Ken Witt: During a tactical deployment, the arbiter of operational success is a commander’s well-developed set of tactical competencies.

About the author

Ken’s tactical experience spans a 25-year law enforcement career – with 14 years of Special Weapons and Tactics experience, and over 30 years of active and reserve military service – primarily in the U.S. Army Special Forces.

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Ken Witt: Tactical Leadership and Mastering Operational Variables

The Article

Law enforcement tactical teams are deployed when a situation is hazardous, complex, or conventional methods cannot resolve the crisis.

To ensure operational success, as opposed to good fortune or accidental outcomes, agencies need effective tactical leadership.

The quality of leadership is contingent upon the depth of a commander’s attributes and core competencies.

Attributes—learned over a lifetime—offer insight into leadership potential, however, it is competencies—skills learned through education, training, and experience—which provide the ability to successfully lead.

Accordingly, in the throes of a crisis, operational success is dependent on the commander’s tactical competency.

Tactical planning is shaped by situation and circumstance, which in turn is heavily influenced by three interconnected variables—suspect courses of action, operational time, and crisis site space; these elements are considered variables in the sense that they can be manipulated tactically.

By anticipating suspect courses of action commanders can develop defensive strategies to counter the expected threats.

By exploiting space and time commanders can create offensive strategies where the suspect is left without viable options.

With this in mind, a tactical leader’s competencies must include the ability to identify these variables and then manipulate them to his advantage.

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Courses of Action

In the sixth century BC, the military theorist Sun-Tzu expressed the simple dictum that a successful leader must know the enemy and know himself.

The succeeding twenty-six centuries have repeatedly validated the importance of this principle.

Knowing the suspect is a product of the intelligence collection process, which allows a commander to determine and assess potential suspect courses of action (COA).

COAs comprise a sequence of actions the suspect is in the process of carrying out or likely to carry out in the immediate future.

The initial COA assessment includes the suspect’s known objectives and capabilities, recent acts, position within the crisis site, weapons, and the presence or absence of hostages.

This assessment may be modified as more intelligence is obtained.

The COA assessment should also include potential suspect responses to law enforcement actions.

Once the potential suspect COAs are determined, they are ranked by likelihood and threat level.

In other words, the suspect’s most likely course of action and most dangerous course of action.

Contingency plans are essential to counter suspect COAs.

Contingencies are a branch from the team’s deliberate or hasty plan, and as such modify the team’s conduct in response to the suspect’s actions.

The use of Standard Operating Procedures—a predefined set of tactics, techniques, and procedures—provides the ability to quickly incorporate a complex set of instructions into a contingency plan.

Crisis Site Space and Operational Time

A strategic consideration in tactical planning is the creation of a tactical dilemma.

This is when the suspect is placed in a situation where no matter which course of action he chooses, it can be exploited.

Commanders create tactical dilemmas by exploiting space and time variables.

Exploiting crisis site space involves denying the suspect freedom of movement and positions of advantage.

Exploiting operational time involves interrupting the suspect’s timeline or delaying his reaction to law enforcement actions.

Tactical expert Charles “Sid” Heal (retired LASDSpecial Enforcement Bureau Commander) identifies five techniques for creating dilemmas that exploit space and three for time.

All of these techniques can be used individually or in conjunction.

Space dilemmas center on freedom of movement and positions of advantage.

Interlocking fields of fire (both lethal and less-lethal) limit a suspect’s freedom of movement.

Chemical agents can deny space by driving a suspect from a position of advantage or preventing movement into one.

Suspects can be induced to make a false assumption through a deceptive diversion which directs attention away from law enforcement activity.

The deployment of law enforcement weapons systems in a manner that exploits suspect weaknesses may force him to expose himself in an effort to regain the advantage.

Finally, depriving a suspect of the value of his position—i.e., if darkness is an advantage, then illuminate the space.

Time dilemmas center on delaying suspect action.

Perhaps the most common technique is surprise, which is created by taking action at an unexpected time or place or using an unexpected tactic.

Another is a physiological diversion, such as a noise/flash diversionary device, which negatively impacts the suspect’s senses and slows his response.

Finally, overwhelming tactics, such as sniper-initiated assaults, limit the suspects’ ability to respond—this technique must be applied within the bounds of the agency’s use of force policy.

It is important to distinguish between operational time as a variable (examined above) and elapsing operational time which is unrecoverable.

During an unfolding crisis, where time to plan becomes a scarce commodity, it is helpful to remember the Italian proverb, “The best is the enemy of the good.”

General George Patton famously expressed this as a tactical tenet, where he cautions that the time lost through excessive planning often results in a missed opportunity.

In other words, time can be gained through the efficient design and implementation of a good plan rather than expending time developing the best plan.

Using Coordinated Techniques for Tactical Dilemmas

In actual practice, a dilemma strategy that exploits all of the suspect’s options may require the use of several coordinated techniques.

For example, the demonstration of an armored vehicle in a non-threatening or threatening manner can create a deceptive diversion that draws the suspect’s attention to the desired side of the crisis site.

The diversion allows tactical teams to maneuver into positions of advantage at designated doors or windows.

Utilizing breach and hold or gun-porting techniques these teams can establish interlocking fields of fire within the crisis site which restrict the suspect’s freedom of movement.

Multiple interlocking fields of fire can be established as long as there is no possibility of fratricide.

If desired, tactical teams can enter the crisis site utilizing the cover provided by the interlocking fields of fire.

Even though the suspect may not be visible at this point, the targeted use of chemical agents prevents the suspect from remaining in his present location or moving to a new position.

If the suspect does not expect these actions, then the element of surprise will interfere with his ability to respond.

The suspect is now confronted with a circumstance where any course of action can be exploited.

During a tactical deployment, the arbiter of operational success is a commander’s well-developed set of tactical competencies.

Accepting that competencies are the product of education, training, and experience, then a well-regarded tactical training organization offers commanders the best opportunity to build upon existing leadership skills, as well as to validate their aptitude for operational planning and critical decision making.

Ken Witt’s SWAT Team Leader Course

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Photos by Ken Witt, Dave Young (GTI)