Saturday, March 14, 2015

Recognizing and Responding to Threats: Cooper, Boyd, Combat Hunter, and the Combined Theory

This article was first written by me, in two parts, for the RE Factor Tactical blog.  Although it was originally published under a pen name, I am the author.
Every day, we face threats in our lives. Whether a police officer, soldier, or simply a civilian heading home from work, there is always a possibility that danger will enter our lives. These threats could be something as simple as an erratic driver on the road, or as complex as a multi-assailant home invasion. As such, it is supremely important that we be able to spot and react to these threats. Three simple principles - Colonel Jeff Cooper’s “Color Code,” Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop, and the Marine Corps Combat Hunter program – combined with your body's inherent threat recognition can greatly enhance your ability to see and react or avoid dangerous situations.  In the next two posts, we'll look at these principles and see how they work together to make you safer.

Colonel Cooper's Color Code

In his book Principles of Personal Defense, Colonel Jeff Cooper introduced a four-color system to symbolize the varying levels of situational awareness. Loosely summarized, these levels are:

Condition White – relaxed and completely unaware. This is most teenagers that own smart phones, and most people I’ve seen at the mall on any given day. Many people also assume this condition in a familiar place, such as their home, which may or may not be acceptable, depending on the location.

Condition Yellow – relaxed but aware. These individuals do not anticipate a specific threat, but are observing those around them for indicators. This is the minimum acceptable level of awareness in the public sphere, especially when carrying a firearm.

Condition Orange – potential threat identified. The individual begins to focus more specifically on the possible threat, attempting to ascertain intentions. An attack from the potential threat is expected, all that is needed is a trigger.  If possible, evasive actions are taken to avoid the potential situation.

Condition Red – threat verified. The individual executes the necessary response to the threat, up to and including the use of lethal force.

Some instructors also teach a Condition Black, which was not part of Cooper's original system.  Condition Black is a complete shutdown of an individual's ability to respond due to surprise or overload (in the scheme of fight, flight, or freeze, Condition Black is a freeze).

Colonel Boyd's OODA Loop
Author's depiction of the OODA Loop

The OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop was developed by Air Force Colonel John Boyd, an exceptional fighter pilot and strategist. In its most basic interpretation, it is a decision making cycle that allows the individual – be they soldier, armed citizen, or corporate tycoon – to react to their rapidly changing environment at a faster, more effective manner than their opponent. While the OODA loop is often portrayed as a simple closed loop that must be performed faster than a given opponent to succeed, Boyd's diagram offers a more in-depth model than most people realize.

In the Observe phase, the individual stays alert, scanning the environment for changes or indicators of danger. If the individual is not alert to their environment, the Loop will fail.

In the Orient phase, the individual filters the observed changes and indicators through their previous experiences and mental models to analyze and synthesize actionable plans. This is where a variety of “tools in the toolbox” comes into play. The more reference points you have to draw upon, whether from training, personal experience, or reviews of lessons learned from others, the more likely you are to be able to formulate multiple working plans for any given set of perceived threats, and the less likely you are to fall into the dogma trap.  Relying on a single tactic or experience for all possible threat scenarios will cause the Loop to fail.

In the Decide phase, the individual must choose the best option from the working plans formulated in the Orient phase. This decision will be imperfect, as waiting for all the possible information needed for a “perfect” decision would require waiting on the threat to develop until it is virtually too late to respond. Having visualized or practiced a variety of tactics and responses before the threat scenario occurs (war-gaming) allows the decision to be made faster, sometimes even subconsciously.

In the Act phase, the individual implements the chosen course of action.

Throughout the OODA Loop, there is constant feedback. No formulated plan is set in stone. There must be flexibility to adapt as additional observations enter the equation. Also, as shown in the diagram above, pre-briefed triggers or SOPs can shortcut or bypass the Orient and Decide stages, allowing individuals or units to move directly from the Observe to the Act phase. While this will shorten response time, it should be used sparingly, as those triggers or SOPs must be regularly reevaluated to provide up-to-date responses to an ever-changing environment.

For an excellent article on the OODA Loop as it relates to higher-level decision making outside of the personal defense arena, see an article by the Art of Manliness.

The Marine Corps Combat Hunter Program
The Combat Hunter program was developed by the Marine Corps in early 2007 on order from General James Mattis.  Mattis realized that Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan were essentially in a reactive state when fighting the insurgents - they would patrol, but often times they were letting their guard slip, following set patterns, and they didn't know how to recognize threats in the crowds that often surrounded them on their patrols.  Mattis directed the development of a program that would instill the same qualities in his Marines that a hunter would use when stalking their prey.  The Combat Hunter program focuses on four main aspects: 
  1. Observation: be able to effectively use day, night, and thermal optics to observe and survey their operating areas, collect information and report to higher.
  2. Combat Tracking: be able to see, identify, interpret, and follow tracks.
  3. Combat Profiling: once the 6 Domains of Human Profiling are understood, they will be able to proactively identify baselines and anomalies which will drive their decisions.
  4. Combat Policing: be able to understand the basic principles of policing, how to effectively interact with the local populace during an insurgency, and the dynamics of Criminal and Insurgent networks.
For our discussion, we are focused on the Observation and Combat Profiling portions of Combat Hunter.  No, we don't possess the sophisticated night and thermal observation devices that the Marines do, but we have our senses: sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing.  In our day to day lives, we depend on those senses to warn us of danger.  In their book Left of Bang, authors Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley, both former Marines, spell out the 6 Domains of Human Profiling that can take your observations to the next level and help you make threat decisions that could save your life:
Graphic by author. Content Copyright Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley.

Graphic by author. Content Copyright Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley.

As you observe your environment, you keep in mind these six domains, constantly asking yourself: what do the behaviors exhibited by the individuals I am observing tell me?  Does an individual seem to be in charge or dominant?  Do others act submissively toward or treat an individual with deference?  Are people avoiding a particular location, route, or person?  Is an individual displaying the involuntary physiological signs of excitement or nervousness?   Are people pulled toward or pushed away from a person or location?

As you ask these questions, you must compare your observations to a baseline, or what is normal for the environment you are in.  If you frequent an area, whether because you live, work, play, or patrol there, you get an idea of how people act, how people move, and who the "bosses" are.  You must be ever vigilant for anomalies, or changes that fall above or below the baseline.  Is a normally busy shopping center or intersection suddenly empty?  Are the people who inhabit that area suddenly showing deference to an individual who doesn't appear to belong?

In the Combat Hunter program, these observations drive the Combat Rule of Three.  According to the authors, if you have any three of the above indicators, you must make a decision (Baseline + Anomaly = Decision).  In Left of Bang, they describe only three possible decisions: Prepare to kill, Capture, or Make Contact.  For a civilian going about their daily life, these would obviously be different.  Your average civilian does not capture or detain individuals, although a police officer or security officer might.  Police officers or security officers may also make contact in order to question an individual, where as a civilian may choose to simply evade that individual unless unavoidable.  Preparing to kill, however, is a reaction that military, police, and civilians may have to make, although the criteria under which they may make the preparations would differ.

For more information on the Combat Hunter Program, visit the CP Journal.

Tying it together

So how do these three schools of thought tie together to benefit you?  As you've already seen, observation is a key to all three, and rightly so.  As author Gavin de Becker points out in his book The Gift of Fear, our bodies' intuition is usually right in two ways: when you get that "feeling," it is in response to something, and that "feeling" is your body's way of trying to warn you.  Intuition is also always learning as you add experiences, constantly modifying its responses.  If any of this sounds familiar, you may have been paying attention in the Orient section of the OODA Loop.  Humans, however, often marginalize their intuition, or interpret it wrongly.  If you are in Condition White, even though your intuition may try to warn you of danger, your lack of active awareness will more than likely cause you to marginalize, rationalize, or even outright ignore that warning.  

If I were to create a diagram that shows the relationship between these three systems, it would look like the diagram below.  Call it the Combined Theory of Situational Awareness.  Keep in mind that this diagram is specifically oriented toward self-defense, and doesn't necessarily apply to some of the other ways OODA could be used, such as corporate decision-making.

Your observations made in Condition Yellow (Kinesic, Biometric, Proxemic, Geographic, Iconographic, and Atmospheric) are oriented through your prior training and experiences (you compare your observations to a baseline looking for anomalies) to detect possible threats.  If a possible threat is detected, you move to Condition Orange, evaluating the threat through continued observation and orientation while developing and deciding on a plan of action.  You may also develop a plan to avoid the potential threat altogether and implement that plan.  If the threat is confirmed, you go to condition red and act on your chosen plan of action, which may include the use of deadly force if warranted.  While it sounds (and looks) complicated, having already developed a baseline, having a large "toolbox" to draw from, and constantly mentally war-gaming can make this an almost subconscious process.

About the author:

X Echo 1 is a 10 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team.  He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer.  He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US.