UK warship in narrow escape ahead of Olympic test

ABOARD HMS OCEAN, GREENWICH, England Fri May 4, 2012 1:52pm EDT

ABOARD HMS OCEAN, GREENWICH, England, May 4 (Reuters) - B ritain's biggest warship narrowly escaped a spot of trouble on Friday when it just scraped through a tight gap on the Thames river on its way to join a pre-Olympics exercise in London.

It was always going to be a squeeze for the 35-metre wide helicopter carrier HMS Ocean to safely sail through one of the 61-metre gaps in the moveable flood barriers which lie downstream on the Thames from the centre of the British capital.

As it approached the Thames Barrier, the wind appeared to push her sideways towards one of the 20-metre tall steel gates, passing within a hair's breadth with the help of three tugboats.

HMS Ocean is taking part in an eight-day exercise codenamed Olympic Guardian, which will test land, sea and air operations for a safe Games this summer in what will be Britain's biggest peacetime security operation.

The warship, which last year operated off the Libyan coast, will act as a launch pad for eight Lynx helicopters and snipers.

Its appearance on the waterway which cuts through the heart of London is a rare sight for residents and some commentators have criticised the military operation, saying the deployment of Typhoon fighter jets and ground-based air defence systems is over-the-top.

High velocity missiles may be placed on the rooftops of apartment blocks, including next to the Olympic Park in east London, during the Games which begin on July 27.

A leading columnist writing in the left-leaning Guardian newspaper said: "These boys-with-toys are costing taxpayers one billion pounds yet they cannot add an iota to national security.

"They have nothing to do with deterring terrorism, even supposing there to be any such threat.

"The modern terrorist uses suicide tactics, by definition immune to deterrence."

But Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told reporters aboard HMS Ocean that Londoners and visitors should be reassured by the sight of such weaponry: "I don't think it's over the top.

"Every Olympic Games in recent times has had a significant military component to its security plan."

He said police would deal with any possible threat from a so-called lone-wolf type attack.

No specific threats have been made to the Games, he said.

As one of the biggest supporters of the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain has long been regarded as a prime target for attacks.

Suicide bombers killed 52 people in co-ordinated attacks in London on the day after the city was awarded the Games in July 2005.

Security patrol boats accompanied the warship as it made its way past landmarks such as Canary Wharf.

"I think our communities will really be pleased to see us among them because we are not threatening them, we're a protection force," General Nick Parker, in charge of the military's Olympics role said.

"I think our communities will really be pleased to see us among them because we are not threatening them, we're a protection force."

HMS Ocean will be berthed at historic Greenwich, near the Olympic Park and other venues, during the Games.

Hammond was brought onboard by a landing craft after the helicopter he was supposed to have travelled on developed a technical problem.

The day of near mishaps was completed after the minister tripped on his way to address the ship's crew below deck. (Reporting by Avril Ormsby, editing by Paul Casciato)