Winegar discusses something that’s just like hide and seek. In the woods. With different prizes. Mad Duo
The Woods are Lovely, Dark, and Deep: A Primer on Rural Tactical Operations
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I get many questions about law enforcement operations in rural terrain, so I decided to write a little primer for my LEO brothers and sisters. It isn’t anything revolutionary, but it is important information about what I consider one of the most dangerous missions an LE team can undertake.
*As always, today’s article is brought to you by JTF Awesome.*
Understanding Our Battle Space
Why do criminals flee to the woods? After all, when you really look at the feasibility of it, there are few people capable of survival in that environment who have the mental and physical agility to evade capture. In recent years we have seen numerous examples of people who weren’t capable of survival and evasion, such as Christopher Dorner, Eric Frein, and the most recent Dannemora prison escapees. It is not prudent to attempt and get into their minds and determine why they went to the woods. We are only concerned about the fact that they are using the woods in order to evade. The reason for that is nearly universal.
One of the key points of success or failure in any escape and evasion plan is one’s ability to negotiate complex terrain. While there isn’t a fully accepted military definition that this author could locate, “complex terrain” is basically an area that severely restricts a team’s ability to apprehend/engage adversaries. Complex terrain exists in several forms and it is always characterized by some sort of ability for the adversary to blend . The two types of terrain that I am going to focus on are cities and rural terrain/mountains. Many of our jurisdictions have both.
Cities allow a person to escape easily into mass crowds and provide numerous hiding places and opportunities for shelter and escape. That’s why the media is such an important tool during the manhunt process; it is a way to send important information to the masses and reduce a perp’s cloak of invisibility. Informed people (and money) typically go a long way toward eventual capture. Thus, in a city, a perp needs either strong support from the populace or people who don’t know that he is wanted. Additionally, all those people represent assets the perp can use as leverage should he need them.
The main focus here is on complex rural terrain, specifically rugged and wooded areas. Mountains and wooded areas are void of the prying eyes that can unmask a hiding criminal. Criminals flee here because they are hedging their bets. First, they can hide. Even if they run into someone, the odds of the citizen knowing the criminal’s past is diminished. Additionally, the cellular infrastructure is likely spotty, making a witness’s ability to tell anyone else certainly more difficult than the middle of suburbia. In particular, mountain areas like Big Bear in California or the small town of Parkman, Maine have enough infrastructure from tourism and local small populations to support one person and keep them from starving or freezing to death. If you have areas like this in your jurisdiction, you need to understand their value to a perp.
Mountains and their associated villages and communities played a key role in the guerilla insurgency in Greece during WWII, Afghanistan against the Russians and the US, and Eric Robert Rudolph against US law enforcement, among others. In order for those movements to remain successful, their plan had to involve the use of terrain that allowed them to change from harmless or unknown civilian to dedicated dissenter. The key point here is that the more complex the terrain within your jurisdiction, the stronger the need for specialized organizations equipped to handle emergencies within it.
Now that I have bored you with my lengthy definition of complex terrain, let’s assume for the remainder of this essay I’m talking specifically about rural terrain.
First, there is a principle we need to understand: good tactics and their application apply no matter the environment. There are a ton of tactical parallels both inside and outside the shoot house. Here are a few:
•Surprise, Speed, and Violence of Action – In the rural setting, we use camouflage clothing and equipment as a foundation for the retention of the element of surprise, allowing us to operate at our own tempo. This has to be as close to 100% as possible and is considered an individual skill – more on that later.
•All environments contain linear danger areas (LDA’s) – The sooner you recognize them, the sooner you can apply the proper tactics to mitigate the threat. Remember that they are dangerous because they are linear, and that means a loss of surprise to the team to whoever is watching. We already know that a loss of surprise means a greater need for speed, so traverse LDA’s quickly and efficiently, just like hallways in a house.
•In order to have a successful assault on a suspect, you have to find them first. Think of this like your failsafe breach and get your search/location tactics as fail proof as you can make them. For most of us, searching involves a K9 team. Set them up for success by containing the perimeter as quickly and efficiently as possible. Patrol officers ruining the track prior to K9’s arrival is unacceptable and should be handled at the supervisor’s level.
•Other forms of tracking a suspect involve visual tracking, helicopters with thermals, interviews with neighbors and witnesses, and cell phone tracking. You will need to use at least one method, and probably a mixture of several. Remember the maxim of Find, Fix, and Finish. Leverage the technology at hand but never rely on it as a sole source of information until you can collaborate it with other sources.
•Every suspect encounter (loss of surprise) will happen one of three ways. Have a plan for each.
1. They see us first (usually unintentional)
2. We see them first (usually best)
3. We see each other at the same time (both parties lose surprise simultaneously)
•Dominate the angles – In the outside world, these angles tend to be both vertical and horizontal. Team tactics should reflect this. Team members need to be in formations that allow for mutual support and different visual angles on the environment. Team formations will be dictated by the mission. Tracking (search) formations will differ from assault (takedown) formations and you should be able to assume any of them as the situation changes.
•Like the tactics, communication needs to be simple and concise. Non-verbal communication, like pointing a rifle at a danger area, is a great way to communicate a problem to the team without saying a word. This is contingent upon team members paying attention and sending their message in a language and with a method that the rest of the team can understand under stress. Too often, I see people looking like they are speaking sign language for no reason. Likewise, people talk too much on the radio.
•First Aid skills are generally more important in a rural setting. While you don’t need a team of surgeons, EVERY OFFICER needs to understand the basics of TCCC. Again, this is an individual skill that EVERY officer should have ingrained.
Types of Operations
There are two basic types of operations in rural terrain: planned and unplanned. If a team prepares for the planned operations the skills needed for the unplanned can be applied on the fly. Think of an unplanned rural operation like an entry that has to be made under exigent circumstances.
Planned – This type of operation is similar to the prolonged Dorner hunt in the Big Bear area or any other protracted manhunt. There is substantial evidence pointing to the perp’s probable location and thus the environment is known. Barring perp/police or perp/civilian encounter, agencies can spend a little more time on equipment selection, terrain association, etc. Other more mundane examples might be surveillances on drug grows, anti-poaching operations, etc. Of note here is that all planning is going into location/probable interception of the perp, or intelligence gathering. Emergencies may arise but have not manifested yet. There should be also be a quick reaction element standing by in case the perp reveals themselves unexpectedly in areas where other teams are not operating.
Unplanned – These types of operations often occur when a suspect flees into a rural area upon initial police contact. This will often be a “come as you are” type of operation, where equipment will be placed over a standard patrol uniform. This is where even a little decent camouflage is better than none. For example, a Multicam plate carrier over a uniform shirt breaks up the chest just enough to confuse the eye, making it harder for the perp to find center mass. Like the end of a vehicle pursuit, officers should know when to run into the woods in a hasty follow up and when there is time to contain the area and approach once the odds have been evened up.
This is where most people’s eyes glaze over. There is so much to choose from, and many novices get stuck looking at what the latest fashions are overseas with little to no thought about how it might translate over to CONUS LE operations.
First, let’s look at safety equipment. Here we will see where woodland operations take an about face from normal LE dangers. For example, what is still killing most cops are handguns in lowlight conditions. By contrast, three of the last four officer homicides in my agency (a land based Federal agency), from 1998 to 2012, have been from rifles in daylight conditions. Additionally, every officer in my agency who has ever been shot has died. A zero percent survival rate is a wakeup call for all of us. We have to listen to these statistics and make our equipment selections based on the raw data. It is not a fashion statement or a trend. It directly affects people’s lives.
Therefore, when you start your research, look at your threats, and build your wish list based on safety first. By completing an internal threat analysis for my boss, I got her (a civilian) to sign off on a pretty aggressive equipment list. It is possible, and you have to stay positive and attack from the safety angle. When in doubt, use the language from the Risk Analysis folks. They know how to make quick and lasting changes, and will often be great allies if what you are saying is articulated well.
Hopefully, many officers already know what they want but often their agency’s policies don’t allow for it. In many cases, there is desire with no funding. In instances where there is little funding, it takes time to build a team of officers capable of the task. In instances where there is funding, teams often rush or rely on the one supply officer who “knows everything” about tactical equipment. Take the time and chose what works.
As an example, I will include various components of my kit and why we selected it for our situation. For the purposes of this writing, I am explaining kit for a planned operation where I have time to develop a packing list and change out of my regular patrol uniform.
I am not talking about base layers here; I am rather talking about the base level of clothing for planned operations. In my case, I wear a BDU style uniform with plenty of pockets in Multicam. We chose Multicam because it flat works best in my AO all year round. When it comes to camouflage, you have to have 100% commitment. A single black holster, rifle, pouch, etc. can give you up. However, don’t despair; it doesn’t have to be all Multicam either. A rattle can of spray paint is a cheap fix. The main point is that you are cognizant of it and take the steps to fix it.
As with any tactical operation, mindset, and success starts from the time you put your clothes on. I put mine on the same way every time, and the same items go into the same pockets every time. The more pockets you have, the more important this becomes. Boots need to fit for your AO, so get what works in earth tones. I wear good ole’ flight gloves. A pair of over mittens with a removable finger section works great in colder weather. I typically wear my helmet on my head as it is my NVG platform as well as head protection. It has a multicam cover and blends nicely. I might throw on a boonie if I am not wearing my helmet. Notice the lack of anything “ghillied.” Ghillie suits are okay for static positions, but too often, I see guys show up for training with burlap hanging off of everything they own. That stuff does not last long in real life when used on patrol.
Again, everything matches as close as possible. There are only a few ways to do this wrong and tons of degrees of right. We need to be constantly asking ourselves how we can make our situation better. My guys and I wear plate carriers in Multicam. As stated above, the Multicam plate carrier is even useful in an urban environment as it breaks up the human outline enough to confuse anyone trying to landmark an officer’s chest. Why rifle plates? As explained above, I have adapted to what past history tells me is the greatest threat to me in woodland setting. I go light on the pouches on my PC. Three magazines (with the possibility to expand to six), a TQ and trauma shears, an IFAK on the weak side, an NFDD (flash bang) on the weak side rear, and a small hydration bladder on my back.
My IFAK contains the basics:
•Blood stopper bandage
•S-rolled clotting gauze
•Chest decompression needle
•NPA and lube
•A personal ID card customized to each officer
Helmets need to be comfortable and covered. Covers absorb light and deter shine. Active hearing protection is also a good idea as it channels radio traffic and amplifies hearing while protecting from loud noises. Some of my guys would rather use an earpiece, so just choose something that works for you. Padded belts are great for all day comfort and back support. I have moved to a dedicated pants belt setup that allows me to keep a pair of pants “pre-loaded.” I use a pair of scissor suspenders when needed to support the weight. You don’t get many chances to take your kit off, so use well-made and comfortable equipment. I throw a fanny pack on under my plate carrier to hold various items like lube, Cat Crap for lenses, additional trauma equipment, etc. Before you laugh at the fanny pack, understand that the crotch area is typically wasted real estate, and it allows you to get larger general purpose pouches off of your plate carrier where it might interfere with life saving mag changes, etc.
Technology has come a long way in helping officers in a woodland setting. Land navigation was mentioned earlier, and I occasionally use a wrist compass but I almost always have my wrist GPS. A quick note about land navigation; don’t allow team training days to get bogged down with intricate land navigation skill builders. Officers need to know how to find the basic cardinal directions and report that information to a team leader or commander. Remember that even if
you are a land navigation god, most of the people that you try to send the information to won’t be. Keep it simple.
I typically carry a thermal imager for static positions. NODS are the only way to go in no light and should also be painted camouflage. If you run NODS, you need an IR laser system to shoot fast and repeatable. All IR systems for duty need to have an illuminator also. The powerful IR illuminators on mil-spec versions allow you to emit IR energy into the shadows created by ambient light. This is especially true in suburban conditions where brighter street lights, etc. create deeper shadows with their brighter lights. The civilian stuff without an illuminator is fantasyland for LE operations. We use PEQ 15’s and 2’s, both of which work great for us. Binoculars are pretty self-explanatory, (but just in case) we use them to help us see better and peer into distant danger areas.
And that brings me to magnified optics. Simply put, we rarely use them in my AO. We just don’t need them that often. I used an ACOG for a while at work because I listened to all of the people that said that I would need it outside. I don’t. I run an EOTech and know that with my 100 yard zero I can consistently make solid COM hits out to 300 yards. What I cannot do is judge misses without magnification, so there are uses for them.
If you decide that you need one, here are a couple considerations I’ve found. Magnifiers help you place rounds better. They might help you observe more, but living in your optic limits your situational awareness. Magnifiers and red dots are much more versatile than fixed powered optics to me, but they do add weight.
Magnified bolt guns really don’t have a place. They get really heavy and hang on everything in the woods. Like Ghillie suits, save them for static positions.
All of this kit comes with an Achilles heel. We have to build training time into our schedules in order to be able to use it quickly and efficiently when needed. Again, keep it simple.
A typical 12+ hour load out, depending on the time of year, might consist of the following list. Please note that not all of these items would go in the ruck every time.
1. Framed pack compatible with armor. I use the Mystery Ranch SATL.
2. Camouflaged waterproof bivy. These are great lightweight pieces of kit that can be a life saver. Exposure to the elements has to be a consideration that you plan for.
3. A poncho liner for warmth. A sleeping bag may be more fitting depending on the environment and your AO. In warmer weather, I roll with just the bivy, if that.
4. A warm jacket. I use an Arcteryx Alpha for wet weather and other insulators for colder weather.
5. A small stove. I like the Jetboil but any quality stove will do. A hot drink in a cold LP/OP can be a huge morale booster.
6. Food and water. Don’t neglect this. We typically carry MRE’s because they are free, but whatever you do, take food. Once the hunger pains start, the distractions get out of control. People do goofy things when blood sugar and hydration get low. Again, there are medical considerations in the woodland environment that you have to consider that don’t often accompany urban ops.
7. The last item that you see is a hand warmer. What can I say; I don’t like cold hands and I really don’t like gloves. Plus, it keeps me from moving around on a static operation when my hands hurt from the cold.
8. Extra batteries: This should be pretty self- explanatory. I don’t have a fancy formula. I just cram them until I think I have enough. Then I add more. Make sure you include radio batteries.
If your AO (jurisdiction) has a large piece or pieces of wooded terrain that a perp might see as advantageous, then you have a responsibility to know how to deal with it. This is especially true if you have a Special Weapons and Tactics team. When you need it, you are most likely really going to need it to perform on demand. Your team won’t rise to the occasion unless prepared.
You will have unplanned and planned operations. Both of these will involve either searching an area for a perp or tracking a specific track. The success of finding and preserving the track is contingent upon initial responders not destroying it. This is fundamental and must be addressed at the supervisory level. Don’t just let the shift give a guy a hard time for destroying a track.
Equipment color needs to be carefully selected and adhered to. Black only works in training.
Protective equipment needs to match your threat. All medical considerations are compounded when the environment is more austere and cut off. In cop operations, there usually isn’t a large support mechanism that can bring you a speedball re-supply. If you don’t bring it, it won’t be there.
Leverage technology to your advantage. Night hunts are more than possible IF you have the equipment and proficiency in its use. If not, wait until morning.
When it comes to land navigation, know the basics without overcomplicating it. Even a map book and a compass are adequate in many instances.
Magnified optics may not be as necessary as you think. If you have them, use them for what they are intended. They are generally not a monocular for area scanning.
Sustainment gear needs to match your needs with little excess. You don’t need half of what you think you will. Uncomfortable does not mean you are dying.
I do not preach this from an ivory tower. These are my experiences. Go out and make better ones, but most importantly, share them.
Mad Duo, Breach-Bang& CLEAR!
Emergency: Activate firefly, deploy green (or brown) star cluster, get your wank sock out of your ruck and stand by ’til we come get you.
About the Author
Although he looks like he’s about twelve years old (even with the beard), Anthony Winegar is actually a seasoned, long-time law enforcement officer with a federal land management agency. Despite working in a major metropolitan area for the past fifteen years, his major areas of study have always focused on rural operations (with a special love for tactical tracking and fieldcraft). He is a firearms and use of force instructor whose major criminal apprehensions have included armed robbers, rapists, suicidal subjects, poachers and artifact looters. The study of tactics, techniques, and procedures for criminal apprehension in rural environments has been (and remains) his true professional passion – to that end he has trained with and sought instruction from a veritable wish list of military and civilian specialty and SOF units and teachers. The unique demands of law enforcement activity in his jurisdiction have given him the opportunity to work alongside personnel from unusual agencies in the conduct of a few singularly interesting operations. Those experiences have given him some rare insight, though sadly they’ve yet to help him start shaving any more often. Winegar is one of those primitive weapons nerd who enjoys knapping, fletching and assorted similar tool building activities. This
obsession hobby allows him to bloviate at length about such things as the relative merits of oak foreshafts, pine pitch glue, river cane arrow shafts as well as the varied properties of turkey feather fletchings and whiteail sinew. Unfortunately it also has the tendency to set him at odds with many of the Mad Duo’s other minions, who’d just as soon go hunting with an SBR and a spotlight from inside the warmth of a pickup cab.