Page last updated at 04:58 GMT, Wednesday, 22 April 2009 05:58 UK

Testing the terror truck bombs


The BBC's Daniel Sandford describes the truck bomb test

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

It starts with a whirring sound like a rollercoaster winding up to the top of its drop - and ends with the most enormous ear-splitting crash.

Parts of a seven and a half tonne truck go flying in all directions, a car alarm goes off and the witnesses just - but only just - manage to suppress four letter words in shock.

But then the dust settles and the target hit by a truck at high speed at the Transport Research Laboratory in Berkshire is still standing. An apparently unassuming stone clad wall, about a metre high and 60 cm thick, is barely marked, as if nothing has happened.

Welcome to the world of truck bomb counter-terrorism - and the vehicles wrecked weekly in the name of stopping it.

Ever since the rise of the IRA, a secretive team of British scientists and engineers have played cat and mouse with violent extremists - trying to out-think the worst forms of attack that could occur against British interests.

The remains of the lorry alongside the anti-terror truck wall which is intact
Still standing: Wall scratched - but intact

The 9/11 attacks demonstrated the profound effect that a single terror plot can have with the simplest of weapons. The Iraq War two years later saw the rise of suicide truck bombs.

Here in the UK, none of this was lost on security officials behind the government's counter-terrorism strategy. The 2007 botched attacks on London and Glasgow Airport brought the threat closer to home - although a previously foiled plot was designed along similar lines.

Glasgow publicly exposed the threat - and scientists and engineers have since then redoubled efforts to find the barriers, bollards, fences and walls capable of withstanding whatever is thrown at them.

This week the BBC was given exclusive access to this sensitive government testing programme and its solutions for protecting vital public buildings and spaces.

Huge programme

At the heart of the programme are more than 100 crashes a year as engineers propel vehicles at new security products.

Barriers at Parliament
Black steel barriers were put in front of Parliament

When a product is signed off, it is added to a national list of kit for recommendation to authorities around the country.

Back in government, the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, which answers to MI5, gets on with listing what needs protecting.

Westminster, for example, has been transformed in recent years. Parliament itself is now surrounded by a special security barrier capable of stopping a truck bomb. Whitehall's new bollards do the same job in a slightly different way.

All this effort is underpinned by an ever-growing database of engineering calculations and terrain surveys. This computer modelling takes the guess-work out of planning for the worst case scenario because the engineers can tell town planners and architects what speed a truck bomber could reach on any given road - and the effect of an explosion if protective measures are not in place.

Armed with this information, the strategy is to transform the security of more British cities by providing greater protection for less money - and with improved aesthetics.

In many cases, bombers can be hindered by subtle changes to road layouts or security cordons far from the anticipated target. But sometimes only the toughest materials and most obvious security features will do.

This week's test involved a 90cm wall made of Corus Bi-steel. It's a special double-skinned British-made construction frame manufactured in the company's huge Scunthorpe steel works.

It's sunk into specialist foundations and concrete is poured into the middle to finish it off. Then planners can clad the wall in a decorative finish, such as local bricks.

The specialist team at TRL rigged up a 7.5 tonne lorry and propelled it at 50mph into the wall at an angle of 60 degrees as part of a test of protection for an unnamed site outside London.

As you can see from the video at the top of this story - the truck came off the loser. The wall was barely scratched.

Security and politics

The annual counter-terrorism budget has now reached £3.5bn a year - and we do not know how much is being spent on tests like the one we witnessed - but projects involving walls like the Corus Bi-Steel cost hundreds of pounds a metre without the huge headache of moving pipes and cables to get the right foundations in the ground.

At London's new look St Pancras Station, the subterranean ticket hall is so close to the surface that security experts had to devise a unique inter-locking steel foundation system to provide the support for the innocuous looking stainless steel bollards.

Security Minister Lord West said it was right to invest the money in finding the right defences for the right locations.

Emirates Stadium, north London
Arsenal: Lettering can withstand attack

"If that explosive gets another 20 or 30 feet forward, rather than stopping where the barrier is, it has a dramatic effect on the target it is aiming at," said Lord West. "We work these figures out very accurately. It's very important to do that - and now we can achieve that."

But the more political question is how prepared are the public to see their landscape change?

The security barriers at the Houses of Parliament have been criticised as threatening and damaging to the spirit of open democracy. Most people in Westminster however now accept them as a fact of life.

The big battle beyond London is persuading local authorities and others to think seriously about these issues despite their misgivings. Arsenal's Emirates stadium development is considered a leading example of what can be done without scaring people away.

It has world-class vehicle bomb security built into its design, including the sculpture lettering on one of its approaches - and the positioning of the club's trademark canons. Gunners regard all of this as part of the stadium's iconic design - deterrence blended into the landscape.

Lord West said: "I don't want people to think that this threat isn't very real and very severe - but equally I want people to be able to live their lives normally.

"If they don't, then the terrorists have achieved what they want to achieve - and we shouldn't let them."

Graphic: Anti-terror measures for public buildings

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