UK vs Russia nuclear arsenal: How the facts stack up as UK dwarfed by Russian might

Ukraine: LBC commentator on possibility of nuclear conflict

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Russian President Vladimir Putin cited aggressive sanctions by Western nations and NATO as the reason for ordering his military command to put nuclear deterrence forces on high alert on Sunday, February 27. In a statement provided by the Russian state media agency TASS, Putin said: “Senior officials of the leading NATO countries also allow aggressive statements against our country, therefore I order the Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff [of the Russian Armed Forces] to transfer the deterrence forces of the Russian army to a special mode of combat duty.”

He said: “Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly economic actions against our country, but leaders of major NATO countries are making aggressive statements about our country. 

“So I order to move Russia’s deterrence forces to a special regime of duty.”

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Putin’s decision to increase Russia’s nuclear deterrent level was “about distracting the world and the public from what he’s actually doing in Ukraine”.

He told Sky News: “It doesn’t link to anything specific in the readiness structures of their forces.

“We keep it under review, but of course, NATO has a nuclear deterrent, the United Kingdom is NATO’s nuclear deterrent, and we keep our readiness very high.

“That’s why we have a continued at-sea deterrent. But we shouldn’t really forget that this is a big attempt to distract away from his troubles in Ukraine by just deploying into the sort of media space these phrases.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson also dismissed the increased alert as a “distraction”.

So just how many nuclear weapons does Russia have?

Russia has the largest nuclear capability in the world, with a total of 6,257 nuclear warheads comprising 1,458 active weapons – 3,039 available to be deployed and 1,760 retired.

Its arsenal is closely followed by the US with 5,600 – together the two nations possess around 93 percent of all nuclear weapons on earth.

Russia’s nuclear stockpile was increased following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 whereby Ukraine – which held around a third of the union’s nuclear weaponry and had the biggest share of the nuclear arsenal globally – returned stocks to Russia in exchange for economic aid and security.

And how many nuclear weapons does the UK have?

By contrast, the UK currently has 225 nuclear weapons – of which 120 are available for deployment – operating under Trident. 

Operated by the Royal Navy, the programme consists of four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines armed with up to 16 Trident missile tubes each.

These are based in Scotland at HMNB Clyde, one of three operating bases in the UK – the others being HMNB Devonport and HMNB Portsmouth.

The Ministry of Defence says Trident’s role is to “deter the most extreme threats to our national security and way of life, which cannot be done by other means”.

One submarine, carrying approximately 40 warheads, is at sea at all times acting as a continuous deterrent while two remain in port ready to be deployed and the fourth remains in overhaul.

The UK’s nuclear weapons programme was codenamed Tube Alloys during the Second World War and in 1952 became the third country in the world to develop and test nuclear weapons after the US and the Soviet Union.

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How quickly could a nuclear bomb get to the UK?

If fired from Kaliningrad, the closest part of Russia to the UK, on the border with Poland, it would take roughly 20 minutes from launch for a bomb to strike London.

Speaking with MyLondon, Professor Andrew Futter, a senior University of Leicester academic and leading nuclear weapons expert said this would give the UK about 15 minutes to prepare – but the UK does not have any way of intercepting missiles.

He said: “It wouldn’t give us time to do anything. Government officials might be OK, there is a bunker under Whitehall and some places VIPs can hide.”

Explosions cover a wide radius stretching over half a mile in all directions and vaporise anything in sight.

People up to five miles away will receive third-degree burns from the heat while those up to seven miles away will receive second and first-degree burns.

The danger of a nuclear bomb continues as radiation is spread to the upper atmosphere in the towering mushroom cloud with material pushed falling to earth spread over hundreds of miles.

Who else has nuclear weapons? 

There are six other countries known to have nuclear arsenals: China, France, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea.

All nuclear-owning nations apart from North Korea – who withdrew in 2003 – have signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – an international agreement of 191 countries to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. 

The agreement involves non-proliferation, disarmament, and the right to peacefully use nuclear energy.

The total of nuclear weapons globally has dropped by around 80 percent since the end of the Cold War, from an estimated 70,300 in 1986 to 13,100 in late 2021.

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