The Fred Wigg and John Walsh tower blocks in East London share the same unfortunate look. Built in the 1960s, they’re identical concrete behemoths that rise 17 stories above Leytonstone — just 3 km from London’s Olympic Park. But following a decision by Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Fred Wigg Tower (FWT) will soon stand out from its neighbor. That’s because the government plans to install surface-to-air missiles on top of the apartment complex in the coming days to counter the potential of an airborne terrorist attack during the Olympic Games.
Policing the world’s biggest peacetime logistics operation is a herculean task, and Britain’s intelligence and military officials are preparing for every eventuality. Following similar moves by officials at the 2004 Games in Athens and the 2008 Games in Beijing, the MoD has confirmed its plans to install Rapier and high-velocity missile systems on top of FWT and five other sites throughout the capital. Rapiers can shoot down a Boeing 747 in the event terrorists hijack a plane and attempt to steer it into a venue. The mere presence of missiles will likely serve as a deterrent too. “We maintain that ground-based air defense on Fred Wigg Tower is an essential part of the multilayered air-security plan,” the MoD says.
The thought of living beneath a missile launchpad from mid-July until the end of the Olympics doesn’t sit well with the residents of buildings that will soon be crowned with missile installations. Tenants worry that they’ll become collateral damage in the event of a terrorist attack and that a missile response would send shrapnel flying into their apartments.
Back in May, after residents learned about the plans through leaflets from the MoD, they launched the Stop the Olympic Missiles campaign. Residents staged a protest march on June 30 against government plans, which were approved by the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Defence Secretary. In one of the most reproduced images of the protest, an elderly woman holds a sign that says “No missiles on homes! No snipers on schools! No guns on streets!” Other signs simply read, “No missiles in our community” and “This is not a war zone.”
The residents of FWT want to keep it that way, so at the end of June they launched legal proceedings to halt the installation. The local residents’ association claimed that Defence Secretary Philip Hammond was breaching the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees an individual’s right to a private life and peaceful enjoyment of their home. Marc Willers, the lawyer who represented the residents, told the court that setting up a military base during peacetime is unprecedented. “They have a fully justified fear that installation or deployment of the missile system on the roof of the Fred Wigg Tower gives rise to the additional risk that the tower itself may become the focus of a terrorist attack,” he said. “That fear is not just genuine and legitimate but justified given the nature of the forthcoming occasion — the Olympic Games — and given the nature of the deployment and the current threat level, which is said to be substantial.”
But on July 10 a high-court judge rejected those claims, giving the government the all-clear to proceed. While delivering his verdict, Justice Charles Haddon-Cave suggested that the residents were not at risk and instead were “under something of a misapprehension” about the equipment. He also said the government was acting within the law. A day later lawyers representing the residents said they have decided to drop their case: the tenants simply cannot afford to appeal the court’s decision.
The verdict comes at a time of increased scrutiny of Olympic security. On July 8, the Home Office confirmed that authorities had caught a terrorist suspect passing through the Olympic Park in East London. The 24-year-old suspect allegedly traveled to Afghanistan four years ago to train as a jihadi. Officials say he has subsequently violated, on several occasions, an order that prevents him from traveling on the London Overground rail network. In at least one instance, he is alleged to have ridden a train line near the Olympic Park. In the past week, police have arrested 14 people on suspicion of terrorist activity, though authorities emphasize that none of those activities are linked to the Olympic Games.
Elsewhere the Sunday Times (of London) revealed last weekend that the London Committee for the Olympic Games faces a shortage of trained guards responsible for protecting key sites. Internal documents show that G4S, the security contractor responsible for training and supplying those guards, has been unable to provide even half of the 750 personnel needed at the Olympic Stadium and Aquatics Centre. Around 2,500 guards still need to undergo training and be vetted before the Games begin. Fortunately, on July 11 the BBC broke the news that the U.K.’s armed forces are on standby to offer a further 3,500 troops to help out with security at the Games. It’s unclear if there’s a connection between the shortage and the back-up.
As for the residents of Fred Wigg Tower, they can rest assured that missile deployment is only a last — and highly unlikely — resort. Any rogue plane passing through British airspace would first have to guide itself past a series of other defensive measures. They include Royal Air Force Typhoon jets, stationed at an air-force base in northwest London; Puma helicopters, stationed in Ilford, a commuter suburb in the northeast of the city; and helicopters on board H.M.S. Ocean, a navy assault ship currently moored on the Thames.
In a world where keeping the peace requires intimidating machinery, maybe faster, higher, stronger doesn’t just apply to athletes.