UK military shows off missiles to protect Olympics

On a muddy field on the outskirts of London, Britain's military showed off a weapon Thursday it hopes it never has to use.

The Rapier surface-to-air missile system has the power to take down a Boeing 747 full of passengers to protect a stadium full of 80,000 Olympic spectators in a terrorism nightmare scenario.

The British military insists the missiles — with a range of up to 8,000 meters (5 miles) — would be deployed only as a last line of defense. Experts say the likelihood that they will be fired is slim to none.

Downing an aircraft would still cause debris to rain from the sky, high casualties and fires.

"When you launch a Rapier missile and shoot down an aircraft, it's not like the whole thing vanishes. It's 100 tons of metal, scraps, and other stuff that is coming down," said Jan Wind, a retired Dutch Navy captain who is director of the Hague-based Wiser Consultancy.

"If a Rapier is used, the damage could be just about the same as the intentions of the terrorist — only on another spot. The goal of the terrorists will be met in a certain sense," Wind said.

It's rare for the British military to publicize the location of its weapons, but the military says it hopes that any potential attacks will be deterred by showing the missile strength and other defense assets such as Typhoon fighter jets.

Ground-to-air missiles have been a fixture of Olympic games and large VIP events in the post-9/11 world, but London's missiles have sparked outrage among residents of an apartment block who learned that the Rapiers might be stationed on their roof.

The news leaked out when a journalist who lives in one of the buildings found a flyer notifying residents of the plan.

"My life has become militarized," said Brian Whelan. "I don't think anyone would choose to live in an army barracks."

Whelan and others in his area say the missiles are creating a climate of fear — which security experts say is exactly the point.

"The British army and air force don't do all this to really shoot down a terrorist aircraft, they do it to display their determination to do so, which will hopefully prevent the terrorists from attacking," Wind said. "If you know that there are 500 policeman outside the jewelry store, you will not go there and try to rob the store."

Britain's defense ministry said Thursday it has not decided where it will ultimately station the missile batteries.

Besides the main Olympic stadium in east London, a number of large venues will host soccer matches during the London Olympics, including the 90,000-seat Wembley, the Millennium Stadium in Wales and Old Trafford in Manchester — both with around 75,000 seats.

While many defense officials believe "there's no such thing as too much security," the likelihood of an aircraft being used as a weapon is low, said Charles Pena, a defense expert at the Oakland, California-based Independent Institute.

"Given the other measures that are already put in place, you really probably don't need the missiles, but nobody wants to be the person who made the decision not to deploy and then have something bad happen," Pena said.

Residents who are protesting the missile deployments need to understand the deterrent effect and also possibility of a worst-case scenario, said Bryan McGrath, an independent defense consultant based in Washington, D.C.

"The people of London should consider this a prudent measure that represents the last act in what would have to be a horrific chain of events," he said.

It would ultimately mean that all other strands of air defense had failed — from prior intelligence and aviation security measures to the fact an aircraft had entered restricted airspace.

At that point, there is no good solution, and a decision would be needed quickly whether to fire Rapier or Starstreak missiles that travel two times or three times the speed of sound.

Britain's military has stressed that the decision to launch missiles from Rapier would need to come from the highest levels of government.

"You're making a decision on how many people are going to die at that point," McGrath said. "These are terrible things to have to consider."

On Thursday, servicemen milled around the Rapier System, with its eight missiles swiveling around in demonstration as central London loomed in the distance.

The Rapier, which can engage two targets simultaneously, is designed to hit large fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, drones and cruise missiles. It's also valuable for its advanced radar systems.

Also on display was the much-smaller, shoulder-launched Starstreak High Velocity Missile system, which targets smaller craft such as low-flying planes and helicopters.

British military officials promised that their goal is to "fade into the background" after the security exercises are done.

"We want the focus to be on Usain Bolt, not what we're doing here," said Air Vice Marshal Stuart Atha.


Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at