position that would have made him a “shooter.”4 While he never recorded an enemy kill, the contrast in performance between Soviet and American fighter aircraft resonated with him and later led to the first of his contributions to war fighting theory.5 Reassigned to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, Boyd became an influential instructor at the Fighter Weapons School (FWS). He immodestly announced plans to “tweak up the tactics section” of the curriculum while proving his prowess in the skies.6 Here, the legend of “40-Second Boyd” was born. He had a standing bet that he would meet any pilot over a preselected patch of ground, and get on his tail for a kill within 40 seconds of the engagement commencing or pay the victor $40.7 In 1959, Boyd applied for and was selected to attend the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT). Determined that the FWS’ tactics program not languish after his departure, he decided to develop and codify his own manual on fighter tactics.8 The resulting Aerial Attack Study was such a thorough piece of work that no significant contributions have been made to fighter tactics since its publication.9

After completing his engineering degree through AFIT, Boyd was assigned to Eglin Air Force Base, FL, where his interest in fighter tactics led to a deeper inquiry into aircraft performance.10 This inquiry—aided by government computers to which Boyd gained access under dubious legality—led to his energy-maneuverability (E-M) theory.11 This theory allowed for the calculation of an aircraft’s performance based on its design characteristics, or, conversely, one could calculate the optimum aircraft design required to deliver a desired performance.12 Boyd took this principle with him to his next assignment at the Pentagon, where he tried, with varying levels of success, to apply scientific rigor in designing superior fighter aircraft.13 After a year-long tour at a secret base in Thailand—his only command experience—Boyd returned to the Pentagon.14 But exhausted and frustrated by further battles over aircraft development and acquisition, Boyd finally retired from active duty as a colonel in 1975.15 He focused his energies on a paper called “Destruction and Creation” and, later, his “Patterns of Conflict” briefing.16 Boyd delivered this brief hundreds of times and continuously revised it until just before his death.17 In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Boyd also joined the military reform movement, which sought to bring some measure of efficiency to what reformers believed was a bloated and inefficient Pentagon bureaucracy.18 Boyd died in 1997.19

Having reviewed Boyd’s career, we will turn to the fundamentals of his work in warfighting theory. Boyd believed that the “American way of war”—which he often disdainfully described as “high diddle diddle, straight up the middle”—was rooted in the bloody and expensive idea of attrition.20 Attrition warfare involved throwing one’s military strength against that of an opponent, with the goal of causing more material damage to him than he did to you. Boyd believed that there had to be a better way, and he combed through thousands of years of military history to find it. But before touting the robust historical study that would become his “Patterns of Conflict” brief, he felt that he needed an entirely new mental framework to analyze the problem. Boyd described this framework in his essay, “Destruction and Creation.” The pages of this short essay underpinned all of his future research into the nature of war, and were where Boyd’s unique contribution to the study of warfare was found.

Underlying Boyd’s discussion in “Destruction and Creation” is the fundamental assumption that all human activity is shaped by the goal of ensuring survival on one’s own terms.21 Survival demands constant and repeated action. An action that supports the goal of survival must be influenced by a proper decision. Such decisions are formed by constructing “mental concepts of observed reality,” and changing these concepts when reality is perceived to change.22 Boyd argued that these mental concepts were derived in two ways: general-to-specific (deductive) and specific-to-general (inductive).23 The essence of deduction is destructive, as it smashes one or more larger “domains” into smaller constituent elements. Induction is constructive: it finds the commonality among a multitude of free-floating elements and builds them into a new domain or concept. Using these patterns, an observer could thereby change his perception of reality. He would then verify the internal consistency of this new perception and the degree to which it matched reality. Satisfied that his new concept was internally consistent and matched what he was seeing, the observer would then focus inward to refine further the concept and match it with reality.24 Here, Boyd argued, was the potential for a dangerous divergence. This self-satisfaction tended to block out any “alternative ideas and interactions” that might “expand, complete, or modify the concept.”25 The mental block created by this inward refinement meant that a “mismatch” was created between “new observations and the anticipated concept description of these observations.”26 Obviously a discrepancy between “actual” reality and “perceived” reality could be detrimental to making the decisions and taking the necessary actions to ensure one’s survival.

To prove this decision-making concept, Boyd tied together strands from the realms of mathematics and physics. The first strand was Kurt Gödel’s proof that the consistency of a system cannot be proved from within the system; one needed another system beyond it to do so.27 The second strand was Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which held that the very presence of an observer introduced an element of uncertainty into the system being observed, making it difficult to “determine the character or nature (consistency) of a system within itself.”28 The deeper an observer injected himself into the observed system, the more erratic behavior he would see of which he himself was the cause. The final strand came from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This stated that all observed processes create entropy, a “low capacity for taking action or a high degree of confusion and disorder.”29 Entropy increased within closed systems. This made it impossible to determine the system’s consistency from within itself as it was always moving toward a higher state of confusion and disorder.

How did Boyd relate all of this to his decision-making concept? Per Gödel, one cannot determine the true nature of a system from within itself. Heisenberg and the Second Law of Thermodynamics showed that any inward directed attempt to do so only increased the uncertainty and disorder of that system, pushing it further away from the true nature of the reality observed. Thus, once an individual made a decision and chose an action, clinging to this decision and attempting to refine it without any additional external input would, over time, make that decision less and less suited to reality, and that action less conducive to survival (and therefore potentially self-destructive).30 The solution to this dilemma went back to his initial destructive deduction and creative induction concept. The observer could never be satisfied that his most recent observation of reality was, in fact, “final.” He had to break it down again and again, using both the broken pieces from within the system and new observations outside of it to build an even newer perception.31 This never ending decision-making process was the only way to ensure that an individual made fundamental survival choices with the most accurate perception of reality possible.

While abstract, understanding Boyd’s revolutionary decision-making construct is necessary for analyzing his subsequent and better known work. “Destruction and Creation” introduced this construct on a theoretical and individual basis. In “Patterns of Conflict,” Boyd applied it to the realm of survival on a national basis. To Boyd, warfare was this struggle for survival writ large. “Patterns of Conflict” surveyed concrete historical examples wherein the concept of “Destruction and Creation” was successfully used. From these examples, one could “make manifest the nature of the Moral-Mental-Physical Conflict; … discern a Pattern for Successful Operations; … help generalize Tactics and Strategy; … find a basis for Grand Strategy;” and ultimately “unveil the character of conflict, survival, and conquest.”32

“Patterns of Conflict,” though less abstract than “Destruction and Creation,” remained a dense and difficult document. But the undercurrent was clear enough, especially if one was already familiar with “Destruction and Creation.” Those who were would recognize the opening comment that the goal of humans is to:

… survive, survive on [our] own terms, or improve our capacity for independent action. The competition for limited resources to satisfy these desires may force one to: diminish [sic] adversary’s capacity for independent action, or deny him the opportunity to survive on his own terms, or make it impossible for him to survive at all.33

This evoked “Destruction and Creation,” and how the decision-making process of the individual was crucial to his own survival. War was survival’s greatest struggle and required decisions and actions from both the individual and the group. Boyd took his audience through many historical examples of war and different methods for making decisions and taking action. He began with Sun Tzu and then took his reader through Greek and Roman conflicts; the Mongol invasion and pre-Napoleonic European battles; Napoleon himself and his two most famous interpreters, Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini; detoured briefly into the conflict between 19th century economic systems before returning to conventional warfare in World Wars I and II; and ended the “survey” with contemporary guerrilla conflicts before extrapolating the elements of success common to each of these eras.34

Noting that the “blitzkrieg/guerrilla” style of war had seemed the most successful throughout history, he outlined their commonalities.35 They were avoiding battle and instead attacking those things that gave an enemy cohesion; repeatedly using ambiguity, mobility, and violence to generate surprise and shock; and then dealing with enemy fragments isolated by shock and lack of cohesion. By the end, an adversary would be paralyzed and collapse. Here was the message behind this success:

1) Blitz and guerrillas, by being able to operate in a directed, yet more indistinct, more irregular, and quicker manner than their adversaries, can:

a) Repeatedly concentrate or disperse more inconspicuously and/or more quickly from or to lower levels of distinction (organizational, operational, and environmental) without losing internal harmony, as well as,

b) Repeatedly and unexpectedly infiltrate or penetrate adversaries’ vulnerabilities and weaknesses in order to splinter, isolate or envelop, and overwhelm disconnected remnants of adversary organism …

2) Blitz and guerrillas, by operating in a directed, yet more indistinct, more irregular, and quicker manner, operate inside their adversaries’ observation-orientation-decision-action loops or get inside their mind-time-space as basis to penetrate the moral-mental-physical being of their adversaries in order to pull them apart, and bring about their collapse.36

Successful “blitzers” and guerrillas practiced what Boyd characterized as “maneuver conflict,” and a comparison shows the similarities between the two. In maneuver conflict, one created and used ambiguity, deception, “novelty,” “fast transient maneuvers,” and a focused effort to disorient, disrupt, and overload an adversary. The aim of maneuver conflict was to:

… generate many non-cooperative centers of gravity, as well as disorient, disrupt, or overload those that the adversary depends upon, in order to magnify friction, shatter cohesion, produce paralysis, and bring about his collapse; or equivalently, uncover, create, and exploit many vulnerabilities and weaknesses, hence many opportunities, to pull adversary apart and isolate remnants for mop-up or absorption.37

Boyd had a habit of framing the same issue in many different ways, so we will not explore his many tangents on subordinate definitions and discussions of maneuver conflict. Yet, he did provide the reader with a “wrap-up” that tied together the threads of “Patterns of Conflict” and “Destruction and Creation.” In war, the “game” is to:

– Create tangles of threatening and/or non-threatening events/efforts as well as repeatedly generate mismatches between those events/efforts adversary observes or imagines (Cheng/Nebenpunkte) and those he must react to (Ch’i/Schwerpunkt) as basis to

– Penetrate adversary organism to sever his moral bonds, disorient his mental images, disrupt his operations, and overload his system, as well as subvert or seize those moral-mental-physical bastions, connections, or activities that he depends upon, thereby

– Pull adversary apart, produce paralysis, and collapse his will to resist.38

One accomplished this by getting “inside [the] adversary observation-orientation-decision-action loops (at all levels) by being more subtle, more indistinct, more irregular, and quicker—yet appear to be otherwise.” Here, the thrust of Boyd’s argument became clear. In “Destruction and Creation,” Boyd warned of the danger inherent in a mismatch between perception and reality. In war, the goal was to create precisely such a mismatch for the enemy. One had to prevent the enemy from gleaning the benefit of the continuous destructive/creative decision-making cycle. The adversary’s focus had to be kept inward on a deteriorating “observed” system that was increasingly out of synchronization with “true” reality. His decisions and actions would be less and less useful to his own survival, until his entire system finally collapsed, and he was rendered incapable of any decision or activity. War would target an enemy’s decision-making system; maneuver conflict was the methodology by which the target would be attacked. Maneuver conflict did not require a specific technology or timeframe, but a relentless focus on tearing apart an adversary’s ability to do those things necessary for his own cohesion and survival. Boyd demonstrated throughout “Patterns of Conflict” that it was this mental attitude that had enabled the successes of history’s greatest commanders.

We will conclude with a deeper analysis of one final concept: the OODA loop. Perhaps the most well known of Boyd’s ideas, it is also the most misrepresented. The OODA loop is commonly depicted as seen in Figure 1.39 A simple four-step decision-making process, it begins with observation: sensing one’s self and the world around him.40 Orientation follows and is the application of many “filters,” such as culture, knowledge, and personal experience, to the initial observation.41 Next, potential actions are considered and the observer chooses one. Finally, there is action, or the application of that decision. Seeing the results of that action, the observer then begins the whole process over again. Boyd’s critics and proponents both mistook this oversimplification for the full nature of the “Boyd cycle.” Even William Lind—who helped bring Boyd’s work to the attention of the Marine Corps—did not go beyond this basic level of understanding. He argued that the key to maneuver warfare was going through this decision-making process more quickly than one’s opponent; or “Boyd Cycling the enemy.”42 Critics argued that the OODA loop was simplistic and flawed.43 Those critics might have been right, if that were all there was to the loop. That was not the case; Boyd himself had not offered a graphical depiction of the OODA loop he often wrote about until two years before his death. When he finally did (see Figure 2), it was a far richer concept than its four steps belied.44 Here, the loop is not a one-way cycle of seeing, deciding, and doing. It is “an ongoing many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, correlation, and rejection.”45 And while observation is the first step, orientation is the most important: it “shapes observation, shapes decision, shapes action, and in turn is shaped by the feedback and other phenomena coming into our sensing or observing window.”46 Indeed, orientation is actually the entire process described in “Destruction and Creation” writ small.47 Finally, Boyd never argued that success came from merely cycling through the loop at a faster absolute speed than an opponent. Tempo, not time, was the key factor. To remain unpredictable, one’s own timing had to vary to prevent an adversary from recognizing a pattern.48 Furthermore, time and tempo were only two of many factors used against an opponent to render him incapable of activity; one still sought to isolate and neuter physical and non-physical strengths and moral bonds simultaneously.49 All of this was examined during the critical orientation phase and was applicable from the grand strategic to the tactical level.



This article has briefly summarized the philosophical and historical foundation of Boydian theory that the world knows simply as maneuver warfare and the OODA loop. Hopefully, the reader now appreciates that these were not merely trendy doctrinal bullets but rich concepts built on a lifetime of study and synthesized by a fiery intellect. Those interested in exploring more of Boyd’s life should consult the Coram biography or Grant T. Hammond’s The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2004). Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd is an in-depth look at Boyd’s theories. Boyd did not formally publish most of his papers or briefings, but the Defense and the National Interest website has digital versions of his original works (


1. David R. Mets, “Boydmania,” Air & Space Power Journal, (Montgomery, AL: Air University Press 2004), 100.

2. Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2002), 29–30.

3. Ibid., 38.

4. Ibid., 53.

5. Ibid., 55–56.

6. Ibid., 67.

7. Ibid., 87–88.

8. Ibid., 103.

9. Ibid., 116.

10. Ibid., 137.

11. Ibid., 145–146.

12. Ibid., 148.

13. Ibid., 221–231 discusses Boyd’s work on the F-15; Ibid., 243–265 outlines his influence on the development of the F-16 lightweight fighter.

14. Ibid., 264.

15. Ibid., 311–312.

16. Ibid., 322–323.

17. Ibid., 431.

18. Ibid., 345–368; See also: Eugene Jarecki, The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril, (New York, NY: Free Press, 2008), 173–180.

19. Ibid., 435.

20. Ibid., 371.

21. John R. Boyd, “Destruction and Creation,” in A Discourse on Winning and Losing, (unpublished manuscript, 1987), 1.

22. Ibid., 2.

23. Ibid., 3.

24. Ibid., 4–7.

25. Ibid., 7.

26. Ibid., 8.

27. Ibid., 8–9.

28. Ibid., 11.

29. Ibid., 13.

30. Ibid., 13–14.

31. Ibid., 14–15.

32. John R. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” in A Discourse on Winning and Losing, (unpublished manuscript, 1987), 2.

33. Ibid., 10.

34. Ibid., 10–97.

35. Ibid., 98.

36. Ibid., 101.

37. Ibid., 117.

38. Ibid., 175.

39. Frans P.B. Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007), 2.

40. Ibid., 230.

41. Ibid., 230–232.

42. William S. Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985), 6.

43. Mets, “Boydmania,” 105–106; See also Barry Scott Zellen, Art of War in an Asymmetric World: Strategy for the Post-Cold War Era, (London: Continuum International Publishing, 2012), 82; Osinga, 6.

44. Ibid., 231.

45. Ibid., 232.

46. Ibid., 230.

47. Ibid., 232.

48. Ibid., 235–236.

49. Ibid., 236.