Deconstructing Tactical Formations

The ideal tactical formation is like an amoeba;  a moving organism possessing the ability to alter its shape, assimilate and adapt to its ever changing environment-a single, flexible formation as opposed to a series of different formations for every new situation.

This is doable, trainable and much easier than you think. 

It is achieved by: 

  1. Each member of the formation possessing a thorough understanding of its operating principles 
  2. Each member of the formation possessing the ability to effectively communicate with each other to maintain the integrity and the objective of the formation itself.


Principles are the foundation of which all our tactics are built. If you consider that our operating tactics are like the branches of a tree, then the principles are the trunk and roots. Trainers should challenge their systems and question the origin of their tactics and when you do, you’ll trace them back to the same sources.

Sources such as John Boyd’s O.O.D.A. loop or Charles Remsberg’s Thought Process have given us a measuring stick in which to quickly evaluate our tactics for effectiveness. 

Sound principles give our tactics an anchor point to ask the critical questions such as with the OODA loop: Will this tactic allow us to observe, orient, decide or act better and faster than our adversary? If the answer is yes, the tactic is sound, if the answer is no, it is not. Quick decisions can be made and we can move on.   

Once our tactics are decided upon, the process of training so repetitively to achieve unconscious competence begins. Any trainer will tell you that this is no easy task but all will agree, the way to accomplish it is through repetition. When tactical dilemmas present themselves, we can rely on our principles to guide us to tactically sound solutions quickly.


The second essential component of a flexible formation is effective communication with our counter parts. One way to do this is the reading-off or keying-off your teammatesReading-off simply means that your next tactical movement is dictated by the team member in front of or around you. This can be done verbally (announcing), non-verbally (squeezing up) or visually.   

Perhaps the biggest benefit of reading-off is that it is a built-in corrector. If a team member makes a poor decision, and we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge this does happen, reading-off acts as a control measure to correct the error and continue with the objective. 

By constantly reading-off our team members, we maintain a constant state of communication and feedback with each other thus maintaining the integrity of the formation while staying focused on the overall objective.

Too many formations are rigid and therein lies their faults. An inflexible tree branch is easily snapped. There is no question that a file formation, or any formation for that matter, may be optimal for some situations but not good for others. A 5-member tethered or diamond formation, for example, look great on a chalkboard for specific situations, but when the situation, mission or objective changes without warning and with no time to plan, it is the simple, flexible and principally sound formation that will give officers the greatest chance for success. 

It is irresponsible training to expect students operating in life threatening situations to be able access a different formation for every time the situation changes considering the limitations in training time most of us experience. 

Wouldn’t learning one malleable formation be better? 

The focus of our formation needs to be principally based. Each member of that formation must have a sound understanding of its governing principles to mitigate as many foreseeable issues in training as possible. When unforeseeable problems emerge in operation, those members will be equipped to apply those principles and find tactically sound solutions on the fly.

Likewise, when moving as a formation, each principally learned member of the group will be constantly evaluating the environment, weighing the tactical advantages and disadvantages of their position and move and adjust to enhance their effectiveness.  Their team mates will do the same while keeping in constant contact with, reading-off, their teammates.

Training it.

Training begins at a crawl by assuming a basic formation, such as a file formation and moving through an environment. The trainer will stop the formation and freeze frame before every action and ask each member what their next movement, positioning and priority should be. Ensure that they are drawing on the principles to make those decisions. 

This part requires patience as the students begin to solve their own problems while internalizing the principles and adapting them to changing situations. The tempo increases faster than you think and before you know it you’ll be having to reign them in.  

A formation may begin as a file, stack or column. When the formation begins moving through an environment the space may begin to open-up, as in the widening of a hallway, for example. The team may no longer feel that a straight line is the most optimal way to achieve its tactical objectives, so the second officer in the formation begins to fan out of the file to gain a better vantage point on their areas of responsibility. The third officer in the formation reads-off that movement and does the same. 

The formation does not look like a file formation anymore but it is much more effective.

If the situation changes, such as an imminent threat to life, an active killing for example, the formation morphs into the most optimal shape given the environment to move directly to the threat without changing or altering its tactics or mind set. 

Does everything need to change? Do we throw all principles out the window?

Absolutely not. All that needs to change is that we must adjust our areas of responsibility. In this case, we are now passing areas without clearing them so each operator has to adjust his area of responsibility and rear security has to be addressed. 

Yes. It’s that simple.  

This approach and mindset can be used for any situation.

Training is greatly enhanced once the principles are internalized, it only needs to be adapted to the changing tactical objectives as opposed to assuming a different formation for every situation. Members learn one formation, more accurately, a mindset and possess the skills and understanding to morph effectively to every situation and changing environment. The training focus becomes one of mindset, threat recognition and understanding of principles, not one of chalkboard debates. 

The result is a morphing mass of tactically and principally sound organisms, each communicating verbally and non-verbally with each other, making tactically and principally sound decisions in harmony with their mission and environment.

Kind of like an amoeba.