The OODA Loop: A simple concept for modern combat strategy

by Scott on February 23, 2009

The OODA loop is a decision making model developed by US Air Force Colonel John Boyd.  It is also known as the OODA cycle or Boyd’s loop.  It is a concept that has been strategically applied at individual as well as group levels.  Understanding the OODA loop allows officers to prepare general tactics for commonly encountered situations as well as specific tactics when detailed circumstances are known ahead of time.

Concept

A simple OODA loop can be graphically represented as this:

simple ooda loop The OODA Loop:  A simple concept for modern combat strategy

In this process every combatant observes the situation, orients himself, decides what to do, and does it.  Then the process repeats itself.

  • Observe means to know what is happening through any of your five senses, not just sight.
  • Orient means to understand the meaning of what you observed.  When a suspect does the “felony stretch” looking for a direction to flee as he stretches his arms overhead, an experienced officer realizes the suspect is about to take off running.
  • Decide is weighing the options available and picking one.
  • Act is carrying out the decision.

This abstract concept is made more concrete by some examples.

Reactionary Gap

Most police officers are aware of the reactionary gap.  If two people are standing a foot apart facing each other, the first one is given instructions to touch the second one as fast as he can while the second one is told to slap the first person’s hand away before he touches him.  The second person will never succeed because he has to go through a full OODA cycle before he can react and by that time the first person will have already touched him.  If the two people are farther apart, the second person will have enough time to react because the distance adds time to the action and gives him enough time to observe and react.  He already knows what the first person is going to do and how he will react so he moves instantly from observe to act.

Groundfighting

Matt has trained in a variety of Martial Arts since he was a kid.  The last several years he has studied groundfighting in Brazilian Ju-jitsu.  While demonstrating his skills against me in the Defensive Tactics room, he would consistently get me in some joint lock or choke.  When I finally started making headway against his hold, he would quickly switch tactics and attack another limb.  I would start all over again and attempt to break this new hold.  Before I could make much headway, he would switch again and get me in a different choke. The entire time we were on the ground fighting, I was expending most of the energy.  That was because Matt was always ahead of me in the OODA cycle switching tactics before I could respond effectively.  The entire time he was using little effort and great technique while I was getting fatigued fighting against his attacks.  My fatigue made his control of the OODA loop even stronger.

SWAT entries

The SWAT team makes entry on a room by throwing a flashbang.  It goes off disorienting the occupants and temporarily blinding them with the flash.  While the occupants are disoriented by the light and concussion, the team enters and engages the suspects before they can react.

Conclusion

In each of these examples, action beats reaction.  Yet as police officers we often have to react to circumstances and people around us.  The trick is to use our knowledge of the OODA loop to take the offense away from our opponent.  Generally that means overtaking him in the cycle by being faster or slowing him down.

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