thread: 2006-03-05 : No, THIS is the perfect medium

On 2006-03-12, Sydney Freedberg wrote:

Now, to drive the blade home to the hilt. Remember how I said above that physical limits are only half of "get there fastest with the mostest," and the other half is 100% mental (as Yogi Berra would say)? This is where I get mental.


There's a very handy concept developed by the late Air Force Col. John Boyd—originally to analyze Korean War dogfights, but later applied to all forms of conflict—called the "OODA loop":


In this cycle, the first "O"—what you can observe—and the "A"—what you actually do—are to a large degree determined by physics: how much you can see (with your eyes or whatever sensors), how fast you can move. But the heart of the cycle—"Orient," to make sense of the situation, and "Decide," to figure out what to do about it—is all in your head.

In his original Korean War research, Boyd discovered that—in part because of bad cockpit design in Soviet-built MiGs that had pilots fighting with hard-to-move controls—enemy pilots went through their OODA cycle slightly slower than American ones. But even a 10% difference acquires compound interest very quickly:

0 seconds: The US pilot and the enemy pilot both Observe each other at the exact same time (because this is an idealized example, ok?)
1.0 seconds: The US pilot has successfully Oriented himself and Decided on something—he starts to Act. This, of course, changes the situation, so he needs to Observe the difference and start another cycle.
1.1 seconds: The enemy pilot finishes Orienting himself, makes a Decision, and starts to Act. But he's still Acting based on the situation before the American pilot made his Decision.
2.0 seconds: The US pilot completes his second OODA loop, having reoriented and made a new decision based on what he observed at 1.0 seconds, and alters his course of Action correspondingly.
2.2 seconds: The enemy pilot completes his second OODA loop—but he's still basing his Decision on what he Observed at 1.1 seconds, before the American changed his course of action.
And so on, and so on....

The slower combatant is making decisions based on a reality that the faster combatant has already changed. The more times you run the cycle, the more out of touch with reality the slower OODA loop gets. (The slower OODA loop also gets fewer "moves" than the faster one, but that's actually a less important effect). The result, no matter how smart you are otherwise, is increasingly self-defeating bad decisions.

And, like the Attack-Defend-Move triple tradeoff, the OODA loop race occurs on all levels of conflict:
- Individual: Someone stubbornly shooting at where the target is supposed to be, dammit ("Hey! Stand still!").
- Theater: The French High Command in 1940 finally giving de Gaulle's tank division permission to counter-attack against German panzer divisions that had already broken through too far to stop them.
- Civilization: "There's no conclusive evidence of global warming or rising sea lev....glub, glub, glub."


Strictly speaking, people are running through OODA loops all the time: I observe external reality, orient myself to it, decide what to do, and act every time I get the orange juice out of the refrigerator in the morning. And the rest of this isn't rocket science either. "Get there fastest with the mostest"? Combined arms equals scissor-paper-stone? C'mon! This is simple stuff.


"In war, everything is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult."

That's Carl von Clausewitz, 19th-century Prussian nationalist, officer in the wars against Napoleon, and author of a long book

that he never actually finished and which was edited into publishable shape by his wife Marie, who rarely gets any credit, of course. (Say "danke schon" to the nice Prussian lady, everyone). Clausewitz is the guy who made famous the term "fog of war"—which thousands of adolescents now know as the dark area on the battle map the computer won't let them see enemy units in—and, slightly less famous, "friction."

Think of it this way:

Whenever I try to go somewhere unfamiliar in the suburbs of my own city, I have a 50/50 chance of getting significantly lost. Whenever I try to go somewhere with my wife, we have a 50/50 chance of being significantly late. (No, it's not just her). Whenever I try to go somewhere with my toddler, I have a 50/50 chance of forgetting some significant item of equipment, like her bib, or snacks. Whenever I try to go somewhere with other people in other cars, I have a 50/50 chance of losing them at a key intersection and breaking the convoy.

Now, imagine that I am going somewhere unfamiliar far away from my home city, quite possibly in an alien country altogether, and that I am going there not with two other people (one of them portable), but several thousand other people, or possibly several hundred thousand. Imagine, further, while I am trying to organize this little expedition, look at the map, give directions, stay in convoy, etc. etc. etc., that thousands of people are trying to fucking kill me.

This impairs one's concentration.

Now consider the real story of how Private First Class (US Army) Jessica Lynch got captured. Her unit was a maintenance detachment moving as part of a larger but strung-out convoy. Their sleep-deprived commander, having been awake for 70 hours, took a wrong turn and, instead of going past guerrilla-occupied An Nasiriyah, went through it. They travelled all the way through town, came out the other side in full view of friendly troops from a different command (Marine Corps recon units scouting An Nasiriyah from the opposite direction), turned around and drove all the way back through An Nasiriyah on the same road—at which point the Saddam Fedayeen finally got it through their OODA loops that they might have a target here and attacked. The amazing thing is half the detachment, 16 of 33 soldiers, actually got away. The other amazing thing is that this didn't happen much, much more often.

Traditionally, armies control this kind of confusion by marching in formation where everybody can see each other, or at the very least having a clear "front line" between friendly and enemy, and—after the 19th century, when armies became simply too big for one guy on a hill to manage by horseback courier—by having elaborate pre-written plans everyone adhered to. When these things break down, people die: A US bomber force in Normandy in 1944 managed to kill hundreds of US troops on the ground by mistaking where the "front line" was. ("Friendly fire" casualties were routine at least as far back as the invention of the musket and its use by hundreds of nervous men standing six inches apart).

The US relied on both of these expedients—formation and planning—in the 1991 Gulf War: We had a massive detailed "Air Tasking Order" for each day's bombing, an elaborate plan for the ground attack, and hundreds of thousands of troops lined up neatly across the desert. When the Iraqis collapsed more quickly than the plan allowed, we couldn't change it fast enough and ended up letting key Republican Guard units escape (aggravated by the arbitrary decision to cut off the war at 100 hours), saving Saddam's regime.

In the 2003 invasion of Iraq (love it or hate it, like Nathan Bedford Forrest, that's not the issue now), by contrast, the US relied on neither strict formation nor strict planning. We broke our divisions into self-sufficient brigades and drove hard for Baghdad without forming a clear front line, let alone secure flanks or a safe rear area—hence Lynch getting ambushed. This worked in part because of Iraqi incompetence and unwillingness to fight (at conventional warfare, for Saddam; they're great guerrillas for sectarian goals, regrettably), in part because of old-fashioned overwhelming American firepower (anything that moved to cut off our isolated spearheads got bombed to bits), and in part because of new-fangled American information technology. We had JSTARS radar planes that spotted Iraqi tank formations trying to counter-attack, JDAMS bombs that could hit them through sandstorms, and, above all, something called "Blue Force Tracking" that shows you, on a little computerized map, where you are and where the GPS transponders for other friendly units are. The Global Positioning System is a true revolution in warfare: It lets attacking aircraft know exactly what coordinates a spotter on the ground wants them to hit, and it lets scattered ground units know exactly where they are and where their friends are. Jessica Lynch's unit, being a small detachment of a non-combat company, didn't have Blue Force Tracking.

It is still possible, of course, to get very badly lost even with GPS, and to miss enemy forces completely even with superior sensors, and to be killed very, very dead even with the latest technology on your side. Unlike air and naval warfare, land warfare occurs in an environment full of opaque, radar-reflective objects, and full of innocent people: That first "O"—Observation—in the OODA loop is stressed to the maximum just driving down a city street or trudging through a forest.

So armies still have to fall back on the old antidotes for disorder: planning and formation (and a formation, rehearsed on the drillground or in exercises, is really just a very specific kind of planning). But the stricter your planning, the slower you adapt to changes in circumstances. It's an OODA loop dilemma: The stricter your plan, the more unthinking your execution, the faster that "Decide" step of the OODA loop goes—but the more likely it is that your "Orient" step will skip past surprises that don't fit your pigeonholes.


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