PARAMILITARY police squads armed with machine guns that can fire 750 rounds a minute will be set up across Britain to tackle the threat of a Mumbai-style terror attack in the run-up to the London Olympics.
In a move that will change the face of British policing, chief constables have agreed to buy several hundred Heckler&Koch G36 machineguns to arm the new units.
The squads will be composed of marksmen hand-picked from forces and will be attached to units in London, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and other regional centres. They will be on stand-by for 24hours a day to deal with any attempts to replicate the raid by 10 gunmen on Mumbai in November 2008 in which 174 people died.
As well as terrorists they will be called out to incidents such as that involving Derrick Bird, the taxi driver who killed 12 people in Cumbria this summer before shooting himself.
The move follows months of Whitehall wrangling. Some regional chiefs had been reluctant to back the plan, fearing it would transform the image of the British bobby. But it has the backing of David Cameron, who is said to have taken a close interest in how to address the terrorist threat.
The machine guns are being deployed by the German and Spanish armies and have been used in counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have a range of 800 metres and can be fitted with a grenade-launcher. They will supplement the current model used by British police which is configured to fire a single round at a time.
The network will be under the control of local chief constables. But in a national emergency such as a terrorist assault they will be overseen by a new national co-ordinator based at Scotland Yard. The anti-terrorist firearms response teams will mirror the half dozen or so regional counterterrorist hubs set up after the July 2005 London bombings in which 52 people died.
Those hubs, comprising joint MI5 and police teams, aimed to address a lack of intelligence about Islamist terror plots hatched outside London – a failure behind MI5’s inability to anticipate the 7/7 attacks, which were largely planned in Bradford and Leeds. The hubs have been considered a success and in the past five years have helped to thwart at least half a dozen similar attacks in the regions.
Police squads are training with the SAS in tactics designed to tackle the threat of terrorists taking hostages.
Plans for a national firearms network include contingencies for joint operations with the army, with police squads supported by SAS tactical advisers and trained to kill terrorists before they can cause multiple casualties.
One senior officer said the main aim was to fill a critical gap in capability between the SAS and the police. It requires a pro-active approach to suppress terrorist firepower, which is expected to be most lethal during the first hour of an assault.
The SAS has headquarters in Hereford and central London, but it would take troops at least an hour to get to an incident outside those two areas.
“The requirement to meet the threat goes beyond the mission of the police. So it’s been decided that the police need new tactics to meet the threat,” the source said.
The plans are formally described as part of longer-term preparations to protect the 2012 Olympics. They have been fast-tracked because of intelligence reports about a Mumbai-style attack on Britain, Germany or France.
Security chiefs are monitoring Al-Qa’ida plans to carry out multiple commando-style attacks on hotels or restaurants in London or other cities.