British Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond is not everyone’s cup of tea at the British Ministry of Defence (MOD), but he is no pushover and he has accounted for every penny in the overstretched military budget.
His calculations did not include offering even more troops for the security of the Olympics, and being a stickler for detail, the defense secretary has been beavering around London in recent days making plain he has no intention of picking up the bill.
That might be the least of the ministry’s worries as it draws up yet more plans to cancel leave and deploy up to 3,000 extra troops, some of whom may have only recently returned from Afghanistan.
None of which will do military morale much good, coming just a week after Hammond announced defense reforms that will see 20,000 posts lost from the army in the next three years.
Anger within the armed forces at the manner in which the ministry has been called to the rescue has been replaced by weary resignation after a year in which the overall number of military personnel needed for this year’s duties has ballooned.
That has been caused by one huge miscalculation by the Olympic organizers, London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), followed by what appears to have been optimistic recruitment and training assessments by the security firm G4S.
LOCOG first realized it had a major problem last summer, when its predictions for the number of staff needed at the Olympic venues began to unravel.
It had thought it would need 10,000 people to undertake routine security checks, but when organizers started doing role-playing exercises at some of the new stadiums, they began to appreciate that this was a woeful underestimate.
More than twice that number would be required.
The London Metropolitan police could not help, because its staff were already accounted for.
Senior officers say they had been warning LOCOG for months that it had gotten its calculations wrong.
And with the Olympic budget set, there was a reluctance to pay G4S to make up the shortfall. As ministers started to panic during the Cabinet Office briefings, all eyes fell on the ministry.
“The military will do what they are told, but I don’t think any of our people signed up for Queen and country to check bags,” one senior army officer said.
Though the problem was identified a year ago, the haggling over who would do what and when, and who would pay, did not end until December.
Days before Christmas, the government announced that up to 13,500 military personnel would be deployed at the Olympics, including 7,500 doing security checks at the busiest times.
More than 2,000 reserves were called up in the spring to help make up the total.
Even with that, LOCOG and the Home Office were relying on G4S to provide 10,400 licensed security guards — five times more than had been envisaged.
The contract is reported to be worth ￡284 million (US$440.14 million).
Last autumn, G4S made it clear that it could only recruit substantial numbers if it was given sufficient time. With time now running perilously short, it seems it is struggling to meet the commitment.
Last weekend, only half the guards needed were ready to start work.
G4S said it had been having “some challenges on workforce scheduling,” but that it could resolve them.
Earlier this week, it was reported that it still needed to train and accredit as many as 9,000 guards and was calling in retired police officers to fill vacant roles.