Situational Awareness & OODA Loops

R. A. Hettinga
Mon, 27 Jan 2003 18:51:08 -0500

How to win -- not survive -- a fight.


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Status: RO
Date: Mon, 27 Jan 2003 12:17:26 -0800
To: "R. A. Hettinga" <>, Somebody Else
From: Somebody



On a daily basis, defenders find themselves in situations where quick
judgements are required during dynamic situations, often leading to
life and death decisions.  These  actions, decided in milliseconds,
will later be examined at length.  Those conducting these
after-incident examinations are often persons who neither understand
the dynamics involved, nor the way a critical incident develops.

Whether these incidents occurred 100 years ago or 100 days ago, the
dynamics of an urban fight remain amazingly constant.  They are
oftentimes, unannounced high-intensity, short duration events
characterized by sudden violence after which one or both parties are
either down, or have quit the fight.  Moreover, these events tend to
occur at very close range and often in poor light.  Under these
circumstances, some points become very clear.

Fighting ability being equal, aggressive, pro-active fighters tend to
win, whereas defensive, re-active fighters tend to lose.  Now, I hear
you guys out there moaning that our policies dictate that we have to
be defensive.  It is true that our policies and laws dictate that
"Defense" must always be the over-riding concept in our tactical
activities.  Exactly how this defensive concept is applied, however,
remains to be answered.  Anyone who understands fighting knows that
offense and defense are two sides of the same coin, and that the two
concepts complement one another.

Incidentally, let's be honest with ourselves. Fighting is exactly
what is going to happen with an armed adversary who decides to invite
himself to dinner.  We are going to have to fight him.

The defensive application is simply the actual r-e-a-s-o-n-s we are
deploying our resources in the first place, not necessarily the
actual tactics used.  Once the decision has been made to deploy, you
see, it must be offense all the way.  Can you imagine, for example,
winning a fist-fight by only blocking your adversary's punches and
never throwing a punch yourself?  Not likely is it?  Fighting
concepts, whether with fists or firearms, remain constant.

One thing, which must be present, is our full understanding of the
Rules of Engagement under which we operate. In general, the Core
Defensive Concept motivating most police use of force policies can be
characterized, as we discussed, by the acronym I.D.O.L. (Immediate
Defense of Life). This concept is the foundation of the majority of
deadly force laws, and it must guide our actions.  When faced with a
tactical problem requiring a likely deadly force decision, ask
yourself the question, "If I don't act against this man - right now,
will someone be killed or seriously injured by him"?  If the answer
is "no", or if there is any doubt, then wait.

Regardless of the time and place, the techniques, tools, and tactics
will only come into play if you are aware of the situation.  Some
very well armed and trained individuals have lost their lives due to
indecision or simply because of inattention. It should be obvious
that if we wait to see the other man's muzzle flash, or allow him to
point his weapon at us, it will probably be too late to do anything
about it.  When you stop to consider that it takes less than a tenth
of a second to press a trigger, an armed adversary takes on a
suddenly dangerous tone.   You see, even if we are very fast, our
reactions will never be as fast as his initial action.  If we allow
him an opening, our life is literally in his hands.  The trick is to
"react" before he gets his attack fully on the road.  In other words,
we must act first, and cause him to react to us.  If we hesitate, we
are truly lost.

Once IDOL  is understood, our actual awareness of the surrounding
environment, or our Situational Awareness, will be of great
importance.  "Where Am I & What is Going On Around Me?"  Swift
reactions are good, but getting ahead of the event is even better.
Getting ahead of the event, and staying ahead of it is best of all.
Lack of Situational Awareness gets people killed or seriously injured.

Take for example, the case of William Hicock, the famous old-west
shootist. Hicock, one of the best pistol shooters in his day, feared
by his colleagues, and winner (not merely a survivor - a winner) of
numerous gunfights, is shot in the back and killed - by surprise -
because he was not paying attention to his environment.

Where Am I?  What is going on around me?  Good situational awareness
allows you to see the event (or suspect) and analyze the unfolding
circumstances before the event is on top of you.  This being the
case, you can approach it from a position of advantage, rather than
be surprised by it.

  In 1989, a man named Mike Spick wrote a, now out-of-print, book
titled The Ace Factor. In this book about successful fighter aces,
(pilots were men who'd killed over five enemy planes in aerial
combat), Spick describes good Situational Awareness as the factor
separating Aces from other pilots.  He says, "These men avoided high
confusion melees & excelled at picking off stragglers.  They were
very aware of their natural limits and avoided situations where they
could not keep the upper hand."   While we generally do not have a
need to "pick off stragglers", the issue of avoiding uncontrollable
situations, and maintaining the advantage are good points to remember.

Good Situational Awareness lies in making use of the presented or
available information.  This is not only information of the
adversary, but also personal knowledge about your own abilities and
your own situation when you see the enemy approaching.  With good
S/A, you begin to project your actions into the future.  Instead of
the adequate "Where am I and what is going around me?", you seek to
develop, "Where am I going and what will I do when I get there?"
Simply seeing and being aware of the potential problem at hand is not
enough.  What you do when the problem begins to unfold is also very
important.  This is the point in the thought process where most
problems develop.

Col. John Boyd - USAF was a scholar in military tactics, and probably
had the greatest influence in America's war machine doctrine of any
man in his generation.  One of the studies he undertook was that of
aerial combat in the Korean War.  He noted that the American Pilots
had a 10:1 kill ratio over the North Koreans.  He also noted that the
MiG was a faster plane that could outclimb the F-86 of the American
forces.  He wanted to find out why, if the MiG was in fact a better
and faster airplane, were the Americans doing so well against them?

Boyd's studies revealed that one factor relating to our successes was
that we had better trained pilots.  That was not the whole picture
however.  The F-86, he learned, allowed dramatically better
visibility than the MiG, and it had a set of hydraulic controls that
allowed almost instant maneuverability.

Boyd reasoned that the better-trained American pilots could observe
their enemy more quickly due to having greater visibility, and they
could decide on a course of action faster due to good training.  Once
the course of action was decided, the faster control on the F-86
allowed them to execute maneuvers much faster than the MiG.  Thus an
F-86 pilot had little lag time in
observation-orientation-decision-and-action.  They could operate
inside the adversary's response time envelope.

The resulting extension of these findings to all areas of personal
combat developed a concept that all conflicts were as duels between
competitors.  In these duels each competitor Observes his opponent,
Orients himself to the opponent and the unfolding events, Decides on
a course of action based on that orientation, training and
experience, and finally Acts out his decision.

This is the OODA Loop.  Whoever can move through this process faster,
gains a remarkable advantage over his foes by disrupting their
ability to respond in a timely or effective manner.  The Orientation
portion of the cycle is the most important, and the weak point
whereby an opponent may penetrate the decision cycle.

Each of us bases our decisions on observations of the outside world
that are filtered through mental models (sometimes called paradigms)
that orient us to the opportunities or dangers presented by our
observations.  In confrontations, an opponent makes decisions based
on his orientation to the situation.  This orientation changes and
evolves because it is formed by the ongoing interaction between
observations of unfolding events and a mental dialog that strives to
make sense of the situation.

These mental dialogs take two different forms of activity:  Analysis
- Or attempting to understand the observations in terms of existing
mental models or patterns of knowledge.   And Synthesis - Or the
invention of new patterns of knowledge when existing patterns do not
permit the understanding needed to solve the problem at hand.

With faster orientation and action, and through aggressive pressure,
it is possible to destroy the adversary's existing mental model (or
orientation to the world) as well as deny him the time to synthesize
a new one.  Aggressive pressure, and the enemy's inability to cope
with the extreme crisis causes indecision, fear, confusion, and
overloads his thought processes.  This promotes compliance and
surrender.  It is possible, through sound tactical principles and
aggressive pressure on an enemy, to resolve a situation without

Operating within the enemy's decision/reaction cycle allows a great
advantage in that the mission will be carried out before the
adversary can respond, perhaps even before he realizes what is upon
him.  For example, It can be argued that the Japanese operated within
our OODA decision loop at Pearl Harbor, just as we operated within
Saddam Hussein's OODA  Loop in the First Gulf War.

With this understanding, we can see that an aggressive operator who
initiates the action after proper observation, orientation, and
decision will have an overwhelming advantage over a reactive
individual.  The basic reason is that the aggressive operator's cycle
is at the end or action phase, whereas his opponent's cycle is at the
beginning or middle.  The aggressive operator has already oriented
himself to his opponent (sometimes simply recognizing that he is, in
fact, an enemy is enough), and decided on a course of action based on
that orientation.

The accuracy of the decision is determined at the Orientation part of
the cycle by the information available to the operator, as well as
how it is filtered and organized.  The orientation phase is the most
critical part of the cycle since it shapes the way we interpret the

Everything is based on having good Situational Awareness - Where Am I
?,  What is Going On Around Me ?,  Where Am I Going ?,  What Will I
Do When I Get there?  An unfolding confrontation may be avoided, or
it may be overcome unannounced, from a position of advantage.    The
concept of the OODA loops, as applied to modern gunfighting, has far
reaching implications.  (So Thank You Col. Boyd!!!)  It explains why
waiting for the other guy to act first is foolishly suicidal, why a
man with a firearm in his hand must be handled very carefully, and it
may explain some other things.  This concept may explain the reasons
evident when a good guy shoots a rapidly turning bad guy in the back
instead of in the intended chest.  It may also explain the nature and
source of lag time and how to best overcome it.

If we understand this concept and apply it, it will work for us and
not against us.  If we stay true to the concept, and utilize our
knowledge of human reaction time to our favor, we've gone a long way
to reduce the dangers of close quarters confrontations.

<Somebody's .sig>

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R. A. Hettinga <mailto:>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'