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

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 Commanders (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 the 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

Design Empowers CFACC Mission Command
The baseline provided by the combination of wargaming and the development of a DST is a cornerstone for employing CFACC mission command. The collective analysis derived from the decision support template (DST’s) record of enemy actions, friendly actions, named areas of interest (NAIs), and target areas of interest (TAIs) establishes a crucial underpinning for determining key decision points. However, identification of decision points is only half of a DST’s value. The other half is formulating the decision criteria for the CFACC’s preplanned and emergent opportunity decisions. This information is captured in a decision support matrix (DSM) that records each key decision, the decision criteria for the decision, and a risk analysis of the decision. It is important to emphasize that it is impossible to forecast every decision a CFACC must make. However, decisions such as priorities of effort, time-sensitive targets and major branches and sequels discovered during the Joint Operations Planning Process-Air (JOPP-A’s) course of action (COA) analysis and war-gaming step can be identified and thoroughly analyzed. The real challenge is understanding the details a CFACC needs in order to make an effective decision.

Many strategists believe that if you adequately frame the problem, the CFACC should intuitively be able to identify the decision to be made. The difficulty with this logic is even if the CFACC understands the correct decision to be made, the decision’s outcome is determined by “when” the decision is made and “how it is executed.” It is extraordinarily important to understand that framing the problem and determining the correct solution do not necessarily guarantee success. There are never any guarantees. However, the effectiveness of executing a decision can be increased by analyzing the decision through the use of a DSM with specific decision criteria and an understanding of the risk involved in the decision.

The information specified in the decision criteria assists the CFACC in understanding the salient parameters that shape a decision. One of the most effective ways to formulate decision criteria is to break the criteria into specific priority intelligence requirements (PIR) and friendly force information requirements (FFIR). This methodology establishes a firm foundation for identifying commander’s critical information requirements (CCIR). JP 1-02 defines CCIR as an information requirement identified by the commander as being critical to facilitating timely decision making.

Numerous individuals describe the importance of CCIRs by using the metaphor “when you wake the commander up at night.” However, this is an extraordinarily bad description of CCIRs. At the operational level of war if you are waking the commander up to make a decision, you are already 48-72 hours late. The reason for this is the execution of decisions at the operational level requires extensive planning, coordination, and preparation to be effective. You can compress the planning, decision, and execution to less than 72 hours, but when that is done too hastily you substantially increase the risk of the decision being poorly executed. Risk to execution is a critical element in all decisions. Consequently, when the staff develops DSMs and links CCIRs to key decisions, they also have the responsibility to frame the risk associated with the decision. One of the best methodologies for achieving this is by attaching the risk assessment to each DSM. Risk can be assessed by clearly identifying the risk, the impact of the risk on the mission and force, the probability of the risk occurring, how to mitigate the risk, and what the residual risk is after mitigation.

Risk, however, is a ubiquitous element in life and it fosters high degrees of uncertainty and complexity in decision making. To reduce this complexity, it is necessary to categorize and prioritize risk for the CFACC. The greatest source of risk in military operations usually evolves out of the assumptions concerning the operational environment. Joint doctrine defines an assumption as “a supposition on the current situation or a presupposition on the future course of events, either or both assumed to be true in the absence of positive proof, necessary to enable the commander in the process of planning to complete an estimate of the situation and make a decision on the course of action.” This complex definition, however, obscures the critical role that assumptions play in design and decision making. As a result, planners often see the primary role of assumptions as simply a tool to continue planning and not as a key framework element in design. The unknown factors surrounding assumptions have an extraordinary impact on decisions and are arguably the primary reason for most plans’ failures. Assumptions help frame what a plan is going to do and what it is not going to do. More importantly, they assist with pinpointing major decision points, identify catastrophic risk, and serve as the point of origin for developing the branches and sequels required to mitigate risk.

When assessing assumptions, it is helpful to understand that planning assumptions generally exist in four categories. These categories include, but are not limited to factors such as time, friendly forces, changes in political context, and enemy forces. The quandary is prioritizing assumptions because similar to risk, assumptions exist everywhere. One of the best methodologies for prioritizing the risk associated with assumptions is to separate assumptions into three types. Those types are assumptions that cause mission failure, assumptions that degrade the ability to accomplish all parts of the mission, and assumptions that will affect timing and tempo. This basic taxonomy furnishes the foundation for assessing risk and prioritizing the assumptions that need to be developed into branches and sequels.

It is extraordinarily important to emphasize that when commanders introduce their subordinate commanders and staffs to the design process and the identification of preplanned and emergent opportunity decisions, it fosters mission command. The design process educates subordinates on how their commanders think, make decisions, and what types of risk their commanders are willing to take. Additionally, if critical CFACC decisions are archived as a playbook, subordinate commanders can use the playbook as a reference point to make decisions during periods when communications are degraded or denied. The essential element of success is designing DSMs that analyze risk while simultaneously providing clear CCIRs.

An example of a DSM format with risk analysis is presented in Figure 7. It identifies the decision point, NAIs, TAIs, the event triggering the decision, the decision required, decision criteria, assets projected to be available for employment, and key actions necessary to execute the decision. In this case, the enemy’s integrated air defense system (IADS) is being significantly degraded. This IADS degradation offers the opportunity to move air refueling assets forward and increase sortie persistence, however, there are some inherent risks associated with this decision. If the CFACC makes a premature decision, the tankers conducting refueling operations could be damaged or destroyed. This not only puts the air crews and aircraft at risk, but it could also jeopardize future mission capability. DSMs reduce this risk by identifying CCIRs for the CFACC to allow an informed decision.

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Figure 7. Decision Support matrix with Risk Analysis

Making CCIRs More Effective Tools for Decision Making
The challenge we have with the current way of structuring CCIRs is CCIRs are usually expressed as questions. Examples include: Will the enemy attack in the next 24 hours? What is the enemy’s main effort? and Have the naval combatants sortied? Questions, however, do not provide the fidelity commanders need to make effective decisions. An examination of the first question (Will the enemy attack in the next 24 hours?) seems fairly straight forward and should prompt a response from the commander to either defend or counterattack. However, what if the enemy is only conducting a reconnaissance effort or a probing attack? The lack of detail embedded in a CCIR such as this can commit a commander to a faulty decision with potentially disastrous consequences. The ambiguity that surrounds questions also hampers collection efforts by flooding C4ISR systems with information that is equally unclear. Additionally, CCIRs based on questions place pressure on personnel collecting PIR to interpret the information commanders need. It also results in over reporting, incorrect information being injected into the collection process, and inefficient consumption of vital bandwidth. In addition to being specific, decision criteria should be divided into the information required for a warning order and the information required for an execute order. This technique builds flexibility for the CFACC and his forces by allowing them to initiate preparations without prematurely committing air assets to a decision.

When CCIRs are placed into the collection system, they should be packaged to ensure individuals responsible for collecting the PIR and FFIR understand the framework for making the decision. This should be done by sending CCIRs into the collection system identifying the decision to be made, all associated PIRs and FFIRs, and the last time information is of value (LTIOV).

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Figure 8. Commander’s Critical information Requirements (CCIR)

The significance of investing so much time in decision making analysis is it presents the CFACC with one of the best means available for issuing mission command guidance. As related earlier, future threats will compress PDE cycles to the point where fleeting windows of opportunity will open and close at quantum speed. The communication challenges that abound in today’s operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa will pale in comparison to those forced upon us by determined adversaries who will deliberately degrade access to the electromagnetic spectrum and stifle C4ISR. The collection of DSMs formed from the decision-making analysis becomes a playbook of decisions that allows the CFACC to review, study, and internalize key decisions well before execution. Distribution of the playbook to subordinate commanders not only informs subordinate commanders of key decisions, but more intrinsically it provides insights into how the CFACC thinks and the risk they are willing assume. This is extraordinarily important because no one can predict every decision the CFACC will have to make. Additionally, there will never be absolute certainty that all of the decision criteria are accurate or will be answered prior to a decision maker being compelled to make a decision. The airman’s operational approach involved in determining DSMs, however, should increase each individual commander’s confidence level in their personal coup d’oeil and reduces the risks of paralytic, ineffective or poorly thought-out decisions.

Many individuals believe that the vital element in the success of all military operations is information, but in reality success emanates from a commander’s ability to make a timely decision based on available information. Getting the right information to the right decision maker in the future will be viciously contested and will require a system that can pull required information from collection assets and push it to the decision maker. An air focused operational design process has the potential to refine current collection and dissemination systems by providing a pull-push system based on packaged CCIR requirements derived from DSM analysis. Employing this refinement uses the DSM’s CCIRs as a data file to form the baseline for developing key algorithms designed to assist leaders with making complex decisions. This type of system is similar to existing automated information systems that are used in the commercial sector for procurement, manufacturing, sales and marketing. One illustration of the future’s potential is the KnuEdge™ Inc. LambdaFabric™ processor technology. Launched in June 2016, this technology possesses 256 interconnected cores on each microchip and can be made to run different algorithms simultaneously. Technological developments such as LambdaFabric™ processing will significantly enhance the effectiveness of refining CCIR’s role in collection and dissemination.

A depiction of leveraging CCIRs to refine collection and dissemination is illustrated in Figure 9. Under this system, information gathered from collection assets are digitally translated and moved to a mesh net digital repository where servers store the CCIRs data files and automatically update them. As CCIR data files are updated, they are periodically pushed as a package to the distributed common ground system (DCGS) for triangulation, analysis, fusion, and interpretation. When the DCGS processes the CCIR packages into intelligence or when CCIR’s raw information reaches a designated perishability threshold, the CCIRs are pushed to the decision maker. Refining the current processes provides several major benefits. First, it directly links explicit decision criteria with crucial decisions. Second, it allows the DCGS to pull information from the mesh net digital repository and push information directly to decision makers versus staffs searching for and pulling the information. Lastly, this refinement bears the promise of significantly compressing current PDE cycles.

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Figure 9. Using CCIRs to refine C4ISR Collection and Dissemination

Developing CCIR algorithms is only the first step in leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence to enhance decision making. After gaining an understanding of how to integrate information from select ISR platforms, the second step is refining this system into a full multi-domain data to decision maker network that exploits information being collected by formerly “Service centric” platforms. Figure 10 below provides an illustration of this concept. The major difference between this system and the system in Figure 9 is it allows decision makers to “pull” information for their DSMs or receive “pushed” decision criteria that updates their DSMs. Additionally, this type of innovation permits DCGSs to focus on higher priority analysis.

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Figure 10. DSM Data to Decision Maker Network

The overarching intent of this recommendation is finding a way to leverage collection platforms in all domains to inform key decisions and expedite PDE cycles. In future multi-domain operations, adversaries will deny and degrade the ability to access information, especially from space. As a result, CFACC’s will need access to data residing on diverse sets of traditional and non-traditional platforms to fill in information gaps. These platforms may include sniper pods on strike assets, the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton, Army’s MQ 1-C, HUMINT forces or any number of evolving hybrid sensors. The ability to push or pull data from multi-domain platforms provides an opportunity to examine decisions through much more sophisticated types of DSMs as shown in Figure 11. The DSM below is a representative model of the input, hidden layer, and output segments of a deep neural network. It incorporates the ability to triangulate the validity of data by indicating the intelligence source of the decision criteria and simultaneously analyzes the adversary’s assumptions, possible decisions, and CCIRs. This allows the CFACC to understand where the adversary is taking the greatest risk, how to shape the adversary’s decisions, and how to influence the adversary’s CCIRs through OPSEC and deception. The final segment is a notes section that provides current information on factors that influence operations such as weather sea state, solar data, lunar data, and expected maneuver rates. The principal benefit of advanced types of DSMs is the ability to proactively think through issues posed by complex and chaotic environments.

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Figure 11. Multi-Domain Decision Support Matrix


OODA point is a metaphor for making decisions in extremely compressed PDE cycles. Unfortunately, very few individuals realize that OODA point is already a reality. Advanced computing is creating a global environment where potential adversaries in the form of both state and non-state actors have access to technology that will radically affect decision making processes. One way to prepare for this transformation of environment is to invest in operational design. The practice of operational design is a significant cultural shift for Airmen and it is guaranteed to meet resistance. Design, however, provides a comprehensive framework to adapt air operations to the complex problem sets that are currently unfolding in our strategic and operational environments. The process of design creates a shared vision of critical decisions and risk that will empower mission command during operations where the electromagnetic spectrum and communications are contested and degraded. Additionally, the products developed during operational design will provide the structure necessary to generate the types of algorithms that inform multi-domain command decisions and leverage emerging technology to support the rigors of compressed PDE cycles.

The intrinsic feature in achieving this goal is developing and institutionalizing a standardized process of analysis that Airmen can understand and use. The point of origin for this is the development of a sound AFDD-5 that transitions the force away from target-oriented planning methodologies to an operationally focused framework oriented on distilling clarity for the CFACC.

Editor’s note: This concludes Part 2 of this Two-Part article.

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.

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.

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