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VCAT: OODA Loop And Pre-Attack Indicators

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

We have all heard the following cliche, “You win every gunfight you don’t get into.” Don’t take this lightly; doing so could be deadly.

Vehicular ambushes are particularly difficult and unpredictable due to the nature of the environment. Sitting in a vehicle reduces visibility, mobility, draw speed, and the time to effectively put rounds on a threat. For example, in a 12:00 ambush (directly in front of you), it may take up to 3 seconds before your first effective round impacts the threat. The draw itself may take 2 seconds. Then, you will need to follow with multiple rounds through the windshield to create a “port” to allow additional rounds to travel unimpeded by this barrier. Those initial rounds through the windshield may be ineffective because they are slowed, fragmented, deflected, and tumbling. During these 3 seconds it takes to fight back, the adversary can discharge 9-12 rounds at you (given .25-.33 second splits). Due to the angle of the windshield, the adversary’s rounds will deflect downward into your body while your rounds will deflect upwards and, depending on his distance from you, may tumble over his head.

Making your odds even worse, the adversary is mobile during the gunfight while you are not. Any port you make may become ineffective if your adversary is moving across the front of your vehicle and is in a different spot each time you shoot.

You are way behind the game in this gun battle. He has essentially “mag-dumped” on you before you put an effective round into him.

During Paladin Tactical’s Vehicle Counter-Ambush Tactics (VCAT) classes, I tell the students that all the gunfighting skills we practice in class are useful. However, I admonish them to pay particular attention to a short talk in between the fun drills because it’s the key needed to survive a vehicle ambush. Here it is:


The bottom line is that we need to know what’s coming so we can avoid it or, at the least, get ahead of it.

The VCAT 1 curriculum is designed to counter an unsophisticated, close-range ambush. Even with this relatively disorganized attack, the adversary will likely conduct pre-attack surveillance on the target (you). Among the things the attacker may try to determine is the number of people in your vehicle, your readiness, his angle of attack, his avenue of approach, and the presence of witnesses or law enforcement in the area. He may be able to make these calculations in minutes, if not seconds, before you even recognize his presence.

This pre-attack period is part of the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). While making plans for the ambush, the attacker is in the Observe and Orient phases. Once he decides on his course of action, he will proceed to the attack phase.

While he is moving through his OODA Loop, it is imperative that you recognize the potential attack and start YOUR own OODA Loop.

Observe: Keep your eyes up when seated in a vehicle. Looking down at your smart phone or MDT will significantly reduce optical input from your surroundings. Our minds are evolutionarily hardwired to evaluate threats, but you can’t evaluate what you don’t see. Eyes up.

Orient: There are two parts to Orient: 1) evaluation of the subject as a potential threat, and 2) formulation of your potential courses of action. With regard to the potential threat, many of those in law enforcement know trouble when they see it. The key is that you don’t let Normalcy Bias override your feeling that something is not right. Normalcy Bias is the belief that the situation will continue to be ‘normal’ even though ominous signs point to the contrary. Fight the Bias; formulate potential actions, and then decide and and act.

Decide: This is simply going through your potential courses of action and deciding which one to use at this point of time. I give my students several easy solutions to consider. The best one is the simplest: move your car. Don’t hang around to see if your intuition about the subject on the corner was right. This relates back to the first line of the article: “You win every gunfight you don’t get into.”

If you have to stand your ground, then consider options to minimize the time it would take to employ defensive measures: 1) unbuckle your seat belt, 2) clear concealing garments, 3) grasp your pistol, or 4) preemptively draw your pistol. Although you have bought yourself some time during the engagement, vehicle ambushes are still a dangerous game even if you know its coming.

Act: You can conduct one of the formulated options above or something else. Hopefully, you have moved faster through your OODA Loop than the attacker. For example, if you had moved your vehicle to another location, you will break your attacker’s loop and he may abort the ambush. Alternatively, if the subject reappears after your movement, he may be conducting another round of pre-attack surveillance. In that case, then quickly start another OODA Loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

Now that we have an overview of the OODA Loop, let’s go into more detail about evaluating threats in the Orient phase. In VCAT, we focus on four specific pre-attack indicators (derived from Craig Douglas’ ECQC course). These indicators are not the obvious ones such as angry glares and clenched fists, but behaviors that “leak” from an individual planning a surreptitious attack. If you watch body cam videos of officers who were ambushed, you can often see these precursors manifest during the initial interaction.

Grooming: The subject may touch his head, face or neck prior to the attack. Grooming may also present itself as rubbing the face or running his fingers through his hair. This behavior appears to be a nervous reaction rather than a preparatory movement on behalf of the attacker. The subject is undergoing stress as he is thinking through his plan, as well of the risks of his actions. If you observe this behavior, ask yourself if it is out of place, especially if you see repeated evidence of grooming.

Glancing: The first type of glancing is the Target Glance. Here the subject is making quick glances your way for no apparent reason. This is his opportunity to gain information on your readiness. The second type is an Area Glance. In this case, he may be broadly looking for witnesses or the presence of law enforcement that would observe or disrupt his attack. The third type is a Weapons Glance. The subject may glance toward his a weapon he plans to use in the attack. This may not be applicable in the vehicle ambush context, but does relate well to vehicle stops. For example, during the stop the subject may quickly look toward the location where he has staged a weapon in the vehicle (door storage pocket, between the console and seat, etc.)

Picking: Preceding the attack, the subject may touch the concealed weapon in order to ensure it is still in the proper place for a draw. This may present itself as a patting along the waistband or slight lifting of the outer garment to touch the weapon. Be on the lookout for any motions where a concealed weapon may be present.

Shifting: In the classic sense, this is demonstrated in a one-on-one encounter where the subject takes a step back to blade his body and shifts his weight to ready the attack. In the context of a vehicle ambush, as the attacker moves toward your car, he may shift his body to conceal his draw.

Any one of the above indicators on its own is probably not enough to come to the conclusion that a subject will conduct an attack. However, if the indicators begin to stack up, then something may be coming your way. Don’t let Normalcy Bias trick you into inaction; quickly formulate options, decide the best one, and then act.

What pre-attack indicators do you see in this video? You can answer in the comment section.

As a review, remember that you are at a significant disadvantage if you are ambushed while seated in your vehicle. He can empty the magazine in his weapon before you get off the first effective shot. Therefore, it is imperative that you can predict the attack before it happens. Keep your eyes up and recognize those pre-attack indicators. If you think something is afoot, come up with options, pick one and act. Don’t fall victim Normalcy Bias.

Unfortunately we have seen a surge of vehicle ambushes, and it’s likely to keep increasing in the near future. There are several competent instructors who can prepare you or your department for these attacks.

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