A crack team of military electronic warfare specialists were prevented from bringing the Gatwick drone crisis to a halt just hours after it started because Ministers refused to sanction their deployment.
Ten troops from the Royal Air Force 2 Field Communications Squadron and four from the Army’s 14 Signal Regiment were put on standby following the first sighting at 9pm on Wednesday.
The highly skilled units were poised to be flown into Gatwick in Chinook helicopters and were ready to use sophisticated anti-drone weaponry which would have intercepted and crippled the device. It could even have tracked down the culprits.
Military electronic warfare specialists were prevented from bringing the Gatwick drone crisis to a halt just hours after it started by Ministers (pictured, military equipment guarded by an airman on the airport’s roof on Saturday)
But The Mail on Sunday has been told by high-level Whitehall sources that officials at the Department for Transport and the Home Office stopped the troops taking action for up 18 hours – as the situation descended into a crisis that brought misery to more than 140,000 travellers.
Last night a source said: ‘Keeping the military at bay when they had the expertise and the kit ready to go on Wednesday night was madness.
‘I think this situation could have been brought under control 24 hours earlier had the right decisions been taken.
‘There was a reluctance in the Department for Transport, which is responsible for Gatwick, and to some extent in the Home Office, to use the Armed Forces and as a result the airport was paralysed for longer.
‘The incident has to be a huge wake-up call for Government departments and Ministers who sat on their hands in the early stages of the crisis and made it much worse than it needed to be.
‘Next time it could be a terrorist attack on an airport using drones – and hundreds of lives could be at stake.’
High-level Whitehall sources said officials at the Department for Transport and the Home Office stopped the troops taking action for up 18 hours
The decision not to deploy the troops is all the more shocking because strict laws prevent police and other law enforcement agencies from using jamming equipment which would have neutralised the drone.
But the Armed Forces are exempt from these regulations and can use this highly effective kit in the event of a national emergency.
As the troops waited at their UK bases to fly to Gatwick Airport, drones were seen repeatedly during Thursday, disrupting 246 departures and 202 arrivals, and affecting 72,500 passengers.
Finally a formal request for military assistance was made by Sussex Police at 3.56pm on Thursday, 19 hours after the first sighting of drones at Gatwick.
The support of the Armed Forces to civil authorities in the UK is officially known as Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA) and is strictly regulated.
The role is part of the National Security Strategy and involves troops being brought in to provide niche capabilities, such as defusing bombs or assisting police in anti-terror operations.
An array of anti-drone technology helped to reopen Gatwick Airport after almost 36 hours of chaos
Under MACA guidelines, a Government department must make a formal request for help when there is a clear reason for troops to be involved. This is usually agreed at ministerial level. Military assistance is co-ordinated by the Ministry of Defence’s Operations Directorate in London which, it is understood, became involved in the Gatwick crisis on Wednesday night.
This newspaper has also been told that the military teams are expected to remain at Gatwick for the next fortnight to protect the airport from further drone incursions – a decision which means the troops will spend Christmas away from their families.
Last night, the Department for Transport refused to say what, if any, additional security measures would be introduced at other UK airports to combat the threat of drones, some of which are large enough to wreck a plane’s engine if they collided, potentially leading to the deaths of hundreds of passengers.
A Transport Department spokesman said: ‘I cannot comment on operational matters.’