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The explosive option for SWAT teams

When it comes to high-risk tactical entries, the “explosive option” may be a better choice than mechanical, ballistic, or thermal breaching


The basic concept is simple: apply explosives to your target objective and gain entry quickly. However, the tactic is very complex and requires extensive training.

Editor’s Note: PoliceOne Contributor Glenn French would like to dedicate this article in memory of Detroit Police Officer Brian Huff. Huff was among four other officers who were shot early Monday, May 3, 2010 while responding to a report of shots fired. Officer Huff was killed in the incident, and leaves behind a wife and 10-year-old son.

The modern day tactical team is faced with many more challenges than in the past. As our industry grows and technology advances some challenges remain the same. Door breaching, for example, is a tactical problem for just about every operation a tactical team faces.

There are many options available to SWAT teams across the country. Those options include mechanical breaching, ballistic breaching, and thermal breaching. When it comes to high-risk entries, in a fortified stronghold or when a significant risk to officer safety is present, then the “explosive option” may be the preferred choice.

Explosive breaching in law enforcement gained its popularity in the mid 1990s and has increasingly became a part of many tactical teams’ breaching options. The basic concept is simple: apply explosives to your target objective and gain entry quickly. However, the tactic is very complex and requires extensive training.

There are many reasons for the need of rigorous training for the explosive breacher. Explosive breaching is a non-lethal force option, therefore explosive breachers tasked with the objective to effect an entry must consider the safety of innocent persons inside the stronghold, the safety of the suspect, and the safety of the tactical officers conducting the operation.

Developing Intel, Drawing a Plan
The explosive breacher will need to put together a detailed and well-calculated plan using intelligence of the objective and target site. The SWAT counter snipers and SWAT scouts will be instrumental in providing the intelligence that the explosive breacher needs to develop a successful plan.

Once the intelligence is analyzed the explosive breacher will calculate the minimum amount of explosives needed to gain entry into a designated target without harming occupants inside the stronghold or the officers involved in the entry. This is done by a mathematical application requiring the explosive breacher to calculate the internal target and exterior target overpressures.

In my experience, many breaching operations require nothing more than defeating the doorknobs or door hinges from the target objective. A successful door breach should precisely cut the doorknob or hinges from the door and they should fall within a couple feet from the doorframe, therefore producing a non-lethal projectile inside the target.

Choosing the proper time for explosive breaching is critical. The explosive breach should only be utilized as the last option in your tactical planning. However, that doesn’t mean you should attempt the other methods of breaching before using the explosive option.

Conducting a hostage rescue may be the toughest challenge a tactical team can face. The team commander may want the rescue operation to be concluded in minimal amount of time. Thus, standing in front of the target objective with a ram may be very dangerous and time consuming to the swat operators. The explosive breacher can provide an option much quicker and safer than all the other breaching methods and given the severity of the operation the tactic is warranted without attempting to use them prior.

In a hostage rescue operation, the explosive breacher may also be able to effect an entry through a wall inside the stronghold near the hostages. A distraction devise or ruse may be used to draw attention away from the targeted entry wall or door while the entry team makes an explosive entry into the objective. In this example, the explosive breach will put the team inside the objective very quickly and on top of the hostage, even if it’s a brick wall. The concussion from the explosives will buy your operators valuable seconds to gain control of the hostages and neutralize the suspects.

Most importantly in my opinion, is the safety of the SWAT officers conducting the entry. These officers will have the advantage of approaching the target in a stealth manner and place the charge undetected. This tactic is far superior to a mechanical breach given the circumstances.

A Barricaded Gunman
Explosive breaching isn’t just for hostage rescues. If your team is tasked to make a forced entry during a barricaded gunman incident then the same rules apply. A barricaded gunman waiting for officers to enter his stronghold has a serious advantage. If you want to take that advantage away from the suspect, then conduct two or more explosive breaches simultaneously when effecting the entry.

Several years ago my team was tasked with effecting an arrest warrant on a cop killer. This cop killer had murdered one of our officers as he sat in a parking lot of a large retail center, while doing a report in his car during the middle of the day. The killer then stole the officer’s handgun and fled the scene. As time went on, this killer was identified and tips of his whereabouts where pouring in as he was featured on a national television show that profiles criminals.

We conducted several entries on various target locations for several days where the intelligence indicated he was inside. These operations included explosive breaching in the planning and operational phases of the manhunt. Ultimately, this coward was located in another state and he killed himself as the tactical team entered his location. In this case using the explosive breaching option was critical in maintaining the safety of the SWAT operators involved. The tactical teams where able to make stealth approaches to the target site, places charges on multiple doors to confuse the suspect and effect the entry.

I can assure you that I was much more comfortable placing the charges on the door than standing there trying to ram a door where a cop killer lays in wait.

The explosive breaching option isn’t just for large or urban tactical teams. All tactical teams in my opinion should have this option. The fact is, no matter where your team operates we all face the same tactical challenges.

Policies, Procedures, and Training
With the explosive breaching capability comes responsibility at all levels involved with the program. Your agency must have comprehensive written policies and procedures. The management of the program is crucial to avoid civil litigation. Training your explosive breachers will include at a minimum a basic explosive handling course, basic explosive entry course and an advanced explosive breaching course. Also, your team must train using the explosive breaching tactics on a regular basis.

Developing a reputable explosive breaching program in your agency is one of the safest tactics you can provide your swat operators. This tactic can save lives, including the innocents or criminals involved in the crises.

When your team is tasked with a hostage rescue crises, a target with a fortified stronghold, or an armed and dangerous individual that threatens the safety of your SWAT cops, then don’t hesitate to use what may be the safest tactic: the explosive option.

Stay safe.

Glenn French, a retired Sergeant with the Sterling Heights (Mich.) Police Department, has 24 years police experience and served as the Team Commander for the Special Response Team, and supervisor of the Sterling Heights Police Department Training Bureau. He has 16 years SWAT experience and also served as a Sniper Team Leader, REACT Team Leader, and Explosive Breacher.

Contact Glenn French.