Deploying out of a heavily armored car, a team of six operators dashes to cover, Aimpoint-equipped M4 rifles at the ready. They’re wearing Nomex flight suits under their full body armor, MICH helmets, NODs, and the latest Oakley combat boots. Their plate carriers are covered with PALs webbing for a full load out of MOLLE mag pouches, medical blow out kit, comm gear and hand grenades. They call themselves “operators” and they’re fighting terrorists on a dangerous urban battlefield.
They must be Special Forces, right? Maybe even CAG. Perhaps they’re Recon Marines scrambling across a bombed out street in Fallujah. Then again, they might be a police S.W.A.T. team.
Beginning in the late 1990s and accelerating rapidly since 9/11, law enforcement tactical teams have taken on a decidedly military look. Gone are black balaclavas and BDUs, in their place are olive drab flight suits and Kevlar helmets.
The weapons have changed as well. The archetypical S.W.A.T. weapon used to be HK’s MP5 submachinegun, but a switch to M16-based rifles like the M4 carbine has become widespread. At the same time, terminology has shifted as well with S.W.A.T. officers referring to themselves as “operators,” the military designation for a member of a special operations team.
“A lot of S.W.A.T. cops secretly want to be like the special forces,” a full-time tactical team leader with a major West Coast department told me, obviously on condition of anonymity. “They want the same cool guy M4 with a Crane stock and an Aimpoint. They want to rappel and fast rope and do all the high speed stuff the real Spec Ops guys do.”
Kinder, Gentler Warfare
“The irony is that the military’s role has changed to be more like a cop. They have to follow pretty much the same rules of engagement as we do in our escalation of force policy—don’t shoot unless in imminent danger,” the veteran officer said.
Indeed, many of the same ground rules apply to the military in a security role as apply to police tactical teams. An occupying military force seeking to suppress an insurgency must be selective in targeting only suspected insurgents while fostering trust and goodwill among the populace. To accomplish this “hearts and minds” strategy, the military employs many of the same strictures to control what would otherwise be a smash-mouth approach, precisely the same kinds of restrictions placed on law enforcement tactical teams.
If taking down bad guys was the sole imperative, rules about search and seizure and lethal force would go out the window. We would follow the army field manual for urban combat, circa 1944, which stated that the correct tactic for clearing a building suspected of containing the enemy is to blow a hole in the wall with a bazooka, toss frag grenades inside, then follow-up with machinegun fire as you enter. Demolish first, ask questions later.
“The military is learning that [making an arrest is] not as easy as killing Uday and Qusay. They can’t just launch a Cruise missile into a palace and call it good. They can’t roll an Abrams tank through a building or call for artillery. They’re finding out what cops have had to deal with forever—it’s a lot more dangerous to go in with your finger off the trigger than guns up and shooting,” the S.W.A.T. officer said.
From a tactical perspective, it’s certainly true that more restrictive lethal force policies or rules of engagement give the bad guy an edge. Balancing that hand-tied-behind-the-back requirement is a much-reduced likelihood of killing or wounding non-hostile persons. More importantly, what police call “community relations” are significantly improved when the authorities, be they police or military, are perceived by the populace as showing concern for the rule of law, respect of property rights and regard for innocent life.
When War Comes To Town
On the other hand, when a situation occurs that requires a “guns up” response, a typical police response often is inadequate and a military-level action is required. The good news is that horrific situations like this are few and far between in America; the bad news is that when they do occur, the police have not responded well.
Following the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999 in which local law enforcement sat back and waited in a typical, doctrine-approved tactic, 11 students and one teacher were ruthlessly killed and 23 others were wounded. Buzz words like “active shooter” and “first responder” grew out of the tragedy and law enforcement responded with a call to upgrade their training to include more forceful and decisive action at the scene.
Two years earlier in California, a pair of well-trained and equipped bank robbers turned the quiet streets of North Hollywood into downtown Fallujah with a 45-minute long shoot-out with both patrol officers and members of LAPD’s S.W.A.T. team. The incident sparked an outcry for police to upgrade their weapons and ammunition to deal with threats like these wearing body armor and shooting full-auto AKs.
Most recently, the Virginia State massacre in which 32 students and professors were brutally shot by a lone gunman pointed once again to the need for law enforcement to act more like a special operations team. A faster more decisive response was still needed, “guns up” more than “wait it out.”
What would the military do if confronted with such a situation? There is no exact parallel, but the Iranian Embassy siege in London shows that when an elite military unit is unleashed, the results can be stunning.
He Who Dares Wins
The motto of the world’s premiere special operations group, Britain’s Special Air Service, is “He who dares wins.” SAS’s words to live by became words to die for when six terrorists captured the Iranian Embassy in 1980 and threatened to kill 26 hostages.
The SAS dates back to World War II, an elite commando-style unit that was the paradigm around which Col. Charlie Beckwith built Delta Force, right down to dividing the new unit into “squadrons,” just like the SAS. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the SAS began to hone a whole new set of skills to respond to terrorist hostage crises like the Munich Olympic village or, as would become chillingly necessary, the Iranian Embassy take-over.
The six terrorists called themselves the Democratic Revolutionary Movement For The Liberation Of Arabistan. Their stated purpose was to gain independence for Khuzestan, an oil-rich province in southern Iran. The truth was that Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi secret police had trained and equipped the terrorists as he desperately wanted to control the oil there. Later, in the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam’s first objective was capturing the Khuzestanian oil fields.
At 11:30 a.m. on April 30, 1980, as the embassy staff was filtering out for lunch, six terrorists took control of the building and herded 26 hostages into a room. London’s Metropolitan Police attempted to negotiate with the terrorists and over the next few days, five hostages were released.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defense had used the time to call up the SAS and allow them to plan and train for a hostage rescue operation. Using blueprints of the embassy building, the SAS operators were able to train in an identical layout. They planned a dynamic entry using maximum force and violence of action to overpower and surprise the terrorists.
Six days after the siege began, the terrorists carried through with their threat to begin killing hostages when they threw a body out an upper story window. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher then gave SAS the green light to initiate a rescue.
Twenty-three minutes after receiving the order, the SAS struck. Using fiber optic cameras and miniature microphones inserted through the walls of an adjacent building, the crack anti-terrorist team had excellent intelligence in what it was calling Operation Nimrod.
During the assault, five of the six terrorists were killed and 19 of the 20 hostages were freed unharmed. The one hostage who died was shot by a terrorist.
As the entry team burst into the building, the first terrorist was cut down by a short burst of 9mm from an operator’s MP5. He died before his corpse hit the ground, but those were not the only bullets to hit him. In a clear distinction from police tactics, SAS procedures required that a team never allow a potential threat to strike from behind. Consequently, as each of the assault team ran over the dead terrorist in the hall, he fired a short burst into the prostrate body.
Today’s law enforcement tactical teams face the prospect of an Iranian Embassy at any moment.
“Direct action is direct action, whether it’s cops or special forces,” the S.W.A.T. officer acknowledged. “A lot of the guys on my team look at what equipment the military has in the same way a college football coach looks at how the pros run an offense. Some of it might not apply at his level, but it’s still good information.”
At the same time, law enforcement has questioned some long-accepted assumptions about S.W.A.T. teams and found that the dogma was flat wrong. The best example of this is the landmark study done by the Dept. of Justice on the penetration of 9mm ball and .223 softnose ammunition. Everyone had long assumed that an MP5 is “safer” than an M16 because obviously a high velocity rifle bullet would zip through five sheetrock walls and kill the little old lady three apartments away.
It turns out that 9mm out-penetrates .223 in typical urban structures, removing the safety concern for converting from MP5s to AR-platform weapons. Similar ballistic innovations have come to .308 and pistol ammunition, largely because law enforcement looked to see how the military addresses the same problems.
It may well be that law enforcement tactical teams have taken on a military look and feel, but that’s only because it works. A solution is a solution.
Deploying out of a heavily armored car, a team of six operators dashes to cover,…
by Michael Haugen / Mar 1, 2008