OODA Point: The Requirement for an Airman’s Approach to Operational Design (Part I)

By: Dr. Jeffrey Reilly
Approximate Reading Time: 15 Minutes

Abstract: The ability to make and execute timely and effective decisions has been the foundation of military success for millennia. In the next decade, however, Combined Force Air Component Commander’s (CFACC) planning, decision, and execution (PDE) cycles will be confronted by unprecedented challenges emerging in the constantly evolving digital ecosystem. The era of unrivaled access to the electromagnetic spectrum and dominance in multiple domains is rapidly coming to a close for US airpower. As more and more state and non-state actors gain access to advanced technology, the CFACC’s PDE cycles will transition from an observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop to an OODA point. This phenomenon will also have a significant influence on the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) measures necessary to shape and execute preplanned and emergent decisions in contested operational environments. One way of mitigating these nascent vulnerabilities is to develop a deliberate framework of operational design focused on airpower to provide a proactive form of vision for future CFACCs.

“Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.” – Jonathan Swift

The ability to make effective decisions and create a shared mental model of commander’s intent has been a foundational element of military success for millennia. However, the ability to make timely and effective decisions is being dynamically transfigured by the cumulative effects of Moore’s Law and the embryonic stages of an evolving digital ecosystem. As Moore’s Law draws to a close, technologies such as neuromorphic chips are enhancing the effectiveness of data analytics, optical character recognition, and content delivery networks to the point where traditional PDE cycles will be obsolete. Unfortunately, this is occurring at a time when emerging peer, near-peer, and non-state actors are leveraging the world-wide proliferation of powerful, inexpensive, and readily available commercial technology to negate the US military’s dominance in command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR). Potential adversaries also fully recognize that precluding access to the critical domains of space and the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) will cripple the capacity to make, coordinate, and execute key decisions. The resultant strategic and operational environments are accelerating the pace and sophistication of decision making to the point where the OODA loop framework is becoming an anachronism. Whether we realize it or not, we are rapidly entering the era of OODA Point where PDE cycles will have only minute amounts of time to exploit fleeting strategic and operational opportunities. A glimpse into the complexity surrounding this issue is seen in the opening hours of Operation Odyssey Dawn (OOD).

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Figure 1. F-15E Strike Eagle

On 19 March 2011, BOLAR 01, a four-ship of F-15E Strike Eagles checked in with the Aegis cruiser in the Mediterranean, approximately 100 miles north of Libya. It had been seven hours since the final mission brief ended and just over five hours since their launch from RAF Lakenheath, yet many questions still remained about what they would encounter over Libya. How effective would Libyan integrated air defense system (IADS) be? How many surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were operational and what doctrine would operators follow? Would the F-16 CJ’s from Aviano Air Base be able to suppress threats long enough for BOLAR 01 to find, fix, and target priority mobile SAM sites? Where exactly was Qadafi’s loyalist convoy, last assumed to be 100 miles west of Benghazi? How would US and NATO forces be able to distinguish between friendly and enemy personnel?

As BOLAR 01 completed their final air refueling and prepared the formation for the mission, the radio chatter began to increase with regards to SAM activity. The pilots started to build a mental picture of the environment, truly the first look at what they would actually encounter. The Google Earth maps on their knee boards were reviewed and the axis of attack was confirmed. The mission commander confirmed with the Command and Control (C2) ship that the execution order (EXORD) had been given by President Obama and the formation crossed the coast into Libya. The entire mission only lasted twenty minutes and by all accounts was highly successful. Libyan air defenses were active, but BOLAR and the allied forces were able to locate and kill ten mobile SAM sites as well as execute an extremely difficult strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR) mission to locate and begin to halt the enemy convoy approaching Benghazi.1

BOLAR 01’s mission was a microcosm of the opening moments of OOD, designed to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. The resolution called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya, enforcement of the arms embargo, and measures to protect civilians. The resulting operation was extraordinarily complex. It involved coordination with multiple combatant commands, the integration of NATO and non-NATO partners, and accomplishment of the mission using only coalition air and maritime forces. Additionally, OOD required the combined forces air component (CFAC) to interpret vague strategic guidance, adapt air operation center (AOC) processes, and develop communication procedures to facilitate coalition coordination.

Although OOD and its successor Operation Unified Protector (OUP) ended in operational success, the problem sets that confronted the CFACCs still remain and will only continue to expand as adversaries learn to contest and degrade access to the EMS. One methodology to reduce and mitigate this vulnerability is by developing a doctrinal framework of operational design oriented on the use of airpower. Operational design empowers commanders with an intrinsic mechanism to not only develop a vision, but to also see the invisible. The intent of operational design is not predictive, however, it does provide the unique ability to enhance the effectiveness of PDE cycles by forecasting CFACC level pre-planned and emergent opportunity decisions. Pre-planned decisions are known decisions the CFACC must make. Emergent opportunity decisions are decisions designed to exploit changes in the operational environment. This analysis examines the need for an Airman’s approach to operational design that provides CFACCs and their staffs the ability to distill enough clarity in highly contested operational environments for decisive action. It also provides methodology for formulating a CFACC decision making and risk analysis process that is deliberately fused with C4ISR.

The Future Importance of an Airman’s Approach to Operational Design
Future military operations will undoubtedly present CFACCs with uncertain political end states and complex coalition coordination requirements, but the real danger to effective air operations is access to the C4ISR that shapes the planning and execution of decisions. C4ISR is an interdependent system composed of command and control authorities, communications, computer automation, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Each part of this system is an essential requirement for effectively directing forces to accomplish missions. Unfortunately, our adversaries understand this fact only too well and are actively leveraging emergent technological advances to disrupt American dominance in the C4ISR arena. These advances include the use of neuromorphic technology and quantum computing.

Neuromorphic technology replicates the biological principles of the human brain allowing computers to run different algorithms simultaneously and make decisions based on patterns and associations. This dramatic leap in technology significantly enhances the ability to integrate multiple functions on a single device that may have been previously incompatible or lacked the power to operate the functions.

Complementing these developments in microchip processing is quantum computing. The world is within 4-5 years of practical quantum computing. Quantum computers will be capable of solving complex optimization problems and executing machine-learning algorithms. They will also be able to create complex encryption of devices and information, as well as decrypting complex or seemingly unsolvable codes. Recently researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China and Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications have experimentally demonstrated a quantum secure direct communication (QSDC). Sending information through a QSDC channel is a game changer. It provides secure communications that no one can intercept without altering it in a way that both sender and receiver will be able to detect.

Additionally, the advent of quantum computing programming at the atomic level has enabled the ability to run and test all possible combinations of algorithms in times previously considered impossible. Furthermore, it is estimated that by 2020 the computing power of a $1,000 personal computer will surpass the power of the human brain and by 2045 quantum computing is expected to equal the power of all human brains combined. An overview of the exponential growth of computing power is provided in Figure 2.

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Figure 2. Exponential Growth of Computing Power

The surge in technology described above will be available to both state and non-state adversaries in the very near future and they will use these technologies to exploit interdependencies between domains. This type of operational environment will jeopardize C4ISR, radically compress current PDE cycles, and shake the foundations of centralized control/decentralized execution (CC/DE). An intrinsic part of resolving this dilemma should be developing and institutionalizing an Airman’s approach to operational design. Although operational design is not a cure all, it is one of the single best methodologies for enhancing a CFACC’s visual understanding of complex problem sets and making decisions in hyper compressed PDE cycles.

Developing and Institutionalizing an Airman’s Operational Design Process
Operational design’s effectiveness begins with a fundamental understanding of how airpower interacts within the levels of war. Airpower’s unique characteristics provide joint force commanders (JFCs) a wide array of asymmetric maneuver options that can affect all three levels of war and multiple domains. As a result, Airmen not only have to understand how to develop a joint air operation plan (JAOP), but also have to understand requirements to support other Services or functional components and the strategic implications of how airpower is used. The levels of war impact the Airman’s approach to operational design in four critical areas. Those areas are understanding the operational environment, defining problem sets, decision making, and risk analysis.

In accordance with Air Force AFDD-3, Operations and Planning, Airmen use the seven steps of the Joint Operations Planning Process-Air (JOPP-A) to develop the JAOP. The problem with JOPP-A is the mission analysis step often becomes a target-focused process that concentrates on identifying targets versus providing an understanding of the numerous contextual factors that shape the mission. Additionally, focusing primarily on targets detracts from JOPP-A’s next step, developing airpower courses of action (COAs). It is far more important for the staff to present an effective set of COAs for the CFACC to consider than a comprehensive target list. Another reason for this critical distinction is we no longer have the capacity to strike the numbers of targets included in past air operations. In 1991, the US Air Force had a total of 133 fighter squadrons. Today, that number has dwindled to 54 fighter squadrons and that capacity is expected to continue declining because of budgetary pressure.

The days of target-focused strategies are long gone and the errors caused by this type of strategy can literally unravel air operations and adversely affect the planned air scheme of maneuver. Examples include not analyzing the complexity involved in the transition between two CFACCs, misunderstanding the legal constraints of national caveats, and failing to forecast communication challenges with coalition partners. This can also take the form of being directed to divert ISR assets to search for surface to surface missiles (SSMs) or to track displaced personnel and refugees (DPREs).2

When Airmen begin JOPP-A, the CFACC should initiate a comprehensive operational approach that generates an understanding of the operational environment, defines key problem sets, and creates an operational design. Understanding the operational environment requires an analysis of all contextual factors at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels that affect or influence airpower. This is necessary because the operational environment is an intricate system with linkages that impact all three levels of war. At the tactical and operational levels, the CFACC will have a number of diverse responsibilities such as gain and maintain air superiority, conduct counter land and counter maritime operations, and provide support to special operations forces (SOF). The CFACC will also have requirements to conduct strategic attack against targets such as an adversary’s C4ISR, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or other areas directed by national or multinational leaders. The pathway to success is a comprehensive examination of the operational environment.

The operational environment may be thought of as two sub systems, the observed system and the desired system. The observed system assesses all contextual factors, inside and outside the joint operations area (JOA) that may influence the effective use of airpower and the successful accomplishment of the combined and joint task force (CJTF) mission. Common contextual factors found in the observed system are the adversary’s historical employment of airpower and integrated air defense systems, the PMESII, and other factors such as culture, geography, population and disruptive technology. Figure 3 provides a generic illustration of the types of information analyzed in the observed system. The intent of this complex analysis is to identify the salient factors that will ultimately frame the vision for the CFACC’s intent, initial planning guidance and the development of COAs.

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Figure 3. Observed System Analysis

The desired system uses the observed system’s analysis to contrast the CJTF’s military end state and CFACC’s operational and tactical objectives against the adversary’s objectives. It then methodically examines all barriers to effective air operations and the use of the temporal dimension. The identification of barriers to air operations assists the CFACC in two vital areas. First, it aids in pinpointing areas where contingency plans, branches, or sequels may be required. Second, it forms a way to communicate expectation management to the CJTF Commander and fellow component commanders. The desired system also has to be tempered with an analysis of time. At a minimum the CFACC must understand how much time is available to accomplish key tasks, how long the effects of airpower are expected to last, and how the adversary is going to use time.

The completion of this analysis provides the CFACC with the ability to envision the primary problem sets that airpower will face. This also assists the CFACC in communicating to the CJTF Commander, allies, and other functional components (land, maritime, special operations…) insights into what airpower’s focus will be and the development of the CFACC’s problem statement. An illustration of the Desired System is provided in Figure 4.

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Figure 4. Desired System Analysis

The greatest value of the operational approach process resides in the design and the ability to identify key decisions. The design serves as a blueprint for air operations and allows the CFACC to discover, see, and pre-coordinate many of the unforeseen friendly and enemy actions that cannot be anticipated in the normal JOPP-A process. As the staff proceeds with the JOPP-A mission analysis, COA development, and COA analysis and wargaming steps the CFACC’s design evolves with each step of JOPP-A process. The design graphically arranges operational objectives, tactical objectives, and key tactical tasks along a line of effort (LOE). Although the designation for a LOE will differ for each operation, common LOEs are: Gain and Maintain Air Superiority, Strategic Attack, Counter-Land, Counter-Maritime, and Support to SOF. A notional CFACC design is depicted in Figure 5. It is important to note, however, that air superiority in its traditional context may not be possible in future contested and degraded environments. As a consequence, the LOE might be described as access and control.

The most important segment of operational approach process is the identification of pre-planned and emergent opportunity decisions. JP 1-02 defines a decision point as “a point in space and time when the commander or staff anticipates making a key decision concerning a specific course of action.” Pre-planned decisions are those decisions the CFACC knows must be made. Emergent opportunity decisions are anticipated decisions that allow friendly forces to seize the initiative as the result of an enemy action or a change in the operational environment. For the CFACC decisions occur at three levels: recommendations that must be forwarded to higher for decision, decisions that must be coordinated across multiple components or allies, and decisions the CFACC must make.

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Figure 5. Notional CFACC Design

The primary mechanism for identifying decisions is the wargame. In an effort to maximize the benefits of wargaming, it is best to designate a Red team immediately upon the initiation of JOPP-A. This team should consist of individuals with a variety of expertise in operations, intelligence, logistics, and communications. It should not be restricted to members of the A-2 staff or the Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division because this limits the team’s ability to develop a broader conceptual understanding of the operation. As the staff proceeds through the wargame they should capture enemy and friendly actions corresponding to each COA being wargamed on a decision support template (DST) composed of operational graphics and a synchronization matrix. An example of a DST is in Figure 6. By capturing enemy and friendly actions chronologically in a synchronization matrix the CFACC’s staff can readily assess the correlation between airpower’s operational objectives, tactical objectives, tactical tasks and their impending contribution to the CJTF’s decisive points. This is critical because it directly links the CFACC’s LOEs to the CJTF commander’s vision and design. Additionally, relating the CJTF’s decisive points to the CFACC’s LOEs makes key preplanned and emergent opportunity decisions more readily identifiable.

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Figure 6. CFACC Decision Support Template 

Editor’s note: This concludes Part 1 of this Two-Part article. For more on the requirement for an Airman’s approach to operational design and Dr. Jeff Reilly’s perspective, please check out Part 2 available next week on OTH.


  1. Maj Jason Heard (BOLAR 01), interview by Maj August Pfluger, 1 Mar 2012.
  2. Lt Gen (ret) Ralph Jodice, interview by Dr. Jeff Reilly, 17 Nov 2015.

Dr. Jeffrey Reilly is a retired Army officer with 26 years of active duty service. He holds a Master of Science from the University of Houston and a PhD from the University of Alabama. Dr. Reilly has held numerous command and staff positions as an infantry officer. His planning and operations experience includes serving as a theater-level combined and joint operations officer, plans division chief, and member of the “two major theater war” plans team. Dr. Reilly currently serves as Director of Joint Education at the Air Command and Staff College and as director of the college’s Multi Domain Operational Strategist concentration.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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