“I understand that this is unusual and people may be concerned”; it was with these calming words that General Sir Nick Parker (the Commander in Chief of UK Land Forces) announced the deployment on Monday of Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles at six sites around London: three sites to the North, one to the West and two to the South of the Olympic stadium (although for some reason of inscrutable military cunning, none to the East of the capital, which you might have thought would be a common flight path: maybe Lexington House in Newham is the missing hub of the intended “shield”).
The Evening Standard, which managed to report the news on its front page beneath a banner calling on London voters to turn out for Boris Johnson in the Mayoral elections (thus combining on one page two stories it has been running with undiminished enthusiasm for several weeks), deduced the undoubted military logic, “Six Batteries Will Protect Olympic Park from Jet Attack.”
At least in the bad old days of the Americans’ “Star Wars” defence shield, military planners were able to point to a well-armed rival (the Soviet Union), and from time to time, they were able to pretend that a missile defence shield “might” protect against attack (although, as we now know, this required a heavily doctored images of successful tests).
Even with the greatest willing I can muster, it is very hard to see how London 2012’s missiles are supposed to work. As far as I can recall (and dear reader, please correct me if I am wrong), London has not been attacked by jets in more than 60 years. We are not at war, and there is no military force in the world, informal or informal (not even the Taliban) with whom we are in conflict, and which has the military capability to send jets to attack London.
Perhaps, it is envisaged, London faces a threat from terrorists hijacking planes, in a perfect emulation of the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers. Leaving aside the multiple changes to airport security since that time, which have made it considerably harder for hijackers to acheive this goal, I am still fazed by how any of this is supposed to work.
The missiles supposedly have a range of around 3 miles; they are located in an area broadly corresponding to zones 4-5 of the tube system: they would not be able to hit a kidnapped jet, in other words, until it was already in the outlying districts of Greater London (and where is this jet supposed to crash? and what is supposed to happen to all the hostages? or have we ruled out the possibility of them attempting a late, Flight 93-type moment of resistance?)
Missiles designed for short-range fire, over the London airspace: it is not a plan designed to prevent civilian casualties, nor is it easy to imagine any military scenario in which this could do any good whatsoever.
But it gets worse: what if the missiles are fired, and miss? Propagandists for “smart” militray technology will say that their weapons can have up to a 35% hit rate. But these aren’t pre-aimed smart missiles, they are weapons designed to fire at a moving target. It’s rather like those scenes you sometimes see of Kurdish guerillas or other such soldiers shooting into the air with a machine gun: most times, they miss. But at least they’re not firing over a city, in the direction of tower blocks, shops and hospitals.
What if the missiles are fired at no-one, but go off as a result of human, or computer accident? They will be firing towards some of the most densely populated parts of London. Flash Bristow of the Ferndale Area Residents Association says of one site in North London, “The tower” (on which the missiles are sited) “is 16 storeys high and is on the edge of Wanstead flats opposite densely terraced houses and near three primary schools.”
The missile are a hazard in the making; with no plausible justification, they defend against a non-existent threat.
They are part of the same mindset that provided helicopters and plastic bullets for the police to resist a demonstration last year of just a few thousand students; the point then, as now, was to scare people into not protesting.
Readers of a certain vintage will remember ARP Warden William Hodges of Dad’s Armty, the Chief Air Warden . Pompous, officious and cowardly, he loved the feelings of superiority that command over a bank of missiles gave him. “I do enjoy this war”, Hodges once told Mainwaring, “I’ve never enjoyed anything as much in all my life … And you! You always spoil it.”
The London Olympics is putting Hodges and his kind in charge of us all.