OODA loop

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John Boyd getting inside some Russki’s OSDA Loop, yesterday.
In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.
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AIR CONTROLLER MACIAS: Maybe we ought to turn on the search-lights now?
KRAMER: No. That’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do.

Airplane! (1980)[1]

Surprise is a crucial element in most finite games. If we are not prepared to meet each of the possible moves of an opponent, our chances of losing are most certainly increased.

It is therefore by surprising our opponent that we are most likely to win. Surprise in finite play is the triumph of the past over the future.

James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

When you are in direct, bilateral conflict — you know, while dog-fighting, playing chess or cricket, or campaiging for an in/out referendum on membership of the European Union — your “OODA loop” is your decision cycle: “observe, orient, decide, act”.

The OODA loop was invented by contrarian US Air Force Colonel John Boyd. it came to him, so the story goes, while dog-fighting. Boyd’s famous manoeuvre was to surprise a pursuer by abruptly flying straight up, stalling his plane, forcing his opponent to fly straight past him from which point he could drop back down behind the attacker and give it the full nine yards.[2]

Boyd analysed what he was doing and realised the decision cycle has four steps: You must take in what is happening (observe), synthesise a theory of what’s going on and what your opponent is up to (orient),[3] figure out what to do about it (decide) and then do it (act) — ideally, before your opponent gets through her decision cycle, works out what you’re doing and changes up what she is planning to do to you.

A duel may be a zero-sum game but it is still a wicked environment. You can’t just execute on your plan ignoring how your opponent reacts. By getting “inside” an opponent’s OODA loop you seize the initiative, you have the element of surprise and can force your opponent to cycle through a series of ineffectual reactions. If you are good, she won’t be able to get out of it. Hence the OODA loop. Keep the other guy off kilter.

The player who acts fastest renders the other player’s observation/orientation/decision obsolete before the slower player can act — gets “inside the opponent’s OODA loop”. As long as she can keep cycling through the decisions fast enough, she will have the opposition constantly scrambling to react: chasing the game, adjusting defence without ever getting to attack.

So, generally, having the ball, rather than chasing around after it.

It shouldn’t have taken a maverick Top Gun Actor to tell the world that combat situations — finite games — are usually won by whoever has the initiative team, but there you have it.[4]

Famously Dominic Cummings is a big fan of the OODA loop theory, and used it to great advantage during the Brexit referendum campaign to keep the Remain permanently destabilised. Whether he knows about it or not, we rather think Donald Trump is a natural OODA looper, too.

Now getting inside your opponent’s punch is all well and good as long as it is your opponent, of course. Matthew Syed has pointed out[5] that dogfighting didn’t work so well as a strategy for peacetime governance for Mr Cummings since he was no longer engaged in the finite game of defeating outright an opponent in a winner-take-all showdown, but rather the infinite game of keeping as many people happy for as long and often as possible.

Throwing OODA loops is an exhausting, destructive, destabilising business. It works best for zero-sum, short-duration fixed-rule games where keeping other players at a disadvantage is the optimal outcome. But if your game is “keepy uppy” — which in the broadest sense most of political and social life is — results will be more variable.

Of course, part of the infinite game is to know when you are also in a finite game — opposition party lobs plenty of grenades at those committed to orderly governance — so or is it true to say OODA loops have no place in polite society. Put pick your moment.

See also


  1. Oh, go on:
  2. Speaking of dogfighting, those public-spirited kill-joys at Wikipedia tell us the legend that “the whole nine yards” originated from the total length of a Spitfire’s machine gun belt (hence, “to shoot everything you have at once”) is an urban myth. The phrase dates back to the late 19th century, before there were any Spitfires. Boo.
  3. “Orient” doesn’t seem as good a word to me as “synthesise”, especially as that would have made the acronym “OSDA”, which all ninjas will find pleasing.
  4. You can get inside an attacker’s OODA loop by intercepting a pass, I suppose).
  5. “Looping the Loop”, Sideways, BBC podcast.