LONDON – 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.