Cop on the Street: What Can a Cop Learn about Counter-Terrorism from a Fighter Pilot?

Topics: Cop on the Street, Criminal Enforcement, Financial Crime, Money Laundering, Risk Management, Terrorist Financing

Cop on the Street

In a new, occasional blog series titled, “Cop on the Street”, we will explore practical insights on matters critical to law enforcement officers.

Today’s cop on the street has a myriad of challenges to contend with not the least of which is dealing with the evolving threat of terrorism. Yet, it is today’s threat picture that is the most disconcerting because of its asymmetric, disparate, and precarious nature.

For the uniform police officer on patrol, confronting a radical extremist intent on causing mass killing or responding to an active shooter set up in a school, mall, or place of worship, the extreme danger is all the same. For the cop, whose quest it is to control his or her environment to gain the survival advantage, what should one to do to prepare?

Military Strategy at Work

The solution may very well rest with Colonel John Boyd, a military strategist of the 1960s and ‘70s. Boyd, an intensely passionate fighter pilot, was known for his aerial combat maneuvering skills. Boyd’s theories were said to have changed the way dogfighting was conducted for the United States military, mainly because of his simplified approach toward explaining how agility can defeat power as it relates to human opponents. Boyd defined this ability as an evaluative/action mental loop that effects decision to action and reaction time. He called it the OODA Loop.

Boyd’s OODA Loop

Abstractly, the OODA loop is best described as a learning system, or more specifically an approach for dealing with uncertainty when humans are pitted against one another in battle or competition. The letters stand for Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action. In other words, when two adversaries confront each other they immediately begin to cycle through OODA loops. Each opponent must observe the other in the fluid situation. (Check out these previous blog posts to see how the OODA loop concept works within the legal profession.)

Once threats are observed combatants must orient themselves to understand the intentions of their adversary, their adversary’s capabilities, and their own capabilities. After comprehending what the intentions of their adversary may be, they can decide on what course of action is needed to outmaneuver their opponent. And finally, the combatants must act. It is called a loop because immediately following the action, the loop begins all over again.

The individual who cycles through their OODA loop faster — over time — will gain a distinct advantage over their opponent.

Conceptually, we can easily visualize the OODA loop theory from the perspective of a fighter pilot in a dogfight or a wrestler confronting his opponent on the mat, but how can Boyd’s OODA concept be used both tactically and strategically by uniform police while countering terrorism?

The very nature of United States law enforcement is rooted in an effective police response to problems and situations, and therefore the nature of training is aimed at reactionary efforts. While tactical reaction is critically important to the safety of the public and officers themselves, what is equally important to public safety and homeland security is a strategic law enforcement capability aimed at prevention and interdiction. Using the elements of Boyd’s OODA theory, we can offer ideas as to how law enforcement officers can increase their counter-terrorism capabilities from both the tactical and strategic fronts.


It is not enough for officers to be present on patrol, they must prioritize awareness as they go about their business.

Tactical — When out on patrol, officers should have a constant mindfulness to the situational awareness around them.

Strategic — Officers should know what is happening around their jurisdiction, their state, their nation, and the world, and how it could impact their own Area of Responsibility (AOR).


It is critically important that officers quickly understand what may be happening to them or their AOR.

Tactical — Officers need to constantly ask themselves: “Where am I tactically today?”, “Where am I am at (location)?, “What equipment do I have?”, “Where is my backup?”, and “What is my skill level compared to my adversary?”

Strategic — To better adapt to events that may unfold around them, it is vital for officers to spend time understanding the current tactics, techniques, procedures, trends, and lessons learned as it relates to today’s threats. In other words, officers and their own agencies need to prioritize counter-terrorism training that aligns to the current threat picture. Additionally, officers need to ensure that they receive and read finished intelligence products from their agency’s intelligence unit, their respective fusion center, or the Joint Terrorism Task Force that pertain to today’s threat picture. Moreover, there are situational awareness mapping capabilities available to law enforcement agencies that can provide a “common operating picture” so that line-level officers and commanders alike can benefit from visualization.


Understanding the threat is only part of it. Of equal importance to one’s survival or the ability to disrupt or neutralize a threat is knowing what to do once it is observed.

Tactical — When the proverbial “mud is hitting the fan” officers will inevitably rely on their ability, experience, and training. It is therefore critical that officers, and their agencies prioritize sound counter-terrorism and survival training programs.

Strategic — Officers should make a habit of preparing checklists that will increase their probabilities for good survival decision-making while on patrol. These checklists should be tied to training, equipment needs, and legal.


Finally, officers must be able to take action quickly, to ensure that they maintain the advantage.

Tactical — Sometimes all that officers need to do is just move. They just need to do something, even if it is just to get their adversary off balance. They need to get inside or disrupt their adversary’s own OODA Loop.

Strategic — Learning the names of those than can help you during a critical incident is often too late. Officers can add to their advantage in times of crisis if, ahead of time, they learn who can help them. In other words, officers need to constantly harness and leverage the information and capabilities of their partners both tactically and strategically.


The use of Boyd’s OODA Loop organizationally is not new. After retiring from the Air Force, Boyd became an advisor to the US Marine Corps where he championed the revision of their war fighting doctrine to “Maneuver Warfare.” Today, many corporate leaders have adopted the tenets of Boyd’s process in determining both long- and short-term corporate policies.

As it relates to law enforcement officers on patrol, the tenets of Boyd’s philosophies ring true in that they speak to both the reactionary and proactive capabilities an officer must possess to be successful in a critical incident.