It was clear during last night’s mayhem in London that the police were woefully under-equipped, both in terms of apparatus and numbers. Amid a growing clamour for the police to respond “robustly” to the rioting and looting that has broken out in London, Liverpool and Birmingham, there is a rising call to get troops on the streets.
But realistically, what could soldiers do that the police can’t? Well, public order and riot training have long been a key component of British Army training, with brawls and mass riots regularly played out on Salisbury Plain and Norfolk’s STANTA training areas to prepare soldiers for Northern Ireland and, more recently, Afghanistan and Iraq. If they were deployed in the streets of London, the soldiers would be under the direction of the police commander in charge on that day – though soldiers always have recourse to firearms and a range of tools to escalate their posture.
One of them could be Glow – the Green Light Optical Warner – or Green Light of Death as less politically correct soldiers call it. Fastened to the end of rifles, it splashes a green spot onto suspect individuals and rioters, Terminator-style, to let folks know “if they don’t stop what they’re doing, the next thing they’re going to get is a bullet”, an officer with the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment recently home from Afghanistan told Monocle.
But would it work on Hackney’s Mare Street against rioters with stones and baseball bats? Unlikely. The idea of British soldiers banging off live rounds in the centre of London is unthinkable.
However, water cannons are still available from operations in Northern Ireland, as are baton rounds (rubber bullets) and tear gas dispersants. The Army also has a wealth of electronic warfare packages that can jam mobile phone signals and deny access to social media sites being used to organise the lootings, although that would simultaneously block emergency services calls.
Alternatively, soldiers could load up their rifles with non-lethal SESAMS training rounds and just shoot the rioters with hardcore paintball bullets. They mark suspects with fluorescent dye and hurt like hell.
Or perhaps if they asked really nicely, maybe the Army could borrow the US Marine Corps’s Silent Guardian emitter area denial system. It projects a high-energy 1m x 1m for about 250m. Used between gang members in Californian prisons, anything in its way instantly suffers searing pain but no lasting side effects or injuries.
Since it was built to break up riots and take down committed armed fanatics, what are the chances that disaffected youths and looters might think twice about how badly they wanted to steal that 42in TV and new trainers? It all depends on exactly how “robust” home secretary Theresa May wants the riot response to be.