From SWAT's earliest days, Hollywood has shown SWAT teams rappelling from great heights, crashing through windows, doing dive rolls worthy of Olympic gymnasts, coming up with long gun in hand, to save the day—lone and unhurt. At least that's how they did it in the 1970s hit TV show "SWAT."
An unfortunate side effect of such unrealistic scenes is that many administrators now consider SWAT a "bunch of cowboys," and hence want nothing to do with either the name or concept of SWAT.
In reality, it takes many hours of intense training to reach the level of skill needed to rappel into real world tactical situations. But when was the last time you heard of any SWAT team doing a real world tactical rappel?
I can think of only two actual incidents where rappelling was used to insert teams into hostile locations. The first was Operation Nimrod, the successful 1980 British SAS Iranian embassy hostage rescue in London. Two SAS commando teams stormed the embassy, killed the terrorists, and rescued the hostages.
During this operation, the rear SAS team rappelled down from the roof into the building. Unfortunately, one SAS operator broke a window and got hung up on his rope when his clothing/equipment tangled. To make matters worse, a fire had started and threatened to burn him alive. Fellow SAS saved him by cutting him down and he fell unceremoniously to the ground. If this could happen to the SAS, one of the best trained Special Operations teams in the world, it could certainly happen to a lesser trained team.
The second tactical rappel operation involved a SWAT drug raid on a heavily fortified building, where the element of surprise was impossible. SWAT determined that the best approach was by helicopter insertion onto the roof. The team made its approach either by rappelling or fast roping onto the roof, made its way from the top down (classic military tactic recommendation), and cleared the building without incident.
While there may have been other rappel tactical resolutions performed by SWAT teams, they are clearly few and far between. This begs the question whether all the time and effort SWAT puts into rappelling is really worth it.
The answer is a resounding YES.
Element of Surprise
The deterrent value of suspects believing that SWAT will come crashing through their window at any time is immeasurable. Even if you don't actually intend to perform a tactical rappel to resolve an incident, there is great benefit in letting them think that you will.
There may also come a time when a tactical rappel is the only way to resolve a situation or act as a diversion in an otherwise inaccessible location. Having the capability to take unexpected and unorthodox measures to resolve high-risk situations is a big part of what SWAT is all about.
Is it for You?
So does rappelling have practical tactical application or is it merely a fun "cowboy" adventure? This enterprising skill can be used as a training tool to empower officers, building the confidence and expertise of officers who are assigned to high-risk SWAT teams. It is also imperative that SWAT teams possess as many weapons and tactics as time and resources will allow.
Each agency should consider the relative worth of practicing and training rappelling techniques alongside other skills that may have greater application in the field. At the very least, bad guys will never know if or when SWAT will come crashing through their window.