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Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd


Frans P.B. Osinga


No me da pena admitir pero este libro fue demasiado para mi y creo que se debe a tres razones; (1) no soy soldado, (2) no he sido allegado a los asuntos militares reales y (3) debí haber leído antes la obra de John Boyd.

Para la primera no hay remedio, para la segunda imagino que ha de ser leer más sobre el tema y realmente interesarme pero no me llama la atención y para la última pues parece que no es simple.

Según el autor, la obra de John Boyd se transmitió de manera verbal en varias sesiones de información y presentaciones donde el trabajaba en sus diapositivas. Estos materiales no se encuentran disponibles ya que igual que Confucio, Socrates y otros pensadores no creían en escribir libros sino que invitaban al estudiante a desarrollar sus propias ideas.

Así que me tuve que conformar con leer sobre todo el contexto que el autor pudo inferir sobre todo lo que John Boyd creía e impulsaba en el ámbito militar de su país. Muchas veces los temas eran simples de entender en su forma más básica pero en otros había que tener un nivel de erudición más alto.

Ahora bien, ¿por qué leí este libro? Hace algunos años me encontré con el famoso “ciclo OODA” cuyas iniciales en inglés significan Observations (Observaciones), Orientation (Orientación), Decision (Decisión) y Action (Acción). Siempre me pareció interesante ésta forma de pensar, en su momento me recordó al “ciclo Deming” cuyas iniciales en inglés significan Plan (Planear), Do (Hacer), Check (Verificar) y Act (Actuar) pero no encontré nada que diera más detalle al respecto a excepción de una gráfica más detallada pero sin contexto era difícil comprender.

En este libro se muestra dicha gráfica más detallada y tan sólo en la parte de Orientación hay todo un mundo. El autor procede a describir y explicar los ensayos y el discurso que John Boyd escribió, cuáles fueron sus influencias y sus motivaciones.

También explica que la teoría de estrategia que John Boyd intentaba explicar no se contenía solamente a la guerra pero al comportamiento de sistemas complejos que se pudieran adaptar en condiciones adversas, por ejemplo una empresa comercial.

Tal vez valga la pena revisitar este libro luego de encontrar las pocas cosas que John Boyd escribió y las diapositivas que presentaba, suena difícil pero tal vez valga la pena.

Algunas citas

A Note On Strategy

  • However, the strategy may not be (purely) military strategy, instead it may be grand strategy that uses ‘engagements’, meaning all of the relevant instruments of power as threats or inaction, for the objectives of statecraft.

  • Strategy is a plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment.

  • in organization and management theory strategy refers to the various ways an organization tries to maintain a strategic fit between an organization’s goals, its internal make up and the dynamic environment.

A Note On Strategic Theory

  • The chief utility of a general theory of war and strategy lies in its ability not to point out lessons, but to isolate things that need thinking about. It must provide insight and questions, not answers.

  • Good strategic theory must be holistic, paying due respect for the interdependency of the various elements and dimensions that give form to strategy.

  • Strategists have had difficulty abstracting themselves from the features of a given war or period, and identifying the lasting characteristics that would apply to all contexts and all periods.

Reading History

  • Whenever possible, ‘victory’ should be achieved through diplomatic coercion, thwarting the enemy’s plans and alliances and frustrating his strategy.

Systems Everywhere

  • Boyd’s often repeated statement concerning the strategic goal of an organism: ‘to diminish adversary’s freedom-of-action while improving our freedom-of-action so that our adversary cannot cope while we can cope with events/efforts as they unfold.’

  • Ideas create information, they are the integrating patterns that derive not from information but from experience.

  • the ability to grow under acknowledged uncertainty is part and parcel of creative people and organizations.

  • When information is transformed into action, new approaches must be tried, even when they result in some mistakes and failures.

  • An entity learns if, through its processing of information, the range of potential behaviors is increased.

Boyd and the First Stage of the Paradigm Shift

  • Living systems are open systems; closed systems are non-living systems.

  • ‘We need to create mental images, views, or impressions, hence patterns that match with activity of world.’

  • ‘We need to deny adversary the possibility of uncovering or discerning patterns that match our activity, or other aspects of reality in the world.’

  • We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in.

Riding the Wave

  • Life is conflict, survival and conquest.

  • We need an external environment, or outside world, to define ourselves and maintain organic integrity, otherwise we experience dissolution/disintegration – i.e., we come unglued.

  • If we don’t communicate with the outside world – to gain information for knowledge and understanding as well as matter and energy for sustenance – we die out to become a non-discerning and uninteresting part of that world.

Beyond Open and Chaotic Systems: Complexity Theory

  • ‘Novelty is produced by a mental/physical feedback process of analysis and synthesis that permits us to interact with the world so that we can comprehend, cope with, and shape that world as well as be shaped by it.’

Destruction and Creation

  • There are two ways in which we can develop and manipulate mental concepts to represent observed reality: We can start from a comprehensive whole and break it down to its particulars or we can start with the particulars and build towards a comprehensive whole.

  • we can see that: general-to-specific is related to deduction, analysis, and differentiation, while, specific-to-general is related to induction, synthesis, and integration.

Patterns of Conflict

  • The result is that Guerrillas become indistinguishable from people while government is isolated from people.

  • So adaptability is affected not only by ambiguous information and uncertainty, but is also compounded by fear due to threatening events.

  • He has argued that from the later Napoleonic battles to World War I bloody and wasteful attrition warfare was tragically in vogue.

  • In his view, grand strategy first and foremost must be an appealing idea, or set of objectives and interests, which inspires and unites the populace as well as allies and the uncommitted.

  • we are suggesting a need for a supra-orientation or center-of-gravity that permits leaders, and other authorities, to inspire their followers and members to enthusiastically take action toward confronting and conquering all obstacles that stand in the way.

  • He who is willing and able to take the initiative to exploit variety, rapidity, and harmony – as basis to create as well as adapt to the more indistinct – more irregular – quicker changes of rhythm and pattern, yet shape focus and direction of effort – survives and dominates.

The Essence of Winning and Losing

  • A comparison with the simplified but most frequently used model of the OODA loop and the picture below shows a much more complicated, more comprehensive, richer and deeper process, one which clearly suggests that there is more to Boyd’s theory than the idea of rapid OODA looping.

  • The key statements of this presentation, the OODA Loop Sketch and related insights represent an evolving, open-ended, far from equilibrium process of self-organization, emergence and natural selection.

  • Once again it shows that where the aim is ‘to survive and prosper’ in a non-linear world dominated by change, novelty and uncertainty, adaptation is the important overarching theme in Boyd’s strategic theory.

Beyond the Rapid OODA Idea

  • The OODA loop is much less a model of decision-making than a model of individual and organizational learning and adaptation in which the element of orientation – made up of genetics, experience, culture – plays the dominant role in the game of hypothesis and test, of analysis and synthesis, of destruction and creation.

  • Tempo makes it hard for the opponent to adequately adapt to the fast changing situation, including the element of speed. It is not absolute speed that counts; it is the relative tempo or a variety in rhythm that counts. Changing OODA speed becomes part of denying a pattern to be recognized.

  • So, the abstract aim of Boyd’s method is to render the enemy powerless by denying him the time to mentally cope with the rapidly unfolding, and naturally uncertain, circumstances of war, and only in the most simplified way, or at the tactical level, can this be equated with the narrow, rapid OODA loop idea.

  • Success is the result of playing the game of interaction and isolation well.

  • one could perhaps better describe A Discourse not as a general theory of war but as a general theory of the strategic behavior of complex adaptive systems in adversarial conditions.

  • constantly showing the dynamic of move and countermove, stripping bare, analyzing, the essence of certain strategies, and then recombining them with new insights and hypotheses – allowed him to expand and go ‘deeper’ into the essence of strategy and war than previous strategists.

  • He warns against monochromatic views and argues that command organizations should consist of people with different frames of reference, thereby ensuring a variety of interpretations of one observation.


  • He developed a rich, comprehensive, novel theory that has proven strong, valuable and influential, even if he deliberately left it incomplete.