For five-hundred days, the imposing Olympic digital clock in Trafalgar Square has been relentlessly ticking off the seconds to the opening ceremony of the Games.
Sightseers from around the world have posed in front of the 6.5-metre-high, four-tonne timepiece to have their photos taken. And as the number of days to go decreased, so the excitement mounted. Would everything be ready in time?
Meanwhile, far from the public eye, athletes have been spending every second training hard for the biggest sporting event on the planet. Likewise, for more than a year, the military has been planning and preparing to make sure that the Games prove to be a safe and secure event.
Taking the lead for security on British soil is of course the responsibility of the police.
The military role is to provide the extra capability and manpower support that the police and the Home Office need to safeguard what will be the greatest peacetime security operation seen in the UK - what Joint Commander, General Sir Nick Parker has described as “a complex, multi-agency operation, with one key aspect for the Defence contribution - to make sure that we know what is going on across a wide range of activities.” But what does that mean in practical terms?
Speaking to Defence Focus, Brigadier Richard Smith, who was appointed Military Director Olympics in May last year, pointed out that this tri-Service operation may be huge, but it has been built on existing joint operations that routinely ensure UK security with the military working alongside the civil agencies and authorities.
Straight away an Olympics team was set up comprising both military and civilian personnel working at the operational level, reporting to General Sir Nick Parker.
I say we operate at the operational level,” said Brigadier Smith, “because we provide that gearing between the strategic planning work done by the MOD, which is pan-Whitehall, and the work that we do for the Director of Counter Terrorism, UK Operations. Underpinning all that is the work we do at tactical level.
The Brigadier needed to bring in some bespoke expertise - media specialists to engage with communities explaining what was going to happen and why. He also needed policy specialists, so that when the strategy was agreed and the work was pushed down to the tactical level he could be sure that everything being done was in line with what MOD ministers had demanded.
We got three high grade civil servants who had just come back from service in Afghanistan to do that,” he said.
Deciding to deploy ground-based air defence around London was an example of this process in action explained the Brigadier:
The Joint Commander will say ‘from my perspective, this is my military advice’, we make sure that advice goes into the MOD at the right level so that when ministers make their decisions they have all the information they need.
But the planning discussions between Defence and the Home Office started well before the Brigadier’s appointment. And as a clearer view of requirements emerged, so the requests from the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) for military support increased.
In the end, over 18,000 military personnel will be engaged in the operation, twice the number that are deployed to Afghanistan.
This military contribution will deliver specialist and niche capabilities such as bomb disposal and high risk search, venue security, and the normal support that the military extend to the police in dealing with the unexpected.
The scale of this operation may be unprecedented, but there is nothing new about the concept. Military Aid to the Civil Authorities is well established, and as Air Vice-Marshal Stuart Atha, the Air Component Commander for the Games, said, speaking at a press facility at Blackheath:
One of my hats is that I’m the UK Air Defence Commander responsible for defending the skies over the UK, 365 days of the year. What we have done for the Olympics is extend that plan and place a particular emphasis on the Greater London area and the Home Counties.
For the military, what this all amounts to is a tri-Service, multi-layered, integrated approach. For the rest of us that means all prudent, precautionary preparations have been made, and everything is put in place with the minimum of fuss, and with the minimum of disruption.
In May, over a nine-day period, Exercise Olympic Guardian took place, testing the capabilities that would be deployed on land, in the air and on the water. It was of course an essential examination to make sure that everything worked together as planned, and that the response to any imagined threat was tested.
The military livex was really important,” said Brigadier Smith. “It allowed us to build up an understanding of what was normal air traffic over London so we could spot anything that was out of place. But it also allowed us to check the viability of the sites: could we maintain our operational output? Were our reaction times acceptable? Did we have the right coalition of radars? And it meant we could check if the assets worked in an integrated way, and we could exercise alongside the civil agencies such as the police and the Civil Aviation Authority.
There were two other objectives - engaging with the public to reassure them and dispel any myths that they might wake to find soldiers lurking in the shrubbery, and to convince anyone with malign intent that the Games were no soft target.
The Games is a great opportunity for us to integrate with the public in a way we wouldn’t normally,” said Brigadier Smith. “We want them to see us at our best, let them get to know us and show them that we really appreciate the support they have shown for our troops in Afghanistan.
As an extra insurance that those encounters are happy ones, some 12,000 troops providing venue protection, although already skilled in basic security, will have an extra five days training to tailor their military skills and tune them to the ethos of the Games.
We have put a lot of thought into making sure our personnel are ready to fill the roles in the right atmosphere and with the right approach,” said Brigadier Smith. “We have had our trainers trained by the G4S experts who will be operating alongside them. But we mustn’t forget the Paralympics, we must make sure that we treat them with the same importance.
No-one does detail better than the military, and when they say they want to cause the minimum of disruption, they mean it.
Shift patterns have been organised so that handovers don’t inconvenience residents on the school run; thought has even gone into which kind of fencing will surround the groundbased Rapier systems. Should it be opaque - or would it be less alarming if you can see through it and maybe chat to the troops? And, of course, no-one wants to scare the horses. Literally.
We have actually demonstrated to LOCOG and the equestrian organisation that flying helicopters off HMS Ocean using flight paths that are screened by buildings will minimise the disruption.
But like any operation it is, as the Brigadier readily admits, the logistics that can catch you out. Without having the right people in the right place at the right time, no plan, however elegant, is worth the Gantt chart it’s printed on.
Accommodating 18,000 personnel is no small task, especially when you need to take the strain off what will already be a heavily burdened transport system. So, wherever possible, the aim has been to use existing infrastructure, even if that means temporarily adding to it and keeping travel time to no more than an hour,” he explained.
So we will have personnel operating out of RAF bases such as Waddington and Halton, and Army bases such as Hounslow. We will also be using TA centres, and we have built temporary deployed accommodation at other locations.
With a roof over their heads, even if it’s a canvas one, the next problem is to get everyone fed and able to get to their place of work. So to keep the engines running - both human and mechanical, contracts providing catering, transport and fuel have been extended.
Brigadier Smith appreciates the effort that has gone into making it all possible.
None of this would happen without a huge number of people working unsung behind the scenes.
And come the Games, behind the scenes is where the military want to stay. Let’s hope all of the attention is on Usain Bolt. Or even better - Jessica Ennis.
This report by Ian Carr features in the July 2012 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.