Essay Campaign #14: Tactical Decision-Making, Military Psychology, and the Boyd Cycle

Summer Essay Campaign #14: “Tactical Decision-Making – A Military Psychology Perspective on the Boyd Cycle”

To Answer Question #3: “Where are the human cognitive, psychological, physical limits with respect to combat?”

By Major Jason Spitaletta, USMCR

The US Marine Corps’ doctrinal conceptualization of warfare (HQMC, 1997) is inherently psychological and therefore understanding the human cognitive, psychological, and physical limits with respect to combat are essential and identifying these limits should be the sine quo non of military psychology[1].  Combatants must confront chance, uncertainty, friction (Mattis, 2008), volatility (Laurence, 2011), and urgency (Zaccarro et al, 1995) while contending with existential threats.  Combat is a fundamentally uncertain form of competition (Boyd, 1976) where consequential decisions are often based on incomplete, inaccurate, or even contradictory information (HQMC, 1997), and thus decision-making is the principal human factor in warfare (Krulak, 1999).  Boyd’s Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action (OODA) Loop (or Boyd Cycle) is not an answer to the question at hand, but it provides a means of investigating human cognitive, psychological, and physical limits as they relate to tactical decision-making.  Bryant (2006) and Benson & Rotkoff (2011) were correct that Boyd’s model was not the result of psychological theory; however, the OODA Loop can be synthesized with the neural process model of automatic multi-structure controlled social cognition, the X and C systems, (Lieberman et al., 2003) as well as Baddeley’s (2003) working memory model to provide a neuroanatomical and cognitive reference point to the original. The combination of the model and those reference points provides us with an appropriate framework through which to describe and address the question at hand.

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Crimea: Psychological Warfare in Real Time

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Emile Simpson wrote in his book – War From the Ground Up – about the psychological aspect to warfare (p. 35):

“War is a competition to impose meaning on people, as much emotional as rational, in which one’s enemy is usually the key target audience. Defeat is not a ‘verdict’ handed out by an independent arbitrator of war; defeat is a perceived state which typically is violently forced (or successfully threatened) by one side upon the other.”

In a forthcoming paper for Military Review, I took a hack at defining this tricky psychological battlefield relationship/space – calling it the “human environment” (*as opposed to “domain,” which I prefer, but more on that another time).   I defined the human environment as “the sum of physical, psychological, cultural, and social interactions between strategically-relevant populations and operational military forces in a particular war or conflict.”

Either way one chooses to term it, we’re seeing this play out at the last Ukrainian military garrisons in Crimea –  in particular Belbek Air Base.  The Russians surrounded, and eventually took, the base.  Interviews provide a glimpse of the decision forced upon the trapped troops.  

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Navigating the Human Domain to Build Effective Partnerships

By First Lieutenant David Kearns

As the combat mission in Afghanistan winds down in favor of a strictly advisory role, the Coalition’s success and the long-term security for the struggling nation will depend heavily on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). While ISAF Forces have been working with and fighting alongside ANSF for years now, the fruits of our labor will be most apparent as we increasingly take a backseat and allow the Afghans to plan, execute, and lead their own missions. Time is short, and while we may not be able to solve all of the Country’s problems, one realm that we can still positively affect is the training and preparation of the Afghan Soldiers and Police.

I was deployed in support of OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM XI-XII with a Combat Engineer Company task organized as a Rifle Company. During our 11 month deployment we operated in multiple districts throughout Wardak and Ghazni Provinces. Throughout this time we were partnered with two separate Afghan National Army (ANA) Companies and one Kandak (Battalion), each with a different personality, strengths, and weaknesses. One of our primary goals was to train these ANA and help them become effective and successful. We were never under any illusion that we could turn these Afghan Soldiers into a fully trained and professional Army in 11 months, however, it was driven from our Company Command Team down to us, that investing in our Afghan Partners would be the most effective and enduring thing we could do. It would be our legacy. The way I viewed it, and what I tried to communicate to the leaders and Soldiers in my Platoon, was “We don’t have enough time to make them perfect, but we can teach them enough that they live long enough to learn everything else they need to know.” It may not be the most eloquent way to put it, but I believed, and still believe, that it was a realistic and achievable goal.  By the end of our tour and all the lessons learned that came from it, our Company was successful in training and mentoring a very successful Kandak. There are four principals that embody what made us successful. They are; understand, train, empower, and trust.  

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