The autopoietic loop does not have any planned goal, it has no written score to follow, no question and answer. It is a perpetual improvisation in close coordination with the surrounding environment. As it is responsive and dynamic it is also a circle of inter-coordination and impromptu decision-making. In this way the autopoietic loop looks very much like the OODA-loop of operational control, described by fighter pilot and military strategist John Boyd (Corham 2002). The OODA-loop, which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, was conceptualized by Boyd to describe dynamic decision-making processes. Boyd’s concept was originally created for aerial combat training where fast acting is a matter of life and death, and a disciplined action-loop is needed for cutting through an abundance of accelerated stimuli.
Educators and leaders in the armed forces today face similar issues as researchers do; outside the study of historic campaigns and simulators, reality is complex. Like military strategists basing present-day tactics on old battles, researchers try to prove ideas by dead reckoning; drawing up future scenarios with the knowledge they already know. Serendipities and complexity are welcome neither in the war room nor in the research lab. The OODA loop is an attempt to change this, to introduce a method of improvisation and adaptation.
The OODA loop describes the process from observation to action, and the crucial advantage of the fighter who goes through the process faster than his enemy and thus gets inside the opponents loop, making him act upon outdated observations. As Boyd briefly put it in “New Conceptions for Air to Air Combat”, a 1976 briefing: ‘He who can handle the quickest rate of change survives’ (Coram 2002: 328).
As pointed out by military strategist Frans Osinga (2007), the OODA concept of Boyd is not about speed or agility, but about perfecting the improvisational thinking required in decision-making. Several loops are interacting and continuously developing, requiring fast conceptualization and unceasing reiterations. By using shifting patterns one’s behaviour will seem unpredictable to the opponent, as his existing models will no longer apply to the new situation. With faster cycles the opponent finds he is losing control of the situation as his countermeasures are quickly overcome and his command circuits become overloaded.
By mastering such human skills and behaviours, with questions of cultural analysis, contextualization and experience at the front, the performance of military equipment becomes of lesser importance. Boyd wanted strategy beyond firepower and air superiority, emphasizing:
non-linear tactics, avoiding and bypassing enemy positions, venturing deep into enemy territory without too much concern for one’s own flanks. The prize was not territory but time, surprise and shock. Such tactics would force the enemy to react. They would create the impression that US troops were everywhere and could strike anytime anyplace. (Osinga 2007: 45)
This may sound like the military theories of ‘deep battle’, prototyped by Soviet commander Mikhail Tukashevsky, or the German ‘blitzkrieg’, the contested term often attributed to Heinz Guderian. Yet, Boyd’s concept is not primarily aimed at doctrine, but rather at operational thinking, and has inspired later military theorists, influencing concepts like the ‘systemic-operational-design’ or ‘rhizomatic maneuver’ of Shimon Naveh of the Israeli Defence Forces (Naveh 2006), or the ‘systemic operational design’ of Huba Wass de Czege of the US Army (2009).
Huba Wass de Czege, a retired Brigade General and founder of the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at the U.S. Army War College, is one of the inspirations behind the inclusion, for the first time, of ‘design’ as a core component of the latest US Army Field Manual (FM 5-0) on operations process. This move is described as an attempt to reduce the impact of mechanistic, idealistic and reductive thinking within operations planning. Military organizations have always been complicated, that is, made up of many parts arranged in linear and predictable ways, but for today’s conflicts the armed forces need to adapt to a new kind of complex environment. Wass de Czege is convinced that adaptive learning cycles are needed, which must be networked into the interconnected operational environment, coordinating a wide variety of decisions and units (Wass de Czege 2009).
Adaptive campaigning is the art of continually making sense of dynamic situations and evolving designs, plans, modes of learning, and actions to keep pace. (Wass de Czege 2009:4)
In the new field manual, design acts as a cognitive tool or a methodological link between battle command and the practice of action in the operational environment of the army, which no longer takes place only on the battlefield. Just to highlight the complexity of a battle today, a US commander’s checklist before a brigade-size counterattack in Afghanistan can look like this:
– What infrastructure damage could the counterattack incur?
– How would that impact on the different actors and tribal groups in the region?
– Are we creating a disaffected minority by upsetting the power balance, risking a refugee crisis that would overwhelm the regional humanitarian capacity, or create other unintended consequences? […]
– What is the logic of the guidance?
– What are the sources of legitimacy of the different power bases within the enemy’s social system? (Banach & Ryan 2009: 108)
In the Field Manual, ‘design’ means the innovative skill and holistic vision with which to face the implications of the OODA loop as an operation evolves, a continuous improvisation and adaptation to unforeseeable events where no plotted or dead reckoned course can help. Thus classic military thinking, in resonance with engineering, finds itself short-handed in contemporary conflicts, missing a clear strategic goal, or a capital to invade, to finish a war.
This US Army Field Manual is where the swell chart meets the institutionalized war machine, and conflict navigation is based on operational initiative and interaction, rather than brute firepower, military engineering or attrition warfare. Even here an associative ‘art of design’ is called upon. (Banach & Ryan 2009; Hernández 2010)