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John Boyd on Patterns of Conflict and the OODA Loop

John Boyd studied. He studied fighter pilot tactics, studied aeronautical engineering, studied bureaucrats and how to avoid their traps, studied evolution and biology, and studied history.

And Boyd synthesized in a way that only a real practitioner of war could to produce a briefing called Patterns of Conflict that is still having a big impact on the world today.

A full copy of the briefing is linked below. This post summarizes some key points worth reflecting on as the world views and reacts to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Quick Lessons From Patterns of Conflict

  • Evolution since the very beginning of life has been about competition. All animals, but especially humans, are coded to survive. Free societies should reflect that and understand we must survive on our own terms.
  • War itself is a human activity that can be studied and patterns of conflict can be deduced. Free societies should apply these lessons to ensure survival.
  • In dynamic situations, decision-makers should act fast. The Observe-Orient-Decide-Act model takes this into account and emphasizes that operations should proceed at a tempo that is inside the adversary’s OODA Loop.
  • Operating inside the adversary’s OODA Loop will improve chances of success because of the better faster decisions. Operating inside the adversaries OODA Loop also generates confusion and disorder among adversaries since they will be unable to gain situational awareness to fuel their decisions (also see: The OODA Loop Explained).
  • Throughout history, success on the battlefield has come when rapid decisions and actions and maneuver are able to cause confusion and disorder and stop ability of adversaries to make optimal decisions. While the OODA loop was developed in the early 1980’s and first sketched out in the mid-1990’s, it describes a process that is as old as organized conflict.
  • In war, strategies should diminish an adversaries capacity for independent action, or deny him the opportunity to survive on his own terms, or make it impossible for him to survive at all.
  • It is advantageous to possess a varity of preplanned responses and have forces trained and ready to adopt to changing situations.
  • Adapting to change cannot be a passive exercise, that leads to failure. Take initiative.
  • Early commanders, Alexander, Hannibal, Khan, Tamerlane, fought in ways very consistent with the writings of Sun Tzu, seek to win before the battle is fought and avoid protracted war. In war, emphasize swiftness of action, fluidity, dispersions, deception, shock, surprise. Maneuver is key. Leading with initiative is key.
  • Later commanders would possess technology enabling even faster action and more precision as well as better sensors and ISR, enabling more application of principles of maneuver.  A theme throughout study of patterns of conflict is that those that master the principles of rapid operational decision making and dominance in the OODA loop achieve victory. Superior forces can and do win without these strategies, but it gets horribly bloody and requires overwhelming force. And the larger force can still fail.
  • Factors of moral of troops and the public are also critical and are influenced by rapid decision making cycles.
  • Keeping the adversary uncertain gives advantage.
  • Intelligence and ISR should be continuous before, during and after engagement to assess changing patterns of strengths, weaknesses, moves, intentions.
  • Failure to understand an adversary leads to disaster.
  • Application of lessons of patterns of conflict should start with an understanding of the types of conflict. Overall there are three major types: Attrition, Maneuver, Moral, as shown in this slide from the Patterns of Conflict brief:

  • In Attrition Warfare, firepower is king. The larger, better armed competitor will likely win.
  • In Maneuver Warfare, the key is the use of intelligence, ambiguity, deception, novelty and violence to generate surprise and shock. Fire and movement are used in combination.
  • In Moral Conflict, breaking the enemy’s will before the fight is a key goal, but no fixed recipies for success. Wide freedom for subordinates to execise imagination and initiative. Very Sun Tzu like.

In all forms of conflict, seek to diminish an adversary’s freedom of action while improving our freedom of action, so that our adversary  cannot cope while we can cope.

Which leads to an articulation at a grand tactics level:

Operationally these lessons can be applied in ways that improve odds of success. This is a more tactical application of the grand strategy articulated above:

Do you want to dive deeper into these concepts. Here are two recommendations:

Read:  John Boyd Patterns of Conflict Brief (1986 version)

Subscribe to the OODAcast, listen to our discussion with Chet Richards, who was there at the beginning of Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict briefing and helped draw the only diagram of the OODA loop that John Boyd approved of. See:


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Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of OODA LLC, the technology research and advisory firm with a focus on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity which publishes Bob is the co-host of the popular podcast The OODAcast. Bob has been an advisor to dozens of successful high tech startups and has conducted enterprise cybersecurity assessments for businesses in multiple sectors of the economy. He was a career Naval Intelligence Officer and is the former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency.