Responding to events…
Despite years of media cynicism and predictions of disaster, the London Olympic has proved to be a huge success both in terms of organisation and for Team GB who’s sporting performance vastly exceeded expectations. Although the armed forces had always been involved in the security plans for the games, the failure of private security firm G4S to recruit enough staff left the government with little alternative to draft in extra forces personnel. 2,600 sailors and Royal Marines were involved in the Olympic mission and many had to cancel summer holiday arrangements and Summer leave was postponed, including for some who had just returned from long deployments. Several ships programmes were altered and had to remain alongside with parts of the ships company London. Ultimately this is what the forces are for – to respond quickly to events but what is so insidious is that the government keeps asking the forces to do more while cutting their numbers and resources (The RN is still adjusting to the loss 17% of its personnel, 5,000 made redundant since 2010). The forces will get little extra financial reward for their effort while G4S keeps its £57Million fee, although it has donated £2.4M to forces charities.
Fortunately there was no serious security problems or significant terror threats, surely proof of the deterrent value of an armed presence. The forces contribution to the games proved to be a remarkable and the unintended consequence has probably been the biggest public relations success for the armed forces in decades. As a visitor to the games myself, I passed through a very fast and efficient security check manned by naval ratings who were respectful and friendly while a kindly solider ‘high-fived’ with my young son. (Airport security take note!).
The Royal Navy’s contribution to the Olympics
The RN’s most visible contribution afloat was HMS Ocean moored at Greenwich and HMS Bulwark and RFA Mounts Bay in Weymouth Bay. HMS Ocean provided accommodation or large numbers and was a base for 7 RN Lynx helicopters carrying sniper teams on 24hr alert to respond to emergencies. (Full details of RN contribution here) These vessels demonstrated the inherent flexibility of naval forces, and amphibious assets in particular, that can simply re-role from major war-fighting assets to something more low-key. Offering a floating command centre, a floatingharbour, heliport, hotel or even a great party or diplomacy venue. HMS Bulwark’s operations room was used as a multi-agency command centre for the security codon around the 50 square miles of sea used for the Olympic Sailing events. The Police took overall command for security with Navy, Royal Marines, MCA, UKBA, RLNI, and Olympic organisers all working together from the RN platform.
The organisation of the games, which were 7 years in the making is an example of what can be achieved with the correct attitude from governments and competent people in charge. It’s worth considering what would happen if the single-mindedness, funding and political support given to the delivery of the London Olympics was applied to UK defence procurement, could we have highly effective, yet affordable armed forces that, like the medal table could rank us third in the world?
Back to reality – Syria?
Although armed forces personnel will again be involved in security for the Paralympic Games in September, as the post-Olympic euphoria dies down, the world can no longer ignore the terrible events in Syria. The MoD has already drawn up plans for a substantial task force to evacuate UK Citizens if required. The proposed operation could involve up to quarter of the fleet and would include HMS Illustrious and HMS Bulwark. Already planned is a large Anglo-French naval exercise in the Mediterranean including amphibious landings on Cyprus but the Syrian operation would obviously take priority.
Anyway for now, the world owes our forces personnel a debt of gratitude for helping create a safe, secure and friendly Olympics. Well done on a great job and enjoy the summer leave you so well deserve.