Why you will not see the army on our streets anytime soon.

Law and order is beginning to return to the streets of London and other cities across the country. The police have adapted quickly and there is finally leadership from the government. On Wednesday David Cameron told journalists outside Downing Street that the police will get whatever resources are required. This, along with other factors, seems to have deterred more rioting. The more extreme measures that were proposed to quell the riots, most notably the use of water cannons and rubber bullets, have not materialised.

But over the last four days there has been a strong call for more extreme measures. The most extreme of these is the desire to see the army deployed onto Britain’s street. The suggestion was that the police had lost control and so the young men and women of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces would be able to take over and peace would be restored. The problem is that this is completely false.

There are four overriding factors involved when deploying the army in a civil role and each will be explained in more detail. Firstly, it is the scenario in which the deployment is taking place. Secondly, the level of threat especially to Britain’s vital economic infrastructure. Thirdly, the logistical elements of deployment and force contribution. And finally, the historical context that determines how the first three factors are viewed and decided upon.

The Scenario

Scenarios can range from environmental disasters to a major terrorist attack on Britain’s infrastructure. They are varied and each require a different strategy in terms of limiting the damaging effect of the situation. Ministers of state have the option where necessary to deploy the armed forces under the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004. The act has been used a number of times to assist emergency services and civilian agencies where they often do not have the equipment to carry out tasks. The army and RAF helped emergency services during the Cumbrian floods of 2009 as well as the Hull floods in 2007. The Royal Navy ship HMS Albion also assisted British citizens in Spain stranded by the Norwegian volcano ash last year.

These scenarios required either limited training (filling sandbags) or were an extension of existing roles (search and rescue). The tasks given to the armed forces were not wholly unfamiliar and they quickly adapted. However, if the army was deployed onto the streets of London for public order duties they would find themselves in a position they were unfamiliar with and unsuited to. Soldiers do not have the same powers as a police officer and as such, are not trained in how to use them appropriately.

This is not to say that the army has not been used in riot scenarios, it is regular training especially for Officers at Sandhurst. The campaigns in Northern Ireland and Iraq have seen a significant amount of public order operations. But this is often because the police either cannot cope or do not exist, as was the case with the dissolved security services in Iraq. The tragic death of Sgt. Steven Roberts, who was shot by another soldier during a riot in Basra, clearly illustrates the different conditions that soldiers and policemen face.

Level of threat

Our current National Security Strategy (NSS) published last year has three tiers in which risks are prioritised. Tier one threats include international terrorism, a major cyber attack on the UK, an accident or hazard on a national scale or a military crisis involving Britain and/or its allies. They are currently the highest priority for Britain as any one could have serious consequences for Britain as a functioning state. All four of these threats to national security would need the involvement of the military in one form or another.

The last overt presence of armed soldiers was in February 2003 when around 400 soldiers were stationed at Heathrow airport.  The deployment of soldiers was a response to intelligence of a possible Al Qaeda attack at one of the busiest airports in the world. It was later revealed that the Home Secretary at the time, David Blunkett, was incensed by the action and quickly ordered their withdrawal.

Grenadier Guards outside Terminal 3 of London Heathrow in 2003.

The rioters are by no means international terrorists, potential cyber criminals, or any other person that could truly harm Britain’s functioning as a state. Most are petty criminals who have used the lapse in security as an opportunity to loot, steal, assault, vandalise, and commit arson. Some are first time offenders with many youngsters, including one 11 year old, being arrested. These are people who need a firm smack of the law but also to learn the values of community, family and working life. Soldiers do not provide this, local community officers and group leaders do and will have to in the coming months.

The truth about deployment

It was reported in Wednesday’s Guardian that the Edinburgh-based 3 Rifles infantry battalion were on standby to deploy if necessary. In what capacity, and how many would deploy, is currently unknown.  The battalion normally consists of around 550 to 750 men who are mainly infanteers; the soldiers who are at the front of most fighting in conflict zones. The battalion only returned from their operational tour in Afghanistan last year after a gruelling six months in Helmand. The 3 Rifles battlegroup suffered some of the worst losses and casualties since the Korean War.

It is likely that if 3 Rifles were deployed then it would not be at full strength. This means that the full contribution to the policing effort would be around 250 to 500 troops maximum. To put this in perspective, on Tuesday night the Metropolitan police deployed around 16,000 police on the streets of London. It is clearly impractical for commanders to add a group of men who are not police officers, especially when they only total 2.5% of your total manpower. The use of battle-hardened men who still have the ghosts of Afghanistan hanging over them could also have dire consequences.

The truth is, with ongoing operations in Afghanistan and proposed cuts, the army do not have the resources for this type of operation. Where the army could help, and according to reports is helping, is in ‘indirect’ and ‘low level’ ways especially in logistics. Army barracks are being used to house the extra police who have been drafted in from other police forces across the UK. The Royal Military Police (RMP) will also be assisting operations where their particular skill sets will be necessary. During the student demonstrations last year it was regular for RMP officers to patrol with their Met counterparts. These are the less overt options but in civil disorder scenarios they are the most constructive way for the police and military to work together.

Historical and cultural context

This is the most important factor of all and it is the lense in which we see the other three factors. Britain is a non-militaristic state where the army, since 1688, has been a subordinate to Parliament. From the ‘Glorious Revolution’ onwards, there developed a distrust for standing armies which has continued to evolve for over three centuries. This is in stark contrast to how the rest of mainland Europe saw its relationship with their own armies. For the last four centuries most states like Germany and France has relied on its army for national defence and so this militaristic culture is ingrained in the politics of those states.

French soldiers frequently patrol Paris but this is almost unthinkable across the Channel. Thibault Camus/AP.

Britain’s cultural evolution and changing political thinking in the early nineteenth century was a key factor in forming a new force for law and order. In 1829, the then Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, introduced the Metropolitan Police Act paving the way for the world’s first modern police force. From its creation it was involved in public order, as the official Metropolitan Police website says in its archive section:

‘The Metropolitan Police were involved in crowd control from their earliest days. After an experiment with passive control, baton charges were used in 1830. In 1833 a riot at Cold Bath Fields resulted in the death of PC Culley. There was a tangible fear of revolution in the nineteenth century. In 1848 150,000 special constables were sworn in, and the greater part of the Metropolitan Police were deployed on bridges over the River Thames to prevent the Chartists from a meeting on Kennington Common reaching Parliament.’

Riots thereafter, including around the Brixton area in 1981, were met solely with police action. Even the militaristic Margaret Thatcher, who did not shy away from using the armed forces, did not consider deploying the army during the riots. This was also the case during the worst times of the miners’ strike in the 1970s and 1980s, police primacy always prevailed.

It is from these four factors that we can safely assume that planners from the Metropolitan Police, Home Office and Ministry of Defence did not seriously consider deploying the army. The riot and public order scenario was not suitable for the armed forces. The level of threat, according to NSS priority risks, was not sufficiently high enough to justify deployment. The army also did not have numbers, equipment or training to be an effective force multiplier for Metropolitan Police commanders.

In this time of uncertainty one thing can be certain, if riots flare up again in Britain the army will not be deployed. Calls for their deployment are uninformed and often unhelpful not only for our brave police force but also our brave soldiers and their families.


Posted on August 13, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, General, Looking Forward and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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