Inside the OODA Loop.


Today we’re going to discuss the O.O.D.A. Loop.

Colonel John Boyd was an F-86 pilot during the Korean war. He and his pilots enjoyed a reported 6 to 1 or 10 to 1, depending on what report you
read, kill ratio against North Korean (and probably Chinese) pilots flying Mig-15 aircraft.

So you’re a firearms instructor John. Why are you telling us about a fighter pilot in the Korean war?” I know you’re asking that.

It’s like this. While the F-86 was one of the best aircraft we had during the Korean war, it was inferior to the Mig-15 in a couple of areas. The Mig could climb higher faster than the F-86, and had a higher service ceiling. This allowed the Mig pilots to choose when the engagement began and how long it would last. So Colonel Boyd and his guys were at a disadvantage. Yet they managed a much better record in combat than their opponents. How?

Boyd understood that if he couldn’t beat the equipment he was up against, he had to beat the human operator of it. Boyd learned, and taught his pilots, how to focus on the weakness of his opponents’ mind to overcome the equipment disadvantage. He knew there was a lag between when the mind recognized something and when it reacted to it. Boyd called this the O.O.D.A. Loop.

Still not with you John. HOW does this relate to guns, shooting, or defense?” Impatient bugger, aren’t you?

OK. You use, every day, thousands of times a day, the O.O.D.A. Loop. And you didn’t even know you were doing it. O.O.D.A. stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. This is how the human mind responds to a stimulus. Your phone rings. You Observe it ringing. You Orient your attention on the phone. You Decide to answer it. You Act by touching the answer button. You do this all day long whether you’re driving, working, reading, etc.

Human reaction time is measured in milliseconds when responding in one way to an expected stimulus. The phone rings, you answer it. It slows down when we encounter something unexpected, as we have to spend more time on the Orient and Decide phases. Some unsavory looking character approaches you and reaches into their waistband. It slows down further when there are multiple choices of how to Act, as this slows the Decision phase. Is the unsavory character pulling a gun? Do I draw mine or get cover first? The more complex the situation you have to process, the longer it takes to go from Observe to Act.

Further affecting the O.O.D.A. Loop are Denial and Emotional Filter. Denial is exactly what it implies – you’re telling yourself “this guy isn’t really shooting at me” even though you know he is. Emotional Filter is essentially Denial on steroids. This is where you wish the event wasn’t happening. This is where you’re telling yourself “I really wish this guy wasn’t shooting at me” instead of processing the threat and reacting to it. Fortunately, Denial and Emotional Filter can be conquered through training.

Disrupting your opponents O.O.D.A. Loop can give you the edge you need to survive a gunfight. Colonel Boyd knew that the F-86 was a physically easier aircraft to fly than the Mig, so he and his pilots would maneuver more so that the enemy pilots would have to do the same. The Mig pilots would tire faster, giving Boyd’s flight the opportunity to position their aircraft where the enemy was in their gunsights. They disrupted the enemy’s O.O.D.A. Loop.

You can disrupt your opponent’s O.O.D.A. Loop by something as simple as moving. Any unexpected stimulus resets the O.O.D.A. Loop, and if your opponent is processing he’s not fighting. Understand that your mind works the same way. You need to train to limit the effects distractions have on you. Shooting in competition, having someone yell at you while you’re shooting, pop-up no-shoot targets randomly obstructing your line of fire are some of the ways you can teach yourself to deal with distractions and keep your loop on track.

Situational awareness and having a plan in place can keep your O.O.D.A. Loop intact when the feces hits the fan. If you’re aware of your surrounding, you’re less likely to be taken by surprise. If you’re constantly assessing what’s around you and pre-planning for potential threats, your O.O.D.A. Loop is going to be a smooth, fast cycle from Observing to Acting. And that’s what gives you an edge in a confrontation. A fighter pilot taught us that.


The Tactical Pirate

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President and lead instructor. Follow me on Twitter, and check out our blog.

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