Success in battle is increasingly about making decisions more quickly than your adversary can.
The quality and speed of those decisions are being enhanced by new command-and-control precepts and advances in information, surveillance and reconnaissance tools, sensors and systems. As a result, military forces have been improving on their ability to observe, orient, decide and attack — better known as the OODA loop.
Originally coined in the 1950s by Air Force colonel and military strategist John Boyd as a way to illustrate the decision/action cycle that a fighter pilot goes through during an aerial dogfight, it has since been applied to disciplines as diverse as business, medicine, law and the acquisition process in the military.
For the military, the OODA loop means different things at different times. In a kinetic war, it’s often called find, fix and finish, or the more extended find, fix, track, target, engage and assess. It also means something different in Iraq than it does in Afghanistan.
But ultimately it is about getting inside your adversaries' decision cycle so you can decide and act faster than they can.
In what ways, for instance, can we undermine the adversary’s ability to observe, orient or take action on decisions? Answering those questions leads directly to acting faster than an adversary can, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Kevin Kennedy, director of the Joint Capability Directorate of the Joint Forces Command (JFCOM).
To put it another way, the OODA loop is all about limiting what an adversary sees so, at best, he or she gets a limited understanding of the situation, Kennedy said. Similarly, it is also about limiting an adversary’s connectivity with others so, at best, he or she will get a limited or perhaps wrong orientation. The OODA loop's goal is to impact the decisions that adversaries make, so that even if they are able to act, they might take inappropriate actions.
“It’s all about how accurate my decisions are versus your decisions,” Kennedy said.
“Let’s say I can make better decisions at least as quickly as you can," he added. "Now I’m going to outmaneuver you because I’m making better decisions. Or let’s say I can make only an 80 percent solution, but I can do it faster than you. I’m still probably going to outmaneuver you because I’m making maneuvers faster than you’re making decisions. And even if your decisions are better, they’re going to lag behind mine, so I’m going to outmaneuver you.”
Because OODA is all about decision-making, it applies as much to your own decision-making cycle as to an adversary’s cycle. That’s why the information-sharing tools that apply command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) information have become increasingly important.
“We want to influence our adversaries but at the same time also inform and help our guys in their decision cycle,” Kennedy said. “OODA is helping to keep our guys on the tactical edge well informed while undermining their [adversaries’] decision-making cycle.”
That applies to all military phases of operations. Phase 0 is stability and shaping. Phase I is deterrence — an example of which was the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Phase II involves seizing the initiative away from an adversary, assuming they attacked first. Phase III is dominance, in which you drive against the enemy. Phase IV is to stabilize, which is the military's status in Iraq as of a year ago. And Phase V is to enable civil authorities, which is what the military is trying to do now in Iraq.
“You try to get inside your adversary’s decision cycle through all five phases,” Kennedy said.
Not every one of the five phases involves kinetic attacks.The Obama administration recently decided to alter national missile defense policy by canceling plans to base anti-missile batteries in Eastern Europe, which Russia felt was targeted at its long-range missiles, in favor of a shorter-range missile defense system that is meant to counter short- and medium-range missile threats from Iran. That decision is an example of an action on the part of the United States that will lead to a change in decision-making on the part of Iran and Russia.
“Here you have a presidential policy that shifts our approach in missile defense,” Kennedy said. “There are some good reasons why he did that, and it will influence different people to react differently and impact their decision cycle.”
The Decision Cycle in Iraq
To get inside the enemy’s decision-making cycle, the military must understand the operating environment. That’s why the decision cycle is different in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There is a huge difference between Iraq and Afghanistan because the closer you get to a classical insurgency, which is essentially what Afghanistan is, the more diffuse and the more immediate the decision loop becomes,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, analyst and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.
For example, when al Qaeda in Iraq was planning a major action in Baghdad several years ago, it wasn’t easy to break apart, but it was possible to counter, Scales said. They did have some semblance of classical command and control with an assailable network, namely cell phones and other communications technology, in addition to an established hierarchy for decision-making.
Although al Qaeda's decision-making loop was quick, their ability to apply that in a systemic manner was slow because it would take weeks or months to put together a dramatically staged event like a bomb attack in a crowded market. And that often gave the coalition the ability to counter the insurgent’s efforts.
“So by the time the surge comes along, what [Gen. David] Petraeus did, which was brilliant, was to decentralize our own OODA loop, if you will, by delegating the responding authorities down to brigade and, in some cases, battalion level,” Scales said.
“The enemy was still stuck with a classical Maoist-type of decision-making apparatus while the coalition had a much more streamlined decision-making apparatus that allowed them to react very quickly on the street,” Scales said. “The other thing was it also allowed the coalition the privilege of being able to identify where the critical points were. Once that was done, the system sort of collapsed under its own weight.”
He cited the example of a major bomb attack in Baghdad that took a considerable amount of time to arrange and was managed by some sort of centralized authority, including a money chain, a training chain, bomb makers, a factory, lookouts, an intelligence system and a decision-making authority. All that work was done, Scales said, by middle and upper-middle management.
“What the U.S. command did was say, ‘Let’s stop trying to cut the head off this [insurgency], and stop trying to round up the soldiers, the canon fodder, and go after the middle management because those are the skilled positions in any insurgency,'” he said, specifically referring to the ratline infiltration network that ran along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers into Baghdad.
“This was the assailable center of gravity,” Scales said. “If you’re going to interrupt the decision-making loop, you find the vulnerable points and then attack them, which is exactly what Petraeus did. It was a system that was easy to anticipate and was reasonably easy to intercept technologically. Then the collapse occurred fairly quickly.”
The Decision Cycle in Afghanistan
However, the situation is different in Afghanistan. There are similar elements to the Iraqi environment, but the theater of war in Afghanistan is more primitive. Communications are more difficult to intercept, and the execution authority is more decentralized. That makes interrupting the decision-making loop in Afghanistan more difficult because it is much more representative of a classical insurgency.
“The more you are insurgent-like, the more difficult it is to interrupt that decision-making loop,” Scales said. “That is where we are right now…figuring out a way to find parallels between the two theaters of war and achieve the same effects or same results in a much more primitive, diffuse and distributed situation.”
There is also the issue of the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. So disrupting the decision-making loop of the Taliban in Afghanistan is not only an electronic problem but also a geographical problem.
“Much of this decision-making loop is generated in Pakistan, where in Iraq, it was all internally generated,” Scales said. “In Afghanistan, you have a very distributed and amorphous execution tied to a sanctuary that is pretty difficult to break, making this interruption of the loop far more difficult.”
U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan are conducting a couple different kinds of operations that directly relate to the decision-making cycle.
The first are the actions of small groups of highly skilled special operations forces who target Taliban or al Qaeda leadership. They operate close to the fighter pilot understanding of OODA in that they act quickly on intelligence to capture and/or kill the enemy based on extremely short timelines.
“They are acting in the classic John Boyd inside-the-enemy’s decision-making cycle,” said retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. “The bad guy decides to take a drive along a road. We find out about it. We act in time to intercept him on the road and blow him up.”
The second kind of operation is the strategic application of that idea to the classic counterinsurgency, which is what Gen. Stanley McChrystal is doing now in his capacity as commander of the U.S. Force Afghanistan and commander of the International Security Assistance Force.
“McChrystal, because he is very good at appreciating strategic intelligence, is acting in a kind of a slow-motion way against the Taliban, who cannot make fast, strategic decisions,” Killebrew said. “If you look at how we went into Marja and how we are about to go into Kandahar, McChrystal is using the observe part of the OODA cycle to undergo a very deliberate, slow offensive that would apparently seem to contradict the Boyd fighter pilot idea but actually doesn’t because the Taliban have had no reaction."
“He is correctly estimating that the Taliban have no other strategy than to stand fast in Kandahar. McChrystal is able to do that because he has better intelligence and a better decision-making process. He has been able to counter the Taliban at the strategic level, and I think you’re going to see a more effective use of armed forces by going slowly into Kandahar and taking the territory away from the Taliban without alienating the population.”
OODA and C4ISR Technology
The use of tactical C4ISR tools can play an important role in the two most essential elements of a decision-making cycle: deciding quickly and then acting quickly. Both are dependent on getting decision-makers as much intelligence as possible as quickly as possible.
“Use of ISR technology won’t change the OODA loop; it won’t change the theory,” Killebrew said. “It can greatly enhance our ability to make decisions provided it actually provides the information when the commander needs it. Any time you add a system you also add complexity. And none of it matters so long as that the commander gets the information he needs when he needs it at the time he needs it.”
In that regard, Kennedy said JFCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis likes to emphasize that the goal is not to be network centric but to be leader centric.
“It is about the person making the decision, and that doesn’t mean a general,” Kennedy said. “It means a private or captain, or a dismounted solider, or somebody in a convoy or a cockpit. It is leader centric and net enabled. How can I enable him through these technologies to make better decisions and give him greater agility so he can outmaneuver the adversary?”
An example of net enabling is digitizing a tactics and techniques procedure called the 9 Line for close air support (CAS). In the 9 Line, a total of nine specific pieces of information must be sent from a person on the ground to the cockpit to bring precision fires onto a target. Some of those nine things include the position of friendly forces, coordinates of the adversary, approach and exit for the pilot, and the presence of other hostile forces in the area.
Until now, the 9 Line has always been transmitted from warfighters on the ground to pilots in the air. Now U.S. forces are poised to introduce the first Digitally Aided CAS, in which the 9 Line data can be linked directly into the cockpit. It greatly accelerates the process, mitigates the chance of error and enhances the probability of hitting the desired target.
“The capability was there, but there was no agreement on things like data schemas and formatting,” Kennedy said. “Within the past six months, we’ve had 14 program offices from the different services all agree upon an engineering change proposal that will input this new agreement on Digitally Aided CAS into their programs of record. Now we have a DOD-common approach that is agreed upon between ground forces, the Navy and Air Force.
“This is how we’re trying to net enable our decision cycles and undermine the adversary’s decision cycles all the way from Phase 0 to V,” he added.