Sensors and surveillance Scanning the skies over the London Olympics

As millions of TV viewers watched Usain Bolt sprint his way to glory in the 100-metre final at the 2012 London Olympics, the tension reigned on every level – not least because of the heightened risk of a terrorist threat to the British capital. But as with any such major event, stringent security measures were taken: one being the use of Saab’s Giraffe AMB radar system.

There’s nothing more exciting than the Olympics, with countless people all around the world glued to their screens, cheering on their favourites. But such a significant sporting event also brings a major security risk, with the imminent threat of a terrorist attack always top of mind.

In the summer of 2012, every effort had been made to maintain situational awareness and provide reliable protection across greater London and the southeast of England during the Olympics, particularly during the opening ceremony and 100-metre final. Monitoring the airspace was one key measure taken to ensure peace of mind, and the British security and defence forces relied on Sweden for help with this mission. They deployed Saab’s state-of-the-art Giraffe AMB surface 3D radar to keep track of all overhead activity – because there was no room for surprises.


Photo: Christian Lövgren, Swedish Armed Forces

Keeping prepared, boosting security

The Giraffe is not just any old radar. With its 12-metre antenna, this highly accurate ground-based air surveillance and defence technology is an integrated self-contained command, control, communications and intelligence system that enables continuous situational awareness. It is better than other radar systems at identifying small aircraft, for example, where there is a great deal of other traffic. It can also detect aircraft with or without flight transponders, detecting and tracking objects and delivering a 360-degree picture of what’s going on in the air, even in extreme weather.

It also offers automatic threat evaluation, and predicts the location of any potential impact, generating an automatic advance warning signal and allowing any countermeasures to be taken swiftly.

In a comment published online by the Swedish Armed Forces, Air Marshall Stuart Atha of the UK Royal Air Force said that with its UndE 23 (the Swedish air defence force’s name for Saab’s Giraffe AMB), Sweden has a long-range radar coverage system and level of expertise that Britain doesn’t yet have. He noted that without it, there would have been a gap in the security network built by the British defence forces around the Olympics.

Delivering the necessary details

Strategically installed on a rocky mound in a military test and training area close to the River Thames just over five miles from central London, the advanced radar system was kept up and running 24/7, with Swedish defence personnel from Halmstad manning the site and working in shifts to ensure round-the-clock security.

Sworn to secrecy as to the nature and whereabouts of their mission, which was known as “Operation Sea Eagle” (Operation Havsörn), some 18 Swedish officers and specialists had been commissioned to provide the British with a clear and detailed picture of all activity going on in the air across southeast England.

While air traffic was strictly controlled during the Olympics and the airspace over London had largely been cleared, the occasional unidentified aircraft would be detected, leading to intense speculation and suspicion. Ever on the alert, the British would immediately call the Swedish operating unit to request details of the altitude, speed and nature of the aircraft. Within seconds, the optimised information would be handed over to the British who were fully prepared to implement countermeasures. Fortunately, there was never any reason for them to do so.

Speaking of Sweden’s part in the operation, Stefan Jönsson, Commanding Officer of the Air Defence Regiment, is quoted on the Swedish Armed Forces’ website saying: “We feel very proud that the British turned to us for support. This shows that Swedish air defence is world class both in terms of materials and personnel.”



Key collaboration

Several years ago, Sweden and Great Britain signed a Memorandum of Understanding on their cooperation in the radar domain, with Sweden regularly participating in British exercises and both parties exchanging valuable data, knowledge and experience. It was through their collaboration that Great Britain got to know of Sweden’s cutting-edge radar technology and decided to ask for assistance in this domain. With its solution from Saab, Sweden was happy to help.


Photos in this article: Christian Lövgren, Swedish Armed Forces