I would shoot down an airliner hijacked to attack the Olympics says Hammond
Defence Secretary vows to take all action necessary against terror threat
Philip Hammond on Londoners: ‘they should be reassured by the military presence’
Joe Murphy and Nicholas Cecil
04 May 2012
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said today he was prepared to order an airliner to be shot down if the Olympics were threatened by a 9/11-style attack.
As arguments continued over the installation of ground-to-air missiles in residential areas, he told the Evening Standard: “The decision to engage would be made at the highest levels of government.”
Asked if he was personally willing to give the order to destroy a rogue aircraft that posed a danger, he said: “Of course … I’m certainly prepared to make decisions.”
Mr Hammond said Londoners should feel safer rather than frightened by the multi-layered security operation that swung into operation this week, with HMS Ocean sailing up the Thames today to become a floating command centre, Typhoon jets moving to RAF Northolt, and six missile batteries to be located around the 2012 stadium.
“My message is that they should be reassured by the military presence,” he said. “There is no risk from the equipment. It’s defensive in nature and pointing skywards.” In a wide-ranging interview, he also:
Warned protesters not to risk their lives and the lives of others with “stupid stunts” during the Games.
Insisted nations with forces in Afghanistan were committed to an orderly withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014 — while accepting there was a “slight question mark” over France.
Told how he is driving through a culture change at the Ministry of Defence to stop massive overspending on military projects.
Revealed RAF Northolt may get an expanded commercial role to pay its costs as an Air Force facility.
Mr Hammond is one of a handful of senior ministers who would decide whether or not to fire if a stray aircraft appeared to threaten the Olympics. Speaking of the possibility that he would have to deal with a hijacked airliner full of innocent passengers, he said: “We rehearse these things, we train for them. All the ministers involved are fully versed in the processes they have to go through, the judgments they have to make.
“I’m not going to spell out precisely who is in the loop and who is not, but there are a number of ministers who are involved in the air defence arrangements. The decision to engage would be made at the highest levels of government.”
It is the first time a minister has spoken about the responsibility. Asked if he was willing personally to give such an order, the Defence Secretary said: “Of course. We all have to discharge our responsibilities. That’s what happens when you become a member of the Government. I’m certainly prepared to make decisions.”
The military is planning to deploy Rapier ground-to-air missiles and the smaller High-Velocity Missile system, with proposed sites including the residential Lexington Building in Bow and Fred Wigg Tower in Leytonstone.
Mr Hammond sought to soothe the fears of some residents that their flats will be targeted: “We are not talking about a war with an enemy trying to take out our air defences. These defensive sites are not going to be targets.”
After this week’s noisy training exercises, the hardware would “fade into the background”, he promised. “This is not a military Games, we don’t want the military to dominate.”
The “red uniforms and bearskins” of guardsmen entertaining visitors during the ceremonies will be highly visible, and 11,000 khaki-clad soldiers will man checkpoints. But Mr Hammond stressed they would be unarmed and regular police would be in command on the ground.
But he added: “Anyone who is thinking malign thoughts should be aware that there will be the latest and most sophisticated military hardware ready and able to defend the Games.”
He said everyone was “acutely aware” of the need to learn lessons from the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, shot on the Tube by police in 2005 after being wrongly identified as a bomber — “none more so” than Cressida Dick, the Met Assistant Commissioner who led the 2005 operation and is now Scotland Yard’s counter-terror chief.
Mr Hammond pleaded with protesters not to copy Boat Race swimmer Trenton Oldfield by disrupting the Olympics: “If people engage in stupid stunts they could put themselves or others at risk. This is a free country. There are going to be people who want to protest. But I really would urge people not to put themselves at risk because the safety and security of the Games has to be our paramount concern.”
He was parachuted into the MoD after the resignation of Liam Fox last year. The former transport secretary, famously careful with taxpayers’ money, now controls a £38 billion budget from what he calls “my fine Ikea office”, brightened with paintings of 18th-century warships and rugs given by Afghanistan’s defence minister. He joked: “I’ve got one more on the way in my diplomatic bag.”
A successful businessman worth an estimated £7.5 million, he is imposing stricter disciplines on a department notorious for cost overruns. “I’m not an accountant, by the way, just to correct a widely-held misapprehension,” he said.
He revealed RAF Northolt could be given an expanded commercial role to pay its costs: “Northolt is a very important RAF facility close to London. There is scope for some limited additional use for business jets … in order to make it viable as a continued RAF facility.” But he ruled out rumours it could become a big civilian airport to take pressure off Heathrow.
Mr Hammond praised Dr Fox for beginning the “shift in culture” in his department and said he would be “a big player in British politics for many years”. Asked if Mr Fox would return to Cabinet, the Defence Secretary said: “You would have to ask him whether that’s his aspiration. I suspect he is pursuing other lines of interest.”
Mr Hammond writes to all the families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan. He is confident British troops will end their combat role by the end of 2014 and believes Britain’s allies are all “robust” on that timetable.
However, he admitted there was a “slight question mark” over France given the pledge by Francois Hollande, the socialist candidate for the French presidency, to bring his nation’s troops home this year.
He is stoical about Tory losses in the council elections. “We always knew that the measures to fix the deficit were going to be deeply unpopular. Our bedrock belief is that the great majority of people out there do understand.” Asked if Boris Johnson were a future Tory leader, he deadpanned: “He will have a big job for another four years.”
Mr Hammond said he believed people would eventually reward the Government for taking tough decisions. “Right now we are in that very dark period when it’s difficult for people to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We know it’s there but they can’t see it yet.”