Why The Norwegian Naval Academy teaches John Boyd's conflict theory

by Tommy Krabberød, Damien O’Connell, Chester W. Richards, Endre Sjøvold, Stein Hatlem Forsdahl, Jostein Mattingsdal and Roar Espevik

What if COVID-19 were an actively thinking, capable enemy destined to defeat us at any cost? 

Our guess is that you probably, and quite quickly, answered the question with something like, "that was not a very original or challenging question – the COVID-19 situation is an unmissable opportunity to mentally wargame how to respond as if the virus was a capable enemy. I thought of that immediately!" 

But, what if the late John Boyd (1927–1997) responded to your statement, especially if you were someone high up in the hierarchy? He would probably stick his finger in your chest and yell "Did you really? Show me your courses of action!"

John Boyd's work is a fascinating, comprehensive, many-sided, cross-referencing analysis of military conflicts and an inspirational synthesis of strategies for how to win (Osinga, 2007; Richards, 2004; Safranski, 2008). In this paper, we will use the COVID-19 situation, which has reminded us all of the importance of agility, as an opportunity to present insights from Boyd's work on agility that are applied in the education of officers at the The Norwegian University Defence College, Naval Academy (Naval Academy).

What we try to teach the cadets at the Naval Academy, using John Boyd`s theories, is to keep developing their awareness for orientation about the external world and its hazards, using fewer simplifications, less conclusiveness, and more revision than they may be used to from their civilian upbringing.

John Boyd

With only an undergraduate degree in economics, a dozen years flying — and a mere one month of combat — John Boyd solved the problem of describing mathematically the ideal strategy for air-to-air combat (Boyd, Christie, & Gibson, 1966).  

New pilots today still learn his method, called "energy-maneuverability (EM)" and it also explains why the F-15, F-16, F-22, and F-35 look nothing much like the SR-71, the epitome of the "higher-farther-faster" school that EM theory replaced.  

After a lot of trial-and-error, he was able to add concepts from physics, mathematics, and psychology and apply his ideas to conflict of any sort.  The result is often known as "maneuver warfare" and is the official doctrine of the US Marine Corps (1997/2016)

Boyd himself wondered how he was able to use what would seem to be a minimal educational background to solve an important problem that had evaded many more experienced pilots and engineers with advanced degrees. 

For one thing, although his flying time was limited, half of it was as an instructor at the Air Force's elite Fighter Weapons School. He also concluded that his lack of formal training in aeronautical engineering had freed up his thinking and allowed him to spot similarities in disparate fields, particularly theoretical mathematics and physics, but later biology and complexity theory. 

His approach was not unlike Clausewitz's 150 years earlier, who employed the physics of his day — Newtonian mechanics, friction, etc. — to formulate his strategic ideas.

One of us (Richards) once tried to impress Boyd by telling him how much time he was spending studying his major work, "Patterns of Conflict." (Boyd, 1986, Patterns of Conflict)  "Careful tiger," Boyd responded, "you'll start becoming part of the problem instead of part of the solution." With that attitude, it makes perfect sense to apply Boyd's methods and their underlying principles to the problems of epidemiology.

In other words, the idea is not to read about what Boyd did, but to use his methods and concepts and create new ones to spark creativity and solve problems, an ability Boyd later would describe with the German word, Behendigkeit.[i] 

Facing uncertainty

But back to the mental poke of Boyd's finger in your chest: Try to reorient and start to think seriously about the implications of the question. First, how many inputs did I need before I took the COVID-19 threat seriously?

The research on strategic surprises and decision making tells us that most of us need quite a few bits of information to accept something new and unexpected (Andersen, Hærem, & Kost, 2019).[ii] 

A capable enemy is likely to give us weak signals if any. Operation Weserübung, the surprise attack on Norway in 1940 and the bewildered Norwegian government, is an exemple (Holst, 1966). Would we have responded more responded more adequately and forcefully to such a situation today? 

Schnelle's (2018) recent discussion of maritime hybrid threats, a Russian maritime doctrine that recognizes the use of civilian vessels and the mapping of unusual movements of civilian vessels in Norwegian waters, is perhaps a timely "heads up?" Or perhaps not? Are we willing to take the signs seriously? Should we? Perhaps it is just fiction, a pattern made possible by paranoid mental models?

We have learned another thing from the pandemic: awareness of a different kind of surprise. Despite knowing that a virus pandemic might happen, and that it might happen at any time, when COVID-19 strikes, the amplitude of its impact is not as expected. 

As in many other crisis situations, avoiding surprises depends on anticipating change. So far, COVID-19 has shown us that anticipation of this kind is increasingly difficult due to our incomplete understanding of the virus and how the novelty of the situation causes changes at a societal level. 

Today, decision-makers do not know – or are just starting to agree upon – how to deal with the pandemic, but interestingly, courses of action (COA) differ quite a lot across countries (Collinson, 2020).

A step in trying to understand the challenge is to try to empathize with how people get anxious by having to rely on a diverse set of information, including the guidance provided by social media, informal conversations, and summaries voiced by spokespeople from various authorities. And as we should expect in a conflict, there are actors who deliberately try to deceive. 

You must decide whether to trust the reports of others and whether you are willing to base your orientation and actions on them. That is, we must combine our own observations with those of other people. Thus, an individual´s decision process is in part a function of the decision process of others. In this sense, it is reasonable not just to speak of shared mental models, but also shared anxiousness (Andersen et al., 2019). 

The challenge is thus how to maintain our cohesion and ability to adapt collectively (Boyd, 1987b, Revelation).

Look for Mismatches

As expected, the pressure on the Norwegian and other countries' authorities to reopen the society after it closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic increases day by day.[iii] And just as predictably, the governments, however reluctantly, wisely or not so wisely, give in to the pressure. What would be an advantageous COA and for whom? The virus? Norway?  

If the COVID-19 were an actively thinking, capable enemy, this would probably be the COA she expected us to take, our most likely COA. But then, when we have reopened our borders, and finally arrived at our favorite holiday destination and started to relax, she would mutate and throw us into another demoralizing disarray. How long could we cope?

Prepare for the expected is exactly what an enemy wants us to do, so that she can throw the unexpected at you and demoralize you (Boyd, 1987b, Revelation). This is also what you should do to your enemy. 

If Boyd had been in the government planning staff, which he was when the US planned the famous "left hook" in Operation Desert Shield (Coram, 2002), he would have kept reminding the decisionmakers that they should "Look for mismatches!" 

Boyd's point is not that you should ignore the expected, but you should also prepare equally well, or perhaps even more, for the unexpected. This raises a dilemma for military leaders. Time is a scarce resource in organizations (Andersen et al., 2019), and you cannot ignore the enemy's most expected COA, either. 

Thus, an effective way to demoralize an enemy according to Boyd, is to keep the enemy guessing, "Generate uncertainty, confusion, disorder, panic, chaos ... to shatter cohesion, produce paralysis and bring about collapse." (Boyd, 1986, p. 132, Patterns of Conflict).

However, Boyd's hunch is that we are more likely to prepare for what is known, to polish and drill our old plans (Boyd, 1976, Destruction & Creation). Boyd criticized the logic of military briefings for their tendency to present too clear and too concise a description of complex problems. According to Boyd, this process of simplification removed the impetus for the crucial "what if"-processes (Coram, 2002). 

Simplification, it turns out, is a pervasive decision trap (Andersen et al., 2019; Johnsen, 2018; Roberto, 2009). Thus, an important part of leadership training at the Naval Academy is to give the cadets as many opportunities as possible to make decisions and cooperate in unpredictable situations (Norwegian Naval Academy, 2009).

The Naval Academy teaches that a group operating in uncertain environments adapts to its surroundings by balancing externally induced change to internally induced change. 

Unless the group can sense changes in its surroundings by observing and orienting themselves and others, the group´s efforts won´t be sustainable. Thus, we really try to teach only one decision-making structure. It involves authority levels, information flow, inter-unit coordination, power, cohesiveness, and the dispersion of decisions. Its different parts will be employed in accordance with situational demands.

Boyd reminds us that because there are no simple answers or quick fixes, only, at first, mentally demanding tasks (Boyd, 1986, Patterns of Conflict), we must look for mismatches (Boyd, 1992, Conceptual Spiral). This perhaps, sounds quite straightforward, but research has shown that challenging the status quo in teams and organizations is a strenuous task (Boyd, 1987a, Organic Design for C2; Richards, 2020; Sjøvold, 2014). 

The challenge is that team members need to have a shared understanding, a common outlook, and be able to act as a "band of brothers," too (Boyd, 1986, Patterns of Conflict; Espevik & Olsen, 2013; Hughes & Girrier, 2018).  In this, however, lies also the potential for group think and misunderstood loyalties. 

Operating a naval vessel cannot be done by one person alone (Accident Investigation Board Norway, 2019; Norwegian Armed Forces, 2015; Marquet, 2013), so how do you balance initiative and harmony (Boyd, 1987a, Organic Design for C2)?


If you have accepted the (new) discomforting information, e.g. that the COVID-19 situation in a province on the other side of the planet has the potential to develop into a pandemic, or that what the lookout reported is not what the operations officer had planned for, the eternal quest for certainty is likely to start as the window of opportunity closes (van Creveld, 1985) 

  • Is this an enemy? 
  • Who is the enemy? 
  • What is the enemy likely to do?

In the modern classic Fleet tactics and naval warfare, Hughes & Gerrier (2018), the authors state that "The only certainty about the Navy's wartime role is the uncertainty of prediction in peacetime what site, enemy, and mission will be involved" (p. 25). This resonates well with how naval operations are described in the Norwegian doctrine of naval operations (Norwegian Armed Forces, 2015).

When you have recognized the potential for an epidemic, or the blip on your radar screen, your attention is likely to turn inwards: 

  • What are we going to do? 
  • Do we have a plan that fits this situation? 
  • Do we have to adjust and improvise? 
  • If so, are we able to? 
  • And who will provide the necessary new ideas? 
  • Who could predict that an acting assistant director in the Directorate of Health suddenly would become a national hero? 

This is when our level of training, how we have used the long years of peace, and what we have learned at the naval academy will be tested. The admiral will meet the opponent with the fleet as it has been trained (Boyd, 1986, Patterns of Conflict; Hone, 2018; Hughes & Girrier, 2018).

According to Boyd (1987c, Strategic Game), we tend to focus our efforts inward—often to our detriment. That is, we unconsciously limit our interactions with the external world. We should be focusing on questions like: 

  • Do our actions have an effect on the situation? 
  • What if the virus mutates? 

Boyd took much inspiration from the natural sciences and called this tendency toward internal focus "entropy," that is, due to lack of interaction with external environment, disorder increases and the energy in any system becomes increasingly unavailable to perform its duties – solving the organization's problems in the external world.

To orient and reorient is an ongoing effort in order to monitor the environment and identify potential threats. Boyd (1987a, Organic Design of C2) kept reminding his audience that "Orientation is Schwerpunkt!" 

Without the willingness to continuously analyze and synthesize your surroundings in a changing world, your mental models will soon be outdated. Boyd´s conflict theory teaches us to concentrate more fully on irregularities and their meanings. We trust these ideas to apply in all situations, whether it be combat, navigation, or procurement.

The collision between HNoMS Helge Ingstad and Sola TS in 2018 is a sobering reminder of the problems that arise if there is a mismatch between your mental models and the external world. It demonstrates that if you are slow to realize that things are not the way you expected them to be, problems are likely to worsen, become harder to solve, and get entangled with other problems. 

The collision teaches us how surprise may occur when an issue is recognized but the direction of the expectations is wrong. (Accident Investigation Board Norway, 2019).

In accordance with Boyd's work, more recent research has shown that preparing for rare events creates anxiety (Krabberød, 2014; Marchau, Walker, Bloemen, & Popper, 2019; Sjøvold, 2014).  Thus, the Schwerpunkt in the Academy's leadership development program is agility, individual and collective. 

Since teamwork is mandatory for solving tasks in naval operations (Norwegian Armed Forces, 2015), the focus is on teaching the cadets how to develop agile and robust teams (Norwegian Naval Academy, 2009).  

Climate for an agile organization

Theory and strategy are fine, but how do we create teams and organizations that can execute them?  

Organizations that live in predictable circumstances — think social clubs or government bureaucracies, for example — perform adequately with one person at the top doing all the thinking and everyone else just following orders and procedures. However, when dealing with rapidly changing conditions of uncertainty and danger like the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems obvious that we want as much brainpower as possible working on the problem. Still, it needs to be harmonized to produce the best chances of finding solutions (Andersen et al., 2019; Norwegian Armed Forces, 2012; Wyly, 1991).  

It may not make sense, for example, to have every lab in the world testing the same candidate vaccine.

So, how do we create organizations that can thrive in situations of great danger and uncertainty?  Boyd suggested an organizational climate that he first noted in the German army in the opening years of World War II but that he later traced back to Sun Tzu and the various schools that use his methods (Boyd, 1986, Patterns of Conflict; Richards, 2004; Safranski, 2008)

First and foremost is unity, or mutual trust. Boyd (1986, p. 74, Patterns of Conflict) called it Einheit.  In addition to creating great unit cohesion, it also reduces the need for explicit communications. With enough practice together as a unit, it almost becomes possible, as the US Marine Corps observed, to read each other's minds, which can save a lot of time (U.S. Marine Corps, 1997/2016).

Next, Boyd identified the ability to make sense out of complex and confused situations, Fingerspitzengefühl.  More generally, it implies a master level of competence in whatever we are doing that can seem mystical to outsiders. Through grueling experience, we train our intuitions so that most of the time, we just know what to do.

The primary purpose of the first two attributes is to fire up creativity and initiative throughout the organization.  Fine, but how do we ensure that all this action actually accomplishes our mission? 

For this, Boyd (1986, p. 72, Patterns of Conflict) proposed a couple of what he called "shaping tools": Auftragstaktik and Schwerpunkt.  In German, an Auftrag is a contract.  So Auftragstaktik implies a virtual contract between superior and subordinate.  

The subordinate agrees that their actions will serve to accomplish their mission and support the overall commander's intent, and the superior agrees to allow the subordinate wide freedom in how to do it.

For the organization as a whole, the corresponding tool is Schwerpunkt, that is, designation of what is most important to the commander.  As management guru Stephen Bungay put it, "Tell me what you want, what you really, really want!" (Bungay, 2011, p. 123). Then, as circumstances change, we can change our actions to support the intent without waiting for new orders.

Finally, we have Behendigkeit, or agility, but particularly mental agility in the sense Boyd (1992, Conceptual Spiral) used it. It implies the ability to change your mind, which can be difficult if, for example, you sold yourself and your plan to senior leadership, but it turns out that you really need to do something else.  

We all get trapped into these patterns and, in fact, tend to seek out confirming information and ignore or explain away observations that contradict them.  Great leaders, however, develop the ability to detect when they're being fed what they want to hear, while there's still time to change course. Obviously, this is a critical attribute when confronting a threat as poorly understood as the COVID-19.

Things we already know we know (conclusion)

Norwegian doctrine states that the armed forces must prepare for managing unpredictable, complex, and not to forget, hostile environments (Norwegian Armed Forces, 2015; Norwegain Armed Forces, 2014; Norwegian Armed Forces, 2012). 

Boyd's main lesson was that to thrive, i.e., survive on our own terms in an unpredictable world with scarce resources, we must actively look for mismatches, and, on a collective level, establish a learning, agile, culture. However, Boyd was less optimistic about our willingness to take the implications of this seriously. 

But as he also pointed out, we should be our own gurus. In order to become your own guru, i.e. an expert in making decisions in unexpected situations, you must quite logically train decision-making in unexpected situations (Boyd, 1987b, Revelation; Klein, 1998; Richards, 2020)  

The COVID-19 crisis should be an important reminder and a window of opportunity to focus on establishing agility on a collective level. At the Naval Academy, we keep reminding ourselves of this. To rephrase Sun Tzu, everyone has heard of this, those who deeply understand the principles of agility prevail; those who do not, do not prevail (in Clearly, 2005, p. 43).


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  • Andersen, S. S., Hærem, T., & Kost, D. (2019). Cognitive and Organizational Challenges in a Navigation Team. In Part one report on the collision on 8 November 2018 between the frigate HNoMS Helge Ingstad and the oil tanker Sola TS outside the Sture Terminal in the Hjeltefjord in Hordaland county. Retrieved from: https://www.aibn.no/Marine/Published-reports/2019-08-eng
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[i] Because he first found them in German writings, he continued to use the German terms. We will return to Behendigkeit, and four other essential German terms in his work, Einheit, Fingerspitzengefühl, Auftrag and Scwerpunkt, later in the paper.

[ii] The "invisible gorilla" experiment is an eye opener in this regard. The observers, think of your intelligence unit or your lookouts, are given the task of counting how many times three players in white clothes will pass a basketball in a small field in a short period of time. The only complicating factor is that there is another team of three players on the same field, wearing black, passing another basketball between themselves. After about 20 seconds, a person in a gorilla suit walks slowly into the field, stops in the middle, beats his chest, and slowly walks away. In the experiment, 46 % did not see the gorilla (Andersen et al., 2019).

[iii] In 2001 William "Bill" S. Lind, the author of Maneuver Warfare Handbook and coauthor of The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation visited the Naval Acadmey. In his lecture he asked the rethorical question if we, the Norwegians, were prepared to close our borders. Most of the the audience responded with disbelief.


Publisert 4. juni 2020 15:00.. Sist oppdatert 16. juni 2020 13:47.