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Olympic Medals for the Military

Commentary, 21 August 2012
Domestic Security, Land Forces, Military Personnel, Europe
The last minute military boost to Olympic security allowed the Armed Forces to be seen as a normal and average part of a relaxed and self-confident British society. The Chiefs should bottle that spirit for the difficult years to come, and politicians should realise that this was a one-off service.

The last minute military boost to Olympic security allowed the Armed Forces to be seen as a normal and average part of a relaxed and self-confident British society. The Chiefs should bottle that spirit for the difficult years to come, and politicians should realise that this was a one-off service.

UK Soldiers At Olympic Park

The public has awarded the military a gold medal for its performance at the Olympics. If it were possible to get one with oak cluster, they would have added that as well. The headline writers have agreed with them. The military added another element to the 'happy and glorious' games that was efficient, friendly, humorous and awfully British; as characteristic of the inventive Britain we presented as Mr Bean, Jerusalem and a monarch who likes practical jokes.

Before the event, the German media spoke with alarm at the idea of military personnel in such evidence at the games. French commentators smiled with satisfaction at a British government scrambling to save the situation late in the day. US politicians and commentators overdosed on a potential security gap and British politicians and media went for G4S with a furious passion they had stoked against the banking industry and honed against highly paid industry executives.

Coe At OlympicsIn the event, the Armed Forces should award G4S some sort of medal of their own, for the mess they made of their Olympic contract became a gift to the military  that exceeded the expectations even of the top brass. No one who knew the military doubted that they would do a good job, however much notice they were given and whatever improvised arrangements had to be made for their accommodation. But the whole affair indicated something more than a job well done. It hinted at a new relationship between the Armed Forces and the general public. This was not the Armed Forces of the homecoming parades or the set piece commemorations; still less the troops as victims of government policy, passing solemnly in funeral processions through Royal Wootton Bassett. This was the Armed Forces as a normal and average part of a relaxed and self-confident British society. The Chiefs should bottle that spirit for the difficult years to come.

Personnel from all three services reported how many strangers made a point of showing their appreciation for all they do as they went, uniformed, to work, or stood at the entrances to Olympic venues. Senior officers had anticipated lots of boredom from the troops as they checked their thousandth bag, but the only boredom troops reported was on days when their venue was not in use and the entrances were quiet. For the rest of the time there was unfailing politeness and raucous good humour in equal measure.

Airman at Olympic ScannerAt Greenwich, a marine sergeant was loudly declaring that his security line was only for attractive women and escorted middle aged ladies to the scanners while their friends scrabbled for their cameras in loud hilarity. In Hyde Park, on the morning of the triathlon, the commander of 2 Royal Welsh was called to the gates early on where an older man was trying to get into the venue with two stout poles. He turned out to be the father of the Brownlee brothers with a banner to put up. So they gave him tea and some breakfast and got him and his banner into the right place to see his boys get the Gold and Bronze medals. And at the two biggest venues - the Excel Centre and the Olympic Park itself where 2500 troops were on venue security duty - there were group photographs with the men and women in uniform, jokes, laughter and a swift passage to the security scanners where nothing suspect got through. All venue managers know they will have to deal with some argumentative individuals - in this case mainly from the 'Olympic family' - but they reported that no one argued with a man or woman in uniform. When a soldier tells someone 'I'm not allowed to let you in there, sir', nobody argues.

Bottle it.

It has all left a warm glow that has been excellent for the Armed Forces. The importance of bottling it is because the military, and particularly the Army, anticipate moving from operations to 'contingency' after Afghanistan - to representing British interests around the world in a series of more political roles, through small and precise operations as required, military assistance and training, maintaining its reputation as 'the best military in its class'. There may also be a greater role for the military in home security and reilience in the coming years.

In all these circumstances a robust public attitude to the job of the military professional will be important; something that goes beyond a sentimental attachment to our boys and girls and something that shows understanding of the intrinsically political role the military always plays. The signs are encouraging and the military should think carefully about how best to use this unsentimental goodwill.

It should begin by being realistic about the Olympic situation. The military's success at the Olympics was also a reflection of the success of the Games as a whole. Public order works on the law of averages. A happy crowd is self-policing and easy to handle. A curious crowd, or even more a crowd in a hurry, is a different matter, and the troops never had to deal with that.

And Think Carefully About It...

Soldiers Checking Trucks At OlympicsBehind that happy circumstance, the military brought to the organisation something that was frankly lacking in the run-up to the opening of the Games - the practice of operational planning. LOCOG, the Olympic authority, no less than the Home Office or G4S, planned on paper for what they might do. But only the military did detailed 'worst case' planning in early July which told them - much to the annoyance of the Home Office[1]- that they would end up being asked for closer to 18,000 troops rather than 13,000. Only the military walked through the whole operation by way of planning. The RAF was responsible for the Wembley Arena venue where the entrance security areas were not constructed until the eve of the Games. But the main hall at RAF Halton had long since been turned into a mock Wembley entrance and staff had practiced their procedures against all scenarios before they were sent to Wembley. Or again, the Royal Welsh had known they would be working at Hyde Park for some time, so invited the fifty or so key Olympic officials they would be working with for a day at their Tidworth base. At the end of a fun day, complete with goat mascot, they were a dedicated civil-military team.

Something else the military brought to the Games was the principle of not working to the cheapest option. The military's business in circumstances such as these, is as much about reassurance as deployed power. The military assets the public did not see included the Typhoons stationed at Northolt, the Special Forces on HMS Ocean at Greenwich, or the small teams of observers in a field in Stanmore, or on various rooftops, in a ring of sites around London. Add to this all the logistical backup, the military intelligence, surveillance and command centres and it is clear that this was not the sort of operation a private contractor would easily, or willingly, have provided.

HMS Ocean at OlympicsThe military created a four-layered security blanket around the capital and contingencies for dealing with air or seaborne threats to other Olympic sites. There had been an impressive show of deterrence ahead of the event, where the chiefs were not displeased with the public commotion caused by the siting of the Rapier batteries, and so on, followed by the quiet operation that put it all in place for real. While the media was fulminating at G4S in the middle of July, the military's security plan got into gear. This was certainly not the cheapest way of doing it; but it was the way that protected and reassured politicians and public alike in a 'must succeed' global event.  For the Commander Land Forces, General Sir Nick Parker, in charge of the whole military contribution to the Olympics, this was a military operation not unlike any others. It was structured from the top down, it involved elements of the whole force, and he could bring into it military assets from a wide range of capabilities. He had spent the vast majority of his time on it during this year and while the Games were in progress he would have a daily commanders' video conference exactly as he would have done in Helmand or Basra.   

The fact is that when society genuinely needs the military, nothing else will do. This was evidently the judgement made about Olympic security. But unless that judgement is made, implicitly or explicitly, there are big potential pitfalls. The military always look at the worst case as a planning guide. The military is trained either to over-insure, or to manage the risks of inadequate resource. By definition, the military is there to tackle situations that are extraordinary - something outside the normal social routine. One of the dangers of this Olympic success is that politicians will now turn too readily to the military to fill some other gaps. If the military get on so well with the public on the streets, why not turn them out to defeat the threat of tanker drivers' strikes, or some key public sector strikes? It is a dangerous road to go down, both for politicians and the military and certainly pretty unpopular among the Chiefs.

Then, too, the lack of enthusiasm for military 'on the streets' for any reason among politicians in the Home Office, let along within the Metropolitan Police, strengthens the sense that the Olympics should be seen as a one-off military operation; as significant as anything the military has done recently, but not likely to be quickly repeated in the normal course of events.

The military may still be playing a role during the Paralympics at the end of the month. When that is over and, hopefully, a huge sigh of relief is allowable across the British security community, it will be time for some sober reflection on the whole experience. The military should sift what is only attributable to the circumstances of these Olympics from what could be more permanent benefits in the way the public, and public bodies, interact with them in the future. And politicians might reflect more on what the military brings to the party that private enterprise does not - and what type of parties they want to throw, or join, in the future.

This article is based on private interviews with service personnel deployed at the London 2012 Olympic Games.


[1] Based on private interviews


Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

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