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Surviving Vehicle Ambushes

Being prepared and knowing what to do before you take fire in your car can save your life.

October 17, 2011  |  by Ed Lovette

Long-Range Ambush

The sniper attack is an especially difficult tactical problem because you are not likely to see it coming. That means you are going to have to get off the "X" under fire.

Even worse, you may not hear it coming as there are all sorts of things in an urban environment that serve to absorb or distort sound. Having your windows up and the air conditioner or the heater running, noise produced by traffic, wind, the distance from the shooter to you, buildings, all are working against you. And what really compounds the problem is that you are going to be up against a high-powered rifle. That means shooter accuracy goes up as well as stopping power and lethality. And your pistol-rated body armor will do you little good.

What this can mean for the officer in this situation is that attack recognition usually takes place when the rounds start to smack the patrol vehicle, penetrating metal and glass. If you are not moving you need to start. If you are already moving, you need to move faster. And as soon as you can, find a side street, park, or parking lot, and make a hard turn at right angles to your direction of travel and away from the direction of fire. This serves to instantly put buildings between you and the sniper, blocking his view of you.

Unconventional Weapons

Before I move on to the worst-case scenarios, I'd like to mention the Molotov cocktail as another type of weapon that has been used in police vehicle ambushes.

At one time Motorola (now Calibre Press) produced an excellent little film titled "Vehicle Under Attack," which dealt with the problem of Molotovs against vehicles. Basically, it showed that if you can keep the burning gasoline out of the car by having your windows up, you can accelerate away from the attack and force the gas on the outside of the vehicle to quickly burn itself out. This kind of attack is scary as hell but survivable.

I have suggested that you simply step on the gas and accelerate forward to get out of the kill zone in a vehicle ambush. But what happens if you cannot go forward and the only way out is to put the car in reverse before stepping on the accelerator?

As with all of your CQB skills whether using empty hand, knife, stick, or handgun, you need to keep this maneuver simple. Your response needs to be something you can do while you're being shot at. Forget the fancy turns and spins. Back up until you feel you have gotten out of the kill zone (usually about a block), then turn the car around and duck down a side street.

In the CIA, we learned that a combination of road and traffic conditions, underpowered rental vehicles, stick shifts, and right hand steering, along with a lack of practice virtually guaranteed that the James Bond tricks stayed where they belonged, in the movies.

Worst Cases

And finally we come to the two worst types of vehicle ambushes: the coordinated attack with multiple assailants at close range and the ambush involving explosives. These types of attacks are really at the limits of what an officer can reasonably expect to get through without being hit and what an unarmored vehicle can survive. My experience has been that getting through one of these types of ambushes generally takes a lot of luck. Most often they simply don't end well.

The good news is that such attacks are fortunately rare against U.S. police. The experiences of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland are worthy of our attention as a serious study of these two types of ambush attacks against police. Two good sources are "The Thin Green Line" by Richard Doherty and "Shadows" by Alan Barker.

I'd like to close with an incident that is one of my personal favorites because it is a great reminder that we must never, ever give up.

A U.S. military officer and his driver are on the way to a meeting. A single round, seemingly from out of nowhere, instantly kills the driver. The officer manages to squeeze himself into the space between the front of the seat and the dashboard. He works the gas pedal with one hand while steering with the other. The only guide he has to steer himself by are the rooftops of the buildings he can see through the driver's side window. As soon as he thinks it is safe to do so because no more shots are being fired he pulls the body of the driver out of the way and returns to his compound.

The investigators who debrief him ask if he could demonstrate how he managed to drive the car so they could get some photos. He tries again to wedge himself into the space between the front seat and the dashboard and finds that he can't. There simply is not enough room.

Be prepared for an ambush, have the right mindset, and your survival instinct will help keep you alive. Never give up.

Ed Lovette is a retired CIA officer. Before joining the CIA he was a police officer and a police instructor. He is a member of the POLICE-TREXPO advisory board.

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Tags: Assaults on Officers, Anchorage PD, Seattle PD, Woodlawn (Ohio) PD, IACP, Dave Grossman, Shooting at Vehicles


Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

Tony Scotti @ 10/18/2011 9:45 AM

Great article

fate300m @ 10/20/2011 2:36 AM

I am just getting out of my police academy and I wished that they would have taught us this in class. I agree, a very informative article. Thank you!

Grady Emmons @ 10/31/2011 12:41 PM

Excellent article! Great advice for any professional, public or private sector.

Demerick @ 2/3/2012 9:41 AM

@fate300m - Your statement takes me back 17 years ago when I too was asking the same question with regards to reality and training, and now just laugh and remember every time I've heard " we don't use that academy crap out here on the street cause it'll get you killed!" nice hua!

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