Orientation and Action, Part I: The OODA Loop

Our OODA loop helps us know where warfare is headed. Modern warfare is usually divided into the four generations of 1st Generation Warfare (1GW), 2nd Generation Warfare (2GW), 3rd Generation Warfare (3GW), and 4th Generation Warfare (4GW).

Modern War in the Context of the OODA Loop
  • 1GW
    • example: Napoleonic War
    • characteristic: mass armies
    • method of fighting: man-to-man
  • 2GW
    • example: First World War
    • characteristic: mass armies
    • method of fighting: fixed-artillery-to-men
  • 3GW
    • example: Second World War
    • characteristic: blitzkrieg, fast transitions from one maneuver to the next
    • method of fighting: tanks/bombers-to-cities/armies
  • 4GW
    • example: Vietnam War
    • characteristic: dispiriting the enemy
    • method of fighting: propagandists-to-populations

In a recent post where he tries to look ahead to what the 5th Generation of Warfare (5GW) would be, Mark Safranski writes

A strong possibility exists that given successive generations of warfare tend to drive ” deeper” into enemy territory, that 5GW will mean systemic liquidation of enemy networks and their sympathizers, essentially a total war on a society or subsection of a society. There is no where ” deeper” for 5GW to go but here. At the high tech end 5GW would be precisely targeted to winnow out ” the bad guys” in a souped-up version of Operation Phoenix but at the low-tech end we could see campaigns that would be indiscriminate, democidally-oriented death squad campaigns that shred 4GW networks by the same actuarially merciless logic that led the Allies to firebomb German and Japanese cities in WWII.

War is going deeper, but by that I do not mean “farther into enemy territory.” Certainly you can’t get any deeper than obliteration of Dresden or Hiroshima! For that matter, centuries ago Catholic terrorists tried to destroy the British Parliament, which was the deepest heart of the British government!

War is going deeper into enemy minds. Every generation of warfare aims for deeper in the enemy’s OODA loop

1GWs, like the Napoleon Wars, were extremely fluid. Armies could march whenever men’s feet could carry them. Information was relatively symmetrical — precise locations of either army were unavailable to any commander, while general knowledge of the land was known to all commanders. (Napoleonic “disinformation” was trivial compared to what was later devised.) Another feature of the Napoleon Wars was the army’s need to live off the land. 1GW was defined by conflict centered around an enemy’s ability to decide and act.

Aim Destroy enemy army


2GWs, like the First World War, were sticky. Armies took marched, drove, or took trains to the front line — where they stopped. In 2nd Generation War, action is easy: charge. You know exactly where you are, exactly where the enemy is, and exactly where you are going to die (in the razorwire and minefield, hit by enemy crossfire). Thanks to telegraphs and modern communications, commanders are flooded with a tsunami of almost meaningless facts. Thinking now centers around where and when it makes sense to try to break through, as well as the how to move to advance evenly. This means that the heart of conflict “moves deeper” into the OODA loop. Another way to think of it is like a rainbow or spectrum, where the heart of conflict is “redshifting” away from acting. 2GW was defined by conflict centered around an enemy’s ability to orient and decide.

Offensives conducted on wide frontages—emphasizing few, rather than many, harmonious yet independent thrusts.

Evenness of advance maintained to protect flanks and provide artillery support as advance makes headway.


3GWs, like the trenches for most of the Second World War or the Lawrence of Arabia campaign in the First World War, were fluid again. But conflict kept burrowing deeper into the OODA loop and redshifting further away from action. Victory in 3rd Generation Wars required the ability to instill madness — to mess with the enemy’s minds. The purpose of 3rd Generation Warfare is to paralyze the enemy with doubt. We move even deeper into the OODA loop, to the red end of the rainbow. 3GW is defined by conflict centered around an enemy’s ability to orient.

Taken together, the captured attention, the obscured view, and the indistinct character of moving dispersed/irregular swarms deny adversary the opportunity to pictures what is taking place.


Gain support of population. Must “arrange the minds” of friend, foe and neutral alike. Must “get inside their minds”.


If older generations of war were like fluids, 4GW was like a gas. It spreads everywhere yet regular armies have a hard time even finding battles. Like 3rd Generation Wars, 4th Generation Wars focus on the picture inside the enemy’s head. But while 3GW tries to destroy the picture, 4GW builds a new one. This picture is built in that part of the OODA loop where people “wait and see,” the double-headed arrow between Observe and Orient. While 3GW tries to paralyze the enemy with doubt, 4GW tries to deny him even that much — 4GW drains the will of the enemy so he “waits and sees,” robbing him of his ability to want to do anything. In practice, this means 4GW tries to destroy an enemy’s civil society, turning his population into mindless cowards. To achieve this, 4GW is defined by conflict centered around Observe and Orient.

John Boyd’s words on the tactics of “moral warfare,” an important part of 4GW:

Create, exploit, and magnify … uncertainty

Impressions, or atmosphere, generated by events that appear ambiguous, erratic, contradictory, unfamiliar, chaotic, etc.


Surface, fear, anxiety, and alienation in order to generate many non-cooperative centers of gravity, as well as subvert those that adversary depends upon, thereby magnify internal friction.


So if these patterns hold, what will 5GW look like?

Visually, like this

The 4th Generation of War redshifts deeper into the OODA loop. It slides into the “Observation” realm. If traditional war centered on an enemy’s physical strength, and 4GW on his moral strength, the 5th Generation of War would focus on his intellectual strength. A 5th Generation War might be fought with one side not knowing who it is fighting. Or even, a brilliantly executed 5GW might involve one side being completely ignorant that there ever was a war. It’s like the old question of what was the perfect robbery: we will never know, because in a perfect robbery the bank would not know that it was robbed.

In his post, Mark Safranski noted that 4GW was around for decades its nature was recognized.

William Lind, one of the fathers of 4GW theory has welcomed yet cautioned against attempts to ascertain with too much precision any outlines of a 5th Generation Warfare that might be evolving within the dynamic of 4GW conflicts we see in Iraq, Afghanistan and in transnational terrorism. Yet according to theorists and practitioners of 4GW like Colonel Hammes, that form of warfare, although just now coming in to its own has already been present for some seventy years ! Undoubtedly then 5GW is also here with us, waiting for the next Mao or Rommel to fit the disparate puzzle pieces into a coherent pattern.

This means that, in their pragmatic attempts to solve problems, both al Qaeda and the United States might be using aspects of 5GW right now. Where will historians of the future look to see aspects of a secret war? Of a war centered on ignorance?

The 9/11 Commission

Al Qaeda’s new brand of terrorism presented challenges to U. S. governmental institutions that they were not well-designed to meet. Though top officials all told us that they understood the danger, we believe there was uncertainty among them as to whether this was just a new and especially venomous version of the ordinary terrorist threat the United States had lived with for decades, or it was indeed radically new, posing a threat beyond any yet experienced. As late as September 4, 2001, Richard Clarke, the White House staffer long responsible for counterterrorism policy coordination, asserted that the govern-ment had not yet made up its mind how to answer the question: “Is al Qida a big deal?”

A week later came the answer. Policy Terrorism was not the overriding national security concern for the U. S. government under either the Clinton or the pre-9/ 11 Bush administration.

The policy challenges were linked to this failure of imagination

President Bush:

Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.

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