WEAPONS TIGHT: Boyd’s Loop and a critical weakness in Naval Force Protection
Current U.S. Navy waterborne Force Protection doctrine, as promulgated in NWP 3.10 Naval Coastal Warfare relies heavily on the concept of a layered defense-in-depth concept provided by three distinct zones around the asset being protected. These are the assessment, warning, and threat zones, concentric rings around the asset which alter the level of threat and response based on distance. While on paper and in sterile, table-top exercises the “TWA zone” defense seems to work well, the concept need to be revisited in light of several recent incidents because in real world, it does not stand the test of a proven theory of combat analysis, commonly called the OODA Loop or Boyd’s Loop, after its creator, USAF Col. John Boyd.
Just after the 1950-53 Korean War, Col. Boyd studied why U.S. pilots, flying the F-86 Sabre, had a higher kill ratio than their opponents, who flew what was regarded as a superior plane, the MiG-15. Col. Boyd found that the F-86 had two advantages over the MiG; better visibility and more responsive controls. Boyd posits that in order to defeat an adversary in any type of combat, one must first Observe the threat (and determine that it may be a threat), Orient on the threat (move into a tactical position to deal with the threat), Decide on a course of action and Act on it before the threat can counter. Once a combatant has acted, they must then start the “loop” over and observe the opponent’s reaction to their last action, continuing until the conflict is resolved. Whichever combatant can make the other reactive instead of proactive will dominate and control the fight, and Boyd found that the combatant who could move “through the loop” faster would almost invariably win.
This relates to waterborne Force Protection because as laid out in current Navy doctrine, our FP tactics are both highly reactive – placing a premium on being absolutely certain of the intent of the threatening vessel before taking action – and the decision phase of the OODA loop is too long because of the chain of command issues that plague the U.S. Naval establishment.
Consider the following; in a perfect world, each zone is 1,000 meters deep. The intent is to provide both reaction time, and in the case of the threat zone, stand-off distance once a deadly force decision has been made. (1,000m was originally decided upon based on the threat of a small, fast boat armed with an RPG, with a maximum range of @900m). Three-thousand meters, or a mile and a half, is quite a bit of territory, and in almost all cases these zones are considerably smaller. A small, fast boat, traveling 30 knots, if it is allowed to maintain course and speed, will cross all three zones in three minutes. Again, in a perfect world, the topside watch standers have three minutes to observe the vessel and recognize it as a threat, orient their defenses against it, decide to use force, and carry that decision out successfully. This is against a single threat with ideal TWA zones, and no mistakes or hesitation on the part of the watch standers.
Now let’s look at the reality. In most cases the TWA zones are being reduced to between 500m and as little as 100m, in order to reduce interference with commercial traffic from a large Naval Protective Exclusionary Zone. With even 500m zones, our reaction time is now halved. Now instead of a clear, flat ocean let’s make our situation inside a busy port. There will be a large amount of legitimate traffic, and each vessel that enters the assessment zone will have to be tracked, categorized and prioritized. There will be a many possible threats to observe, and a decision has to be made as to which ones to orient on, because the watch team doesn’t have the resources to treat every one as a threat. The watch standers themselves are not trusted to make this determination; it must be made by a watch supervisor, usually a junior officer. Many watch standers, after hours of reporting contacts to the supervisor only to be told that their “possible” is in fact not a valid threat, will eventually wait to report threats until they are sure that it is worth the officer’s attention, or stop reporting all together. This has the result of cutting reaction time further.
The situation further deteriorates in the warning zone. Having reported a contact in the warning zone – 1,000m from the ship and closing – the watch stander first has to report it to the supervisor, who will then observe and order the watch team to take action. The watch supervisor has a number of steps he must take in order to determine the intent of the approaching vessel. He must first try to hail it on ship-to-ship and over a loudspeaker, warning the vessel not to come closer. The supervisor should, if possible, sound the “danger” signal on the ship’s horn, and at night, try to illuminate the threat with a spotlight. In the event that these do not work, the supervisor should have a flare fired across the bow of the threat. If the threat has not heeded any of these warnings, the supervisor can order that warning shots be fired into the path of the threat.
Firing real bullets at an approaching vessel, no matter how threatening, is a big step, and there are very specific rules about when warning shots can and cannot be employed – the most restrictive of which is that the shooter must have a clear field of fire between his position and the threat, and fifty meters to either side of the threat – no other vessels or uninvolved third parties can be hazarded. This triangular clear field of fire extends outward, past the threat, to the maximum range of the weapon – in the case of an M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun, 7,000 meters. If anything is in this area, warning shots are not authorized. The supervisor ordering warning shots must be able to sum up the situation and articulate why he ordered rounds to be fired. Then the gunner must receive the order, determine a clear field of fire and “lead’ the target, open fire, assess the result, and report it to the supervisor (who may not be the ultimate decision maker, and may have to report the situation further up the chain of command and wait to relay a decision to the gunner). All of this effort is in the name of “determining intent” so as not to mistakenly fire on an “innocent” vessel, which has already crossed into a restricted area, been hailed, spotlighted and had flares fired at it.
While crossing into the threat zone by a vessel displaying hostile intent should be akin to crossing the “line of death”, it is almost never that simple. Because of the political ramification of a U.S. Navy ship opening fire, the gunners almost never have “weapons free” status – the ability to determine when to fire on their own. Gunners are kept at “weapons tight” with authority to give the order to open fire several steps up the chain of command. They are often further warned that to open fire on their own initiative under any circumstances will result in court martial and prison. There are several reasons for this, the simplest being that sailors standing watch as gunners are not being adequately trained for the job, and are consequently not trusted to do it. The second is that the culture of the Navy is not to treat an individual machine-gun team as an independent fighting unit. The ship as a whole is one weapon, and is operated from a central command structure. A crew-served weapon gunner is to report what he sees, and then aim his weapon at where he is told and press the trigger only when instructed to do so by the chain of command, which has the “big picture” that the gunner does not and in any case could not comprehend if he did.
Another challenge is that most sailors are taught from basic training on that if they are in doubt, not to make decisions on their own, but to push the decision up to the next level on the chain of command. With the modern era of communication, this mean that a ship in the Straits of Malacca may face a threat that will occur in less than two minutes – but the Commanding Officer of the ship may try to call PACFLEET headquarters for guidance rather than open fire and end up being wrong, with all of the political, legal and career dangers that such a decision entails.
So using Boyd’s loop, what does this teach us? The Observation phase is undercut by smaller zones and lookouts who are discouraged from reporting threats until there is little time to react, but it as at the Decision phase – arguably the most important – that our likely enemies have found an exploitable weakness. The “swarm” tactics used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard turn what is our biggest strength in a conventional sea battle, unified and integrated command and control, against us. They simply provide too many threats to properly assess and track, while at the same time use the knowledge that our command hierarchy places a premium on the political dimension of the encounter and on direct control of operational details from afar by using satellite communications. Put simply, they have found over and over again in the Persian Gulf that our middle management lacks the will to effectively deal with the threat they pose rapidly enough to counter them.
The recent situation in the Straits of Hormuz on 06 January 2008 highlights this analysis. While five Iranian speedboats swarmed three U.S. warships for 20 minutes, some coming as close as 200 yards, the U.S. commanders stated that they were “In the process of opening fire” – in other words, desperately trying to avoid making the decision to shoot. 200 yards at 30 knots is around 30 seconds – not enough time to order under-trained gunners to open fire and reliably hit and disable a small, fast moving target. Instead of being chastised for unnecessarily hazarding their ships and crew, the commanders were, at least publicly, praised for their “restraint”. The resulting message to the deck-plate sailor; “The chain of command would rather have another USS Cole than allow you to open fire.”
Are there other options available? Yes, but they come at a price. First and foremost, ships need to look at who they place on the watch bill. The days of putting the most junior, inexperienced sailors on gun crews are over. The same goes for manning the guns with sailors who have “nothing else to do” during a battle – often cooks, yeomen and storekeepers. While the jobs these sailors perform are important, there is a reason they are cooks, yeomen and storekeepers, and this is because they self-selected not to be part of the “warrior” military, but part of the logistics train that enables the warriors to fight. Suddenly thrusting those without a warrior mindset into a position where they have to make complex tactical decisions under potential life and death stress is setting them up for failure.
By putting trusted sailors on the gun crews, and giving them good situation-based training and “time on the gun”, ships could decentralize their force-protection by allowing the gunners to go “weapons free” during high-threat situations, trusting them to make correct, accurate decisions under stress. This will only occur, however, if the culture of the Navy is willing to prove to the junior sailors that they will be backed up for making a good tactical decision to save their ship and shipmates, regardless of the political implications after the smoke clears.
This article reflects my own views, and not those of the U.S. Navy or my employer.