Scotland Yard has created an SAS-style unit of armed officers to counter the threat of a terrorist gun attack in Britain.
The 130 counter-terrorism specialist firearms officers who make up the elite unit have been equipped with new weapons and retrained in new tactics, such as fast-roping from helicopters and storming burning buildings to rescue hostages.
The unit has trained alongside the army’s special forces to respond to assaults such as the 2008 attacks in Mumbai and the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi, which developed into a siege. It will also be looking to see if any lessons can be learned from Friday’s massacre in Tunisia.
Police and the emergency services will hold their biggest ever counter-terrorism exercise in central London on Tuesday.
Police chiefs are adamant that their officers rather than soldiers would respond to a terrorist gun attack on Britain’s streets, but accept the military would probably have to become involved as the crisis played out.
They have been wrestling with how a largely unarmed police service might deal with such an event, possibly across multiple locations in an urban area.
Regular officers have been told to call in armed colleagues. First on the scene would be one of the hundreds of armed officers who routinely patrol in armed response vehicles.
They would take no longer than 15 minutes to arrive, or even less for areas identified as prime targets, such as Whitehall. The new CTSFO unit would also be scrambled.
Police chiefs believe terrorist attacks such as the one in Nairobi show that most casualties happen in the first hour or two.
A senior police source said the new unit would aim to arrest the attackers, but would be prepared to contain and “neutralise” them. “We’re police officers, not soldiers. We’re not at war. Our job is to arrest people,” the source said.
Even if faced with a gunman or gunmen on the rampage, the unit would not have orders to shoot to kill, but would be told to use minimum force. They would not be “firing the maximum number of bullets” and their actions would be subject to the criminal law.
They have, nevertheless, been issued with SIG 516 weapons and trained to shoot to the head if necessary. Armed officers are traditionally trained to shoot towards the centre of the chest.
They new unit has also been trained to take to speedboats in case of an attack from water,and to “fast-rope” from helicopters should road traffic be gridlocked following an attack.
There is no intelligence of an imminent gun attack on Britain, but the two-day exercise in London this week will test how police, the emergency services and government would cope with the intense strain of a such an event.
The government’s Cobra emergency committee will take part in the exercise, which was devised in January.
The announcement by the prime minister, David Cameron, of beefed up counter-terrorism measures and a renewed drive against extremism is otherwise expected to make little difference to policing practices. Officers have been engaged in unprecedented levels of activity for nine months already, making nearly one terrorism-related arrest a day.
The deployment of hundreds of officers, 600 so far, to deal with the attack on Britons in Tunisia, comes at a time of strain for the police counter-terrorism network, made up of Scotland Yard’s S015 and a series of regional units.
Senior officers have convinced the government to give counter-terrorism policing more money, but they worry privately that cuts to neighbourhood policing, including a potential reduction in the number of frontline officers, would damage the contacts and trust gained among communities and thus the intelligence gathered.
In May, Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer, Mark Rowley, said: “Our discussions over the next few months in terms of the spending rounds … around counter-terrorism, will make the point it’s not simply about the counter-terrorism network enforcement, its about the strength of those other elements of policing.”
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