"SWARMING TACTICS" Published in the California Association of Tactical Officers official publication CATO NEWS

I am privileged to have this article published in the current addition of the California Association of Tactical Officers official publication CATO NEWS.  I look forward to your feedback.


By Fred T. Leland Jr.

“In tactics, the most important thing is not whether you go left or right, but why you go left or right.” ~A. M. Gray

Tactics is the art and science of winning engagements and conflicts. Tactics refers to the concepts and methods we use to accomplish a particular objective. The essence of conflict has been defined as a struggle between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, each trying to impose itself on the other, or a “clash” between two complex adaptive systems! This “complex adaptive system” is a, walking, talking, submitting or confronting, interacting and isolating, persuading and forcing, running and gunning, thinking and acting, disrupting adversary(s).

Tactics is not a thing, but a process, especially a mental process. It’s a way of doing something. It is not just a certain type of attack or defense; it is also why you chose that particular attack or defense. Tactics is not just your decision; it is how you come to your decision, your method. This implies that tactical judgment and calculated risk taking is necessary in our approach to solving complex violent encounters, with armed and dangerous adversary(s). It also implies utilizing a unique approach and doing something unexpected by the adversary, considering the specific adversary, time, risk level and place. Keep in mind the unexpected tactic chosen may be conventional or unconventional. Just because a certain method/tactic has been around for a while does not mean it cannot be used in an unexpected way. Tactics are both science and art not in what to do, but in how to think! We should not respond without knowing and understanding the “why” behind the way we respond. This is an important aspect of tactics for all law enforcement officers to understand, especially those on the streets who deal with the complex problems and make the critical decisions found in every community.

Adversaries we encounter have a say in the outcome of engagements, a fact we often forget when we respond and deal with calls and crises at the street cop’s level. Adversaries train and prepare (Arquilla & Ronfeldt). Fourth generation warfare techniques and methods is where we are evolving when it comes to potential threats. New generations of terrorists and criminals, both at home and abroad, are also pursuing innovations as a result of the information revolution (Arquilla & Ronfeldt).

We are already seeing this methodology taking place with gangs, organized crime, drug cartels and even the untrained are attempting this. Remember Columbine and the 17- and 18-year-old students who set up a secondary location with an improvised explosive device to disrupt the response system. There are also conventional criminals using unconventional methods. An example is the armed robber using hoax or real explosive devices in one location as they rob a bank or business in another location. Mumbai, India, is a powerful example of this at work. A 10-man terrorist team split up, spread out and swarmed over this city killing hundreds and wounding more, while keeping the city of Mumbai at bay for more than 60 hours as those tasked with dealing with the crisis were confused and hesitant in how to respond to such an attack.

They are organizing into loose, transnational networks that allow for increased coordination and cooperation among dispersed groups and individuals who are able to stay securely separated in case anyone is caught and incriminated. For example, inside the U.S. some leaders of the sprawling radical right in the United States subscribe to a doctrine of “leaderless resistance” that can motivate “lone wolves” to commit violent acts entirely on their own account.

There’s a growing power of small units, groups, and individuals who are able to connect and act conjointly by adopting networked forms of organization with related doctrines and strategies and technologies. These cases speak to the rise of “swarming” as a mode of conflict. In the future, we shall have to learn to fight nimbly against an array of armed adversaries who will likely do all they can to avoid facing us head-on in battle (Arquilla & Ronfeldt).

Adversaries of the future will use elusiveness by mobility or concealment, and systems disruption through targeting multiple locations to test our emergency response systems. Superior situational awareness through planning and use of technology is already part of their methodology and stand-off capability. Blending in or utilizing surprise in an attempt to establish and maintain the tempo of conflict will be part of this as well.

Realistic training that factors in the ability to think and act under pressure has always been important (although not emphasized enough in law enforcement), and the need for it is even more necessary today as threats, and those who threaten, continue to evolve. Law enforcement tactics must evolve as well. What techniques work and which ones fail? When do we use four men versus one? When do we use two- or three-man concepts versus SWAT techniques? The importance of why we choose a particular technique must be explored as well.

I have been researching and experimenting in training with swarming tactics also known as converging tactics and whether this technique has a tactical place in our responses to an ongoing deadly action such as active shooter, multiple adversaries or multiple target situations. The two great resources I used were John Arquilla and Dave Ronfeldt "Swarming & the Future of Conflict" and Sean J.A. Edwards', "Swarming on the Battlefield Past, Present and Future." Both resources are from RAND, National Defense Research Institute, and cover the history of swarming tactics, how the methodology is utilized, the command and control structure necessary for successful swarming operations and the tactic's strengths and weaknesses. I recommend both resources.

Swarming is described as engaging an adversary from all directions simultaneously. The technique is nothing new. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan used the techniques to outwit and outpace larger and more highly trained adversaries. Can we in law enforcement combat and defeat dispersed and maneuvering adversaries with a swarming type of response? Will this technique work for the first responders, the street cops responding to ongoing deadly action where minutes, if not seconds, weigh heavily on the death and injured count?

For example, instead of responding and massing at side 1 of a location under attack and entering as a group, respond in a four-man diamond formation and move to contact to stop the threat. The first responder enters solo. A back-up responds to side 2, and enters. Then the next responder enters on side 3 and the fourth responder enters on side 4 (not necessarily in that order). In other words, we respond and engage the threat by dispersing and then converging on the threat, cutting off the shooter(s) mobility and his access to more victims until we stop the threat. Another variation of this option is to mass on side 1 (or any of the other sides), enter, disperse and converge on the threat.

In a recent “active shooter” workshop, we experimented with this technique and found it to be a very effective response. This workshop was all force-on-force; free-play exercises utilizing simmunitions. The swarming/converging tactic allowed responders to progress toward and engage an adversaries quickly from multiple directions interrupting and cutting off the adversaries ability to move about and access victims at will. We found it confuses and neutralizes the adversaries, at least momentarily, but long enough to change the tempo, allowing responders to gain the advantage and stop the threat. Converging from multiple directions disrupts adversarial plans and actions as the adversaries become surprised. Their decision making process slows as they attempt to figure out what’s happening.

In the training, adversaries (full time law enforcement officers roll playing as the red team) were stopped by an officer converging from another direction with deadly force as the adversaries became engaged with the first responder they noticed. Once the adversaries became aware of the technique being used (We ran the exercise several times.), the adversaries became better prepared but still confused as they attempted to attack and defend simultaneously, as responders converged on their location.

Other positive factors we found when responding and converging from multiple directions are that possible escape routes are cut off and victims and potential victims are encountered quicker. This allows responders to point out evacuation routes for those attempting to escape and cover/lockdown positions as the circumstances dictate. Injured victims are also more quickly encountered, which allows responders to make a mental note of the locations of the injured and provide that information to tactical emergency responders (TEMS) or other emergency rescue reams when the threat is stopped. Meanwhile, responders continue to maneuver toward the threat. This does require situational awareness and rapid threat recognition. Tactical judgment is crucial when attempting to distinguish a friendly victim from a potential foe.

There is heightened risk to responders as they enter solo and maneuver through the environment alone, but the circumstances in an active shooter situation warrant a rapid and evolving response. Crossfire or friendly fire concerns is another risk in using swarming/converging tactics, but this is always a concern in any evolving tactical situation and is prevented through ongoing training. Proper training provides cops who think and maneuver tactically and possess the necessary critical skills. Communications are crucial factor when utilizing swarming/converging tactics. Explicit communications are critical when maneuvering to locate the adversaries and when the adversaries are engaged. Implicit communications are also vital to coordinating fields of fire. The combination of communication and tactical judgment can only be obtained through force-on-force training that creates and nurtures cohesiveness, trust and adaptability under pressure.

With training and adaptive leadership we are more than capable of utilizing this method. In my view, it’s an option we can we apply to an ongoing potentially deadly situation. It provides the element of surprise--not in the fact that we are coming or are there, but surprise in the methods we use.

Training full spectrum street cops, those officers responding to the scene first, will be the key in accomplishing this. I feel we must explore this more deeply as an option especially for police departments with smaller numbers of officers working the street.

"Knowledge must be so absorbed into the mind that it almost ceases to exist in a separate objective way." ~Carl von Clausewitz

Interaction with your adversaries allows the gathering of actionable information to utilize in your efforts to solve strategic and tactical problems. Information gathered only becomes actionable when the ability to take what is known is applied in a way that accords with the circumstances and the overall intent. Always keep in mind that it is impossible to control exactly how the adversaries will respond to your actions. The goal is to control the mindset of the adversaries with both direct and/or indirect action, which takes thinking and adaptability.

Insight and imagination is needed to adapt tactics and apply them in an innovative way to the particular problem at hand. The ability to apply these attributes in a violent encounter puts you in a position of advantage. You can then seize the initiative on your terms. Controlling the tempo is accomplished with interaction—factors such as moving in, tactically loitering, communication, deception, and having force options--and focusing your efforts to prevent or resolve the problem. This is known as “operational art,” a much needed concept to explore and understand if we are to connect our endgame (strategy) with how we play the game (tactics).

Winning deadly engagements requires knowing many things, including an understanding of the environment, the climate of the situation, psychology, physiology, decision making, combative skills, firearms skills, leadership and the overall mission or intent. In an engagement, all these factors combine in a synergistic way and require interaction with your adversaries, as well as your fellow officers and the community. Tactical options and knowing how and when to apply them, along with understanding a particular tactical option is chosen are the key.

Stay Oriented!


Fred T. Leland, Jr. is the Founder and Principal Trainer of LESC: Law Enforcement & Security Consulting (www.lesc.NET).In addition to his work with LESC, Fred Leland is an active Lieutenant with the Walpole (MA) Police Department. He previously worked as a deputy with the Charlotte County (FL) Sheriff’s Department and before that spent six years with the United States Marines including as a squad leader in Beirut, Lebanon.

Leland is an accomplished trainer with more than 28 years experience teaching law enforcement, military and security professionals. His programs of instruction include handling dynamic encounters; threat assessment; non-verbal communications; decision making under pressure; evolving threats; violence prevention; firearms; use of force; officer created jeopardy and adaptive leadership. He is also a 2004 graduate of the FBI National Academy Class 216, and a current instructor for the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee. Outcomes based training and education (OBTE) is his approach to creating and nurturing decision makers to observe, orient, decide and act while considering consequences.

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