The Armed Forces at the Games

Soldiers at the Olympic Park (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

When visitors from Britain and around the world begin queuing to enter Olympic sites over the next few days, one thing will immediately strike them: the large number of British military personnel who are manning the entrance points and bag scanners at many venues.

The reason for the armed forces’ heavy presence has, of course, been much discussed in the media. G4S, the private security firm which was contracted to provide security guards, has failed to come up with the numbers it had pledged. As a result, the Ministry of Defence is now providing more than 18,000 personnel to act as guards at the Olympic games– nearly twice as many as are deployed on UK operations in Afghanistan at the moment.

Ministers are relieved, of course, that the armed forces have stepped in to fill the gap left by G4S. It would have been little short of disastrous if the MoD had been unable to react as quickly as it has.

But for some commentators, this whole fiasco leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. Their fear is that the presence of all these soldiers, sailors and airmen will “militarise” the Olympics, an event that ought to exude an air of freedom and an absence of aggression.

Such fears are overdone. For one thing, there is a public goodwill towards the armed forces that is unmatched in recent decades, thanks to their role in Afghanistan.

It is also worth reflecting how much things have changed since the conflict in Northern Ireland was resolved. If the Army were still deployed in Northern Ireland, its additional presence at an event like the London Olympics would quite possibly have amplified the security risks at the Games, not reduced them. We should remind ourselves how much things have moved on.

However, there is a deeper point to be made about the role of the Army, which is providing most of the security guards over the next few weeks. The Army is moving into a new era when it can expect to see far more interaction with British society, thanks to the “Army 2020” reforms of Britain’s land forces that have just been unveiled.

There are two reasons for this. First, the Army will for the first time in many generations be almost wholly based at home. The troops will be back from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Some 20,000 British troops will be coming back from Germany over the next few years.

Secondly, under the Army 2020 reforms, the intention is that the Army will do more to provide what is called “homeland resilience.” The Army will still have a primary role in deterrence, undertaking combat operations overseas. And it will have an important function in training up foreign militaries so they can operate better in their own countries. But there is a growing belief that the Army needs to do more at home – acting as a support of last resort when there are civil emergencies such as floods or a sudden loss of energy supply.

Brigadier Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies thinks it is right for the Army to start defining this larger role in “homeland resilience.”

“If you accept the scientific consensus that global warming will make climate emergencies more extreme, then the risk of more serious events relating to climate is certainly there. If you think globalisation and social trends make the world a more interconnected place, that could mean there is a greater risk of pandemics or sudden loss of oil supplies. This means in future you may see more civil emergencies where the Army has a role to play.”

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck. As Brigadier Barry points out:

“Preparing for demanding expeditionary operations overseas is a full time business. This will be compromised if you are using the Army as a back up at home all the time. The military therefore need to be the emergency service of last resort, rather than first resort.”

He notes how soldiers deployed for the Iraq conflict in 2003 were taken off firefighting duties very late in the day because of a fireman’s strike.

Some will argue, of course, that with the regular Army now being cut by 20 per cent to 82,000, there is little sense in expanding its remit of operations and duties.

Besides, government policy since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 has been to put significant resources into improving domestic intelligence, policing and civil resilience, with only the most modest extra resources being allocated to improve the military’s ability to liaise and co ordinate with the civil authorities in domestic emergencies.

Still, the G4S fiasco has reminded us that when the UK authorities are hit by an emergency on a major scale, the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force and the two other services are the only place that the government can go to in order to plug the gap.

Once the Olympics are over, there should be a deeper debate in the UK over how a newly reformed and relocated Army can be better used on homeland resilience – without compromising its primary roles in deterrence and heavy combat.