Special Escort Group – Nuclear weapon convoys

Nuclear weapon convoys

From TalkThrough – The Magazine of the Ministry of Defence
Issue 117 March/April 2004

Convoy on roadSo, what is so special about working for the SEG?

This was a question TalkThrough put to various members of the Special Escort Group when they were preparing for an annual assessment.

Before you hear their answers, Inspector Brian Abram, Escort Commander, runs through the history of nuclear weapons transportation and the vehicles currently used for escort duties.

History

“In 1993, the SEG took over the traffic element with motorcyclists for the first time replacing the RAF motorcyclists. By 2002, MDP SEG had taken over completely from the RAF, which had until then used a Squadron Leader and a Flight Lieutenant in Commanding roles, replaced now by a Chief Inspector and Inspector to run the convoys. This consists now of three organisations involved in the convoy namely Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines, AWE civilian personnel and the SEG (MDP).”

Vehicles

InspectorThe Stand Off Escort – Royal Marines provide armed military personnel to counter any potential threat and the SEG´s role in all this is the close escort (security) and traffic management throughout any convoy move.

“The Escort Commander vehicle leads the convoy. This is where I come into the picture. From here, I navigate the routes and manage the timings by constantly being kept informed of traffic situations up ahead and to make judgements on whether to carry on or change from the plan. Safety is the paramount consideration and the object is to go through junctions and roundabouts as safely as possible by using motorcyclists and a traffic car to police traffic control.

“Then we come to the TCHDs, or Truck Cargo Heavy Duty vehicles. We normally run with three but we are capable of having five on the road at one time. An AWE driver is accompanied by an SEG officer as Close Escort.

“Following is the Fire Tender, with staff employed by AWE – the Convoy Safety Officer & Fire Crew and then we have the Convoy Commander´s Vehicle, manned by Chief Inspector Richard Willcocks and his team.

“The Traffic Car with two SEG police officers keep traffic behind by putting on a ‘rolling block´ whenever there is a traffic build up ahead or the convoy approaches hazards such as roundabouts or junctions.

“Two miles behind the main part of the Convoy there is a Support Element that includes a Convoy Support vehicle and a Recovery vehicle. The AWE provides a Deputy Convoy Safety Officer who is responsible for this element.

“Finally, but still very important to the team, there is the Coach; no, not someone who gets us running and exercising at the crack of dawn. This is our transport to our night´s accommodation at our final destination.’

Special Escort Group

So, what about protestors?

Convoy stopped Inspector Abram explains, “We get protestors regularly who try to stop the convoy and climb onto the TCHD´s, taking photographs of their colleagues in action and putting these on their internet site. However, I have to say we train on a regular basis to counter any protest!

MDP motorcyclists and the traffic car officers do make arrests and then hand over “prisoners’ to the local Police Force so that we can keep moving.

Within a couple of weeks of the operations starting at Fairford last year (Op Telic) the SEG were called in to assist with the convoys from Welford, replacing traffic command & control previously carried out by the local Police Force because of the threat of increased protestor activity.’

Explain the training you undergo

“New officers within the SEG undergo both theory and practicals on, firstly, an Arrivals Course; this is one week long on the different roles in the convoy. Then they go on another week´s course, a Specialist Course, on close escort duties, both courses involve table-top exercises. Thirdly, a one week NARO, or Nuclear Accident Response Organisation, trains on monitoring for contamination and cross-cordon procedures.

All Convoy personnel reinforce what has been learned with regular, three monthly, exercise scenarios to prevent “skill fade’. These include anti-terrorist exercises, nuclear protest tactics and armed security.’

Licence to operate?

Guns and bombs“We undergo an annual assessment,’ explains Inspector Abram,’ both on the road and during a training exercise and these are assessed by the Nuclear Weapon Regulator.

Also, around every two years we have a more intense type of exercise where all the stakeholders get involved from the Army, RAF, Navy, Local Police, Emergency Services and including our customer the Warship Support Agency. This includes mock media scenarios to quiz key personnel who then produce a news sheet – this certainly keeps us on our toes. We base our exercises not only from past experiences on the road but are very aware of current events worldwide.’

Have you been in the press?

“Oh, sure, we always have the potential to attract headlines. For instance, I have a copy of an article in a Local paper in Glasgow in June 2002 entitled “Weapons Convoy in protest Ambush,’ and another in October 2003, this time in the Helensburgh Advertiser, proclaiming: “Nuclear Convoy Hit by Breakdown.’

What is so special about working on the SEG?

“For me, as Escort Commander this is a very responsible role from which I get tremendous satisfaction. I travel to other parts of the country and liaise with lots of people who have an input or interest in the Convoy, particularly working closely with local Police Forces and not forgetting my own colleagues. Travelling together over a few days when the Convoy is out means we have even greater team spirit as we see each other as people on and off duty, not just as uniformed MDP officers.’

Would you say it is a good career move being with the SEG?

Oh, definitely. For instance, John Braund is one of three Temporary Sergeants who is currently preparing himself for the promotion examination and assessment centre. We also have a Temporary Inspector fulfilling a Special Nuclear Material role that will be covered next time in TalkThrough.’

Tell the readers what you do

As Escort Commander I am also involved in giving presentations to the Home Department Police Forces, all the ones whose areas we travel through. Then there is the training, I teach on courses run on a regular basis at Aldermaston which refer to the MDP role.

So, you could say my role is trainer, marketing/publicity, manager of staff and the group and then, of paramount importance, the safety and security of the convoy. It is an operationally demanding role.

Everyone on the SEG enjoys the job and the additional responsibilities that they have and all of them are volunteers. We get a good balance of personalities and because we work so closely together we have the opportunities to make improvements for the benefit of everyone.’

On a more personal note I appreciate the reality of the SEG does take you away from home on a regular basis.

However, personally the satisfaction and responsibility of the role balances the inconvenience and, when not away, our duty hours are Monday-Friday, 8-4 with every weekend off; well, most of them. Finally, every officer, on completion of their training and achievement of Convoy Qualified status, receives a Special Priority Payment and last year it was £2000. This certainly helped make up for that amount of responsibility and being away from home.’

Thank you Inspector Brian Abram.

We will now skip a few days. It is a freezing February afternoon and the convoy is about to arrive at its training venue for one of its regular training sessions. Awaiting the arrival of the convoy are two men in plain clothes sitting at the edge of the taxiway in an unmarked van.

The two are John Cox and Richard Davis, currently undergoing training, having joined the SEG in December 2003.

Why do you think people might hesitate to join the SEG?

“First,’ explains John, “I´d say a big part of it is down to perception. People may think that nuclear transportation will be harmful to your health. But, there is less radiation to your body from this role than, say, a flight over the Atlantic to the States.

“Secondly,’ he continues,’ the AWE area is considered very expensive to live in. On average a 3-bedroom semi costs anything from £180,000 upwards, which is out of reach for many MDP officers. But I know the Superintendent is trying to do something about this.’

The convoy arrives and is soon under wraps in a hangar. This is TalkThrough’s chance to meet some more of the team.

Chief Inspector Richard Willcocks, tell us what it’s like holding a senior position with the SEG?

“It certainly is a worthwhile job and extremely important for the safety of the United Kingdom and its people. Not only is it a good careerbuilding opportunity but the daily buzz and excitement, with no two days alike, is great.’

As Convoy Commander, what are your duties?

“I am at the rear of the convoy in the Convoy Commander vehicle, so if anything occurred to the convoy, it would probably take place ahead of me. I am the person with overall Command & Control with responsibility for the AWE, Royal Marines and Ministry of Defence Police.

In the event of an incident, I have all these resources at my disposal. The team is large and likewise the support element. What we do, when we do it and where we go are all classified information. We vary the routes and timings so as to be unpredictable.’

Would you employ the same, or different tactics depending on who you were dealing with?

“Different tactics. Protestors have attempted to lock themselves onto our vehicles in the past. I do understand that everyone has a right to protest, but peacefully. However the terrorist faction would be a lot more complex. We are trained and prepared for that eventuality. As a minimum standard, we do 80 hours enhanced firearms tactics every year.’

Do you ever need more staff?

“We are going through a recruiting phase at the moment. We are looking for additional Chief Inspectors, for Convoy Commanders, and Inspectors for Escort Commanders. We also need Sergeant Team Leaders and Constables to join the Escort Group too. There have been Job descriptions in Personal Bulletins/General Orders last year. I am happy to answer any questions from any interested officers.’

Team Leader John Braund;

“I have been in the Escort Group for nearly 10 years and with the nuclear weapons convoy group since MDP took over from the RAF, 2 years ago. I have been a convoy qualified Team Leader for only a few weeks after an intensive training period and at the moment I am now the only one qualified in the Force, but there will be more.

It´s certainly a job that interests me. I need good communication skills to liaise with all three agencies being, so to speak, the “go-between’. Be under no illusion it is the Team Leader who really runs the show . . . ask anyone!’

You have some new trainees, how long will it take before they are fully operational?

“If all goes well, anything from 6 – 9 months when these officers qualify as Close Escorts. We have a mixture coming through from those who are halfway and those who are just starting. These officers are responsible for the security of the TCHDs throughout the convoy move. They work closely with the civilian driver ensuring there is no unauthorised access or breach in procedures.

Specialist Roles

You also have the opportunity to move into specialist areas. For example to become part of the Motorcycle traffic control team or Routes and Surveys. Likewise, those wanting to drive the traffic car or be involved in traffic duties would continually develop this training on top of the basic courses. We are currently being assessed with the Driver Training Section to assist our training requirements and are providing Motorway Awareness courses for the new officers on the SEG.

One of the Best Jobs in the Force

If you are keen, it can be one of the best jobs in the Force. I believe it has everything anybody wants. You are not tied to one position, each day is challenging particularly when you are escorting the country´s nuclear deterrent, it is highly responsible, you travel up and down the country and you feel valued.’

Do you agree that the expensive housing around Aldermaston could be partly to blame for a lack of applicants?

“Yes, you have probably hit the nail on the head. However house prices have increased around the country and I wonder if they are now almost equal in comparison.

I have one PC who does not want to move and he drives all the way from Avon and Somerset and that´s dedication. Well done PC Griffiths!’

TalkThrough met some Team Members who joined the SEG just over a year ago.

What are your impressions of the SEG?

PC John Lawson explains, “It´s a completely new role for me. I am learning new skills and the steep learning curve certainly keeps me motivated and interested.’

“Yes’, agrees PC Hugh Griffiths, “ I am learning firearms issues and tactical training. Then there are the opportunities to move onto motorbikes. The training is always evolving and being up-dated. I intend staying some time; it has certainly opened my eyes to possibilities. I would, though, like to see more officers coming in.’

PC Tony Walton is a Force Motor Cycle Instructor.

What is the role of the motorcycle team?

“We have three motorbikes on the road whose role is traffic control. We assist by changing priorities on the road to the convoy´s favour.’

What about Training?

“As with driver training, an officer will come to me for an assessment. We invite them on a Motorcycle Standard Response Course, a three week course that includes response training. They then put in some practice hours and come back to me later for an Advanced four week course.’

Do you instruct on motorcycles solely for Aldermaston and SEG use?

“No,’ explains Tony Walton, “I train the Force. They come to me as I have the bikes, it´s easier that way. We train on the road using Honda Pan European 1100 cc bikes. It will accelerate well and do 125 mph with police kit on board. The bikes are kitted out with the full police specification, with three radio systems, sirens and blue lights.’

Can anyone apply to join this team?

“They would have to train on other aspects of the convoy work first and then express an interest in working with the bikes; as vacancies come up they will then get the chance.

We have four qualified at the moment with another two hoping to pass the course soon. We always plan to have a couple of trained riders in reserve.’

How would you sum up your job?

“Very enjoyable. To go back to my previous role in the MDP would be a backward step.’

Let´s meet the Bike Team, sprucing up in readiness for the photo session.

Hell's Angels?PCs Gary Davis, Bruce Innes and Ian Hornett are ‘prepping´ their motorcycles. They run through all the checks, including the lights, rear blues, rear reds and front blues.

“People are more aware and courteous to a fully marked up Police motorcycle compared to when I am on my own civilian motorbike,’ says PC Gary Davis. “People actually stop when you require them to!’

How Do You Manage the Traffic?

New command vehicleExplains Tony Walton, “The first one to a hazard, be it a roundabout, accident, roadworks, traffic lights or collisions, takes it and stays with it until the convoy is through, then follows behind having thanked the traffic we have just held up.

“Take yesterday,’ interjects Gary, “we dealt with a car up ahead which had broken down and was blocking lane 3 on a motorway. We radioed back to the Escort Commander and asked for a rolling block. Although still moving, albeit more slowly, the traffic couldn´t get past the convoy. A gap in the traffic was created and we were then able to get the couple and their children onto the hard shoulder and, by that time, the local Police turned up and took over. The driver had been waiting for a gap in the traffic to run over the motorway; it was potentially an extremely dangerous situation they had found themselves in and it was pleasing to be of assistance.’

Mo Wilson-Brown is the driver of the Command Vehicle, a fully fitted, Mercedes Sprinter.

Go-betweenAs the driver, Mo, what do you think of your new vehicle?

“We‘ve only had it three months and it is brilliant to drive. It is also very well equipped and with plenty of space to take everything we need on board. We will eventually have a fleet of three of these.

I had been using the old RAF Ford transit vehicles we inherited. As a trained Standard Response driver, this is such a change for the better.

I have volunteered to go on a refresher Motorway Training Course at MDPHQ shortly; it is a continuous process of training and refresher training. Some of the newer officers are currently doing their Driver Training.’

A final few words from Superintendent Bill Hammersley …

Line up“The work undertaken by the MDP Special Escort Group is one of the most important tasks that the MDP are required to complete. The movement of Defence Nuclear Material ensures that the Government is able to maintain the effectiveness of its deterrent policy.

We are constantly seeking ways to provide flexibility in the movement of Defence Nuclear Material throughout the United Kingdom.

As a result of a recent review of nuclear security matters within the Ministry of Defence, the SEG complement will increase its numbers. We are always on the lookout for MDP officers who have a flexible and adaptable approach to their duties, who are capable of meeting the high standard required by officers on the SEG and who are seeking a challenge. So why don´t you give us a call and arrange a visit?

The Thames Valley region is, along with many other such parts of the country, a high cost area for housing. The Force has been working extremely hard to try to resolve this issue. I was therefore very pleased to be informed by Richard Clancy, Head of MDP Civilian Management, that: “We are in the process of finalising arrangements with the Defence Housing Executive that will enable MDP officers who meet certain qualifying criteria to submit applications to occupy a limited number of surplus Service Families Accommodation, located in the first instance at Arborfield and Windsor at subsidised monthly rents. This opportunity will be advertised in Force Orders shortly and will be open to officers stationed at the two AWE sites (this will include the SEG), and in the Greater London area.’

Weekly Notice LP 29/04 refers.

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Nukewatch Policy

We think that it is very important that Nukewatch continues to monitor the safety of UK nuclear warhead convoys, and that Convoy dangers are highlighted to the general public and those along its routes.

But we still think it's important that Nukewatch is not seen to be helping potential terrorists. So we do not put technical information on the websites such as vehicle number plates and short break locations in lay-bys. We only put out convoy movements in advance to our own network. This also means that we would not alert the media in advance, except to contact known and trusted journalists who might come along to report a convoy passing.