I have written about the OODA loop in passing a few times in previous blog posts, and this is the first of a series of posts covering it in more detail.

So what is the OODA loop? It is a concept describing how a person or organization, engaged in some kind of adversarial conflict, can deal with a change that happens during the conflict.

The OODA loop, as a concept, was thought up by a fighter pilot, John Boyd. John Boyd himself had not had all that much of an fighter pilot career – 22 wingman missions, no kills – during his active time in the tail end of the Korean war. (50 or so American fliers reached ace status, for which 5 kills is required.) Instead, his lasting imprint on history was to systematize what had happened, and come up with a framework for all the observations so that they could be used to win more conflicts later on by those who learn the concept.

The OODA loop is a model of how combatants think during conflict. It is stated that the combatants cycle through 4 stages:

  1. Observe. This is about taking in data about what is going on in the conflict.
  2. Orient. This is about making sense of that data. Lots of it should be discarded, and the rest should be used to form a set of a few hypothetical distinct lines of action.
  3. Decide. This is where one of the hypotheticals created in the previous stage is chosen.
  4. Act. This is where the decided-upon line of action actually is carried out.

Here it must be noted that the combatant should not be running only one cycle. In contrast, there are several interlocking cycles. For example: it could be so that the combatant, after going through the Orient stage, comes to the conclusion that the observations do not make sense, and therefore any decision would probably be useless at best. Instead, the correct course of action is to directly cycle back to the observe stage, and find out more information that explains whatever it is that appears to be nonsensical, so that the entirety of the observations make sufficient sense so that they can be used to form actionable hypotheses.

It should also be noted that there are several OODA loops being cycled through at the same time. At a minimum, both individual combatants in a single one-on-one conflict cycle though their personal OODA loops. In a large-scale conflict, there are lots of parallel one-on-one conflicts, most of which are part of larger-scale conflicts. Each of those require (at least) one OODA loop by the respective commanders, and so on to the top commanders of both sides.

Seems difficult to grasp? Hopefully, the following blog posts – with pictures – will make it clearer!