Orientation and Action, Introduction: On War Since John Boyd

Patterns of Conflict,” by John Boyd, edited by Chuck Spinney and Chet Edwards, Defense in the National Interest, Boyd’s last edition, December 1986, PowerPoint edition, 27 February 2005, http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2005/05/23/john_r_boyd_s_patterns_of_conflict_brief.html.
Unto the Fifth Generation of War,” by Mark Safranski, ZenPundit, 17 July 2005, http://zenpundit.blogspot.com/2005/07/unto-fifth-generation-of-war.html.

The Generations of War in the Context of the OODA Loop

Whether you view reality as land, or as a sea, or even a mystical body, one thing is clear: you exist with it.

More specifically, you can effect the world and the world can effect you. Action flows from you to the world, and information flows from the world to you. Whether you kick a rock, pet a dog, or eat a snack, the your flow of action and the world’s flow of information make life what it is.

This is true no matter what you are. If you are a fighter, process remains the same. The fighter acts on the world, and the world blowbacks to the fighter. Blowback is the residue — the only thing that remains — of the fighter’s action after the action. A happy and lucky fighter gets easy and pleasant blowback. Fighters to choose poorly have less pleasant experiences.

The above three charts show the individual and the world as entities, and the lines are their relations. The graphics are called Entity-Relation, or E-R diagrams, and are commonly used to understand databases.

Another way to look at things is with flowcharts. Let’s take a look at the same fighter / world system, but with flowcharts. Here, a process called “fighting” effects a direct access storage device called the “world.”

Remember, this is exactly the same thing as before:

But what is this fighting? What sub-processes make up this process called “fighting”? Or for that matter, what sub-processes make up the process we called “being human”?

Air Force Colonel John Boyd invented something he called a “decision loop,” made up of four sub-processes called “observing,” “orienting,” “deciding,” and “acting.” While his original graphic was rather ugly, we can expand our “fighting-world” flow-chart to show his decision loop:

Or, even better:

Because the four stages start with O, O, D, and A, the decision loop is sometimes called an “OODA” loop. In the model…

  • We observe reality. We take that observation and make sense of it. We oriented new things we see against what we already think we know.
  • After we oriented new facts, we may go back into observing. This may happen if we are confused, or we just want to “wait and see.” Alternatively, we might decide what to do.
  • When we make decisions, two things happen. Obviously, the first thing is that we observe that we made a decision. We might then orient that with thinking that our decisions have often been bad, and paralyze ourselves with doubt.
  • The other thing that happens when we make a decision is we go on and act. Action effects the world, like when we chase a cat or rob a bank. Actions are implicitly guided by our orientation too. For example, you go through the entire OODA loop to decide to walk to the store, but many individual actions (how to move your legs to walk) are guided by your orientation without any decision to do so.


With this introduction of John Boyd’s out of the war, read on to see how it explains the many generations of modern war…

Orientation and Action, a tdaxp series
1. The OODA Loop
2. The OODA-PISRR Loop

13 thoughts on “Orientation and Action, Introduction: On War Since John Boyd”

  1. “In the panel proper, Bruce explained how the trench warfare of World War I was enabled by the large gun factories created by the British and French for a naval war against each other that never happened. Nonetheless, the ability to mass produce lots of very large guns remained after the English Channel Threat had passed. So when a new problem (German aggressiveness) came up, warfighters reached for the tools they already had: in that case, including large artillery pieces.”

    Is this right? Or is something missing? My recollection of WWI was the French went into WWI with virtually no heavy artillery. They relied almost exclusively on their 75 mm guns. The British Army of 1914 was also deficient in heavy artillery. The Germans relied in part on Skoda heavy howitzers, non German, in 1914. Didn’t trench warfare break out before large numbers of heavy guns made it to the western front? I am not an Engineer but I get the impression that a factory that builds 12 inch naval guns is not easily converted to 6 inch guns for land warfare. Wouldn’t the machine tools be smaller? Who makes the gun carriages in place of the turrets, the different type of ammunition and different types of sights for indirect fire?

  2. The French 75mm was one of the best artillery pieces ever made – 1897. It was still ripping fortified enemy installations to shreds on Iwo Jima in 1945.

    I think the machine gun made it very difficult to displace an entrenched army with tactics from the prior century, so it became a stalemate.

  3. sonofsamphm1c,

    It was the best in 1897, but it was equaled by almost everyone else by WW1. Among other shortcomings it was not easily capable of high angle fire.

    I think you are wrong about the US version of the French 75 mm gun being used on Iwo Jima. I think they used the 75 mm M1A1 pack howitzer. .

    I think this was the gun they used:


    I feel very uncomfortable disagreeing with Bruce Gudmundsson. A lot of what I learned about military history is from his books. I would like to here his clarification or why I am mistaken.

  4. No, they used the French 75mm design. Prior to the war my father trained on a French 75mm piece while in ROTC at Iowa State.

    He served in the 75mm half-track platoon on Iwo Jima, and it was the low trajectory, excellent direct-fire capability of the weapon that made it so effective on Iwo Jima (it was also capable of very accurate indirect fire.)

    It was, I think, the last time the USMC used it in combat. When they returned to Hawaii it was replaced in their unit by Priests. I don't think the 75mm saw duty on Okinawa, and they had to improvise to replace its effectiveness.

  5. The 75mm howitzer you linked was used by the 13th Regiment on Iwo Jima (artillery regiment.)

  6. The defining conflict of WWI was not between nations, but between the mechanization and mass unit tactics. That is what mired armies in trench warfare. Machine guns and repeating rifles made mass infantry and even cavalry charges little more than mass suicides. With no alternative strategic theories, old European commanders dug in and not until more resourceful players and more mobile mechanization (airplanes, tanks) came into play could trench stale-mates be broken. Watch the movie “Sgt. York” and you can get a simplified picture (and an only slightly romanticized intro to one of the greatest citizen soldiers ever). Artillery was and is very important in ground and naval ops, but it is only a part and necessarily a preliminary, “softening up” or “structure-clearing” part in most contexts. The idea that heavy artillery somehow dictated trench warfare seems to me remarkably silly.

  7. First, I want to say that this discussion is mind-blowingly amazing discussion. It's always a pleasure to be surrounded by smarter and more knowledgeable people than I am. I am learning a lot here.

    And then broadly:

    “The idea that heavy artillery somehow dictated trench warfare seems to me remarkably silly.”

    The take-away I was after is that the heavy artiller enabled “2GW” based on concentration of firepower. In the same way, building up a Military-Industrial-Syadmin-Complex enables a “5GW” based on systemic advantages (see also Chicago Boyz [1])

    [1] http://chicagoboyz.net/archives/5080.html#comment-87875

  8. I understand your point about heavy artillery as an enabler of 2nd generation warfare and how commanders used heavy artillery because it was made available to them after the stalemate.

    If I recall the years leading up to WWI accurately the “merchants of death” tried to interest nations in heavy artillery (land and rail) and got almost no interest till after WWI started. I think only the Germans planned on its use to deal with Belgian fortifications. The interesting thing was that the Belgian forts were made with inferior concrete. The same heavy artillery failed to crack the French fortresses at Verdun in 1916. It did not matter because based on the Belgian experience the French had already withdrawn from most of their prepared fortifications at Verdun.

    I do not think it was till 1917 that the Germans figured out how to integrate artillery into a successful attack.


  9. Dan,

    The barrels on the USS South Dakota in Sioux Falls had to be cut up for transport to Sioux Falls and welded back together. I think they're 16 inch. That's in the modern age of transportation.

    Barrels are just tremendously heavy and cumbersome things.

    There is a great film of a WW1 artillery piece being moved by a beautiful team of white bulls – about eight to a dozen animals. They whipped it around the field like a toy gun. That was a 3″ gun – an 18 pounder. That gun was plentiful. You get into 60 pounders, and you are talking a whole bunch of animals just to move one of them. The 4th piece would sink up to its hubs in horse stuff.

    I would suspect that was the real limit on the use of heavy ordinance.

  10. The French Army of 1914 had very little in the way of modern heavy artillery, i.e. pieces in calibers over 75mm with on-carriage recoil mechanisms. They did, however, have a huge stock of older heavy pieces, weapons that had been designed in the 1870s and 1880s. These older weapons, which had been well ahead of their time when introduced, were every bit as good as state-of-the-art pieces where things such as range and accuracy were concerned. However, the absence of modern recoil mechanisms meant that they had slower rates of fire, were more difficult to move from one firing position to another, and required more work from their crews.

    Just before the outbreak of war, the French authorities began a program to obtain modern heavy artillery and raise units to employ it in the field. While they were waiting for the new pieces to arrive, the units – the Régiments d’Artillerie Lourde – were issued by older pieces as stop-gap weapons. Soon after the start of the war, the French authorities began a crash program to provide the older pieces with better mountings and send them to the front.

  11. To expand a bit on Mr.Gudmundsson’s comments. The recoil mechanism is what made the French 75 so effective. Since the energy of recoil was absorbed by a device very much like the shock absorbers on your car, the cannon could continue firing at the same target as fast as the crew could reload and fire it.

    The other big advantage of the recoil system is that the carriage of the gun could be built much lighter than previous artillery pieces which had to be much more massive to withstand the force of firing the gun. That was an extremely important consideration when artillery had to be towed by draft animals.

    The Germans built a 77 mm direct fire gun which was if not copied, at least inspired by the French gun. The Germans also built 10 cm and 15 cm howitzers which used recoil mechanisms. These guns were light enough to keep up with the advancing German troops in 1914. The pre war British army was able to slow down the German advance through Belgium long enough for the French to mobilize but “The Old Contemptables” were largely exterminated in the process, primarily by the German howitzers.

    To be honest, although most of the casualties in WW I were from artillery, I think that the trench warfare was largely a result of the state of logistics and communications in the 1914-1918 era. Factories could produce large quantities of manufactured goods including rations and ammunition and deliver it by railroad. The problem is that once the stuff was unloaded from the railroad, it was mostly transported by human or animal muscle power. That means that even if your troops were able to break through enemy lines, you could not keep them supplied and reinforced to withstand counterattacks by forces that could be moved and supplied by train. The state of the art for radios at that time means that they were too big, heavy and fragile to be carried to where they could call in artillery on enemy resistance. Although artillery of the time was about as accurate as modern artillery, its accuracy could not be used since observers could not communicate with the gun crews and most of the shells fired were shot into a general area.

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