The Real Problem with Having Soldiers On Britain's Streets
Away from the politics, there are some fairly serious practical concerns.
An armed British Army soldier and an armed policeman patrol the Houses of Parliament following the Manchester attack. Photo: Ray Tang/Zuma Press/PA Images
As Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016, Theresa May cut 20,000 police officers from UK forces. When the Police Federation warned that this would leave the UK unprepared for terrorist attacks and forced to resort to "paramilitary-style policing", May accused them of "scaremongering".
In the wake of the horrific attack in Manchester, May chose to reinforce the police forces she is responsible for gutting with the first significant military deployment on mainland Britain in a century. In political circles this was blasted as both potentially an opportunistic move by May ahead of the election, and for the fact it could be seen as a "distress signal" in a time when we should show resilience. However, away from politics there's a more practical reason why having the Army on our streets is a problematic response to the threat of urban terrorism, and may actually make the situation more dangerous.
I spoke to Paul Woods, who served for 13 years in the Royal Engineers, to look at the details.
The first problem is that the standard issue weapon for the British Armed Forces – and one soldiers have been pictured carrying in London and Manchester – is the SA-80 rifle. "That's a high velocity weapon," says Paul. "If you fire that in a confined space, say at a range of up to about 50 metres, it'll go through the first person, then the second and the third, and still have enough power to kill the fourth person behind. If some nutcase is waving a machete around and you fire that weapon, it's the people behind him you have to worry about."
He continued: "If you look at the SAS, or the armed police who guard airports, they use Heckler & Koch 9mm guns that are meant for close proximity combat. You'd never get them using an SA-80. Most troops using that are trained to shoot for the body mass. Well, if you shoot the body mass of someone wearing a suicide vest, the whole thing is going to explode. The SAS are trained to shoot for the head, but in very different environments than crowded British city centres."
The SA-80 is famous for being hated by soldiers who have to use it. It frequently jams, bits fall off and it's almost impossible to fire from the left-hand side. The development of this gun is often used as a lesson in how military procurement can go spectacularly wrong. But the practical problems with the military currently on our streets go deeper than their main weapon being tricky and dangerous to use in a packed-out public area.
"What concerns me most," says Paul, "is what are the rules of engagement here?"
"In Northern Ireland you got a green card or a blue card with the rules, and you absolutely memorised them – or you got in serious trouble. You can't just go out and start shooting – I mean, we're not Americans. But in this case now, who selects the target? Is it the unarmed police officer with the soldier as armed escort, or are the soldiers in charge? If they were responding to a specific intelligence threat of a situation like Mumbai, with a gang of men armed with automatic weapons and hand grenades, then maybe the police would need support. But this feels more like just a show of force… but it's an illusory show of force because the terrorists would just switch to a soft target."
Last year I interviewed a woman high enough up in UK counter-terrorism that she couldn't be identified. She was emphatic that for all the US-style armed response units and worries about big data surveillance, successful counter-terrorism comes down to "maintaining the confidence of the public to report stuff to us wherever they've seen it [...] it's about community police officers talking to people every single day".
This is echoed all over the counter-terrorism world – it's about ground level intelligence and maintaining the trust of communities. Theresa May cut the police resources to do this. "Troops on the street" is not a solution.