Equipping Your Team – Lessons Learned from Elite Units

A line of SWAT soldiers in uniform.

Jon B. Becker

What are the top four essentials for effectively equipping your team?

For the past four decades, I have had the privilege of equipping many of the world’s premier tactical units. I have been fortunate enough to work with all of the US Special Operations/Special Mission Units, all branches of the US military, all of our major federal law enforcement agencies, and thousands of local law enforcement units from around the world. Throughout my career, I have noticed recurring patterns in the equipment best practices of the world’s most elite units. These practices are not unique to elite units; however; if implemented correctly, they will work for any team or agency. The goal of this article is to share the top four lessons I have learned about equipping your team. 


Before launching into the lessons learned, it is critical that we first start with one foundational precept: GEAR DOES NOT EQUAL CAPABILITY! In the words of the late LASD Commander Sid Heal, “Although good tactics can often overcome the challenges of bad equipment, the inverse is not true. Good gear can’t save you from bad tactics.” While this may seem counterintuitive coming from someone who has spent their career providing gear, I cannot overstate the fact that, no matter what the piece of equipment is, at the end of the day, it is still just a tool. It will not, and cannot, solve problems unless it is accompanied by effective training and good tactics. Not even an unlimited budget and the best gear in the world will save you from bad tactics. Put differently, if I bought you the finest violin in the world, it would not make you sound any better than a cheap violin unless you were a well-trained violinist. That said, when used in conjunction with good tactics and sufficient knowledge, a well-run equipment program is a tremendous force multiplier and can dramatically improve operational effectiveness and safety. It is in this spirit that these lessons learned are shared. 

Lesson Learned #1: Define Your Requirements Before Buying Gear

The foundation of effective equipment selection first lies in capabilities-based thinking and defining your requirements before beginning to acquire equipment. Put differently, rather than thinking in terms of the equipment you need, it is best to think in terms of the capabilities you need to have or the essential tasks team members need to be able to perform to accomplish their mission. It is a best practice to look at the entire mission set and build as detailed a list as possible. Once this list is complete, it is then helpful to drill down on each requirement and determine specifically what capabilities are needed. For example, for a SWAT team to effectively enter a building, it must be able to breach doors and windows. So, breaching is a required capability on the capabilities list. However, since breaching can be split between light (e.g., simple wood doors) and heavy (e.g., security doors, solid walls, etc.), it is essential to further clarify specifically which types of breaching capabilities are required by the team. Once this is determined, a detailed gear and training list can be produced to ensure you achieve that capability. The more detailed the requirements list, the better the acquisition program and the greater the likelihood the team achieves that capability. The better you define the critical salient characteristics of the equipment and training, the more likely you are to achieve the desired end state. It’s easy to get caught up in the allure of the latest gadgets and gear, but it’s essential to remember that fielding capabilities – not just equipment – is the goal. Equipment should serve as a means to an end – enabling your team to achieve specific operational capabilities. Your focus should always be on the practical application of the equipment in real-world scenarios.

Keys to Defining Your Requirements Upfront

  • Build a list of specific capabilities you will need during an operation (e.g., breach a door; operate in total darkness; deliver lethal force from a distance; etc.).
  • Clarify and expand each of those with the specific capabilities you’ll need to solve them (e.g., breach an outward swinging steel security door; shoot and move in an interior structure in total darkness; deliver accurate fire at 400 meters; etc.).
  • Use this criterion and the salient characteristic it drives as the basis for down selection of equipment (e.g., can this rifle hit consistently and accurately at 400 meters?).
  • Whenever possible, root these requirements in specific missions and create specific rationale for each capability. Doing so will allow you to defend your selection criteria to purchasing and leadership.

Lesson Learned #2: Field Systems, Not Random Gear

The Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu once said, “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics.” Nowhere is that truer than in equipping units for tactical response. The time for terminal logistics is in preparation for, not during, an event. And, yet, it is very common for units to give very little thought to the “how” in fielding their equipment. Perhaps the best way to ensure that you arrive with capability rather than gear is to field “systems” rather than just fielding “equipment.” In this context, a system is a collection of all the required and interrelated components needed to achieve a mission, all housed together, with the means of being moved. A simple way to illustrate this is to think of a sack lunch. Sack lunches are systems. They have a preassembled sandwich, perhaps a bag of chips, utensils, a napkin, and a beverage all contained in a lunch box for carrying. This lunch system provides the capability to feed yourself by providing the preprepared ingredients and required tools in a simple to move package. While likely no one would ever think of carrying all of the components of their lunch loose in their hands, it is amazing how often teams carry an incomplete grouping of the components required for a system, in diverse places, with no means for movement. This is surprisingly common for less-lethal weapons, NVGs, breaching, and other equipment.  When all the required equipment (including spare parts, batteries, etc.) are organized into a system, it is far easier to deploy, use, track, and transport. This is especially important in emergency situations when time is of the essence.

Keys to Fielding Systems

  • Pre-organize your equipment into kits. Before fielding equipment, take the time to organize it into systems which provide the ability to do specific tasks. This will make it easier to transport, deploy and resupply.
  • Develop pre-organized kits for common specific tasks or missions. This might include things like a medical kit, a strip charge kit, a 40mm less-lethal kit, or a hazardous materials kit.
  • Field all equipment sets with the necessary accessories and parts. This includes things like batteries, chargers, cleaning equipment, adapters, etc.
  • Make sure you provide the means for transportation and resupply. Think about how you will transport your equipment to the scene of an incident and how you will resupply it, if needed.

Lesson Learned #3: Never Field Gear Without Training

Equipment without the knowledge on how to use it effectively does not provide capability. When introducing new gear, it’s essential to provide training not only on how to use the equipment, but also on how it impacts tactics and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Training is essential for ensuring that your team or agency is able to effectively use the equipment which you field.

There are a few key things to keep in mind when developing training for new gear. First, the training should be comprehensive and cover all aspects of the equipment, including its operation, maintenance and safety precautions. The training should be hands-on so that team members can learn how to use the equipment in a simulated environment. The training should also be evaluated to ensure that team members are learning the material. One of my favorite sayings is that, “if you cannot fail at a training, it’s a lecture, not a training.” 

It is also important to provide retraining on a regular basis – even for experienced team members. Knowledge fades quickly and team members may need to be reminded of how to use certain equipment, especially if they do not use it on a regular basis.

One way to ensure that team members maintain their knowledge is to incorporate training into normal SOPs. For example, you could require team members to perform certain tasks with the equipment on a regular basis, such as monthly or quarterly.

Finally, it is important to make sure that your training is challenging. If team members can easily pass the training, then it is not challenging enough. Training should be realistic and should push team members to their limits. Only then will they be truly prepared to use the equipment in the real world.

Keys to Ensure Proper Training for Equipment

  • Require all team members to complete a training course on new gear before they are allowed to use it.
  • Develop training programs which are specific to the needs of your team or agency.
  • Conduct regular training on fielding and operating your systems. This will help to ensure that team members are proficient in using the systems and that they are able to deploy them quickly and efficiently.
  • Conduct regular retraining on all equipment, especially on equipment which is not used on a regular basis. Incorporate this training into normal training days to ensure interoperability.

Lesson Learned #4: If it Matters – Inspect It!

One of my favorite sayings about gear is that “people do what’s inspected, not what’s expected.” While it is nice to imagine that everyone is a professional and that they all will take good care of their gear and be ready for all missions, experience has shown me that this is not the case. If a capability matters to your team, it must be inspected to ensure readiness. While this inspection can be either formal or informal, the goal is to continually assess mission readiness to ensure you always have the necessary capabilities. People are busy and often have conflicting priorities. As a result, it is easy for their capabilities to erode over time. The items you choose to inspect send a clear message about what is important to your team. What’s more, you cannot improve what you do not measure. Readiness that is tracked regularly can be continually improved upon. 

Of course, a question which naturally arises is how to continually inspect capabilities without it becoming a burdensome annoyance to the team. The answer is simple – you use them regularly! The best means of inspecting readiness is training and exercises which focus on demonstrating the desired capabilities. Instead of having formal inspections for all equipment (although those work, too), it is a very common practice among elite units to simply tailor training exercises to regularly test the capabilities. For example, instead of formally inspecting gas masks and riot control equipment, simply conduct a training exercise which utilizes gas masks as part of the training scenario. Everyone who is not prepared will quickly stand out and will also get a strong reminder that they need to show up prepared. If you are testing patrol units’ readiness for active shooter scenarios and everyone is supposed to always have their gear, surprise them with a training exercise using that gear. While it may take one or two times before they will show up prepared, it will certainly happen sooner rather than later.

Keys to Continually Inspecting Readiness

  • For truly critical capabilities (e.g., critical safety equipment), establish a formal inspection and tracking system.
  • For less critical equipment, inspect them through regularly scheduled training using the equipment. Ideally, these should be surprise events where no one has forewarning to “put their gear in order” before the exercise starts.
  • Provide a clear list of expected mission capabilities to your operators, including a list of the equipment they are expected to constantly have ready. This prevents excuses when they fail an exercise or inspection.
  • Ensure that your team’s culture focuses constantly on preparedness for the “big game.” A team culture which is focused on readiness will yield less resistance to inspection and heighten overall readiness.

Conclusion: Achieving a Synergy of Gear and Capability

While the above lessons provide a structured approach towards equipping your team effectively, it is imperative to note that gear and capability, while interconnected, are not interchangeable. The optimal synergy between them can only be achieved through a meticulous, well-thought-out approach which places equal emphasis on acquisition, management and training. Your team’s equipment should be viewed as a tool which, when integrated with proper training, becomes a force multiplier of their capabilities. The modern threat environment is complicated and requires an extremely broad set of skills and equipment. It is only through a structured and deliberate equipment strategy which focuses on fielding capabilities, kitting them into easily accessible sets, properly training them, and inspecting readiness that truly elite performance can be achieved.

Jon Becker is the Founder/CEO of AARDVARK Tactical and the creator of Project7 Armor. He is also the host of the podcast, The Debrief with Jon Becker,now in its third season. Mr. Becker has over 35 years of experience equipping and training tactical units ranging from municipal and county law enforcement agencies to federal, military and international counterterrorism teams. He can be reached at jbecker@aardvarktactical.com or by visiting thedebrief.live