Indirectly Mistaken Decision Cycles

by Tom Kratman

Let me tell you a story, true story as it happens. Way in the dim mists of antiquity, which is to say circa 1979, I looked at the number of troops available to both sides along the central front in Germany, added in the absolutely huge numbers of second and third echelon divisions coming from further inside the Soviet Union, matched those against the likewise huge numbers of more or less trained reservists the German army could call up (to say nothing of the French), matched all those against the terrain and the weapons, and came to the conclusion: “ ‘Swirling maelstrom of fire teams,’ my butt. If we duke it out, it’s going to look like the Great War in the West, especially since everyone on both sides is probably going to run out of ammunition about the same time.”

Now, one of the things people in my branch, infantry, did in the Great War was the trench raid. In these, a group of men would slip across no man’s land, fight their way into the enemy trenches, then generally raise havoc, destroy things, grab items of intelligence value—especially prisoners— and slip back. They would, generally speaking, not use firearms ammunition for a trench raid, since not using it would confuse the enemy as to where they were, even as the enemy self-identified by their own muzzle flashes. Instead, the raiding party would use hand grenades, bayonets and rifle butts, knives, shovels, axes, bicycle chains and the like.

Figuring, therefore, that one of these days there was a fair chance I’d end up leading a trench raid, I asked myself, “Self, what’s better for fighting in very close quarters than a bayonet, rifle butt, knife, e-tool, axe, or bicycle chain?” The answer I got was, “Sword, not too long, preferable good for both thrusting and chopping.”

So I ended up, in 1979 and 1980, spending a massive amount of time learning to use various sharp pointy things, European and Asian, both. One of these was essentially a katana, with the instructor being a highly talented and skilled Korean, Master Kim, from whom I took about six hours of private lessons a week. Hey, this is my life we’re talking about here.

One of the normal features of the lessons was a kind of fencing, done with sticks. You’ve got to picture it, on one particular occasion: I am using a mix of French, Italian, and Korean. I am operating against Master Kim’s line of least expectations, in the best traditions of B.H. Liddell Hart. I am parrying and thrusting, in the best traditions of Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai, to bring Kim’s “blade” out from covering his vitals. And, even though I didn’t know it—for that matter, in 1979, possibly neither did Air Force Colonel John Boyd— I am operating inside Kim’s Boyd cycle.

That is, I am doing all of these things, right up until the point that Kim said, “Bullshit,” and hit me on the head, knocking me to the floor.

This also marked the beginning of my long disenchantment with intellectualism, generally.


Boyd identified a four-step mental process: observation, orientation, decision, and action. Boyd theorized that each party to a conflict first observes the situation. On the basis of the observation, he orients; that is, he makes an estimate of the situation. On the basis of the orientation, he makes a decision. And, finally, he implements the decision—he acts. Because his action has created a new situation, the process begins anew. Boyd argued that the party that consistently completes the cycle faster gains an advantage that increases with each cycle. His enemy's reactions become increasingly slower by comparison and therefore less effective until, finally, he is overcome by events.

--From FMFM 1, Warfighting, Footnote 20, carried over to MCDP 1, Warfighting, Footnote 18.


There is, in military science fiction, probably no meme or theory as widely proclaimed and encountered as decision cycle theory, also known as the OODA (Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action) Loop or the Boyd Cycle, After Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Yes, you’ve seen it, sometimes explicitly and sometimes merely implicitly. It’s there so often, so unremarkably, that many and perhaps most military science fiction readers just accept it.

Science fiction, of course, tries to be at the forefront of human, societal, and technological development. It usually fails—just think of how much sci fi, before the fall of the Soviet Union, presumed the ultimate victory of atheism and socialism; Star Trek: TNG, anyone?—but gets at least a B for effort. Military science fiction tries the same thing, in a military vein, and succeeds maybe a little more often. Think here: Powered Armor, a la Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It’s coming.

“Everyone knows,” of course, that Heinlein invented the concept. Interestingly enough, though, he didn’t invent the concept of powered armor. Indeed, the idea predated Starship Troopers by a couple of decades, at least, in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series.

Here’s something I don’t know, but suspect very strongly: that Colonel Boyd’s Decision Cycle Theory, in whole or in part, drew its inspiration from Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai novel, Tactics of Mistake, while possibly both drew some degree of thought and inspiration from Liddell Hart’s theories on the indirect approach. I’m not going to talk a great deal about the indirect approach, and only a little about Dickson. In the main, I am interested in decision cycle theory.

Similar to Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake? Yes; think about it: Boyd proposes an analogy from the individual fighter pilot to the commander of a ground combat organization. Dickson proposed an analogy from an individual fencer to the commander of a ground combat unit. Boyd proposed that by cycling through the OODA loop faster than the enemy, we would finally get so far ahead that he would find himself in a position of vulnerability. Dickson similarly proposed a series of thrusts that bring the enemy’s blade further and further away from his vitals until those vitals are exposed in time and space for a killing thrust.

Those similarities only carry one so far. Where the two theories are most similar is in the way the individual combatants are dissimilar to the ground combatant unit.

More on that a little later.

First, however, some background and concepts:

One of the problems with Decision Cycle Theory, recognized even by most of its proponents, is that Boyd wrote little down in literate prose, just one short essay, “Destruction and Creation”, which is surely in the background of decision cycle theory, but is not that theory. Instead, he spoke to people, often rather important and influential people. He gave his briefing, Patterns of Conflict. He cajoled and nagged. He is alleged to have wandered the labyrinthine corridors of the Pentagon muttering, “Not one pound for air to ground.” Writing, however, he would not do more of.

Instead, we’ve got the briefing and a few secondary sources from people interpreting Boyd: William S. Lind’s Maneuver Warfare Handbook and some Marine Corps doctrinal manuals, like MDCP 1, Warfighting, which replaced FMFM 1, of the same title.

Some have alleged, indeed Wikipedia has alleged (perhaps originating from that same “some”), that the Army’s prior doctrine of AirLand Battle sprang from Decision Cycle Theory. This, however, is false. I was thoroughly indoctrinated into AirLand Battle at Benning in 1984 and Leavenworth in 1988. Of Decision Cycle Theory, the OODA Loop, or Colonel John Boyd, there was not a word. Instead, AirLand Battle was mostly a physical and geometric concept, that of using the deep attack to ration the enemy into the battle area, thereby turning the point of his assault into an isolated and vulnerable physical flank. The nearest AirLand battle came to OODA was with the concept of synchronicity. That, however, was mostly about taking advantage of delayed effects when they arise or can be predicted to arise. For example, an effort, air or ground, that requires the enemy to use his air forces intensively, will be followed at some fairly predictable point in time by a weakness in his air power in the form of a lot of aircraft down for maintenance. That’s not a decision cycle; that’s an attrition cycle.


Speaking of attrition— eventually— the US Armed Forces, and most of our allies, recognize nine Principles of War: Mass, Objective, Security, Surprise, Maneuver, Offensive, Unity of Effort (aka Unity of Command), Simplicity, and Economy of Force. I think there are at least three more: Attrition, Annihilation (which is a Russian Principle of War), and Geometry (or Shape).

The latter, Geometry (or Shape) concerns the physical shape of the ground, that in relation to enemy forces and weapons effects, time-space relationships, modified by transportation nets and obstacles, and the like. If you want a simple illustration, look up the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC. What you will see on the part of the Thebans under their commander, Epaminondas, is a very strong force on the left, a weaker force in the center and set back, and a very weak and thin force on the right, set back still further. On the other side, Epaminondas’ Spartan enemy set up in the usual broad phalanx.

What happened on the field was that the Thebans’ strong left struck the Spartan right with overwhelming power, crushing it before their own much weaker center and right could be engaged. The military term of art for this is “echeloning.” Now imagine it without “Geometry” or “Shape” with the whole Theban army organized the same way but all on line. Correct: The strong Spartan left and center crush the Thebans opposite them, setting the Theban army to rout, before the Theban left can be decisive.

Annihilation simply observes that when an enemy force is completely and utterly destroyed, annihilated, it cannot be rebuilt in as effective a form, if indeed it can be rebuilt at all. This is very closely related to that twelfth principle (again, these are my views, nobody’s doctrine), Attrition.

Attrition claims that in war everything costs and nothing is cheap. It is similar to the British principle of “Sustainability” and the Soviet principle of “Logistics.” The difference is that those latter two presuppose adequacy of available replacements and replenishments. This, however, is not something one can always count on. In effect, they put the cart before the horse.

The principles, whoever’s set you are using, are not checklists to victory. They are not formulae for success. Instead, they serve three purposes. They are guides to the study of war. They are, somewhat similarly, useful guides to the structuring of collective combat training. And they are warnings against nonsensical theories.


So, speaking of nonsense, how good is that analogy between the individual combatant and the ground combat organization? They’ve both got a brain, the fighter pilots’ brains in Boyd and the latest incarnation of a Graham among Dickson’s Dorsai, the commander and staff in real life. They both have a body in the sense of a physical presence that occupies space and requires sustenance.

Now presuppose that Dickson’s duelist has had his skilled hand cut off. Then presuppose that Boyd’s combat pilot has a) had his leg below the knee blown off in action and b) is not Hans Ulrich Rudel (Rudel being a very special case) or c) has had an eye shot out in action and d) is not Saburo Sakai (who was also a very special case). In the former case, the combatant has lost less than one percent of his body, yet he has lost entirely and his death will soon follow. In the latter two (again, leaving out some special cases), the individual combatant had lost only a small or infinitesimal part of his body, yet – having suffered similarly debilitating pain – he too has lost his duel.

Ah, but what of the collective ground combat commander, a three star, say, commanding a corps, who has lost one percent of his force? He shrugs. He tells his adjutant to request some replacements for the lost troops and to prepare some award recommendations and perhaps letters to next of kin. He tells his chief logistician to order replacement equipment and supplies (if needed). Then he gets on with the war, unfazed. He has what the individual combatant typically does not: Detachment from pain, depth, and the ability that flows from those to take a certain amount of attrition.

And what of the individual combatant; what does he have that the commander of a ground combat unit does not? He has nearly perfect coordination. When he tells his hand or finger or eye or foot to move, it does, no arguments, no delays. He has little or no friction, in the Clausewitzian sense. The duelist’s blade moves and the resistance of the air matters little. The mud, far below, will not slow the F-16. The river is too far away, and really too grand, to matter to the duelist; the fighter pilot simply overflies it. Nothing of consequence obstructs the will of either.

Conversely, that three star’s will is continuously thwarted by his own machine. His men are fearful and, being self-willed, unlike jet or sword, move slowly into action. His subordinate leaders, in dread of an unfavorable Evaluation Report should they make a mistake, are deliberate and careful. Mud chokes his supply lines. Disease or weather can cripple or hobble his force overnight.

There are further important differences. The individual combatant lacks the physical wherewithal to launch simultaneously both fixing attacks and maneuvering attacks, which the collective combat unit had. Also note step one in the Boyd Cycle: Observation. You can see your opponent in a duel, even in a case of “Swords and Lanterns.” Boyd is presupposing being able to see an enemy MiG through the bubble canopy of an F-86. In neither case is there much the enemy can do about being seen.

This is not always the case. On the ground, being able to see has been the exception rather than the rule. This is still true, for all our technology. We cannot see through hills. We lose much ability to see in the rain or snow…or fog. The term “Fog of War” is still accurate, if for no other reason than that the enemy will use every means at his disposal to keep us from seeing. Then, too, in the current war, where the key terrain is the human brain and the human heart, we are utterly blind.

Lastly, something one can say about combat in the air and the combat of a formal duel: They are very empty, lonely, and simple fields. How different the battlefield for the ground combatant. Where is that fire coming from? Is a sniper tracking me? Is a forward observer even now calling in the fire mission that will drop several tons of high explosive and razor sharp flying steel hards on me? Where’s my RTO? Where’s Schmidlap? Mines! Mines!

It is, in short, a very poor analogy. How likely is it, really, that such a poor analogy can lead to true and legitimate military doctrine?


It is interesting and illustrative that Boyd, Decision Cycle Theory, and the OODA Loop only appear in a footnote of the central Marine Corps doctrinal publication on how they intend to fight. Know why? Neither do I, but I suspect it’s because many Marines don’t really believe it in either. I know that some don’t.

"Myth" has many connotations, but for our purposes "myth" is defined as a "thing existing only in imagination or whose actuality is not verifiable; a belief given uncritical acceptance by members of a group in support of existing ... practices and institutions. [Myth] is ... used to designate a story, belief, or notion commonly held to be true but utterly without a factual basis." In this context myth is opposed to history since it is "usually fabulous in content even when loosely based on historical events." The classical Greek philosophers contrasted the verb muthos, meaning to speak with emotion and mythic thought, with the verb logos, meaning to speak with reason and analytical thought. The contrast in meaning defines the qualitative difference between arguments based on emotion and arguments based on logic and reason. The thesis of this paper is that maneuver warfare, as delined and limited by FMFM-1 Warfighting has the substance of myth. In its current form this manual—capstone doctrine of the Marine Corps—speaks with an emotion opposed to history in a document where reason and analysis should prevail.

Major Craig A. Tucker, USMC, False Prophets: The Myth of Maneuver Warfare and the Inadequacies of FMFM-1, Warfighting


I’ll leave dissection of Marine Corps doctrine to the Marines. Being human, they’re much more likely to reform themselves through their own thoughts and efforts than if prodded by an outsider. William S. Lind’s Maneuver Warfare Handbook gets no such pass.

One can hear the defense now: “All right, maybe the analogy to the individual combatant is bad, but that’s all it was, an analogy trying to bring the light of maneuver warfare theory to all you military cretins, dwelling in the darkness. Jomini and Clausewitz did as much.”

I don’t believe that for a minute, but let’s just accept it for the nonce, arguendo. If we don’t have the analogy, then surely the history of warfare, carefully and flawlessly analyzed by Boyd, Lind, and company, will support the theory. Won’t it?

Sadly not.

Lind’s Maneuver Warfare Handbook cites eight battles or campaigns to support the Boyd theory of Maneuver Warfare. These are 1) Leuctra and 2) Cannae, from the ancient world, 3) Chattanooga, 4) Vicksburg, and 5) Jackson in the Valley, from our civil war, 6) the German offensives of 1918, 7) the Blitzkrieg of World War Two, and 8) the Israeli strike across the Suez in 1973. Boyd, be it noted, mentioned many other battles and campaigns, and their commanders, in his briefing. Sadly, since we don’t have Boyd but only the bare slides, while Lind is Boyd’s semi-official interpreter, we’ll stick with his eight.

Before continuing, however, gentle reader, don’t get the idea that I am impugning either Boyd’s or Lind’s patriotism or intelligence. I think they’re wrong, dreadfully and almost totally wrong. But smart people can be wrong, especially when they see their country facing a war they don’t expect to win, and are desperate to find some way for us to win that war.


Leuctra, 371 BC

Epaminondas (Thebes) vs. Cleombrotus (Sparta)

There’s been some effort of late to try to transform this battle from something planned well in advance to something very spur of the moment. The difference, as far as decision cycle theory goes, is that if done on the spot and the spur of the moment, then somebody, at least, was observing, orienting, deciding and acting. If, however, all the important decisions were made early, notably how to form up a column fifty ranks deep and get it to move without the men tripping over each other or becoming a human accordion, then the last decision made on the field was to order, “Forward March,” and no OODA loop was taking place.

I reject that recent position even as I wonder if it doesn’t arise from people who were sold on the Boyd Cycle and then, consciously or subconsciously, twisted the facts to fit.

I reject it for several reasons. One is that, as mentioned above, it is damned difficult to get troops to march well in units or blocks larger than they are used to. The US Army, for example, has no trouble, not even among the support types, in marching in platoons or companies. When parade time comes around, though, they must practice it for anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, this even though nearly all of the troops will have stood a parade in the past, usually several, and should have some feel for the thing. How much worse for then, for the Thebans, if they have never marched in a fifty rank deep column before?   

Moreover, though fifty shields deep was something new, the Thebans had the example of Pagondas, at the Battle of Delium, fifty-three years earlier, and his massing of his main effort twenty-five deep. Thus, in broad, nontechnical terms, heavy massing was within the realm of the conceivable. Then there is the triple layout, strong left, pushed forward, weak center, held back, weaker right, held back further still. Those argue for thought, given early. Lastly, there was the clear intention to take on the Spartan contingent of the opposing Spartan-led army, the most prestigious troops in Greece, head on and smash them, which makes perfect sense in the context of the refused Theban center and right.

Leuctra was maneuver warfare, to be sure, albeit with a heavy admixture of attrition. What it was not was maneuver warfare in which the OODA loop had any battlefield part to play. It was not the application of a quicker idea, it was the application of a better one or, rather, several better ideas: Mass, Economy of Force, and Shape, in a combination worked out before the battle, and with the technicalities—how to march and fight in a fifty man deep column—likewise worked out in advance.

Oh, you want to know what happened? In the last decision made by either commander, Epaminondas and Cleombrotus gave the command, “Forward March,” or its equivalent in Greek, and the two sides smashed into each other over by the Spartan right. Overwhelmed by sheer numbers and physical power, the Spartans lost about four hundred of their own citizens—a huge percentage at the time—and fell or were driven back. Seeing this, the rest of the Spartan army, more or less unwilling allies of Sparta, anyway, broke and ran before ever getting in contact with the Theban center and right.


[Wikimedia Commons, Kirill Lokshin]


Cannae, 216 BC

Hannibal (Carthage) vs. Paullus and Varro (Rome)

On the face of it, Cannae seems to be better candidate for an illustration of decision cycle in operation than Leuctra is. Here’s what I think happened:

The Romans assembled as army of some sixteen legions, eight Roman, eight allied, plus about six thousand to sixty-four hundred cavalry, mostly allied. Because of the size of the army, the Roman commander (traditionally Varro but there are some theories, backed up by testimony reported from Hannibal, that it was actually Paullus in command; for our purposes it makes no difference), had the sub units of the legions, the maniples, form up much deeper that was their usual wont, no doubt expecting to overwhelm Hannibal through sheer weight, as the Thebans had the Spartans, at Leuctra. Even so, it seems to me unlikely that the Romans had entirely gotten rid of the spaces they traditionally left between maniples; they were too critical for relief by line of battle, for transmission of orders, for removal of the wounded, for oversight of the troops by their centurions, and to prevent shocks and disorder from being transmitted across the entire army’s front. The army probably couldn’t even move without those spaces, since without them every little obstacle would have thrown it into disorder.

The Romans assembled with their own infantry in the center, flanked by the allies’ legions, their own cavalry on the right and the allied cavalry on the left. About ten thousand Roman troops had been left to guard the camps. In total, the Romans may have mustered as many as ninety thousand men.

Hannibal’s army mustered a bit over half the strength of the Romans. He had (sources differ; this is my take on it) about twelve or thirteen thousand Libyan and Berber infantry, perhaps ten thousand cavalry, mostly Spanish and Gallic heavies, plus another twenty-seven or twenty-eight Spanish, Balearic, and Gallic infantry, heavy and light.

The fact that he had seized the supply dump/granary at the town of Cannae may have made it imperative that the Romans defeat him if they were going to eat. That doesn’t really matter either; his several years’ romp in Italy, coupled with the numerous humiliating defeats Hannibal had inflicted on them, to date, gave the Romans all the motivation they needed. Seizing the town had also given Hannibal a high perch from which he could see the Roman deployment.

How much of his own force Hannibal left to guard his own camp is unknown, but he must have left some. Whatever it was, however, or how many, didn’t appear to have any effect on the battle.

Hannibal formed his men with light infantry skirmishers out front, his Spanish and Gallic infantry in the center, his heavy Libyan spear in two blocks behind the Spaniards and Gauls, but off to the flanks. His cavalry was split into two blocks, light Numidian horse on his right (the Roman left) facing Varro and the allied cavalry, and the larger group, heavier Spanish and Gallic horse facing the Roman cavalry on the Roman right.

Following the indecisive play of the skirmishers, the action begins. Hasdrubal, commanding the heavy Spanish and Gallic horse, smashes into the badly outnumbered Roman cavalry on the Carthaginian left, defeating it, and then pursuing it to something close to destruction. Meanwhile, Maharbal, in command of the lighter, javelin-tossing, Numidian horse on Hannibal’s right fix the allied cavalry in position. If the allies advance, the Numidians run away. If they retreat, the Numidians pursue, wounding and killing them from behind. The Numidians are better horseman, on better horses. There is no chance for the allied cavalry to catch them. They can only sit and endure or wear themselves out with futile charges that never strike home.

While the cavalry action is beginning, Hannibal advances his center in a wedge or crescent. We should not understand by the latter term an actual crescent, with the troops facing outward away from some central point. That would be too hard to march them into. Rather, we should envision blocks of troops, advancing forward for a pre-ordered number of paces, such that the ones on the flanks march little if at all while the most central block advances perhaps half way to the Roman lines. A line drawn through the center of mass of each of these blocks may have formed a crescent or may have formed a wedge. It doesn’t really matter.

Likewise from Wiki. The date’s wrong. The orientation is wrong. The troops in the center are infantry, not cavalry. Moreover, one should not think of five blocks forming the central wedge or crescent, but something closer to fifty. Still, in broad terms, leaving aside those errors, it’s a useful illustration. [Wikimedia Commons, Department of History, United States Military Academy]


The Roman commander likewise ordered, “Forward, march,” at about the same time Hannibal ordered his central front to form into a crescent.

And that was the last action but one taken by either commander that had any effect over a substantial portion of the army. Thereafter, the play moved in accordance with the prewritten script of Hannibal.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever really explained why the Roman army began funneling into the center. Adrian Goldsworthy came close, in his book on the battle, but didn’t seem to want to commit. Here, again, is what I think happened.

I think the two Roman centurions of Hastati on either side of the first block of Carthaginian troops each saw an open flank and wheeled inward, left and right, to take that block in flank. They could do this because they could have confidence that the maniples to their outside flanks would move in to cover them, as would the maniple of Princeps behind them. Taken in flank like that, the Carthaginian group would have run for it, right into the gap they’d left behind when they’d advanced. Now their flanks would be covered. But for the Romans who had swung inward there was no going back; the outer maniples had moved inward and there was no real higher direction to order them out again.

The Romans advanced. Now they met the central block of three groups of Carthaginians. But this group still had open flanks. Again, other Roman centurions use the initiative they are expected to use, and swing in on those open flanks. They also are confident that their own flanks can be covered. Again, stung by those flank attacks, the Carthaginians retreat into the open space behind until that block of three has its flanks protected.

Imagine that happening twenty or twenty-five times. Not only are the Romans moving into the center of their own accord and, I am quite certain, in accordance with their own doctrine, but Hannibal is training them even more to do so. They are getting used to shifting left, if on the right, and shifting right, if on the left. They now have a kind of inertia going. This is all made worse by them being arrayed in maniples much deeper than usual. And, very likely, those spaces between maniples have disappeared, such that people are getting in each others’ way, while shocks and obstacles are being transmitted laterally throughout the Roman army.

I saw something like this once, as a private in the 101st. My company was marching to a parade in a block about fifteen on a side. (Yes, it was a huge company.) A car moving very slowly from a side street managed to impact the company from the side. The car was only going a few miles an hour, but that shock when it hit was sent throughout the company. People were knocked over. Even the men at the front were pushed sideways so that their progress stopped, too. Multiply that by about four hundred.

Meanwhile, Hasdrubal has had enough of chasing the Roman cavalry. They’ve had it, anyway. Now he returns and takes the allied cavalry from behind. They are wrecked in an instant. Maharbal and Hasdrubal pursue them for a while. Then Hasdrubal turns back, toward the Roman rear.

At about this point Hannibal gives the last order. The heavy Libyan spear that had been held back on the flanks swings in. There is essentially no chance of them timing the strike to hit simultaneously, but they will be very close in time. Imagine the first blow hitting on the Roman left. That shock is then, as in the example above, transmitted almost instantaneously throughout the Roman force. Anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes later (though probably closer to the latter), the second blow falls on the Roman right. Again the shock runs through the army. Forward motion stops.

Then Hasdrubal falls on the Roman rear. The rest is massacre.

The date is still wrong. [Wikimedia Commons, Department of History, United States Military Academy]

There is clearly a whole bunch of maneuvering going on here. How much of it has to do with the Boyd Cycle?


Oh, Hannibal observed, mind you. He could hardly help it. He had been a soldier from early childhood, grown up in his father’s army’s camp surrounded by men who knew the Roman army intimately, as only those who had fought it for years could know it. He’d fought and beaten the Roman army three times already in pitched battle. He knew how they worked. How else (if the reader accepts my theory of the maniples swinging in, and there’s really no other good way to account for the Roman funneling toward the center) could he have predicted how the Romans would react to the open flanks they were, over and over, presented.

That observation all took place before the battle commenced. It was quality observation, to be sure, but speed had nothing to do with it.

Hannibal oriented too, of course, which is to say he made an estimate of the situation. There is nothing in the record, no significant changes to his troop deployment, to suggest anything but that his orientation merely confirmed what he had already decided on.

He made no additional decision. He’d decided on battle well before and stuck with it. There’s no Boyd cycle in there, and of speed of the OODA loop there was none.

Decision and Action? As mentioned, he gave two significant orders, from just before the battle began to its end. One was “Forward into a crescent, march,” the other swung the Libyan heavy infantry inward. Both of these were already decided on, well in advance. And in the case of the latter, Hannibal was merely waiting for the right time to roll around, in the course of preplanned events, not trying to out decision cycle anybody.

But what of Hasdrubal? Surely his maneuvers out decision cycled somebody.

Not a chance. Hasdrubal acted in accordance with the orders he had been given before the battle ever commenced.

Between these two battles, Leuctra and Cannae, I think there is a showing of a place where decision cycle theory has some validity. It has nothing to do with maneuver warfare, but when we are discussing things that take place far from the battlefield—Research and Development (which, by the way, is what Epaminondas was doing, pre-Leuctra), Procurement, Diplomacy … these are all fields of endeavor where people do get into an OODA loop. Even these, though, show an advantage to quality of decision over speed of decision. It is generally only the good decisions which have enough of an impact to make the opponent react at all.

There are also a couple of other areas where I suspect decision cycle theory may have some validity. These illustrate it, by the decisions made well in advance. Let’s wait a bit on those other areas, though.


The Tullahoma Campaign

Rosecrans (Union) vs. Bragg (Confederacy)

23 June to 3 July, 1863

It’s less than clear what Lind meant by “Rosecranz (sic) at Chattanooga.” Since there’s nothing in his performance there that would suggest to the most fevered brain that anything like decision cycle theory was in operation, on either side, I suspect that what was really meant was Rosecrans in the Tullahoma campaign, which brought him to Chattanooga. Since it’s not clear just what he meant, and since Boyd’s briefing skips over Rosecrans entirely, I’m afraid I’ll be punching into a vacuum.

Still: Essayons.

What actually happened in the Tullahoma campaign? Initially, for about six months, nothing happened, beyond indecisive—though sometimes costly—cavalry skirmishing and raiding. Notwithstanding, some very important things were happening, without so much as a nod of anyone’s head toward OODA. Among these things were:

a) Rosecrans spent six months training his troops, building up his logistics, and planning and preparing (hmmm … how like Epaminondas and Hannibal, no, to make all the important decisions and take most of the important actions early?), and

b) the mounting of Wilders’ Brigade of infantry and the 39th Indiana, while equipping them with repeating rifles.

Note that neither of these things took place within the framework of the Boyd Cycle. Note further that Rosecrans was the subject of near continuous nagging and frequent threat of relief for cause by people who had, at least, the speed notion of the Boyd Cycle down.

On Bragg’s part, the positions he took up were dictated by the need to live off the surrounding countryside. There were better positions nearer to Chattanooga, for defensive purposes, but these were too barren too support his army. Even with the position he had taken up, however, living was poor and the horses underfed and weak, hence slow.

The offensive began on the 23rd of June, 1863, with a feint against Bragg’s left. This had the effect of concentrating Bragg’s mind on the left, though he didn’t—really, couldn’t—do much to bolster the left.

The decisive action began the next day, with the assault on and seizure of Hoover’s Gap by Wilder’s Brigade, and Liberty Gap by the similarly mounted, trained, and armed 39th Indiana, followed by August Willich’s infantry brigade. Of these, the former was the more important. Punching through the pickets of the Confederate 1st Kentucky Cavalry, Wilder’s command, their mounts in better condition, physically won the race to Hoover’s Gap. They didn’t decide to move quicker. They didn’t observe quicker. They didn’t orient quicker. They simply moved quicker.

Counterattacks to recover the gaps were, of course, thrown in by Bragg’s men. These were defeated and the gaps retained not because Wilder or Willich observed, oriented, decided, or acted quicker, but because their men shot more and better.

The loss of those key defensive positions at the gaps made Bragg’s position untenable. Hardee—Bragg’s subordinate commander on the right—also made a bad decision in retreating in the wrong direction. He didn’t observe too slowly. He didn’t orient too slowly. He didn’t decide too slowly. He didn’t act too slowly. Rather, he did all of these things wrongly, and without regard to decision cycle theory.

Lastly, although Rosecrans failed in his objective of destroying Bragg’s army, and though slowness had most to do with that, it was not slowness of Rosecrans’ OODA loop. It was because the roads were too muddy for a rapid pursuit.

(All the above is a one of the world rendition. I heartily recommend, to any serious student of warfare, a thorough analysis of the Tullahoma Campaign on your own.)

This map seems good. The 23 or 24 June date depends on whether one cares to count from Rosecrans launching the feint in the west or the setting in motion of Wilder’s Brigade in the east. [Wikimedia Commons, Hasl Jespersen]


Vicksburg Campaigns

Grant (Union) vs. Joe Johnston and Pemberton (Confederacy)

December, 1862 – July, 1863

When you’re a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. When you’re an acolyte of decision cycle theory, everything starts to look like an OODA loop. There’s something terribly circular about the whole thing: “We believe, as an article of religious faith, that decision cycle theory and only decision cycle theory accounts for successful maneuver in war, therefore every successful maneuver in war must, a priori, be the result of the successful side making better use than the losing side of the OODA loop.”

The theory itself tacitly posits a certain equality between the contestants, a similar mutual existence in the same conceptual universe, as does Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake. Thus, the fighter pilots are both in armed aircraft in the air. The duelists both have swords and face each other on the field. If the effectiveness of the decision cycle depends entirely or almost entirely on other factors, then the decision cycle itself must be seen as fairly irrelevant. Thus Vicksburg.

The campaign opened (in the early attempt) with a Union numerical superiority between Grant and Sherman, of about six to one with regard to Pemberton’s force in Vicksburg and two to one if we count that and van Dorn’s force in Grenada. No decision that could have been made would have allowed Pemberton’s twelve thousand in Vicksburg to do a great deal about Sherman’s thirty-two thousand moving on the town, other than to sit pat and defend the town if Sherman pressed on. This Pemberton did and in this he succeeded, at Chickasaw Bayou, but there wasn’t any maneuvering or decision cycling to it, just a heads up exchange of fire and shock.

No decision, or at least no intelligent decision, on van Dorn’s part was going to get him out in the open to attack Grant, as Grant hoped, when the latter outnumbered van Dorn five to three. A couple of raids against Grant’s supply lines forced him to fall back. Was this speed of the OODA loop in action? That’s preposterous; it was simply a couple of good decisions, well executed, against a vulnerability caused by the totality of Grant’s physical circumstances.

In the next attempt, raiding back, Grant launched two cavalry raids, one by Abel Streight and another, just after, by Benjamin Grierson. Streight’s raid failed and he and his command were captured. Grierson succeeded, in good part because Nathan Bedford Forrest was busy elsewhere rounding up Streight.

That, by the way, was an example of decision cycle theory in action, albeit not in quite the way that Boyd or Lind might have thought. You see, Forrest was out decision cycled. This was not because he went through his own OODA loop slowly. No, it was because two enemy forces can throw more decisions at you, faster, than one can and, especially if widely separated, more than you can physically deal with. Since decision cycle theory purports to be a theory of fighting outnumbered and winning, and since greater forces can apparently toss more decisions one’s way, there would seem to be another flaw in the theory.

Where else, though, was a decision cycle operating at Vicksburg? When Johnston failed to strike west into the rear of Grant’s army, during the siege? No, Johnston didn’t lack the ability to make a timely decision. What he lacked was the transportation—wagons and horses—to support an army at any distance from the railhead. This was also a problem with the besieged, inside the town. Given drayage, they could have collected enough sustenance to both support themselves and make it impossible for Grant to support an army on the countryside. They knew they should, and needed no OODA loop to say so, but lacked the physical transportation to do it.

Or was the OODA loop operating when Porter’s riverine fleet, in two groups on two dates, ran past the guns of the town so that they could carry Grant’s army over from the west back to the east? This seems unlikely. The Confederates saw it, though it was dark, made an estimate of the situation, decided to fire and did fire … but simply lacked the physical power to stop the Union fleet.


Jackson’s Valley Campaign

Jackson (Confederate) vs. sundry Union commanders

March through June, 1862

The reverse charge, of being a nail and seeing everything as a hammer, may attach to being a decision cycle theory skeptic. There are moments in the Jackson’s Valley Campaign where something like decision cycle theory seems to be operating, sometimes in Jackson’s favor and other times against him. And yet … and yet …

In the first major move of the campaign, Union General Nathanial Banks moves southwest down the valley, with Jackson fleeing before him. Content with that, Banks leaves a smaller force behind and withdraws northward. At this time Jackson’s observation and orientation is timely enough, but it is wrong. His eyes, Turner Ashby’s cavalry, have badly underestimated the force left behind by Banks. Jackson decides to attack, and then does attack, but is beaten at Kernstown. (This has valuable strategic implications, for the Confederacy, mind you, but as an example of operational or tactical decision cycling…well…I’m at a loss.)

Next, at McDowell (the town, not the general), we see Jackson, reinforced by Ewell, observe, correctly, that a small Union force (under Milroy) is out there and vulnerable. He decides to attack it and does move to attack it. Milroy, however, also makes a correct estimate of the situation—he’s badly outnumbered—and launches a spoiling attack himself, then retreats, staying ahead of Jackson all the way to Franklin. It’s not clear that anyone actually got inside anyone else’s OODA loop at McDowell. Instead we see good and timely decisions all around.

Next, at Front Royal and Winchester, Jackson turns on Banks and routs him northward. Is this because Jackson got within Banks’ OODA loop? Sadly not; it’s because Banks has been ordered to send almost all his troops eastward, well out of range to reach him should Jackson attack, while Ewell and Jackson, together again, have the numbers.

The reader may recall my suggestion that “Shape” belongs on the list of principles of war. I’d further suggest that what happened next illustrates that better than it illustrates decision cycle theory. Lincoln, effectively taking command of the Valley from the White House, ordered Fremont, in the west, and Shields, in the east, to converge on the Valley, trapping Jackson north of them. (It’s more complex and, from Lincoln’s point of view, infuriating than that.) Jackson escaped. Was this because he was operating inside Lincoln’s decision cycle? Maybe a little, but we probably ought to credit a bit more that Jackson had the excellent macadamized Valley Pike to march down, while Fremont had crappy mountain roads.

And there I’ll stop, if only because this is getting tiresome, with the words that, before assigning to decision cycle theory the credit for Jackson’s Valley Campaign, it might be better to take account of the Shape of the theater and note that Jackson’s timing advantage came mostly from being able to operate along interior lines to gain numerical superiority in most of the engagements he fought.


The German Offensives of 1918

Rather than give a blow by blow breakdown of these, we should note four things: 1) The tactics employed by the Germans remain the basis of all sound offensive infantry tactics, today, and 2) they are also the basis of all sound armor tactics. The last thing to be noted, though, are that 3) the Allies were not, in fact, out decision cycled by the Germans; they were neither panicked into flight nor demoralized into passivity. Meanwhile 4), the Germans, in fact—and the reader will recall my admonition that “Attrition,” too, belongs in the list of Principles of War—simply wore themselves out.

This is one of the other flaws to decision cycle theory; the decisions one tosses at the enemy do not come without cost. And the cost may well break you, as it broke the Germans of 1918. (Not that they weren’t probably going to lose anyway, of course.)


Blitzkrieg, 1940, and 1973

This is an interesting one. The latter case, the Crossing of the Suez, I’ll just dismiss out of hand. Why? Because, decision cycle theory-wise, operationally speaking, being tactically minded, beating Arab armies is typically the military equivalent of stealing candy from a baby, lifting coins from the blind man’s cup, or winning a footrace with a quadriplegic. It’s just too easy for it to prove anything. They’re neither cowards nor stupid, but they have cultural traits that carry over into their armies that render those armies almost invariably unfit for battle.

As for France, 1940, I don’t know that it’s possible to say this better than this:

The fact that it worked but once is ignored. The fact that Guderian's attack was supported by attacks of attrition to his North and South is ignored. The moral, social, and military bankruptcy of France that made that nation susceptible to the effects of the indirect approach is not considered. The steadfast, heroic resistance of the outmaneuvered British surrounded at Dunkirk and the futile heroics of the French army acting as rearguard for the British evacuation-forces—which in theory should have surrendered or offered minimal resistance—is ignored. Hitler's decision to halt the Panzers is dismissed as lunacy. Given free rein, according to the argument, Guderian would have destroyed the Allied enclave. To consider his logistics diffculties, the very real threat to his flanks posed by a theoretically paralyzed enemy, and the fact that political considerations constrain maneuver in any war would destroy the myth. Better to concentrate on that portion of the French campaign that supports the illusion. From this tenuous link between theory and practice, from what Guderian proved is sometimes possible, has emerged the dogma and myth of maneuver warfare as defined by William Lind and FMFM-I.

Major Craig A. Tucker, USMC, False Prophets: The Myth of Maneuver Warfare and the Inadequacies of FMFM-1, Warfighting

In short, sure, sometimes, if everything works out for you, under the kind of ideal circumstances that almost never arise, you might be able to out-decision cycle somebody, but it’s hardly likely enough to chance the farm – or the country – on.


Beyond the poor analogy, beyond the lack of much history to support it at all, the theory doesn’t hold up very well even in a purely intellectual realm. I’ve already hinted at much of this.

Consider: As discussed, decisions can be made—we might even say, built up—in advance. Try this one: Force A had stood on the defensive for months. It has used its time well. Every meter of ground is mined. Every avenue of approach is covered by heavy weapons protected by obstacles, bunkers, and entrenchments. Some of its force is on reverse slopes, where aerial and satellite recon can see it generally, but where it cannot be well targeted by ground forces. Much is hidden underground. False positions abound.

What is the position of the attacker, faced with all this? Imagine he is engaged, but apparently from four positions, three of which are false. He has observed. He has oriented. He decides to call in artillery on Position X, and to direct his own fires on X, but it is position Y that is engaging him (since Force A goes out of its way to make Position Y more obvious). He is out decision cycled in advance.

Something much like that has happened, at least at lower levels, almost every time an attacking force has attempted to force its way through a serious defense that had the entire front organized and covered. The question for the student is: is this an example of decision cycle theory supporting maneuver warfare, or of decision cycle theory crushing maneuver warfare except where the attacker had the numbers and the willingness to bleed to chew his way through?

Hmmm … don’t we call that, “attrition”?

Finally, an enemy may be content to watch you "Boyd Cycle” at the speed of light, secure in the knowledge that he is on Iwo Jima, you need Iwo Jima, and eventually you are going to have to come ashore and root him out cave by cave. That is attrition. But attrition, in the peculiar logic of Lind's maneuver warfare, is not necessary.

Major Craig A. Tucker, USMC, False Prophets: The Myth of Maneuver Warfare and the Inadequacies of FMFM-1, Warfighting


Consider, too, that if one combatant can throw x decisions at you, two can throw 2x, four can throw 4x. Is decision cycle theory then, by its own logic, not a matter of fighting outnumbered but of having the numbers? In other words, by its own logic is it not a theory of mass?

So, do I think decision cycle theory has no place? Not exactly. It has a place, I think, in research and development, as we can see in the tank-gun-armor races of the Second World War. It has, I think, some place in diplomacy. I lack the knowledge to say it has no place in business, generally, and suspect it might. Where it has little place, however, is on the battlefield.

I’ll close now with some advice I used to give my lieutenants, against the day when they would be commanders and might find their commands fighting against someone who had adopted the fantasy of decision cycle theory: “Boys, when the enemy is tossing at you more decisions, in the form of probing fingers, than you’re comfortable with, take your reserve and smash one of those fingers to bloody pulp. It will provide useful marksmanship training to your men, inject some highly desirable caution on the enemy, and make you, personally, feel much, much better.”

Copyright © 2012 by Tom Kratman

Retired U.S. Army LTC Tom Kratman is the creator of the Carerra military SF series and the Countdown military adventure series, including latest entry, Countdown: H Hour.