Col John Boyd's Patterns of Conflict Expanded to Policing Part 1

Dan Grazier took the time to combine Boyd's briefing slides with video of Boyd actually delivering the brief. Dan did great work putting these together. It is an awesome opportunity to see and listen to Boyd briefing his ideas that we at this blog and in our programs of instruction spend so much time discussing. Boyd and his ideas are about much more than the OODA Loop, which is actually much more than a loop, as you will see when watching these clips of Boyd briefing Patterns of Conflict.

"Col Boyd was the most influential military thinker the United States ever produced. He delivered this brief hundreds of times in the 1970's and 1980's to lawmakers, military officials, legislative staffers, and anyone else willing to devote the time to listen. A video recording of him delivering the complete brief has recently been converted into digital form to make it more accessible to modern audiences. This version combines the raw video with an updated version of Col Boyd's briefing slides to provide the viewer an opportunity to experience this amazing piece of work." ~Dan Grazier

Dan Grazier broke this work down into 14 video presentations all about a half hour long, which makes watching each segment very brief and yet contain powerful ideas we in policing can take time to reflect and expand upon. I started posting these back in 2015 but stopped because I felt as though I was not expanding on the ideas as they apply to policing in a way that would add value to those cops taking the time to watch. This was mainly due to lack of time on my part and I did not want to do this great work a disservice, so I stopped after posting the first three parts, with just the link back to Dan's YouTube page.

My focus of effort now as I post each segment will be to expand on what Boyd is discussing reflecting on my thoughts and my interpretation of what Boyd's ideas mean to policing, individual officers and police leaders as well as the communities they serve. Hopefully this will generate some discourse and thinking about policing's strategy, operations and, tactics we employ while policing a free society.

Policing is now evolving and expanding on Boyd's ideas to improve decision making under pressure and to develop fair and impartial policing methods. Police are now considering how their strategy, operations and tactics affect Boyd's moral, mental and physical categories of conflict, which is so important to policing a free society. Police have a huge responsibility to protect and serve their communities. The communities they serve also have a huge responsibility to understand police action as they work to keep people safe from criminal and sinister behavior as well, as working to serve the people in reducing those factors that lead to crime and decay in our society.

What was Boyd's Mission and Intent?


  • To make manifest the nature of moral-mental-physical conflict
  • To discern a pattern for successful operations
  • To help generate tactics and strategy
  • To find a basis for grand strategy (a connecting link between our constructive and destructive behavior (Persuasion and force)


  • To unveil the character of conflict, survival and conquest

In this first video segment Boyd, through historical snapshots, analysis and synthesis, discusses his outline for patterns of conflict. so we begin to understand the relationship of the categories of conflict the moral, mental and physical. and how our strategy, operations and tactics influence all three. To help us gain focus and direction Boyd wants to make manifest the nature of moral-mental-physical conflict. To get a clear picture and better understanding of the moral, mental and physical dimensions of conflict is what he is striving for so let’s look at how Boyd describes the three categories:

The Moral represents the cultural codes of conduct or standards of behavior that constrain, as well as sustain and focus, our emotional/intellectual responses. Morally we interact with others by avoiding mismatches between what we say we are what we are and the world we have to deal with, as well as by abiding by those other cultural codes or standards we are expected to uphold. Morally our adversaries isolate themselves when they visibly improve their wellbeing to the detriment of others (allies, the uncommitted), by violating codes of conduct or behavior patterns that they profess to uphold or others expect them to uphold.

The Mental represents the emotional/intellectual activity we generate to adjust to cope with, that physical world. Mentally we interact by selecting information from a variety of sources or channels in order to generate mental images or impressions that match up with the world of events or happenings that we are trying to understand and cope with. Mentally we can isolate our adversaries by presenting them with ambiguous, deceptive or novel situations, as well as by operating at a tempo or rhythm they can neither make out, nor keep up with. Operating inside their OODA loops will accomplish just this by disorienting or twisting their mental images so that they can neither appreciate nor cope with what’s really going on.

The Physical represents the world of matter-energy-information all of us are a part of, live in, and feed upon. Physically we interact by opening up and maintaining many channels of communication with the outside world, hence with others out there, that we depend upon for sustenance, nourishment or support. Physically we isolate our adversaries by severing their communications with the outside world as well as by severing their internal communications to one another. We can accomplish this by cutting them off from their allies and the uncommitted via diplomatic, psychological and other efforts. To cut them off from one another we should penetrate their system by being unpredictable, otherwise they can counter our efforts.

What's important is to recognize the moral outweighs the mental and physical. Moral strength, moral authority, moral value which draw a great deal more leverage from communities. Viewing conflict and police courses of action to them, through this lens is crucial to winning and developing patterns for successful operations. Understanding how these three categories weave together to influence the strategy, operations and tactics we use has huge influence on how society views the strategy, operations and tactics police use in fighting crime, preventing or responding to conflict and crisis and in dealing with quality of life issues that if not dealt with can lead to the decay that influences these.

In policing the physical level is where we use force, stopping people, frisking people, arresting people, restraining or controlling those resisting and deadly force are all examples and is the least powerful category. The mental level, is where maneuver and reshaping the situation is waged. It is getting inside the other guys head, getting an adversary to come around to our way of thinking, in policing we call this gaining voluntary compliance. It is also creating confusion, uncertainty and disorder in the mind of an adversary so he cannot cope with or understand what's going on so police gain the advantage and is more powerful than the physical. The moral level in policing is often referred to as police legitimacy and is the publics belief that the police ought to be allowed to exercise their authority to maintain social order, mange conflict and solve problems in their community. Essentially it is the measurement of the publics trust and confidence in the police to do their job. The moral level is the most powerful of all.

The lack of police understanding in the importance of the moral, mental and physical categories has created much conflict in policing. One side of the coin has police believing persuasion or de-escalation is the answer, that somehow we can always talk an adversary out of their criminal or sinister behavior. The other side of the coin believes control by escalation and force, hit the other guy before he hits you is the answer. In reality both are two sides of the same coin when it comes to conflict. Persuasion and force ebb and flow in conflict, always has and always will. The enticement of an adversary to voluntary comply and come around to our way of thinking has ended the vast majority of police interactions. Approximately 98.6% of police contacts annually end with persuasion which is often influenced by the threat of force. When persuasion and de-escalation fail to influence an adversary the escalation of force is used. We must understand the relationship of both sides of this coin and how they interact to be effective and safe.

In the give and take, ebb and flow of conflict and understanding the strategic game of interaction (what lies at the heart of a encounter with an adversary) is crucial.

"To discern what is going on we must interact in a variety of ways with our environment. We must be able to examine the world from a number of perspectives so that we can generate mental images or impressions that correspond to that world." ~Col. John Boyd

Things happen fast, officers are often uncertain of what's going on and there are no crystal balls to predict an adversaries action so our observation-orientation-decisions and actions must be ongoing throughout the conflict, yet we must be aware of how our strategy, operations and tactics influence an adversary, the public and ourselves morally, mentally and physically as we interact in the environment. Its about policing smarter, of outthinking and outmaneuvering an adversary and considering the publics perception of our actions. Yes, it matters when policing a free society.

Boyd uses an example from his air-to air fighter pilot days. Need a fighter that can both lose energy and gain energy more quickly while outturning an adversary. This suggests a fighter that can pick and choose engagement opportunities yet has fast transients characteristics that can be used to either force an overshoot by an attacker or stay inside a hard turning defender. To police facing an adversary this means we use tactics that includes the positions we take as we respond and set up, to gain the advantage. It includes sense-making, problem-solving and adaptability as well as social and physical skills necessary to persuade and/or threaten force to create the confusion or surprise necessary to get inside the mind of an adversary so he will decide to comply.

Why? Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) among our adversaries since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing as well as faster transient rhythm or patterns they are competing against.

Getting inside an adversaries O-O-D-A Loop is difficult to do when we forget tactics and respond emotionally. Boyd talks about its important to get in and get out because somebody else may be working on you. This another often neglected and miss-understood factor or two-sides to the same coin in conflict. One side is our O-O-D-A Loop trying to persuade or force our will on an adversary. The other side (the forgotten and miss-understood side) is the adversary has his own O-O-D-A Loop trying to impose his will on us. So we must stay alert all the time and keep engagements short (take timely advantage of opportunities) as they arise, so we don't get blindsided. Getting inside the mind of an adversary is the key to leveraging opportunities, as it creates friction in an adversaries decision making, slowing down his O-O-D-A Loop. As Boyd said:

"We have to understand what's going on out there with our eyeballs, or somebody else's observation, mechanical equipment, gathering information. Pump the information into the brain so you generate patterns, images, views, impressions. When we put it all together this is orientation. Then you pick, choose or decide on the possibilities and then take action and consider the consequences of that action morally, mentally and physically."

We want to get inside his loop at a faster tempo than he can! The idea of fast transients suggests that, in order to win, we should operate a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries or better yet, get inside adversaries observation-orientation-decision-action time cycle or loop. Don't confuse this speed or faster tempo with just the physical category, which is all to often the case in policing where getting there and engaging the adversary fast is all that's considered. Influencing the speed and tempo in mental and moral categories must be considered as well for successful operations.

The idea here is to destroy adversary’s moral, mental physical harmony, produce paralysis and collapse his will to resist, while at the same time amplifying our own spirit and strength. This effort is not all about physical force it’s about maneuver, interaction and the balance of persuasion and force in an all out effort to morally, mentally and physically isolate adversary from his allies or any outside support as well as isolate elements of adversary or adversaries from one another and overwhelm them by being able to penetrate their moral, mental and physical being at any and all levels. All this, while at the same time enhancing our spirit and strength and winning over the uncommitted (public support).

If you listen closely you will hear Boyd explain that (his ideas) are not a recipe or, a formula or "the way" to think about conflict. It is a way! This gets to the very important point that there are no definitive ways conflict forms, nor is there a definitive solution. You don't want to hold onto things to tight so you cant see the world through different lens.

Stay Oriented!