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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Herculean Task to Protect the London Olympics

By Andrew Drwiega 

Protecting the Olympics and Paralympics from terrorism is a serious business. This summer, the Olympics arrive in London, and the armed forces are being made ready for the challenge. Leave has been canceled during the period of the games for those actually, and even potentially, involved in the huge security operation.

The largest warship in the Royal Navy, HMS Ocean, at 21,500 tons, and having recently returned from flying the UK’s WAH-64D Apache attack helicopters in operations against the Libyan forces of Col. Gaddafi, will be based on the River Thames. The Royal Air Force’s (RAF) newest fixed-wing interceptors, Typhoons, will be based at the Northolt airfield within the M25 London circular—the location more usually used by the Queen’s Royal Flight. Ground-to-air missiles will protect Olympic sites, and around 7,000 military personnel will join thousands more security guards who will act as the visible on-site presence and reaction forces. Obviously special forces will be in the background, too.

RAF Puma over the arena.
Helicopters, with snipers onboard, will also be used to check out slow-flying aircraft and rotorcraft that penetrate the restricted airspace around the Olympic venues. The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority has declared that a no-fly zone (see map at right) will be enforced from July 14 to August 15 for the Olympics and August 16 to September 12 for the Paralympics 2012, with a restricted zone outside of the no-fly zone. Restrictions will even apply to Farnborough Airshow, one of the biggest aviation gatherings of the international aviation calendar. Exercises have already been staged to test the teamwork. At the end February, the Taurus Mountain 2 exercise staged in Yorkshire in northern England, brought together all three services to test their reaction to airborne threats. Fighters and helicopters were tasked to intercept suspicious aircraft, guided by air and ground controllers.

As politicians do on occasions like this, the UK’s Minister for Defence Philip Hammond monitored the proceedings from an E3-D Sentry aircraft. His comment that there were “no specific threats” was to be expected. It is doubtful that threats would be made public given the stellar level of effort, investment and organization that goes into organizing any Games, not to mention the prospective boost to the UK’s economy that staging such a global event promises. Naturally the UK has an existing air defense plan that protects the nation’s airspace 24/7. But additions include heli-borne snipers and helicopters based on HMS Ocean, hardly a couple of minutes from takeoff to over the main Olympic site, gives the security forces a very rapid reaction force indeed.

Aircraft involved in Exercise Taurus Mountain 2: 2 x Typhoon jets, RAF Coningsby 2 x Puma helicopters, RAF Benson 2 x Lynx helicopters, RNAS Yeovilton 1 x Sea King Mk7 Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASAC), RNAS Culdrose 2 x Grob Tutor aircraft, RAF Leeming 1 x Sentry E-3D, RAF Waddinton
Using helicopters to protect Olympic Games sites is not new. In February and March 2006 the Italian Air Force used HH-3F Pelican aircraft with electronic notice boards to communicate with slow-moving aircraft.

During these Turin Winter Olympics, the Italian Air Force operated a system of concentric rings, which included a 10nm no-fly zone up to 8,300m over the city, and then a larger zone to incorporate the skiing venues, which went out to 50nm for identification up to a height of 6,300m. All airfields inside the zone were closed with only military, security and emergency aircraft allowed to overfly the area closed to VFR traffic.

London’s only inner London commercial heliport, which has recently changed ownership again, will have an exemption from the no-fly zone. The new owners, billionaire brothers David and Simon Rueben, are touting it as an entry point into the city for Olympic officials and mega-rich VIPs who want to beat the expected traffic congestion. Nice for them, then.

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