One of the lead stories on the BBC News this morning was “Police in training for ‘Mumbai-style’ gun attack in UK“. This reported that:
“UK security chiefs have ordered an acceleration in police training to prepare for any future “Mumbai-style” gun attack in a public place.
A series of counter-terrorism exercises are being held with police marksmen training alongside units of the SAS.
Police armed response units are also being given more powerful weapons.”
There is no doubt that this issue is one of the current preoccupations of those concerned with security on the British mainland (and indeed elsewhere in Europe). There is also no doubt about how difficult this would be to cope with given the current style of British policing.
Most police officers here are unarmed. Even in London, where the Metropolitan Police has a higher proportion of armed officers than elsewhere (mainly because of static protection responsibility around embassies, Government buildings, Heathrow airport etc), only around one in ten officers are authorised ever to carry guns and the areas where there are routine armed patrols are very limited.
In Mumbai, over a three-day period in November 2008, ten terrorists operating in pairs with automatic weapons, improvised explosive devices, equipped with GPS and apparently communicating with a remote controller by mobile telephone, killed 173 people and wounded 308. They applied hit and run tactics, were opportunistic, took hostages and established defensible positions.
By contrast,earlier this year in Cumbria, a lone individual, Derrick Bird, armed with two non-automatic weapons went on a killing spree which left twelve dead and a similar number seriously wounded before he killed himself.
Gross that tally up with more gunmen, automatic weaponry in a more populous area and the scale of what is possible becomes apparent. For any Western democracy, planning a strategy to deal with a ruthless heavily armed coordinated attack in a populous city is no easy task.
Current training does not equip the police to deliver the sort of response needed to deal with Mumbai-style insurgents. And it would be the police that would be likely to be the first on the scene.
For those who think Special Forces are the answer, it is worth remembering that the time for any conventional armed forces to be mobilised would be measured in hours – and this would inevitably mean a very high casualty rate before any intervention could succeed.
It is no surprise therefore that the BBC reports that “David Cameron has taken a personal interest in the problem ever since his first threat assessment given to him when he took office in May.”
And there are real dilemmas. Even in London – with more armed police to draw on – dealing with multiple mobile attacks would be extremely difficult and police tactics are focused on containing an incident – usually involving a single gunman. Exchanging fire with heavily armed ruthless gunmen requires military-style engagement and different weapons and ammunition. Police officers have not previously been trained in this way and not all of the currently armed officers would be suitable for such a task or willing to engage in it.
Such training will take time.
And even when units of suitably trained officers have been created, having them on continuous standby will be expensive and having such units on regular patrol will mark a massive movement away from the traditional vision of unarmed British bobbies-on-the-beat.
Today’s BBC report will no doubt start a public debate on the implications of all this, but the reality is that the face of British policing is likely to be changed forever as a result – particularly if the public expenditure review means that more conventional “traditional” policing has to be cut back to pay for it.