Building the Custom Operator

With advancements in law enforcement and a change in the law enforcement culture, more and more agencies are putting together tactical response teams to deal with the violence found in today’s society. While certain factions of our society believe this is just the militarization of state and local law enforcement, or even more the extreme, the far- reaching hand of the federal government coming to take away their rights and freedoms, officers on these teams know differently. The tactical operators who face the dangers head on everyday know that they are there to make a positive impact on society and to save lives. With advancements in training and technology more and more officers’ lives are being saved every year, including the lives of tactical operators throughout the country.

Tactical teams are saving officers’ lives with the use of high-tech armored vehicles, select fire automatic weapons, improvements in body armor and changes in attitudes, tactics, training and technology. A few years ago the dynamic entry method was prevalent throughout tactical teams in theUnited Statesand violence of action was a dominating concept. Unfortunately officers were commonly putting their lives at more risk than was necessary for the mission being accomplished. While violence of action and the dynamic entry have their places, more and more teams are slowing down and utilizing other advanced tactics. Many teams have also convinced their local narcotics task forces that drug cases should not be built upon the plunder found during search warrants and that the cases should be solid for prosecution before their tactical teams have to execute search warrants for them. This change in mindset allows officers to have better control of their actions and lessens the chances of officers being shot and killed trying to recover narcotics. Tactical teams are first and most importantly life-saving organizations.

Unfortunately not all tactical teams are always well trained and many have difficulty getting the proper funding for what should be minimum mandatory equipment and training. Fortunately, even for under-funded teams, advancements in training concepts can allow them to build their tactical operators just as they would prefer to build their tactical weapons.

Currently, the most commonly used weapon in the tactical operator’s arsenal would easily be the AR platform rifle. This rifle is a high-quality weapon that has been in use for decades throughout the world and is being modified on virtually a daily basis to fit the operator’s needs.

One of the first steps in building better weapons systems and tactical operators is to make the weapon and the operator more flexible and able to perform in many different environments. Modifying the weapon system is easy, simply attach a collapsible stock and shorten the barrel. This allows for easier use in tight spaces while still being accurate at long distances such as in rural areas. In order to help make the operators more flexible, they must be trained in many different environments, from rural operations to close- quarter combat. Tactical teams which work in large metropolitan areas may be called upon at any time to assist agencies in rural areas, and rural agencies are commonly working in both open environments and close quarters during the same mission.

During deadly force encounters both tactical operators and their weapons must be able to prevail for the long run. High capacity magazines allow officers to stay in gun fights longer with less need for downtime during reloads. Proper physical training for operators, including strength training, cardio training, flexibility and mental preparation helps to keep operators physically in the fight for longer periods of time, allows better performance and reduces stress.

To continue improving on their weapon systems more and more tactical teams are going to weapons with select fire capabilities. This allows the officers to send one strategically placed round downrange or to send multiple rounds downrange in rapid fire succession to deal with closer, more immediate personal threats. Tactical operators can be trained not only to proficiently engage targets at multiple distances and conditions but also to be proficient on multiple weapons systems, both lethal and less lethal. Tactical operators must be able to properly select between the application of no force, less lethal force and lethal force as easily as flipping a selector switch and must be proficient with all their options.

In order for officers to see their targets and take in more information, iron sights are no longer the norm and weapon platforms are commonly being outfitted with red dot or holographic sights. These sights allow for quicker and easier target acquisition and, more importantly, they allow for operators to keep both eyes open during an engagement. Having both eyes open allows for the operators to see what is happening around them more clearly. The operators themselves can also be trained to help keep a clearer image of what is happening around them. Officers facing deadly threats often suffer from what is known as tunnel vision. Tunnel vision occurs when an officer’s stress levels rise and his pupils begin to flatten. This natural physical reaction limits the amount of visual information that the officer needs to process and helps an officer to gain a clearer threat picture; however, it can also cause an officer to miss other vital information. Officers who train to reduce their stress levels and increase their stress thresholds may be less likely to suffer from tunnel vision during deadly force encounters.

To help gather more information high power lights are also affixed to the weapons systems, thereby allowing greater visibility in low-light conditions and at night. These lights not only help to locate suspects but may also help to disorient a suspect with a blinding or dazzling light. When this occurs the suspect may not be able to properly gather needed information and it can force the suspect to focus on the light and not the all-important weapon that it is attached to and the trained professional operating it. Officers can also be trained on how to negatively impact a suspect’s information processing abilities and can intentionally cause the suspect to focus on less important information utilizing many different tools and processes. In order for the operators to maximize this ability they need to understand how to negatively affect their adversaries’ O.O.D.A. loop.

More and more tactical teams are now adding suppressors to their weapons. While these do add length and weight to the weapons systems they definitely have their up sides. Suppressors can help save officer’s hearing, especially the hearing of fellow officers in close quarters who did not know that weapons were about to be fired. Suppressors may also help to avoid letting additional suspects who are not immediately present at the scene of a shooting to know exactly what is happening. Operators who are trained to move slowly, quietly and communicate with hand signals can also gain advantages on suspects by lessening the amount of information available to the suspects about the team’s presence, location and intent.

If we take our current attitude towards our most commonly used and often most vital weapon system and look at our most vital tool in our arsenals, our minds, with the same mindset we are more likely to make better, more proficient, faster thinking, quality and skilled operators. One of the best ways to take typical tactical operators and make them a tactical machine is to understand how their training affects their actions. In order to truly understand this, supervisors, team leaders and instructors need to understand the O.O.D.A. loop, how it affects officers and how to maximize their officer’s physical and mental performance.

The term O.O.D.A. loop, which stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, was coined by United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd while he was researching military history, the dynamics of fighter jets, and how fighter pilots can win in aerial combat. The O.O.D.A. loop is a simplified, but in depth, way to look at how the human brain processes information which then leads us to action or inaction.

First, we observe what is going on around us by using our senses. Next, we orient to what is going on around us by using information that we just observed and putting it into context with information rooted in our long-term memory. Then we take that information and make decisions on how to act or react. The final stage, if there truly was one, is the act. We perform a physical action to implement the decision we have made. Of course to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So we must then orient to what our action accomplished, how it failed, or what it caused, and process through the O.O.D.A. loop again. Luckily like when we breathe, we don’t have to think about the process for the process to occur.

Colonel Boyd first presented the concept of the O.O.D.A. loop in his lecture series Patterns of Conflict. Colonel Boyd not only understood the basics of the O.O.D.A. loop but also how to maximize his abilities and performance by maximizing his O.O.D.A. loop. Proof positive of his abilities was his aptly earned nickname “40 Second Boyd”. During aerial combat training Colonel Boyd was able to go from a position of disadvantage to a position of advantage for a kill in 40 seconds or less or he would have to pay his adversary $40.00. Colonel Boyd reportedly never lost a bet and was only tied one time by a United States Marine Corps pilot.

Colonel Boyd was able to earn his title by not only knowing how far he could push his airplanes, which was often further than other pilots were willing to go, but he was also able to speed up his timeline while slowing down his adversaries’ timeline. Colonel Boyd was able to speed up his timeline by knowing what action to take and when to take it without having to consciously think about his actions. This allowed him to skip the orientation and decision making phases when faced with a known threat. Colonel Boyd named this process “implicit guidance and control”. This unconscious, immediate, physical-trained reaction to a threat stimulus is also known as a “learned automatic response”.

With an advanced understanding of the O.O.D.A. loop, tactical teams can begin building more advanced operators like their weapons systems, but that is only part of the process. Tactical operators, like their weapon systems, must be cleaned, oiled and constantly maintained in order to operate smoothly and without major malfunctions. In order to perform smoothly and avoid malfunctioning operators must be properly trained and the training must be continually refined and reinforced. As training is refined and reinforced it begins to become a survival or tactical skill. Psychologist E.R. Guthrie defines a skill as, “A skill consists of the ability to bring about some end result with maximum certainty and minimum outlay of energy, or of time and energy.” Encoding tactical and survival skills into operators’ long-term unconscious memories allows for operators to respond to threats and threat stimuli with the proper learned automatic responses with a minimum outlay of time and energy.

In order for physical training concepts to become true skills they must be properly encoded into the officer’s implicit or procedural long-term memory. This encoding can be accomplished with proper training and can save lives. Tactical operators should be subjected to the most lifelike training that safety allows. Training should be emotionally driven, challenging, and repetitive. Training should include multiple decision making processes including engaging shoot/don’t shoot targets and scenarios that change from active shooters to barricaded gunman, barricaded subjects to hostage rescues and other flexible lifelike scenarios. Training should be relevant to the operators and should be built on previously encoded training and skills. Suboptimal performance in training should not be a standard and training discussions should focus on the positive. When operators fail in training they should be forced to face their failures head on and repeat the training until it ends with success. This allows for increased skill confidence, stress reduction and better future performance.

Lifelike scenarios, lifelike responses and lifelike targets also help to build skill confidence, increase stress inoculation and assist in long-term memory encoding. Tactical teams of all sizes need to run training scenarios with active role players using simulated ammunition in real weapons systems or air soft type pellets in appropriate guns. Both allow for real life target engagement with actual projectiles going down range when needed. With that in mind it is important to realize that using simulated ammunition and real weapons systems allows for more realistic training, thus leading to even better stress inoculation and skill confidence in operators.

Nothing surpasses realism in training better than live fire training. Fortunately tactical teams no longer have to settle for just shooting stationary paper targets that do not pose an actual threat. Three dimensional stationary targets can be used to represent threats and innocent civilians in training and can be engaged with both real and simulated ammunition.

The best option available to many tactical teams to help build skill confidence and stress inoculation is the use of live ammunition in live fire shoot houses. Shoot houses are expensive but even departments that cannot afford their own shoot houses may be able to utilize military training facilities. Often these facilities will allow tactical teams to train in not only shoot houses but entire small towns, aircraft, buses and other challenging environments.

Many military installations also have realistic three dimensional human-like targets that can be remotely operated by range officers. These targets can be equipped with less-lethal projectile weapons systems, much like paint ball guns, and can engage operators with less-lethal rounds while being engaged by tactical operators with live fire.

When it comes to building tactical operators, like their weapons systems, it is important to remember that the weapon is not built just to look good. It is built for a purpose. While some may think they are both killing machines, they are actually life saving tools. Both require time, training and financial investments, but they are also vitally important to their departments and the public alike. Every effort should be put into making sure they operate properly, whenever needed, no matter what the conditions are, in the most efficient manner possible.