A decade after it was launched, journalists have finally been given their first glimpse of Britain's biggest and most awesome building project, Heathrow Terminal 5. There's not much to see yet – just a few cranes and the odd dumper truck rumbling through the dirt (pages 24-27). But this is only the beginning. BAA proposes to spend £3.7bn on the terminal and associated infrastructure in three years: a rate of about £20m a week. It will ensure that this money is well spent by deploying the latest prefabrication, value engineering and logistical techniques; it will also have project insurance, on-site training centres and will provide jobs for local youngsters. If all goes well, it will draw the blueprint for 21st-century construction. However, the most intriguing aspect of T5 is not the building itself, but the management of the labour force. We've already discussed the jaw-dropping £55,000-a-year pay deal, but that's only the half of it.

With real soldiers fighting real battles in Iraq, it's a little crass to apply military metaphors to the construction of an airport terminal in the UK. But to journalists at last Friday's briefing, the parallels were inescapable. Like embedded war reporters, they were given a clipped, jargon-heavy briefing by T5's supreme command, before official minders bussed them around the site. As in Iraq, any real discussion of strategy – especially the progress of the design – was off limits. The next briefing is in three months, complete, no doubt, with grainy satellite photographs of the site.

Forget the journalists, though. It's the site workers who'll really feel as if they're in the army now. More than 4000 people will be encamped in hostels and caravans on site, fenced off from the community; elsewhere, platoons of reservists will be trained to cover in case of accidents. Security will be omnipresent, with guards patrolling the camp, swipe cards and the same face-recognition software as the Israelis use to screen Palestinian labourers. Many of these innovations are the brainchild of lead contractor Laing O'Rourke. But it comes as no surprise to learn that construction director Andrew Wolstenholme was once an army captain.

How will the workers cope? Anyone used to the haphazard organisation of most building projects might find T5 a bit Orwellian at first. But on the other hand, they are being handsomely rewarded for sacrificing some of their freedom of movement. From BAA's perspective, security has to be paramount in the current climate: it's barely a month since tanks were cruising around Heathrow looking for SAM launchers. Equally, the sheer scale and pace of the operation at T5 – the size of 100 football pitches – will require military precision to execute. Anyone caught mucking around can expect to be terminated with extreme prejudice.

One concern, though, is what happens after hours. There's some suggestion that the camp will include a pub and a cybercafe (how very 2003). But just as it appears to have a plan for everything else at T5, BAA mustn't leave the evening entertainment to chance. The thought of 5000 bored and thirsty builders cooped up in a caravan park night after night doesn't bear thinking about. As generals have learned, the success of an operation usually hinges on the morale of the troops; ditto armies of builders. Heaven help the site manager if he can't find a big screen and a few hundred crates of lager for the next England game.