OODA Loop and Network Centric Warfare

A Guest Post by Ferret

SHAH ALAM: USAF Col John Boyd’s Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action (OODA) loop anchors much of the principles and arguments found in the ‘Network-centric battlefield’ discourse.

In essence, Boyd’s loop deals with one’s ability to stay ahead of the adversary and thus dictate the tempo of engagement, thereby increasing one’s chances of winning the engagement.

Boyd was a fighter pilot and air tactics instructor who studied aerial engagements of the Korean War in which he had flown missions. The tactical insight gleaned brought him to the conclusion that each engagement can be boiled down to four basic components: observation of the enemy, orientation to the situation, deciding the next course of action and taking the action necessary to ensure victory. These components are fundamental to any engagement and applies, — according to its supporters — to all levels of warfare. He abstracted this down to what is now known as the OODA Loop.

OODA Loop. Wikipedia
OODA Loop. Wikipedia

The principles and thoughts behind the OODA Loop have found their strongest proponents among the US Marine Corps and several military thinkers (Lind, von Creveld) who have extended it into their discourse on what is called Fourth Generation War (4GW) or the “New War”, encouraged in part by US experience in the Afghan and Iraq wars.

Boyd did not explicitly discuss how the OODA Loop works, but rather intimates it via his discussions. The OODA Loop is not, as is frequently misconstrued, a simple linear loop: observe, then orientate, then decide, and then act. Rather, it is dynamic with many feedback loops, with each component affecting the other, and thus reminiscent of general systems theory: In his “Pattern of Conflict”, Boyd came up with such pithy axioms as “Diminish own friction (or entropy) and magnify adversary friction (or entropy).”

Network Centric warfare (NCW) is, using the US Navy’s thorough definition, “military operations that exploit state-of-the-art information and networking technology to integrate widely dispersed human decision makers, situational and targeting sensors, and forces and weapons into a highly adaptive, comprehensive system to achieve unprecedented mission effectiveness.” Needless to say, NCW applies to all operations whether on land, on and under the sea, in the air and in space.

Networking, by shortening the time required for target acquisition, dissemination of target information, discrimination between friend and foe, target selection, and so on, leverages the ‘OOD’ part of Boyd’s loop. It shortens the time needed for taking action. In other words it facilitates, to borrow a well-known military adage, one’s seizing the initiative and putting the enemy on the back foot.

The enemy is put on the defensive and is unable to gain an advantage; he is rendered reactive instead of being the active participant and is thus able to act only in response to our actions. All things being equal, the side with the ability to ‘get inside’ an enemy’s OODA loop or, as Boyd said it more expansively, “getting inside adversary observation-orientation-decision-action loops (at all levels) by being more subtle, more indistinct, more irregular, and quicker — yet appear to be otherwise” will emerge the victor.

Much of the discourse on networking has been on hardware and IT’s ability to act as a substitute for lack of numbers: computing power, connectivity, interoperability, integration, efficiency, unmanned and autonomous systems. This is to be expected since military requirements are much more demanding compared to civilian requirements in terms of equipment survivability, reliability, integrity, proof against enemy interference, etc.

The practical difficulties of producing such equipment and making them work seamlessly are quite considerable. For instance, one of the lessons learnt from the Libya air campaign is the need for greater integration of ISR assets among the Nato allies. Surprising as it sounds, Nato aircraft could not communicate with one another directly because of systems incompatability and occasionally information had to be relayed through a third party.

US and UK aircraft could communicate with each other but could not communicate with the rest of the international force which included aircraft from Arab nations and Sweden. In this instance it was perhaps fortunate for Nato and the international force that Libya’s air defence was derelict.

In contrast to hardware, very little time has been spent, as stated by an analyst, on the philosophy behind the employment of network-centric forces. There’s very little time spent on discussing the effects of counter measures such as enemy jamming or enemy attacks on airborne ISR and AEW assets whilst they are still on the ground.

A networked environment brings with it information overload and great demands on cognition and decision making ability of personnel, sometimes to the level of individual soldiers, seamen or airmen. With networks’ ability to pass information up, down and sideways rapidly, the impact upon established beliefs and practices such as the traditional view of command and control — soldiers’ or units’ autonomy, leadership (“follow me”), micromanagement of battles; force structure and principles of war will need to be discussed and understood more thoroughly. Only then can a real understanding of NCW emerge.

Further information on John Boyd, the OODA loop, and networked battles are freely available on the internet.

A good place to start is “Network-centric Warfare: where’s the beef?” available at http://www.iwar.org.uk/rma/resources/ncw/smith.htm

NCW and data linking video as envisioned by Rockwell Collins. Marketing! (Ed)

— Malaysian Defence

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About Marhalim Abas 2184 Articles
Shah Alam


  1. OODA is amazingly truncated when you do not micromanage and employ auftragstaktik.

  2. Stanman,

    “auftragstaktik” may be useful for SF work where people are usually told what needs to be done, when, but not specifically told how to do it. I think Boyd was thinking more of Schwerpunkt though.

    There’s an interesting paper outlying the potential of NCW in CIW as compared to CW. Authoured by the commander of a fully networked Stryker Brigade operating in Afghanistan in 2009/10. In it the author describes the networking setup and how the brigade spoilt an IED-laying team’s plans in almost real time with the help of UAV and air strikes; tracked a group of insurgents at their FUP and tasked a heli attack. A group of wounded Talibs from the contact who went to hospital was also tracked; and assisted a Canadian hearts and minds project, by running a background check on a village elder who had opposed the project. Turned out he had Taliban contacts.

    Expensive equipment, long lead time, good data mining and good staff in cognitive domain required.


    In case links don’t work, search for:

    “Task Force Stryker Network Centric Operations in Afghanistan”, Col Harry Tunnell, US National Defense Uni.

  3. No….Auftragstaktik is much, much older than the OODA loop and is not only for SF. If you do not know how to achieve an objective without direct supervision, you have no business being in command.

    The OODA loop applies to ALL levels of command, down to the individual. Tying it to an information system at whatever level with absolute dependence is totally idiotic and symptomatic of a piss poor command culture.

  4. Huh? Can you please flesh out your arguments so that I can understand them?

    “No….Auftragstaktik is much, much older than the OODA loop”

    Yes. Moltke the Elder is generally recognised as the main proponent of Auftragstaktik in the German Army. Did I say it’s younger than OODA loop?

    “The OODA loop applies to ALL levels of command, down to the individual”

    No. Only idiots want to raise what is a very useful tactical insight to operational strategy.

    “Tying it to an information system at whatever level with absolute dependence….”

    Again, huh? Read the article. Nobody’s tying OODA to anything except as a underlying idea behind NCW.

    Variation of the OODA loop has been used in tactical situation. For example, Erich Hartmann philosophy in air combat “See, Decide, Attack, Reverse.

  5. Well, Normandy’s a big topic. What do you want to discuss?

    Tell you what, if you have something you want to discuss about Normandy, write a guest post. If Marhalim publishes it, we can discuss. On my part I’ll discuss properly, no sniping, insults or wise guy remarks. Proper discussion with citations/links if need be, which I like to do anyway. I don’t mean to sound patronising but If somebody can bring up a concept like Auftragstaktik, I’m more than willing to listen to his views.

  6. Tell me how OODA informed the evolution of the OVERLORD campaign. Or not…. from both sides.

  7. Ferret,

    A good book on the subject of Auftragstaktik is ”Not Mentioned In Despatches” [Spencer Fitz Gibbon].

  8. You first Stanman.

    You have read Boyd haven’t you? What do you think of his other constructs apart from OODA: Mind-Time-Space and Moral-Mental-Physical? Where does he place OODA in his hierarchy of ‘Grand Strategy’?

    That’s right — at the *tactical* level.

    Ever wondered why Boyd didn’t draw lessons from Normandy but instead only discussed the Blitzkrieg in detail and drew lessons from that tactic? Answer: he was interested in drawing lessons from tactics only and extrapolating those lessons to operations and strategy.

    And you want to discuss OODA in Overlord, the mother of *strategic* operations — resulting in a 2-front war (that was the Allies’ intent from 1942 onwards and what Hitler feared) — on continental Europe if there ever was one.

    But please don’t let me stop you. Write your article.

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