Chet Richards on Formlessness and Orientation

Chet Richards on Formlessness and Orientation

Describing , Tom Barnett wrote:

Chet, whom I write about in BFA, is an intense fellow who lives and breathes national security like few people you’ll meet. He’s also more systematic in his thinking on the subject of military strategy than anyone I’ve ever heard speak, and I’ve heard a lot.

Dr. Richards recent accomplishment involve applying the logic of to business and military strategy. His business-oriented website, Belisarius, was recently featured in a tdaxp article on 5GW, while Chet’s military-oriented site Defense and the National Interest has long been on the tdaxp blogroll.

A noted author, Chet’s books include Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd Applied to Business and Neither Shall the Sword: Conflict in the Years Ahead.


As Dr. Richards has been kind enough to help tdaxp before, I asked his help when questions on Boydian logic on Liberal Education. So I asked him. Part of his answer surprised me.

On Implicit Guidance & Control in the

In a real-time operation, the “Implicit guidance and control” link from Orientation to Action should control, most of the time (95-99%). Important to recognize, though that this is not a reflex, not a direct Observation – Action link. It goes through Orientation, which is where previous experience and intuitive analyses/synthesis come into play.

The key to the Decision box is the subtitle, “Hypothesis.” The Decision block is the learning phase, where you try things out and learn from the result. It is part of how the loop shapes future Orientation. What you learn becomes a part of your (previous) experiences as well as affecting the types of analyses and syntheses you are able to perform. It is still operating even in the middle of a fight, although at a reduced level, since you will learn somethings about your opponent in the contest. However, it is most active in training, where you can try new things and learn without getting killed. All the hours of training that the martial artists go through is to program their Orientations so that the vast majority of the time, effective actions flow smoothly and rapidly from Orientation. A formal decision mechanism would be too slow. In fact, one thing you would like to do is force your opponent to make explicit decisions, i.e., force him out of what he can handle intuitively. Operating inside his/her OODA loops is one way to do just that.

On Formlessness.

“Larry, one of my commentators, noted that it’s no so much formlessness, as the absence of an especially-notable form. I thought that was interesting.”
– Dan tdaxp

It is most interesting. One can look at formlessness in several
ways, including:

1) The form is there, but it’s hidden or disguised. I’m pretty sure this is not what Sun Tzu had in mind, since a competent opponent using his intelligence (Chapter 13) would discover it. Not to say that camouflage or dummies, etc. aren’t extremely useful, but they aren’t what “formlessness” is about. So in that sense, I disagree with Larry. It’s not so much whether the form is notable, but whether it’s there at all. [compare against this and that — tdaxp]

2) One can take different forms, depending on the situation. This is most effective when you have more than a small set of forms (“stances”) to choose from. In the extreme, you have infinitely many, like water or a gas. I think this is a much more powerful interpretation. Also, water, although soft and formless, can destroy entire cities under the right conditions.

3) Related to 2), you may not have a “form” per se, but you have a culture / climate that allows you to find and exploit opportunities. So you don’t worry about your “form,” but about the organizational climate. Continuing with the water example: It can also penetrate the smallest crevice and so over time bring down the strongest wall. Watts goes into some detail on this point. Infiltration tactics in maneuver warfare is a good example.

4) And then there is the time element. Perhaps you have a form, even a transitory one as in 3), but you can change it more rapidly than the opponent can figure it out. This change could be organic, as in reconnaissance pull. So as far as the opponent is concerned you are formless. In particular, there is no “form” that his intelligence can discover, as Sun Tzu warns, and if he does discover one, it won’t be the right one by the time he can do something about it.

5) Related to 4) you have a form, but it is cheng. Your ch’i in that case could be the “formless” component. Or maybe it’s the other way around … The rapidity with which you can switch between these now becomes important.

On Fast Formlessness

” …if someone is inside your loop, they are not easy to see. In more ways than not, a true 4GW warrior is hidden. “
– Larry

Everybody who has studied this stuff has made a similar observation. If, for example, you employ an attrition-based doctrine, and you come up against someone employing maneuver warfare (which, incidentally, can include guerrilla warfare), you won’t understand what hit you. You may well think you’re winning up until the time the enemy breaks down the door to your palace.

Larry’s comment is especially pertinent to 4GW, since there you may well not even realize you’re at war.