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U.K. military shows off missiles to protect Olympics

(AP) LONDON - On a muddy field on the outskirts of London, Britain's military showed off a weapon Thursday it hopes it never has to use.

The Rapier surface-to-air missile has the power to take down a Boeing 747 full of passengers if needed to protect a stadium full of 80,000 Olympic spectators in a terrorism nightmare scenario.

The British military has insisted that the missiles — with a range of up to 8,000 meters (five miles) — could be deployed as the last line of defense. Experts say the likelihood that they will be fired is slim to none.

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Downing an aircraft would still cause debris to rain from the sky, high casualties and fires.

"When you launch a Rapier missile and shoot down an aircraft, it's not like the whole thing vanishes. It's 100 tons of metal, scraps, and other stuff that is coming down," said Jan Wind, a retired Dutch Navy captain who is director of the Hague-based Wiser Consultancy.

"If a Rapier is used, the damage could be just about the same as the intentions of the terrorist — only on another spot. The goal of the terrorists will be met in a certain sense," Wind said.

It's rare for the British military to publicize the location of its weapons, but the military says it hopes that any potential attacks will be deterred by showing the missile strength and other defense assets such as Typhoon fighter jets.

Ground-to-air missiles have been a fixture of Olympic games and large VIP events in the post-9/11 world, but London's missiles have sparked outrage among residents of an apartment block who learned that the Rapiers might be stationed on their roof.

They say the missiles are creating a climate of fear — which security experts suggest is exactly the point. That's because the systems are more valuable as deterrents than as deployed weapons, Wind said.

"The British army and air force don't do all this to really shoot down a terrorist aircraft, they do it to display their determination to do so, which will hopefully prevent the terrorists from attacking," Wind said. "If you know that there are 500 policeman outside the jewelry store, you will not go there and try to rob the store."

The likelihood of an aircraft being used as a weapon is low, yet countermeasures make sense, said Charles Pena, a defense expert at the Oakland, California-based Independent Institute.

"Nobody wants to be the person who made the decision not to deploy and then have something bad happen and be criticized for it," Pena added. "There's no such thing as too much security."

Residents who protest against missile deployments need to understand the deterrent effect, said Bryan McGrath, an independent defense consultant based in Washington, D.C.

"The people of London should consider this a prudent measure that represents the last act in what would have to be a horrific chain of events," he said.

At that point, there is no good solution, and a decision would be needed quickly whether to fire Rapier or Starstreak missiles that travel at just over 1,520 miles per hour or 2,280 miles per hour (2,450 kph to 3,670 kph) respectively.

"You're making a decision on how many people are going to die at that point," McGrath said. "These are terrible things to have to consider."