The Hippo and the Mongoose

In the last column, I took a look at some of the military theoretical work of Col. John Boyd, and made the point that there was a lot more to his work than the OODA Loop. But the sorts of Fourth Generation wars we are now fighting in Afghanistan and probably facing in Iraq raise an interesting question about the OODA Loop itself.

To review briefly, the OODA Loop concept explains how Third Generation maneuver warfare works and why it is fought more in time than in space. John Boyd said that all conflict is a matter of time-competitive cycles of Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action. Whoever can go through the cycle consistently faster than his opponent gains a decisive advantage.

But Fourth Generation war against non-state opponents such as al Qaeda and the Taliban raises an interesting question, one that some of the Marines I know have been asking me: could there be a counter or opposite to the OODA Loop, where an opponent gets inside us by moving not faster, but so slowly that we cannot perceive he is moving at all?

I don’t know the answer. I wish I could ask John Boyd but that will have to wait until I see him at the great fighter pilot bar in the sky. I am sure he would find the question of interest, because John never made the mistake of turning his theories into closed systems. On the contrary, he was excited by the possibility of something new that did not fit.

If we look at al Qaeda and the Taliban as typical Fourth Generation, non-state opponents, they seem to have very slow OODA Loops. Indeed, some American spokesmen are now claiming we have defeated al Quaeda, because it did not do anything during our invasion of Iraq. We long ago claimed that we had beaten the Taliban (in fact, it now controls two provinces in Afghanistan). Because we do not see enemies like them moving, we assume they are not.

Here is where I think John Boyd would get very interested. He stressed the power of ambiguity, uncertainty and seeming weakness. They are good ways to disrupt the other side’s orientation. But how exactly might they fit into, or on the other hand counter, our own OODA Loop?

Again, I do not know the answer. But one clue does strike me. If we look at how the American armed forces operate, they have a very fast first OODA Loop, assuming they have had the time a Second Generation military requires to plan. But that OODA Loop has one, predictable product: putting firepower on targets. Then, we flatline.

Here is where we see a critical weakness of any Second Generation military. It has just one act. Once it has done its one act, blowing away anything it can see that is opposed to it, it is out of tricks. It is like John Boyd’s description of the Navy’s F-14 fighter: it does one initial maneuver very well, then it is out of energy (Pierre Sprey, Boyd’s long-time associate and friend, calls the F-14 America’s Me-110)

Once we flatline, a Fourth Generation opponent’s OODA Loop can be very slow, yet still cut inside ours. Here is where the ability of Fourth Generation opponents to operate cloaked with ambiguity and deception becomes critical. If our whole way of war is putting steel on targets, and they focus on being untargetable, who comes out ahead? It would seem they have the initiative.

Looked at this way, Boyd’s OODA Loop concept and his understanding of the importance of disrupting the enemy’s orientation may allow Fourth Generation forces to do what they do, yet still fall within Boyd’s theoretical framework. But I am not certain. I can see Boyd’s expression and hear his cackling, crow-like voice saying, “That’s a very interesting question.” At present, that is probably where we have to leave it.

One final note: do not make the mistake of confusing high levels of activity with a rapid OODA Loop. American armed forces are frantically busy, in peacetime and in war. They run around a lot, and they run around fast. So does a headless chicken, but someone has already gotten inside its OODA Loop big-time.

WILLIAM S. LIND is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism.



WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

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