Tamara Schwartz AF Lt. Col. (Rtd.) SAS consultant


What analytics and aerial combat have in common: the OODA loop

The application of analytics to large data sets, sometimes referred to as “big data,” is still an emerging capability in the military. As a result, defense agencies and their industry partners have the ability to shape its future growth. The challenge is the disconnect between our ability to easily collect data and our ability to effectively translate that data into actionable intelligence. For example, the time command center personnel expend to gain comprehensive situational awareness vastly outstrips the time spent developing, assessing and de-conflicting the available courses of action.

Renowned military theorist Air Force Col. John Boyd described this entire decision-making process as the OODA loop, the method he taught fighter pilots for aerial combat. The OODA loop process is about making decisions across several key pillars: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.

Although sensor and cloud technology have greatly facilitated the observational facet of this decision-making loop, it has done little to accelerate the three other components. There are early adopters: the Army Research Lab (ARL) just released its Technical Implementation Plan for 2015-2019, which includes a focus on very large-scale analytics for the Army. That’s a start, but it isn’t enough. It is critical for DOD agencies across the board to apply analytics to the OODA loop for decision-making. But first, they must understand how to do so.

The first step in the OODA loop is Observation, or the actual collection of data. The good news is that, as a nation, we have already invested heavily in tools that allow us to pull data out of sources ranging from satellites and mission systems to social media. However, because we have invested in data acquisition without making equal investments in the analysis (both in tools and talent) and synthesis of that data, we’ve created a bottleneck in the operational decision cycle. Having terabytes upon terabytes of data will not help if a majority of that data is rendered inaccessible because of a lack of standardization, interoperability and quality. Analytics have the potential to expose previously inaccessible data by unifying and standardizing data access across multiple, heterogeneous systems from a single connection. By profiling, standardizing, monitoring and verifying data where it exists, command centers will see dramatically improved data quality and experience a renewed trust in the veracity of their data.

Once the data has been collected it is time for Orientation, or the analysis and synthesis of data to form a mental perspective. Even after cleaning and compressing the data into digestible information, commanders and warfighters may have trouble translating raw data into a holistic picture. Analytics aids in forming this mental picture by presenting decision-makers numerous views of their data through interactive visualization, enabling customized data to shape a user-defined operational picture tailored to mission specific needs. For example, the Air Force is looking to improve its cyber situational awareness through a new program Mission Awareness for Mission Assurance (MAMA). They are seeking to use analytics to analyze traffic to detect insider threats, denial of service attacks and attacks on critical infrastructure.

Having already completed the observation and orientation stages, it is time to make the crucial Decision. Applying analytics to your collected data reveals tangible patterns. For instance, maybe your analytics-infused Blue Force Tracking data reveals that your patrols are making a U-Turn at the same intersection every second Tuesday. These types of unknown behavioral patterns can be picked up and exploited by enemy combatants, putting soldiers at risk. Identifying these patterns with analytics of your data will save lives. Analytics can also identify patterns and correlations to maximize the use of limited capabilities such as low-density/high-demand assets, or optimize the employment of valuable resources such as airlift. With analytics, you can develop models interactively to enable what-if scenarios that incorporate an understanding of limited resources, time constraints and weather patterns.

Now all that is left is to Act on the decision. As I pointed out in a recent whitepaper, “All the data in the world is useless if it doesn’t spur you to action.” Using your new analytics-enhanced capabilities, you can act on emerging opportunities faster, respond to emerging threats more rapidly and shape the operational space to achieve mission objectives while disrupting your adversary’s OODA loop and diminishing their opportunity to react.

By implementing analytics into your operational decision cycle at an appropriate scale, speed and accuracy level, you can elevate access to insight and intelligence, helping your organization move towards the future with a clear view of the branching paths ahead. Stop getting bogged down in excess data and start making your information work for you and your mission.

About the Author

Lt. Col. Tamara Schwartz, U.S. Air Force (retired), is a consultant to SAS Federal.

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