Col John Boyd's Patterns of Conflict Expanded to Policing Part 2: Don't Just Be a Reactor..Be a Shaper Too! | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

In Part 2 of this video series Boyd continues with his idea, what he calls a “New Conception” of fast transients O-O-D-A Loops that lead to outmaneuvering an adversary. The idea of fast transients suggests that, in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries—or, better yet, get inside adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action time cycle or loop.

Why? Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries—since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing as well as faster transient rhythm or patterns they are competing against.

This appears simple enough yet in policing we often struggle apply or tie in this idea in the moral, mental and physical categories we discussed in part 1 while conducting police operations. We get the physical dimension, for examples rapid response, pedal to the metal, blue lights and siren, march to the sounds of the guns and gaining immediate control of situations via force options. Yet in general we neglect to consider how the mental and moral categories tie together influencing the physical.

In his efforts to explain his thinking, Boyd uses examples from military history, the Blitzkrieg vs. Maginot Line (1940) , his personal experience as a fighter pilot in Korea with the F-86 vs. MiG-15 (1951-53), and Israeli raid on Entebbe(1976) where all three categories of conflict are applied and led to successful operations. In all three of these examples:

The course of action developed and employed exploit operations and weapons that, generated a rapidly changing environment (quick/clear observations, orientation and decisions, fast-tempo, fast transient maneuvers, quick kills, inhibit an adversary’s capacity to adapt to such an environment (cloud or distort his observations, orientation, and decisions and impede his actions).

The Idea is to simultaneously compress our own time and stretch-out adversary time to generate a favorable mismatch in time to reduce an adversaries ability to shape and adapt to change. The goal is to collapse adversary’s system into confusion and disorder causing him to over and under react to activity that appears simultaneously menacing as well as ambiguous, chaotic, or misleading. This led to successful operations in all three of these examples because it exploited all three categories of conflict (moral, mental and physical).

Boyd’s research into the historical examples and his personal experience as a fighter pilot in the F-86 versus the MIG-15 showed him this all worked. But why did it work and what were the dynamics of an organization that allowed it to work, generating rapid individual and organizational O-O-D-A Loops?

Boyd says don’t just be a reactor. Be a shaper too. This is so important to policing and speaks to our lack of considering sense-making ability and being able to size up situations so we understand the type of problem we are facing, adapt and develop effective courses of action that exploit an adversaries ability to make sense of what we are doing. All too often police just do what they were told or trained to do. They react and do this with no understanding as to why they are doing it other than the fact that they were told or taught it. Being a shaper means we must be able to actually size up situations, so sense-making must be developed. Once we understand what’s going on when then work and experiment to solve the problem, adapting as necessary to shape and reshape the environment and our adversaries mind. These ideas work on people as Boyd points out:

Terrain doesn’t fight wars, Machines don’t fight wars. People do and they use their minds. We must learn to compress our own time while stretching out an adversaries time to distort his O-O-D-A Loops.

If we want to understand this lack of understanding in policing of these concepts all we have to do is look at police tactical fiascos from our policing history. Charles “Sid” Heal describes in his book Field Command a few examples where tactical skill sets alone just do not cut it:

ASK JUST ABOUT ANYONE ABOUT LAW ENFORCEMENT TACTICAL fiascoes and they will be quick to cite the raid on the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas, or perhaps the “Ruby Ridge Standoff” with Randy Weaver and his family in Idaho. The terrible fires in Philadelphia that burned more than sixty houses after local police attempted to serve arrest warrants on members of the MOVE group.

I am sure an event in which the local police were involved, daily police encounters with crimes in progress, people having a mental health crisis, extreme acts of violence, almost certainly a scenario alleging inappropriate force, you can consider as well. Recently even relatively minor violations of law such as trespassing (Starbucks) has brought about national debate and critics. Regardless of what is described, the scenarios almost always involve allegations of an overreaction of some type. In contrast, consider the following scenarios again from Sid Heal

After attempting to serve arrest warrants on a bunch of radical farmers who, among other things, were accused of frauds and refusing to pay taxes, agents from the federal government surrounded their farm headquarters near Jordan, Montana, and pleaded with them to surrender. Fearing a repeat of the tragic events at Ruby Ridge, the operation continued for months and the media labeled the conspicuously timid efforts as “Weaver fever.” When the suspects finally surrendered after 81 days, local citizens danced in the streets. The operation remains the longest police “siege” in U.S. history.

A year later, local police attempted to serve commitment papers on a 51 year-old widow and former nurse living in a house near Roby, Illinois, when relatives claimed she was mentally unstable. For nearly six weeks she single-handedly held off police. The so called “Roby Ridge Siege” cost the local authorities nearly a million dollars and gained international attention as protestors picketed the site while neighbors paid her bills and attempted to sneak food to her. Unlike their comparative equivalents, these incidents are clearly cases of under-reaction, but are they any less tactical fiascos?

The criticism and scorn used to describe them clearly indicates some of the sentiments of the community (including police) and serves to undermine the legitimate authority of our governments to enforce the laws. The greater question that emerges, however, is what is appropriate? What’s the best practice, best SOP, checklist or policy and procedure OR IS THERE a “school solution” at all? Sid Heal writes more as he identifies the problem with police not understanding tactical principals such as the O-O-D-A Loop, fast transients, tempo and friction to name just a few:

In point of fact, there is no perfect solution to these situations and therein lays the root of the problem. Because there is no one right answer some conclude that there is also no wrong answer; there are just some better than others. This reveals a sad, but true, state of affairs in that many law enforcement tacticians lack even the most rudimentary understanding of any supporting science for making sound tactical decisions and would be hard put to quote a single source, theory or doctrine to justify their decisions. Without an understanding of the factors and influences in play, tactical decisions must be based upon impressions, suppositions and conjectures. In the medical field these tacticians would be the functional equivalent of witch doctors. Tactical terms—like tempo, fog or friction—are no more unfamiliar to them than medical terms such as lavage, dermabrasion or hemodialysis. They simply apply what worked last time without any idea of why the preferred course of action in one situation can be a recipe for disaster in another.

The goal for police in understanding these ideas Boyd is discussing and expand upon them. They are so crucial to making sound decisions and actions, is as Boyd states to survive, survive on own terms, or improve our capacity for independent action. The competition for limited resources to satisfy these desires may force one to: Diminish adversary’s 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. The Implication is, Life is conflict, survival, and conquest. Boyd is this segment of the video makes this observation:

In addressing any questions about conflict, survival, and conquest one is naturally led to the theory of evolution by natural selection and the conduct of war since both treat conflict, survival, and conquest in a very fundamental way. In this regard, many sources (a few on natural selection and many on war) are reviewed; many points of view are exposed.

Now we can take this fundamental way of human behavior, in which natural selection and the conduct of war treat conflict, survival and conquest and apply it to policing as conflict is fundamentally a social process. The essence of conflict is a clash between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, each trying to impose its will on another. The very essence of conflict as a clash between opposed wills creates friction. It is critical to keep in mind that the adversary is not an inanimate object but an independent and animate force. The adversary seeks to resist our will and impose his own will on us. It is the dynamic interplay between his will and ours that makes conflict difficult and complex. In this environment, friction abounds. When Boyd speaks of getting inside an adversaries O-O-D-A Loop he is speaking of creating ‘friction’ in the moral, mental and physical categories that conflict and competition unfold in.

Friction may be mental, as in indecision over a course of action. Or it may be physical, as in effective adversarial fire, explosive devices, or a terrain obstacle, complex structural configurations, that must be overcome. Friction may be external, imposed by adversarial action, by friendly or innocents action, hostages, barricaded subjects, the environment, weather, or mere chance. Or friction may be self-induced, caused by such factors as lack of a clearly defined goal, lack of coordination, unclear or complicated plans, complex task organizations or command relationships, or complicated communication systems. Whatever form it takes, because conflict is a human enterprise, friction will always have a psychological as well as a physical impact.

Boyd makes it clear, we should attempt to minimize self-induced friction, the greater requirement is to engage effectively within the medium of friction. The means to overcome friction is the will; we prevail over friction through persistent strength of character and spirit, while at the same time identifying and exploiting with swiftness and fluidity of action, adversarial strengths and weaknesses. While striving to overcome the effects of friction ourselves, we must attempt at the same time to raise our enemy’s friction to a level that destroys his ability to impose his will on us. Boyd asks the question what are the dynamic of an organization that influences this persistent strength of character and spirit?

In examining these many points of view Boyd says, one is bombarded with the notion that: –It is advantageous to possess a variety of responses that can be applied rapidly to gain sustenance, avoid danger, and diminish adversary’s capacity for independent action. The simpler organisms—those that make-up man as well as man working with other men in a higher level context must cooperate or, better yet, harmonize their activities in their endeavors to survive as an organic synthesis. To shape and adapt to change one cannot be passive; instead one must take the initiative. Put more simply and directly: the above comments leave one with the impression that variety/rapidity/harmony/initiative(and their interaction) seem to be key qualities that permit one to shape and adapt to an ever changing environment.

Ultimately, a culture or climate that encourages people to use their initiatives to further the goals of the organization. Under such a culture, people will solve the technical & operational problems. The force multipliers are and come from John Boyd’s work are, the ability to size up situations (Fingerspitzengefühl), mutual trust (Einheit), focus of effort (Schwerpunkt), and mission-type order (Auftragstaktik). Boyd termed these the “Principles of the Blitzkrieg,” which came partly from established German doctrine and partly from extensive interviews during the 1970s, and provide a framework for creating competitive cultures. I wrote a piece that gets into more detail you can access here: What Are The Force Multipliers That Allow Police Organizations to Operate at Rapid OODA Loop Tempos?

Part 2 ends with Historical pattern Sun Tzu The Art of War (400 B.C.) where he lays out a theme for successful operations. Frans P.B. Osinga in his book Strategy Science and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd explains:

Patterns of Conflict draws on the writings of Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu’. Indeed, this presentation in various places presents ideas of Sun Tzu, and Sun Tzu’s ideas form one of the starting points of the briefing, while reappearing in the concluding part. Sun Tzu’s book encapsulates many elements of theories developed by Fuller and Liddell Hart, who paid tribute to Sun Tzu by incorporating sections from The Art of War in the introductory pages to Strategy. Boyd was to adopt Sun Tzu’s philosophy of war, so a somewhat elaborate discussion on Sun Tzu’s ideas is therefore warranted.

Sun Tzu’s work implies it is possible to have complete knowledge, but it emanates not from the attainment of absolute certainty, but from the formation of a correct interpretation of the situation, a very important theme in Boyd’s work. Foreknowledge springs from the ability to discern patterns and relations, implying that it derives from a holistic view of an object. Even if one has perfect information it is of no value if it is not coupled to a penetrating understanding of its meaning, if one does not see the patterns. Judgment is key. Without judgment, data means nothing. It is not necessarily the one with more information who will come out victorious, it is the one with better judgment, the one who is better at discerning patterns. Moreover, it is a judgment of highly dynamic situation.

For policing this theme Boyd draws on and discusses from Sun Tzu some 2,500 years old is as relevant today as it was then. While reading the next few paragraphs expanding on these ideas replace the word “war with conflict” and reflect on what it means to policing a free society. Keeping in mind the Boyd’s intent is to unveil the character of conflict, survival, and conquest, the first important idea is preservation.

War is the most important issue a state should concern itself with, according to Sun Tzu; it is a matter of life and death and it will determine the fate of a state. War is to be avoided as much and as long as possible because inherent in war is the chance of catastrophe. War was only justifiable when all possible alternatives have been exhausted and must be entertained with the utmost seriousness and restraint. The commander must therefore be in pursuit of a quick termination and preservation of life and resources, not only one’s own but also those of the opponent, while the ability to resume normal life and relations after hostilities must be kept in mind. Whenever possible, ‘victory’ should be achieved through diplomatic coercion, thwarting the enemy’s plans and alliances and frustrating his strategy. Only when a state is threatened by an enemy with military action or refuses to give in to demands otherwise, should the government resort to armed conflict. And even then, a clash of arms is not preferred.

Harmony and trust how the citizens have to be in accord or harmonize with the rulers of the state. Without this, the state ends to rule. In relation to policing today this still holds true and speaks to police legitimacy discussed in part 1 and you will hear again and again throughout patterns of conflict. Maintaining cohesion is another important prerequisite for creating and exploiting disorder. Morale is one aspect: one should attack when the ch’i, or spirit, of the enemy troops is low but only if and when one’s own ch’i is high. Trust, fairness, integrity, leadership, esprit de corps and discipline are other (modern) terms relating to this, ones Boyd also incorporates.

Justice and well being come from building harmony and trust internally in organizations so it permeates the outwardly to the citizenry. Procedural justice to many in policing feels like new idea. However Sun Tzu was discussing 2,500 years ago in The Art Of War. Its nothing new! Procedural justice refers to the idea of fairness in the processes that resolve disputes and allocate resources, from our communities when they trust what we do and how we do it. Once again we see the importance of understanding how the moral, mental, and physical categories of conflict tie into the strategy, operations and tactics we utilize in policing. It is a concept that, when embraced, promotes positive organizational change and bolsters better relationships. Procedural justice speaks to four principles, often referred to as the four pillars: fairness in the processes, transparency in actions, opportunities for voice, impartiality in decision making.

Inscrutability and enigma T.E. Lawrence has one of my favorite quotes “Nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals.” Using both orthodox and unorthodox tactics leads to getting inside an adversaries O-O-D-A Loop which allows us to adapt as we accord with an adversary. Adaptability refers to the conscious fluidity of one’s own disposition. One can only shape and reshape circumstances if one maintains an attitude of readiness and flexibility. One must adapt oneself to the enemy’s changing posture as naturally and as effortlessly as flowing water winding down a hillside. The concept of fluidity is one that is also embedded within Boyd’s work. This means shifting your position so skillfully and imperceptibly that, from the enemy’s perspective, you are inscrutable, mysterious an enigma. This is much, much different than the high diddle, diddle straight up the middle, the devil be damned emotional responses we see all too often in policing.

Another terms for this is being unfathomable and formless. Sun Tzu stresses the need for a commander to be unfathomable and obscure, never revealing his plans or intentions even to his own troops. Being unfathomable through deception and deceit will cause the opposing adversary to be confused or forced to respond in a way that is not according to his initial plan. He is forced to react especially when he suddenly discovers that his opponent is moving to an object that he needs to defend. Thus he is shaped. These ideas surface in the statement:

One who excels at moving the enemy deploys in a configuration to which the enemy must respond. He offers something that the enemy must seize. With profit he moves them, with the foundation he awaits them.” ~Sun Tzu

Deception and subversion help to create the element of surprise. Without surprise at some stage it will be difficult to mass superior force at a certain point. Surprise is achieved through the interaction, the reinforcing effect of several methods applied simultaneously. It involves the employment of deception and deceit. For instance, it is achieved by moving separated and keeping the opponent guessing where one will unite. If one is united, one can disperse again in the hope that the opponent has united and thereby committed his forces. How we deploy, or the image thereof, used together with disinformation, as well as feigning certain activities that serve as indicators of upcoming operations to the trained eye of the opposing adversary, all serve the end of deceiving the opponent. Of course all efforts to deceive must be matched by making sure one’s real intentions and movements are shrouded in secrecy or clandestine maneuver.

A simple example of this for policing is to mask our approach. Stop responding to front doors and driveways of crisis locations and instead consider our using our environment as we tactically respond and approach the scene. Use ruses and trickery to catch subjects un-expectantly or off guard. Simply choosing maneuver over attrition helps us generate surprise

Rapidity and fluidity. To enhance the creation of confusion, and being unfathomable, one should also use superior speed and rapidity. Speed, rapidity of movement and attacks help in shaping the opponent and wear him down. The same holds true for the concepts of variety and flexibility. This is reflected in: ‘Men all know the disposition by which we attain victory, but no one knows the configuration through which we control the victory. Thus a victorious battle (strategy) is not repeated, the configurations of response to the enemy are inexhaustible.’ In Science Strategy and War: The Strategic Theories of John Boyd, Frans P.B. Osinga writes,

‘A particular kind of this is captured in the concept of the orthodox (cheng) and the unorthodox (ch’i). It is an important set of polar opposites and one Boyd would frequently refer to. It can be translated as the ‘straightforward method and the crafty method’ or ‘the direct method and the indirect method’. Ch’i and cheng must be understood in the widest sense as meaning energy, strategy, ideas or forces (moral, mental and physical). The point is that one can use force in conventional–traditional as well as in imaginative–unconventional ways in dealing with an opponent. Nothing in itself is either straightforward or crafty, direct or indirect: characteristic of the concept is the fact that the unorthodox can become the orthodox. Whether it is one or the other depends on what one thinks one’s opponent will expect in the particular circumstances of the battle. The concept of ch’i and cheng is about conceptualizing, characterizing, manipulating forces within – and by exploiting an enemy’s expectation.’

These themes as Boyd calls them seem contradictory yet in fact they are two-sides of the same coin or paradoxes. It is this understanding of how polar opposites influence one another that allows us to maneuver effectively by getting inside an adversaries O-O-D-A Loop. Ed Luttwak in his book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace is all about paradoxical logic and he offers a great explanation:

The entire realm of strategy is pervaded by paradoxical logic very different from the ordinary ‘linear’ logic by which we live in all other spheres of life. When conflict is absent or merely incidental to purposes of production and consumption, of commerce and culture, of social or familial relations and consensual government, whenever that is, strife and competition are more or less bound by law and custom, a non-contradictory linear logic rules, whose essence is mere common sense. Within the sphere of strategy, however, where human relations are conditional by armed conflict or possible, another and quite different logic is at work and routinely violates ordinary linear logic by inducing the coming together and reversal of opposites. Therefore it tends to reward paradoxical conduct while defeating straightforwardly logical action, yielding results that are ironical or even lethally damaging.

These themes surface at various places in Boyd’s work, in particular in Patterns of Conflict. Indeed, if there is one strategic author Boyd must conceptually be related to, and compared with, it is Sun Tzu. It is the conscious use of these ideas and themes that influence the outcomes we seek.

Stay Oriented!


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