John Boyd in the News: All You Need to Know About the OODA Loop

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I was glad to see that, in an item yesterday called “The Way of the Doofus Warrior,” Josh Marshall had heard from TPM readers about the concept of the “OODA Loop” and the story of its originator, the late Air Force fighter pilot Col. John Boyd.

Short version: the OODA loop, for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, essentially means getting inside your adversary’s head. Whether we’re talking about a football game, a battlefield engagement, a courtroom showdown, or a political campaign, it means anticipating the other side’s most likely next move, and responding in a way that counters it, faster than the opponent can adjust.

Here’s a fancy visual aid:

Schematic of the OODA loop, via Wikipedia

Josh Marshall’s readers went on to say that this was exactly what Donald Trump was doing to his flummoxed and flat-footed rivals.

Atlantic readers should love talk about the OODA loop, because I believe it got its first general-media discussion in our pages, 36 years ago.

Back then I wrote a cover story for our October, 1979 issue called “The Muscle-Bound Superpower,” which was in a sense a prequel to my “Chickenhawk Nation” story earlier this year. In that earlier story, I described how I had happened upon a group of original thinkers with wholly new concepts about how to sustain a more effective military at a much lower overall cost. At the moment I don’t see an online version of that 1979 story, but I developed these themes and others in my 1981 book National Defense.

John Boyd as fighter pilot, AF photo

One member of this group was a budget analyst named Chuck Spinney, who has remained a friend and advisor over the years. Similarly with the aircraft designer Pierre Sprey and a number of their other friends. A military historian named William Lind, then working as a staff assistant to then-Senator Gary Hart, was the person who initially connected me with the rest of the group.

But the figure who through flamboyance of personality and relentless rigor of thought loomed largest to all of us was John Boyd, whom you see at right in his Korean War-era fighter pilot mode. Over the 18 years between my first meeting with Boyd in 1979, and his death from cancer in 1997, I was in what felt like nonstop touch with him, because I was one of the huge number of people he would call at home at random times, like 7pm Saturday night or 10am Sunday morning, in hopes of talking for a few hours on the phone.

This is all by way of saying: John Boyd is a person worth paying attention to. If Josh Marshall’s readers caught your interest, you can learn more about Boyd and his ideas this way: Robert Coram’s biography John Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War; a brief appreciation of him that I wrote after his death in 1997; a valuable Wikipedia entry; and Chuck Spinney’s ongoing chronicles in The Blaster, including this one about how the reform movement looked at around the time I first met him, John Boyd, and others. Each of these items has links to many more leads. Thanks to the TPM community for providing another occasion to mention John Boyd and his works.