Britain will use fighter jets and missiles to defend London against “a September 11-style attack,” during this year’s Olympic Games, Air Vice-Marshal Stuart Atha said as a large-scale security exercise began.
Four Typhoon jets landed amid gray skies at the RAF Northolt base in west London yesterday, marking the start of an eight-day operation to test the response to an unknown aircraft entering the U.K. capital’s airspace. It’s the first time fighters have been stationed at the base since Spitfires took off from there during the Battle of Britain in World War II.
Although there is no specific threat, Britain is preparing for attacks ranging from “a 9/11-type with an airliner” to an assault using remote-controlled planes, Atha, the air component commander for Olympics air security, said at the base.
“Defending the skies over the U.K. is an enduring task,” said Atha, who is a qualified Typhoon pilot. “It’s the highest priority we as the Royal Air Force have. Protecting the homeland, defending the U.K. skies and that is as true as it was in 1940 as it is today in 2012.”
Airmen, soldiers and sailors will take part in the operation, called Exercise Olympic Guardian, which ends May 10. It will involve Army Air Corps and Royal Navy Lynx helicopters from the H.M.S. Ocean on the river Thames, airborne surveillance aircraft orbiting London and Royal Navy Sea King helicopters also temporarily based at Northolt.
Gordon Lovett, one of four Typhoon pilots who landed at Northolt, said he’s optimistic that he won’t have to do much flying during the actual London games, which start July 27.
“I’m hoping not do any, and I’m sure everyone else is as well,” said Lovett, who is the detachment commander for the Typhoons, which are normally based at RAF Conningsby, 134 miles north of London.
The pilots are well-prepared for the “worst-case scenario” of a suspicious aircraft entering London airspace.
“The possibility of that is very, very small,” Atha said. “But it is something we prepare ourselves physically and psychologically for. There are a range of things that we would have in place for what is clearly a very unlikely set of circumstances. But we have thought through how we would deal with that. The decision to shoot down is made at the highest level of government.”
At the end of last year, the U.K. government doubled its security budget for the Olympics to 553 million pounds ($895 million) after a review found more staff was needed. Surface-to- air missiles could be stationed on the rooftops of an apartment block in east London two miles from the Olympic Park as part of the 2012 security plan, the Associated Press reported on April 29. Some 13,500 British troops on land, at sea and in the air will be used to protect the Games.
The exercise is as much about deterring “those with malign intent” as “reassuring the minds of the public,” Atha said.
Although most aircraft taking part in the exercise will fly between 4,000 feet and 2,000 feet above ground level, some will occasionally operate at 1,000 feet or even at 500 feet.
“We recognize this may cause a disturbance,” the Royal Air Force said in a press release. “We have taken steps to ensure that flying activity takes place at times that keeps this disturbance to a minimum.”
Northolt is older than the RAF, starting as an airfield in 1915 in response to Zeppelin raids over the city. It was the first field to host the Hurricane fighters, and was home to several Spitfire squadrons, including a Polish wing, that fought the German air force for control of the British skies in 1940.
“It’s rather nice we’re back defending the capital again,” RAF Northolt station commander Tim O’Brien said, as he watched a Typhoon jet land and then immediately take off again. “The station has got a very strong tradition with fighters.”
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