Towards a better security loop

Towards a better security loop
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First Published: Sun, Feb 14 2010. 09 37 PM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Updated: Sun, Feb 14 2010. 09 37 PM IST
At 7pm on Saturday, a bomb in the German Bakery in Pune ended India’s 14-month-long hiatus from urban terror attacks.
As those familiar with the city know, this restaurant is as iconic for Pune as the Taj is for Mumbai. It is a mandatory watering hole for tourists travelling through or staying in the city. It is also a veritable junction for travellers trading in goods, information or just soaking in the international environment as they make their touristy plans. At any given point, the restaurant is full of foreigners, many of them students and Osho ashramites, thus ensuring high-profile body counts. Saturday evenings are very busy, so slipping in and out without attracting attention is not difficult.
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
The bakery is also conveniently located at the junction of three getaway routes. The station, airport and the highways leading to Aurangabad or Mumbai are all located within minutes. As targets go, the German Bakery had all the qualities to make it to the shortlist.
This incident, like others before, highlights three aspects imperative in the battle against terror. First, all the intelligence advisories and security arrangements come to naught when fundamental precautions are ignored. In this instance, a waiter making the old mistake of tampering with unknown objects—a phenomenon that terrorists have relied upon since transistor bombs on the buses of Delhi as early as the mid 1980s.
Second is the failure of society to realize that the further we move away from the previous terrorist strike, the closer we are to the next one. So the fervour and momentum that begins to die down as time passes actually need to be maintained and perhaps increased when the environment stabilizes. As the military adage goes, the more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war.
But the key strategic aspect is that our response to terrorism needs to be proactive. We cannot afford to let terrorists retain initiative. It is they who need to be “on the run”; not us. And that ability to be proactive needs fundamental strategic, policy and design changes. Changes that enable our security forces to be anticipative, rather than reactive. History is replete with instances where this precise paradigm shift in strategy resulted in regaining the initiative.
Almost 13 years ago to the day, Colonel John Boyd of the US Air Force was buried with full military honours in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. Boyd, also known as “40 second Boyd” for his bet that he would be able to outmanoeuvre any fighter pilot in 40 seconds, and “Genghis John” for his confrontational interpersonal style, was an extraordinary military strategist. He fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars, was brought back from retirement by Dick Cheney, and deeply influenced the strategy of the First Gulf War.
The famous theory he postulated was the Boyd loop or, as it is known in military parlance, the OODA loop.
Legend has it that Boyd was perplexed by the suboptimal performance of the contemporary US fighter aircraft, notably the F86 (Sabre) series, compared with the “inferior” Russian MiG 21s in Korea. Though the American fighters were more powerful and carried a superior arsenal, they performed miserably in dogfights with the Russian fighters. Boyd explained the reason based on the way individuals and organizations think and act when endangered, terming it the OODA loop.
Every activity we do is in response to a change in the situation around us. We observe that change, orient ourselves to it, take a decision and then act on that decision. Think about it this way. You are driving a car and suddenly you observe a speeding bike coming your way. Next, you orient yourself to this situation, estimating that the present trajectories will cause an impact, and take a decision to swerve your car out of the way. That decision is acted upon by your action of turning the steering wheel. The Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action constitute the four stages of the OODA loop.
So, according to Boyd, this is what was happening in the Korean skies. An American Sabre would enter the arena with the Russian MiG 21 at about the same time. The Russian would spot the American earlier and thereby enter the OODA loop first. Based on his early observation, he would be able to orient himself faster and take a decision, while the American pilot would still be orienting himself.
The American would enter the decision phase only after the Russian had already acted upon his own decision, and so the American’s decision was based on a situation that had changed by now because of the Russian’s actions. If that sounds confusing, think how much more difficult it would be for the American pilot, who would be fighting for his life and losing ground steadily with each cycle of the OODA loop, falling behind the Russian, who would eventually rout him in just a few cycles.
But the question is, why was the American pilot behind the Russian in the loop in the first place, and why, despite his superior skills (by law of averages some of the Americans would be better than their adversaries), did he continue to lose ground while manoeuvring? The startling answer lay hidden in the design of the MiG’s bubble canopy, which afforded better 360-degree visibility to the Russian pilot than the technically superior Sabre. That simple difference in design and better manoeuvrability allowed the Russian pilots to observe their adversary first and, therefore, have an unbeatable first entrant advantage into the OODA loop.
The application of the OODA loop has been demonstrated in other arenas as well. For instance, what do Julius Caesar, Mahatma Gandhi, Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin have in common? The easy part is yes, they were all victims of assassinations using hand-held weapons. The more subtle part is that all of these (and 80% of all assassination attempts) have been made at less than 25ft from the victim.
Actually, the theatre of battle between the assassins and the bodyguards is usually 15ft. Tests prove that if the bodyguard is 15ft away from the protected dignitary, then the attacker will almost certainly succeed (only 20% chance of survival); at 7ft, it is an even contest (45% survival); and if the bodyguard is within a foot of the dignitary, then he will almost certainly protect his charge (98% chance of survival).
By the way, this is the reason you see the protection group personnel close to their dignitaries with their arms in ready position. They want to be able to enter the OODA loop as soon as they observe something amiss. And this is also the reason why Tim McCarthy and Jerry Parr, former US president Ronald Reagan’s bodyguards, were able to save him despite six shots being fired at him from a distance of a few feet: because their entry into the OODA loop, or as is known in the trade parlance, “moment of recognition”, was only milliseconds behind the first shot fired by John Hinckley. Incidentally, the one bullet that hit Reagan was a ricochet and not a direct hit.
Closer home, the Mumbai attacks in 2008 was another example of the power of the OODA loop. Unarguably, the National Security Guard commandos conducted a superb operation with zero collateral damage, demonstrating India’s efficacy in the action phase; but it was the handicap in the preceding phases of the loop—observation and orientation—that gave the terrorists a 72-hour window to create mayhem. Ironically, much of the information needed for observation and orientation was available, but in discrete and disjointed pieces. The absence of a framework which could piece this information together rapidly and orient the responders made it impossible to unleash the lethal Black Cats in a faster time frame.
Although Boyd’s theory was path-breaking, it had many detractors, primarily because it challenged the prevalent doctrine of heavily “missiled” but poor manoeuvrability fighters. However, advocacy and adoption of the OODA loop resulted in the development of the F15 and later the F16, which ensured US supremacy thereafter.
In security, it is impossible to anticipate unforeseen eventualities. That is the reason they are unforeseen; because if we could imagine its possibility, then by definition, the event would not be unforeseen! Therefore, response strategy needs to be designed to facilitate early entry into the OODA loop. At a large-scale level, the only way to do that is to incorporate an agile early warning and response system into the social fabric and structure. This means that discrete elements of information and disparate systems have to be linked to create a seamless network that can discern potential attacks at the earliest possible instance and provide orientation information to decision makers and first responders.
Given our threat levels today and in the foreseeable future as well, it is certain that we will encounter terror attacks on a regular basis. Just when society was beginning to forget the stark nakedness of the Mumbai attacks, Pune has been struck. And the “shortlist” of potential targets is, in fact, very long.
Moving security apparatus into high gear after such a strike is standard operating procedure—and a necessary one. But it is equally necessary to press ahead relentlessly with the doctrine changes that will enhance our ability to get the first responders into the OODA loop as early as possible. We need to regain and, more importantly, retain the initiative in the war against terror.
Raghu Raman is CEO, National Intelligence Grid. These are his personal views. Comment at
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First Published: Sun, Feb 14 2010. 09 37 PM IST