"Orientation is the schwerpunkt [focal point]. It shapes the way we interact with the environment—hence orientation shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act."

John R. Boyd, Organic Design for Command and Control (1987), 16
The OODA cycle, frequently referred to as the OODA Loop, was developed by the late Colonel John R. Boyd, USAF. The OODA cycle has subsequently become highly influential in thinking about how to conduct combat operations at all levels from the tactical to the grand strategic. It is often simplistically depicted with only four components in a circle, although that hardly does justice to the depth of Boyd's thought.

The usually stated object of the OODA cycle is to do things quicker than an opponent or inject 'friction,' in Boyd's terms, into the opponent's decision cycle, thereby slowing him down. This forces the opponent to react to our actions, rather than us reacting to the opponent's actions. Action beats reaction. This process of forcing the opponent to react to us is referred to as being 'inside the opponent's OODA loop.' The key question is how to do that.

The way we get inside the opponent's OODA loop is rooted in Orient. The Orient phase gives us the tools we need to act more rapidly than our adversary. A misconception about the OODA process is that it occurs only in the moment of conflict. In fact, a successful interpretation of Orient starts at the moment that a person realizes that a potential conflict could occur at any time in the future. Planning and preparation are integral parts of the Orient phase. Consider the factors integral to Orient, as defined by Boyd.

  • Analyses & Synthesis
  • Genetic Heritage
  • Cultural Traditions
  • Previous Experience
  • New Information

Only two of the five, New Information and Analysis & Synthesis, relate to the moment of conflict. And Analyses & Synthesis only relates partly to the moment. The other factors are either pre-established or pre-developed.

It's important to note that when Boyd first wrote about ODA (Orient, Decide, Act), which he subsequently expanded to OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), it was in the USAF Development Planning Report. At this point, Boyd had transitioned to thinking about strategic situations and had completely stopped flying. As a consequence, the factors Boyd gave for Orient don't fit particularly well in the tactical realm. Therefore, we need to consider a different set of inputs to Orient when thinking about the tactical level.

Probably the first thing to consider is that Boyd's background was as a fighter pilot. Mission is implicitly but clearly defined by fighter pilots; they refer to their victories as 'kills.' The mission or desired end outcome of an Armed Private Citizen is much more ambiguous. This is even more true if there are multiple opinions, such as in a family. If that desired outcome isn't decided ahead of time, it can lead to a hesitation about what to do. Even worse, it can lead to doing things that are contrary to one's implicit desired outcome because the outcome hasn't been explicitly stated.

A related factor to this is Mindset/Attitude. For example, if a person cannot bear the thought of applying deadly force and taking a human life, that attitude must be considered in the context of how to react to any given situation. This is not to say the situation is unsolvable but, rather, may need to be handled in a different way.

Boyd's Aerial Attack Study, written while he was an instructor at the USAF Fighter Weapons School, is much more illustrative of his thinking at the tactical level. Decades later, this study is still considered to be the manual for fighter combat. Its approach is much more doctrinal than Boyd's strategic works. Until its publication, fighter pilots considered most of their tactics to be a product of art; Boyd changed that perception. It should also be noted that Boyd was never defeated in mock combat while he was an instructor but he used only one maneuver to remain victorious during his entire time at the Fighter Weapons School.

The AAS describes a relatively few standard procedures for attacking non-maneuvering targets (bombers) and maneuvering targets (fighters). It includes detailed information about weapons capabilities, standoff distances, and viable attack vectors. In our context, we could refer to these as Possible Courses of Action. While most people are aware of the elemental possibilities of Fight or Flight in the context of personal protection, there are several more, and Fight and Flight have nuances. A non‑inclusive list could be:

  • Ignore
  • Gather information
  • Freeze / submit
  • Talk
  • Withdraw
  • Close with / pursue
  • Use Force
    • Non-lethal
    • Lethal

Our state of Training and Practice relates to our ability to respond quickly. Having at least a few pre‑planned responses can be very useful. While Hick's Law is often cited as a reason to avoid considering the possibility of multiple response options, this has been refuted scientifically for decades. Hick's Law only complicates multiple response decision making in the absence of training and practice. The power law of practice indicates that practice decreases decision making time significantly. Sufficient practice leads to automaticity, wherein the time required for conscious decision making is reduced to almost zero. Pilots demonstrate this regularly by having different responses programmed for circumstances. Ground forces use the concept of 'battle drills' that reinforce automatic reactions to given situations.

Another factor that figured heavily in Boyd's AAS was the range and position relationship of the attacking aircraft to the enemy. In our context, whether we are in a Position of Advantage or Disadvantage and the distance to our attacker are key factors in our decisions. While it is commonly thought that we start from a position of disadvantage, this is not necessarily so. For instance, if a criminal is attacking one of our loved ones and has his back to us, we have the position of advantage and he is at a disadvantage. Injecting the aspects of proxemics, the study of spatial perceptions by humans, gives another element to consider. The relationship of proxemics to the Tueller Principle is an important consideration.

Our Physical abilities and disabilities determine to what extent we can apply the options available to us. An elderly person who uses a walker does not effectively have the full blown Flight option available to them. However, given proper positioning, that person might be able to Withdraw or use distance to their advantage if applying Force was necessary and appropriate.

It's also important to note that the only hand drawn sketch of the OODA cycle Boyd himself created arranges them in a somewhat different relationship than the most widely publicized version. Orient was depicted with Analyses & Synthesis at the center with Genetic Heritage, Cultural Traditions, Previous Experience, and New Information surrounding it. Boyd's sketch would seem to indicate that Analysis & Synthesis was the central tenet, which the other factors were inputs to, rather than being equivalent.

A diagram based on the tactical inputs to the Orient phase in tactics might look something like this.

Explicitly determining our desired end object gives us the insight we need to think clearly about our Mission in any situation. Then, thinking about situations ahead of time allows us to develop Possible Courses of Action that fit our Mindset and Physical Abilities. From there, we can Train and Practice skills and responses appropriate to situations. Finally, we Position ourselves for success as the situation develops and already have decisions made that allow us to get 'inside the opponent's OODA loop.' That is the process of putting Orient back into the OODA cycle.

Claude Werner is The Tactical Professor. He served in Airborne, Ranger, Special Forces and Mechanized Infantry units in the US Army as both an enlisted man and an officer. His military assignments include being a Special Forces A-Team Commander, Intelligence Officer, and Mechanized Infantry Company Commander. Well known in the shooting community, he was formerly the Chief Instructor of the elite Rogers Shooting School and has won six sanctioned IDPA Championships with snub nose revolvers. In his civilian career, he was Research Director of three commercial real estate firms and was the National Director of Real Estate Research for Deloitte & Touche LLP. His blog is Tactical Professor.