For London Olympics, Britain calls up the military

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Ground troops, fighter jets and perhaps missiles will reinforce police in Britain’s largest peacetime security operation. Some residents see it as overkill.

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
To maintain security in the world’s latest hot spot, Britain is deploying spy planes, helicopters with snipers and the biggest warship in the Royal Navy’s fleet. Up to 13,500 ground troops will be backed by more than 20,000 private guards. State-of-the-art radar systems and a carpet of security cameras will provide 24-hour surveillance.

Luckily, the theater of operation is up close and personal.

Let the London Games begin.

The massive military mobilization, which critics contend is overkill, is a key component of the extraordinary security precautions the British government is taking to keep the 2012 Summer Olympics safe.

But don’t go calling London, a city that’s no stranger to deadly terrorist attacks, Kabul-on-Thames. That would be an understatement. After all, not even in the Afghan capital are British authorities considering plans to deploy surface-to-air missiles, some on the rooftops of apartment buildings. And more British troops will be assigned to protect the Olympics than are stationed in all of Afghanistan.

Officials boast that they’re bringing the full weight of Britain’s security savvy to bear on the global sporting extravaganza, which kicks off July 27. Besides the armed forces, Scotland Yard’s finest will be on the case, as will the country’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.

“This is the biggest sporting event in the world, and with that comes the huge responsibility to deliver it safely and securely. It will require a big operation from the U.K. police, supported by the military,” said James Brokenshire, the British government’s minister for crime and security.

“But,” he added, “we are absolutely clear that it will be proportionate and reassuring, not overbearing.”

Too late for that, critics say.

The prospect of thousands of uniformed service personnel crawling over crowded London, along with an extra 9,500 police officers on peak days, has already raised hackles, particularly in the East End, site of the main venues. The neighborhood is home to a large minority population where heavy-handed police tactics have long been a source of friction, and some fear the Olympics could exacerbate that.

Then there’s the price tag: $875 million and counting. The ballooning cost of security, now twice that previously planned, has helped drive up the overall Olympic budget from less than $4 billion to $15 billion — this at a time of the most sweeping government spending cuts in at least a generation.

“You need a robust security effort. I just think this goes beyond robust into the realms of the surreal sometimes when you look at the level of investment,” said Stephen Graham, an expert on cities and urban life at Newcastle University.

Some residents worry that London will resemble a militarized zone, increasing, not allaying, fear of an attack and the feeling of being under siege.

A foretaste of what lies ahead came during Operation Olympic Guardian, eight days of practice maneuvers last month on land, water and in the air.

Royal Air Force fighter jets, to be based in western London for the first time since World War II, screamed overhead. The behemoth Ocean, the navy’s largest vessel, plowed its way up the Thames, docking at Greenwich, where it will serve as a helicopter launching pad throughout the Games.

Most controversially, surface-to-air missile batteries were set up at six sites around the city, including a park in an affluent South London neighborhood and on the roof of an apartment building close to the main Olympic stadium. (The skies above Olympic Park will be prohibited airspace.)

Dummy missiles were used for the drill. The real ones have a range of up to five miles and can streak toward their targets at about 2,300 mph, three times the speed of sound.

Royal Air Force Col. Jon Campbell said the show of force was mounted partly as a warning to anyone who might be thinking of disrupting the Games. “We’re trying to make the point now and then fade into the background and let the sport do the talking,” Campbell said.

But if the goal was to unnerve would-be terrorists, it seems to have succeeded with some residents as well.

Near one of the proposed battery sites, a multilevel housing project in East London, “you have some people saying, ‘What happens if the missiles become a target and terrorists try to take the tower block out by exploding them?'” said Flash Bristow, chairwoman of a residents association.

“The trouble is that we just don’t know what’s going on,” Bristow said. “All that people have got is their imagination.”

The government says it hasn’t made a definitive decision whether to deploy the missile batteries.

The last time a British missile was fired “in anger” was 30 years ago, during the Falklands War, thousands of miles away. Aghast at their potential use over London, one former artillery officer wrote a letter to the Guardian newspaper questioning whether the government understood the repercussions of shooting down a low-flying craft above a densely populated area, an action that would rain debris and possibly deadly cargo such as biological weapons on the people below.

Military officials decline to speculate about “collateral damage.” But Campbell said any decision to launch a missile during the Olympics would have to be made at the highest level of government, given the “major, world-changing consequences as a result of that happening.”

More subtly, residents and civil liberties activists worry about how police will deal with the community around Olympic Park, a gritty urban area where the elderly shop, teenagers hang out and working folk like to stop at the pub for a pint on the way home.

“We are really concerned … whether the perception of them is that they’re in the way, and if they are in the way, how will they be treated?” said Estelle du Boulay of the Newham Monitoring Project, a local civil rights organization.

Racial profiling is already a major grievance in the neighborhood. In addition to their power to stop and search, police have been given the authority to disperse any group of two or more people.

“It’s a majority black and Asian community, so just by virtue of that, those communities that are hit hardest are the black and Asian communities and marginalized communities,” Du Boulay said.

Chris Allison, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, or Scotland Yard, said police have tried to be sensitive to local concerns.

The Olympic security operation, the biggest in Britain’s peacetime history, is being led by the police, with the military providing reinforcements. Allison declined to specify how many officers from his 32,000-strong force would patrol London’s streets during the Games, but he noted that they would be bolstered by 9,500 extra officers on the busiest days, some supplied by other constabularies around the country.

As many as 7,500 British troops will help maintain security at the various sporting venues, along with 20,000 privately contracted guards. About 5,000 soldiers will be on hand to back up the police in the event of a disaster or emergency — think of the riots across England last August — and 1,000 more will offer logistical support.

No troops will be on the streets on general patrol, Allison said.

“You’ll see police officers out there, but it’ll be the traditional unarmed British bobby working with the consent of the community,” he said.

Allison brushed off rumors that Scotland Yard would use the Olympics to test new policing technology on an unsuspecting populace. He said that authorities had upgraded their radio system and that additional surveillance cameras with license-plate recognition capabilities would be installed throughout London, mostly in the Olympic Park area.

“My sincere hope is that nobody will notice any difference to the policing they receive,” Allison said. “We need to build a security regime … that keeps the athletes and spectators secure, but that is not oppressive.”

His comments echoed Prime Minister David Cameron, who said recently, “I’m determined that this will feel like a sporting event with a really serious security operation rather than a security operation with a really serious sporting event.”

One Response

  1. Jamie says:

    Why are they going the extra mile in security nothing has happened in the past Olympic games so why are they going so hard? Is it because of 2012? Or do they know something we don’t?

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