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SWAT tactics: Formations don’t win football games... or fights!

Proponents of the diamond formation compare it to a B-17 bomber that “self-protects” on a bombing mission

A local police department’s SWAT team recently contacted me and asked me to train with them in Active Shooter/Rapid Deployment tactics. They specifically asked me to teach them how to run their team in a “column” rather than a “diamond” formation. Stealing a line from coaches in both American and European football leagues, I told them that in my opinion, “Formations don’t win football games, and they don’t win fights.” Well-trained, thinking, resilient, dedicated warriors win in combat. Tactical fundamentals persevere — not trick plays. As Iowa’s Central College Coach Ron Schipper said in 1997, “Xs and Os don’t win football games, people do.”

What do the Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tempe, Fremont, Oakland, and Caramel Indiana police departments have in common with the Sonoma County (Calif.) Sheriff’s department? Each of these agencies abandoned their diamond-formation driven active-shooter response in favor of more aggressive, realistic, and life-saving tactics. Add Long Beach Police Department — which never adopted a diamond-formation in the first place — and we have a substantial (although not exclusive) list of agencies that recognize the critical limitations of massing forces in a kill zone, ignoring good use of cover, and abandoning fire and maneuver strategies.

Three Benchmarks
There are three benchmarks against which tactical options should be measured. First, from a human factors standpoint, the tactic must address the performance limitations of all human beings. Under the extreme stress of an active shooter event, perceptual distortions are inevitable. These include tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, and a narrow focus of attention. The strategies, tactics, techniques, and procedures (STTP) must account for the fact that officers will be in the most stressful event of their lives, there will be the possibility of carnage, sirens, alarms, fire sprinklers, gun shots, explosions, confusing and blaring radio traffic, undetonated IED’s, and screaming victims.

The second benchmark is one of historical significance. In other words, STTP’s should be effective against not only the past events we have experienced in the United States, but also significant events in other parts of the world such as the Beslan school massacre, and the Mumbai, India incident. The third benchmark relates to operational soundness. The STTP’s must be those with which officers are already familiar, such as use of cover and concealment, movement, contact/cover concepts, and tactical cornering. In other words, “Don’t teach me something new- teach me how to use what I already know.” The skills must be simple, easy to remember, and easy to apply. Complexity is the enemy of safety.

Here is a partial list of problems — as some see it — with a diamond formation, (some of which apply to “T” or “Y” formations as well):

• The “pod” is one large mass of humanity affording the bad-guys a huge target
• This “pod” is slow, awkward, and lumbering
• The formation of officers potentially fills the entire hallway raising the possibility of a hit on the team with little or no aiming on the part of the opposition
• By filling the hallway, the escape route for fleeing victims is impeded
• The diamond formation allows for only one shooter to the front, the most probable direction of the threat
• The diamond formation does not allow for angular superiority of fire
• If the point man engages to the front, he will most likely juke to one side or the other and very probably step in front of a flanker who is attempting to engage as well
• The flanker will most likely not see the point man mask his fire due to his tunnel vision and narrow focus of attention on the threat
• Under the stress of the event and with the amplified sounds of screaming, alarms, and fire sprinklers, the flanker has very little chance of hearing the point man directing him to an open or closed door
• Instructing personnel to stand in the middle of a kill-zone when cover is steps away is a training scar that law enforcement has been trying to overcome in range training for decades
• If the “pod” engages, and if they remain intact, and if they reload in this configuration, then they WILL paint each other with their muzzles (I have the video!)
• If the flankers enter a room and engage, it is asking the impossible of the point and rear guard to simply stand their ground in the hallway (shots are really being fired, rounds are possibly coming through the sheetrock, your teammates may need your assistance in a fight while you are covering a hallway with no discernable threat)

Proponents of the diamond formation compare it to a B-17 bomber that “self-protects” on a bombing mission. The B-17 “Flying Fortress” had a crew of ten men, including a chin-gunner, a top turret gunner, two waist gunners, a tail gunner, and a ball-turret gunner. The theory was that with 50 caliber machine guns in each of these positions, the aircraft could defend itself against enemy fighters. The comparison between the diamond formation and the B-17 is remarkably apt in that neither the bomber nor the “pod” has any armor that protects against the threat. Remember, we are planning for the next fight, not a couple of demented high school students. We are planning for a Mumbai event (or should be) with dedicated terrorists trained in small-unit tactics and armed with AK-47s.

As many of you know, the mortality rate of the B-17 bomber in WWII was between 25-39 percent, depending upon the air wing to which the craft was assigned.

“The early confidence that the bombers’ defenses alone could repel enemy fighter attacks was quickly shattered. Losses were high. It was not until long-range fighter aircraft capable of escorting the bombers to and from their targets were made available that losses dropped to an acceptable level.
Prior to 1944, a crewman’s tour of duty was set at 25 missions. As a measure of the hazards they would encounter, it is estimated that the average crewman had only a one in four chance of actually completing his tour of duty.”

Revisiting the concept of simplicity, let me provide an example of the “tactical tango” necessary to simply open a door on the right side of a hallway that opens into the hall, and make entry into a room from the “fixed-point / diamond formation.”

One Example for Consideration
The point man calls out, “Closed door, right.” The left flanker (if he can hear the point man ) shifts behind the point man and “stacks” behind the right flanker. The left flanker squeezes the right flanker to let him know he is ready. The right flanker squeezes the point man indicating that he should now move past the door. Both the point man and right flanker move past the door. The right flanker and left flanker (who now are in a crossfire should someone suddenly exit the room) now decide who is going to open the door.

If the right flanker is closest to the hinges, he will reach across the door and grab the knob. If the left flanker is closest to the hinges, he will grab the knob. The appropriate flanker will then pull the door open and the other flanker will enter the room. The breaching flanker will enter second, and goes the opposite direction of the first flanker making entry. The point man and the rear guard remain in the hallway “protecting” their room-entry team.

Now, some instructors are allowing the point and rear guard to side-step into the threshold of the doorway for cover. Let’s think this through. If the point man is covering to the front, and the rear guard is covering to the rear, then they are looking in opposite directions, are they not? And, if the situation is taking place in a school or business complex, then the door the flankers just entered is probably a “self-closer.”

So, explain the simplicity of moving backwards and then sideways into the doorway with the closing door itself interfering with the movement, bodies bumping into each other, and at the same time trying to maintain vigilance on your designated threat area. Oh, and do this while ignoring a shooting engagement between the two flankers and (hopefully) one bad guy in the room. Sure. Simple.

In a conversation I had with a southern California police agency, I was told that their unit recently attended an active shooter course. They first ran scenarios the way the trainers wanted it done — in other words, utilizing the diamond formation with the fixed-point. On their second pass, they utilized their standard SOP’s. When they completed their second run, they were approached by one of the trainers who told them that he was glad they were participating in the training so that his fellow tactical officers and trainers, “could see that there are other ways of handling these events.”

Apparently even the members of the agency hosting the training don’t all agree with this tactic.

Those of you who have read my previous articles know I am passionate about training and officer safety and survival. I am more than willing to learn from others, and always encourage spirited debate about the “how and why” of strategy and tactics. When I pursue an answer to a problem I seek out the opinions of experts, the cream of the crop, the best of the best, the “been there-done-that-and-lived-to-tell-about-it” individuals. For instance:

“Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has no precautions.”
— Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”

“He who can handle the quickest rate of change survives.”
— Colonel John Boyd (OODA Loop)

Finally, for those of you who have not seen it, here you can access a Police1 video of SMG Kyle Lamb (ret.), owner/operator of Viking Tactics, explaining his philosophy of movement and combat.

Like aerial combat in WWII, it is speed and agility (fast transients) that best ensure survival. In an active shooter scenario, I don’t want to be a slow, bulky, cumbersome “Bomber” with a limited chance of success. I want to be an agile, deadly, fast-attack fighter — a P-51 Mustang, working with other P-51s in my squadron to seek out, close with, and destroy enemy fighters.

Steve “Pappy” Papenfuhs is the CEO of Battalion Defense which distributes premier armor, armor carriers, ballistic helmets and shields, and other tactical kit. Pappy retired as a sergeant after serving 29 years with the San Jose, California Police Department. During his career he worked Patrol, Field Training (FTO), Street Crimes, SWAT, Auto Theft, Sexual Assaults, Narcotics, Family Violence, and supervised the department’s in-service Training Division. He holds a Force Analysis certification from the Force Science Research Center, and is a certified instructor with the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) in several disciplines including: Firearms, Defensive Tactics, Baton, Force Options, and Emergency Vehicle Operations (EVOC). In addition to running Battalion Defense and teaching both academy recruits and in-service officers, Pappy provides expert witness consultation in police practices, use of force, and training issues.

Contact Steve Papenfuhs.