18 July 2012
David Livingstone

David Livingstone MBE DSC

Associate Fellow, International Security


Whilst Olympic and Paralympic Games security plans have been developed over the past few years, few may have foreseen that one of the first threats to surface would be a contractual failure of a major security supplier; except perhaps in military circles, where a culture of planning for 'known-unknown' contingencies remains very much business as usual.

We can be confident that some months ago, the UK Chief of Defence Staff would have asked for some background briefs on 'where we would get some extra people from if something went pear-shaped'. As we observe, the shortfall in security staff, albeit generally from the lower end of the skills scale, has been addressed with rapidity and certainty by the UK Ministry of Defence. The Olympic competitors, their staff, and the general public are thus reassured that security is not affected, although, possibly confused by the unedifying spectacle of some political grandstanding over this issue.

The fact that the Olympic security system has coped with this sudden operational problem (leaving out the quasi-political, contractual or managerial aspects which can all be examined later) shows how resilient the overall structure is. The spectrum of threat, and all the shades of likelihood of a security breach happening, versus its associated impact, is vast, and not simply confined geographically to a few square miles in the capital, but to every venue and then each venue's hinterland. 

The security eco-system, with the civil authority (via the police) firmly in charge as is always the case, has to be able to cope with everything from the suicide bombing threat, management of psychologically disturbed individuals with little known background, interdiction and arrest of organised gangs of pickpockets or protestors capitalising on the presence of world media. No mean task to cater for all of these and more, but it must be said, there is probably no better place to hold a secure and safe event of this Olympian size, anywhere in the liberal democratic world.

The United Kingdom has lived with security problems for many years, most notably since 1969 (through the emergence of Irish republican terrorism) through the events of July 7 2005, to the present day. Despite this, major public events and festivals - for example the recent Jubilee celebrations, last year’s Royal Wedding and so on - still happen unaffected by any sense of underlying threat. Joint planning concepts between police, other emergency services and local authorities, to name just a few of the stakeholders involved, are mature in this country. Command and control systems are resilient and communications procedures well-rehearsed. And where there are requirements for military assistance, in special circumstances in which the police service can not have been expected to develop its own tactical capability, this is provided under the auspices of the very stringently controlled (and much rehearsed) concept of 'Military Aid to the Civil Power'. 

The Olympic Games security system, albeit presenting challenges simply related to sheer scale, is an extension to the established way of 'doing security' in the UK. Which brings us to a more interesting point, in that, because the nation has a developed instinct for security, instilled over a generation or more, the security eco-system, it could be argued, reaches beyond the uniformed stewards and patrolmen, police officers and undercover agents. It includes well-informed and culturally aware members of the public too.

There will be security problems at the Olympics. Some may be structural, such as coping with spectator movement at peak periods (a not uncommon occurrence at major events anyway, Olympic Games or not). Other challenges may be completely hidden from public view, such as those electronic attacks aimed at the Olympic Games ICT systems (and other London infrastructure) via the cyber domain. However, some problems, and we do not know which ones yet, will come into more obvious view and the public facing security system will respond. It is highly probable too, that any public facing immediate response will include members of the spectating public themselves, taking instinctive actions to help those in distress.

However, the system will cope, with incident large or small, whether in London, Weymouth or elsewhere. It simply has to. The Olympics Games schedule will run on inexorably.

The fact that a shortfall of 3,500 security guards - revealed only two weeks before the opening ceremony - has been resolved with such certainty, shows that the security eco-system has just the right coping mechanisms in place. This being the case, it is now time to let the security professionals focus on the job without further distraction. A safe and secure, and enjoyable, Olympic Games.