Day 01 of Intelligence and Community Security: Shifting Landscapes and the OODA Loop – Forward Observer Shop

Day 01 of Intelligence and Community Security: Shifting Landscapes and the OODA Loop

Shifting Landscapes and the OODA Loop

Welcome to Day 01 of this Introduction to Intelligence and Community Security. This series is intended for those at all levels to become familiarized with the use of intelligence activities for community security. The first few posts will cover some basic concepts and later this week and next we’ll get into a deeper dive of intelligence operations. It’s my intention to have readers, after reading this series, be familiar enough to begin teaching others about the value and utility of intelligence to improve community security. (If it’s your first time to this blog, you can read the previous post here, and I recommend reading that before getting started.)

America’s trajectory is pointing towards another conflict. It’s something many of us have suspected for a long time, and the question is What exactly will it look like? Perhaps a better question is Are we already in it?  My answer is probably, and I’ll describe what I believe could happen in the future. In short: empirical data shows that any potential conflict is likely going to be driven by demographic and economic change. Amnesty and a return to liberal immigration policies are less than a decade away, and artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics are likely to create more job loss than jobs created. This disproportionately affects low skill, low wage workers, meaning higher youth unemployment, which is already an early warning indicator of civil unrest around the world; and amnesty and unlimited immigration is a vehicle to amass political dominance because of the preferences of those receiving the amnesty.

These two likely unstoppable trends are going to accelerate the adoption of identitarianism based on race (social justice) and class (economic justice) instead of civic nationality. Amnesty will overwhelmingly benefit the Democratic Party at a time when a pivot to left wing populism is much needed to counter a rise in right wing populism. The effects, centered on anti-capitalist, anti-American, pro-social “justice”, and pro-international socialist policies, are going to permanently change the political landscape of America. If this is happens as soon as five or ten years from now, then we should probably expect a culture war that moves from sporadic violence to routine violence, especially in regions where government is unable or unwilling to intervene. (There are a lot more factors at play here. Read Five Reasons Why We’ll Have Another Domestic Conflict for more information.)

This all sounds pretty pessimistic and, as we’ve seen with prognostications about financial and societal collapse (heaviest from 2007 to 2016), there’s a tendency by many to overstate the conditions and shorten the timeline in anticipation of events that will likely happen much later than predicted. No one can predict the future with any certainty, but we can identify what could occur in the future, and this is one such possibility. Whether it happens in two years or twenty, very significant and persistent socioeconomic conditions are a certainty, which are likely to result in some form of domestic conflict. Our next major hurdles are (1) the period between November’s mid-terms and the 2020 general election, and (2) the next recession, which could rival 2008’s in economic and financial terms, but with the toxic political and cultural climate of today. That’s a good time to revisit this potential future and revise as necessary based on the conditions.

With that as our starting point, the next question is Which systems will be disrupted and how will it affect our communities? We’ll save that for later this month, because for now we’re focusing on intelligence and community security.


A framework for understanding decision-making

We need a framework to understand how decisions are made, and we need to understand what’s necessary for good decision-making. We can make decisions without any information, and unfortunately many people do. Some information may allow us to make better decisions, but ultimately we need intelligence to make good decisions. We need to understand our operating environment, the current and future conditions that will negatively and positively impact us, and realistic expectations of what may happen in the future. Intelligence allows us to anticipate what could happen and it enables us to make better decisions about our security. Let’s look at this decision-making process called the OODA Loop and what’s required to feed it.

Let’s say that you’re driving up a small hill on the interstate with moderate traffic. You Observe brake lights ahead of you at the top of the hill. Is it a speed trap? Is there stuff in the road? Is there a wreck? We don’t know, bur brains jump into action as we consider a response. We immediately Orient ourselves to our relative speed and how near or far we are to those brake lights. Do we need to brake? Do we need to let off the accelerator a bit, or do we need to slam on the brakes and swerve off the road to avoid contributing to a massive pileup? Depending on how well we’ve oriented to the situation, we Decide on a course of action, our brains then tell our feet what to do and we Act on the decision. This is called the OODA Loop and it’s a universal pathway for humans making decisions, from initial observation to final action.

Chances are good that if you’ve taken a professional tactical weapons course your instructor has at least mentioned it in passing. U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd (1927-1997), who developed the concept, was a fighter pilot interested in how he could speed up the decision-making process for himself and his fellow pilots. He found that pilots who had fewer options when faced with a decision point made decisions faster than those who had a wide array of options. Additionally, he found that pilots who could more quickly observe and orient themselves to a fast-developing situation, like a dog fight, could also make faster decisions. This line of thinking is now a doctrinal part of military training because faster and better decisions are more likely to lead to successful and decisive outcomes. Understanding of the OODA Loop can also be applied to the enemy, which is why fighters seek to speed up their OODA Loops while simultaneously slowing down or disrupting the enemy’s.

Now imagine that you’re the head of your community security or neighborhood watch team. There’s been a disaster — a hurricane or tornado, an earthquake, maybe something worse — and the power is out. Your cell phone isn’t working because the cell towers in the area are also down, and now you’re concerned about second- and third-order effects: namely an increase in criminality because of this widespread systems disruption, and then maybe running out of food and water, and all the things that happen during prolonged periods of emergency. In this scenario, virtually all systems have been disrupted. What does your OODA Loop look like?

In short, it’s the exact same process as a fighter pilot’s. We Observe what’s going on, then we Orient ourselves to this new information, then we Decide on a course of action or how to respond, and then we Act. After that action, the OODA Loop starts all over again — in fact, it never really stops. We are always observing new information, and then orienting, deciding, and acting to changing situations. The greater access we have to accurate information, the better and faster our decisions can be. And generally whoever can complete that loop the fastest is going to stay the most secure or win the most engagements.

This concept is applicable to the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of decision-making. Gun fights are an example of using the OODA on the tactical level, but organizations on the operational and strategic levels can also make deliberate use the OODA Loop. A set of tactical observations can lead to a general understanding of what’s going on in the area, and observations from several areas can give us an indication of the broader region. This is how we move from the tactical to the operational and to the strategic. Additionally, with this understanding, we can inform decision-makers who can then make better operational or strategic decisions based on the ground intelligence.

For the purposes of community security, we’re actually looking at two different functions: intelligence and operations. There are those responsible for intelligence and those responsible for operations, and the two work hand in hand. In fact, you may have heard the maxim “Intelligence Drives the Fight”, and that’s best described through the OODA Loop.

Observe and Orient (the OO in OODA) is the function of intelligence. (This is us and what this blog is about.) Observing describes intelligence gathering and Orienting describes intelligence analysis. We have to be good at both of those things, and in later posts we’ll talk more about what it takes to Observe and Orient well in a time of conflict. After we Observe and Orient — in our case, after we gather intelligence information and produce finished intelligence — we pass it on to decision-makers.

Decide and Act (the DA in OODA) is a function of operations. As intelligence people, we advise the commander or decision-makers on what the situation is, but we don’t make the decisions. We support planning, but we don’t plan. And there’s a very good reason for this: because as the intel guys, we’re called to be experts on the enemy and operating environment. We alert the commander to where the enemy is, what they’re doing, and what they might do next — something we refer to as the enemy situation — but only the commander knows his troops, time, and resources well enough to make decisions and issue orders.

Hopefully we’ve moved beyond the understanding of just the tactical use of the OODA and into how intelligence plays a vital role in an organization, like a community security or neighborhood watch team. Without the ability to observe and orient — that is to say, without the deliberate employment of intelligence activities — your organization will have a difficult time deciding and acting to security concerns in your community. In closing, I’m reminded of my absolute favorite quote. It’s by Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, who says, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” He’s talking about a multi-billion corporation adapting to both the changing needs of the customer and product development by competitors. If GE isn’t planning for 10 or 20 years into the future, then they’re going to fail. It’s the same for community security, but on a much smaller scale. If, during an emergency, we can’t keep pace with security developments — if we don’t have an adequate focus on intelligence gathering about threats in the area — then the end is near. It’s only a matter of how near and how painful.


Tomorrow’s post

Posts over next the several days will focus on all aspects of the OO phase of the OODA Loop. We’re going to discuss the concept of intelligence, what it is and what it’s not, the Intelligence Cycle, intelligence disciplines, where to find intelligence information and what to do with it, and we’ll finish up with some very practical ways in which we can turn these concepts into reality.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll write about some specific examples of why and how intelligence is useful for community security. We’ll use this post to identify some considerations before Wednesday’s post on Intelligence Collection and Analysis.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read yesterday’s post, which is an introduction to this blog. And if you want to read about Forward Observer’s new mission in light of what we believe is likely to happen in the future, then be sure to read The Very Last Early Warning.

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Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


  1. And one of the lesser known/discussed aspects of the OODA Loop is when you skip the D (Decision) stage and move right to A (Action); this is defined as a reflexive event. With preparation and prior discussion, a person/team can complete the loop more quickly and gain an advantage. This is the basic construct of disaster preparation… and in military terms, this is “being inside of your opponents loop”.

    1. Hi Boyd,
      I appreciate your statement. I take it to mean, if you’ve already gamed out likely scenarios, and have developed a reaction plan (even if the plan is not perfect), it means the “D” means “decide which immediate action to take”, not “figure out which immediate action to take”. Of course without expecting the plan to go…er…exactly as planned.

  2. Sam, Based on something you wrote previously, I am reading David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains. Thought about your post here when Kilcullen mentions OODA with regard to planning and prepping to address conflict in large urban areas: “These aren’t stable systems; even if you could somehow get every city function under control, the rapid pace of growth would rapidly overtake the illusion of stability. . . . In maneuver theory terms, rapid, dynamic change has gotten inside the leader’s decision cycles . . . ”
    Also, I found Kilcullen’s overall theory about cities as systems pretty interesting, as well as his observations about the seven strategies local populations employ in the face of conflict. Thanks for introducing us to some authors currently writing about this; helps to flesh out some of the ideas here.

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