ITOTA: Counter-ambush tactics for the urban jungle

Editor's Note: Police1 has partnered with the International Tactical Officers Training Association (ITOTA) to bring you feature articles from their outstanding quarterly publication. The following article first appeared in the pages of SWAT Digest magazine and is reprinted by permission of the publisher. Check back on Tuesdays toward the end of every month for features and opinions presented in partnership with our friends at ITOTA in our ongoing effort to provide SWAT operators around the country with the best information available on issues important to SWAT operators.

By Dr. Jason Winkle

“Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth—that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too.”
— Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

The one constant regarding tactics is that they are situation specific. However, in spite of this feature, there are certain approaches that should form the basis of your tactical approach. These “tactical fundamentals”, as I refer to them, are driven in a general sense by the characteristics of battle. This article will look at two “tactical fundamentals” for dealing with ambush situations in urban settings.

For the past several years I have trained many forward-thinking SWAT teams on counter ambush tactics in urban settings. While being shot at is nothing new for law enforcement officers (LEO), I believe that the nature of the shooting and the frequency of planned ambush attacks will continue to grow in the future. Common situations that can evolve into an ambush include barricaded subjects, high-risk warrant service, and gang related activities. Even more frightening is the growing possibility for a mass-hostage terrorist situation in the United States. While the sophistication of the weapons employed by the “bad guys” and the level of their tactical training will vary, the fact remains that being shot at is being shot at! And there is no excuse for not being prepared to handle a short-range ambush.

Let’s begin this examination with a reality check. When the lead is flying you will be scared, really scared. Even the most experienced combat veterans admit to some fear in these situations. The challenge is to collect yourself and focus on where the threat is located while moving toward a more secure and dominant position. You must learn to turn your fear into a controlled, but aggressive mindset. Most people, upon the crack of a round near them, will either run away or assume the fetal position. Neither of these responses is intelligent or acceptable for the LEO.

One common theme in short-range ambushes is the necessity to move toward the threat. It is critical, however, to move toward cover or concealment as you begin to scan the surroundings to locate the threat. While this may appear as a fairly straightforward statement, it is much more complicated when under fire. Two major mistakes commonly happen in these situations when a team has not properly trained for an ambush. The first area of concern deals with group movement and the second revolves around improper scanning of the engagement area.

A cursory review of movement in such situations by untrained teams illuminates the common mistake of “tailing”. Tailing is where a team under fire moves as a single entity. Like all concepts and techniques, there is a time and a place for tailing. Counter ambush movement is not the place. Tailing plays on our psychological belief that there is safety in numbers. What typically happens in these situations is that one person will quickly recover from the initial shock of the situation and run to cover. In stressful situations it is easier to follow initiated movement than to think on your own. The team sees one of its own move toward a position of cover and they will follow suit. Now the enemy is less likely to be detected as there is only one focal point for them and you will at best get one set of eyes on the area to scan.

What should happen in place of tailing is “dispersion”. Spreading your team out allows each member to bring his or her firepower onto the enemy. By dispersing your team in several directions toward various areas of cover you will get several pairs of eyes focusing in the direction of the threat. This forces the enemy to choose whom to fire on and thereby allows other team members to begin scanning for location indicators.

The second area of concern in ambush situations is scanning. Efficient scanning is a skill that, unfortunately, doesn’t just happen. There are, however, numerous training drills that force officers to quickly look for indicators of a threat and help them to efficiently discriminate between extraneous stimuli and potential danger. The most basic scanning tactic involves looking at areas from which the enemy could shoot. Untrained officers who haphazardly scan everything in their field of vision waste a great deal of precious time.

I teach a technique of scanning that focuses initially on the outside edges of the surrounding area. People tend to shoot from the edges or rooftops of buildings. This approach has proven to be quite effective in locating the enemy quickly. It also works when scanning an area congested with vehicles. Begin by scanning the outer edges of the vehicles and then move inward.

Disciplined scanning also looks for additional indicators such as muzzle flashes, smoke, shadows, and jerky movements caught in your peripheral vision. All of these clues help the officer to quickly determine the location of the enemy’s position. And remember, the faster you locate the enemy the faster you can neutralize him.

Effectively dealing with short-range ambushes is an area of tactical training that must be given adequate attention. Teams need to dedicate focused training on the two major “tactical fundamentals” of dispersion and scanning. Once these two areas have become second nature your ability to successfully neutralize the enemy will increase exponentially.

Dr. Jason Winkle is the former Director of Combatives at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. He has a rich background in the martial arts, tactics, and physical fitness. He holds black belt instructor rank in seven martial arts systems. Dr. Winkle is an Assistant Professor of Exercise Science in the Department of Physical Education at Indiana State University. He is the President of SNO Group International, a consulting company that specializes in three areas: (S) Special Weapons & Tactics; covert (N) narcotics operations; and personal security (O) operations. He is also the founder and President of Martial Concepts, a hybrid system of martial arts training, and WinkleCombat, a tactical consulting group for special operations teams. Dr. Winkle serves on several martial arts national certification boards. He travels extensively nationally and internationally speaking and training various groups. Dr. Winkle can be reached at:;; and

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