How long it would take nuclear weapons to reach London from Russia and what would happen if we wanted to shoot them down
Russian President Vladimir Putin is stepping up his rhetoric against the West, putting his nuclear arsenal on a “special alert” over the weekend. His dangerous language has made the unlikely prospect of a nuclear attack on NATO allies – including the UK – slightly more likely.
But while the prospect of Vladimir Putin targeting London remains highly remote, what would a nuclear attack on the capital look like and how could it be mitigated? MyLondon spoke to Professor Andrew Futter, a senior University of Leicester academic and leading nuclear weapons expert. He took us through some (worst case) scenarios of a Russian attack on Britain, just so we’re prepared.
The first and most terrifying lesson is that Prof Futter said: “We aren’t protected, basically.” He added: “We don’t have any way to intercept Russian ballistic missiles flying towards the UK.
“We might be able to block bomber aircraft, but much of the Russian nuclear arsenal is based on missiles. We would see missiles coming, we have satellites in North Yorkshire and access to US and NATO early warning systems.”
READ MORE: London is ‘well-prepared’ if Russia launches nuclear attack, says Sadiq Khan
Can we defend ourselves?
All this would give us about 15 minutes to prepare for a nuclear strike. Prof Futter added: “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.” I wasn’t particularly reassured on hearing this.
Filingdales, a base in North Yorkshire, sees the UK play host to a US radar missile defense system, which has the ability to track but not intercept missiles. “The nascent US and NATO missile defense systems would have some capability against launches from the Middle East but not Russia,” Prof. Futter says.
While Ronald Reagan’s dream of a “Star Wars” space-based missile defense system never came to full fruition, the US does have a ballistic missile defense system with a site in Europe. But here’s the bad news from Prof Futter who said: “It has virtually zero capability against Russian missiles that can deploy countermeasures.” In other words, some of Russia’s nuclear weapons can strike down missiles that are trying to stop them. Bombs bombing bombs, essentially.
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Why aren’t we protected?
We know that the US has the ability to intercept some nuclear strikes. Britain, on the whole, does not. Why? “One of the reasons is because of a belief in the deterrent value of nuclear weapons, because we believe our Trident system, based on submarines, would be very hard to attack,” Prof. Futter says.
The theory is that anyone attacking the UK would run the risk of retaliation and any rational leader wouldn’t do it. And NATO is a nuclear alliance, so any attack on the UK would “almost certainly” involve the US.
But a nuclear deterrent only works if the other person plays the game. Prof Futter continued: “None of us have a crystal ball, but I don’t see a nuclear attack on the UK being likely. It would an enormous escalation and suicidal. Putin said he’d raise the alert status, it’s not clear what that means. He has strategic weapons that are on alert already.”
(Image: PA Wire)
Where would a nuclear strike come from – and what would it do?
Russia could deploy nuclear weapons in a number of ways – including bomber aircraft, submarines and missiles as part of a “strategic triad” of military kit. So any attack could come from a number of locations. If fired from Kaliningrad, on the border with Poland and the closest part of Russia to the UK, it wouldn’t take very long – roughly 20 minutes from launch – for a bomb to strike London.
The impact of a nuclear strike depends on how many weapons are used, the size of the “yield” or explosive power, and where they are detonated. It’s clear that any attack would be “pretty horrible”, Prof Futter says. “It wouldn’t take many nuclear weapons to destroy the UK as a functioning state,” he added.
The two nuclear bombs used in the Second World War were around 15-20 kilotons each, leading to approximately 200,000 people dying. Most Russian warheads are believed to be at least 100kt, with some up to 500kt. “Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be insignificant in comparison,” says Prof.
What would this do to London? The short and obvious answer to this is that a strike on this scale would destroy most of the capital, and kill hundreds of thousands of people. But there are two ways of dropping a nuke.
An “air burst” would see the bomb detonate over the city, which would cover a greater area but with less of an impact (though still enormous). Or an attacker might choose a missile silo, detonating on the ground with less geographical spread but a greater direct impact. Depending on the size of the blast, it would cover several square miles.
The scale of potential damage is best expressed by the graphic below from Nuke Map, based on Google Maps and modeling of a 100 kiloton Russian nuke striking London’s centre.
(Image: NukeMap using Google Images – nuclearsecrecy.com)
The inner ring shows that a 100 kiloton “air burst” attack over the strand would have a fireball radius of 380 metres. Anything inside that central orange ring would be vaporized, and basically anyone within the green zone would die, NukeMap analysts say. Meanwhile, most buildings would collapse in the next ring, wiping out most of the City of London, Westminster, Mayfair, Elephant and Castle and northern Lambeth.
“It’s not just the amount of things you destroy, it’s the fact you have mass panic, hospitals destroyed, transport doesn’t work, food system is disrupted, information blackout, no access to clean water or power. You have no government, no financial sector. All the things that happened with Covid in the first lockdown would be magnified many times,” Prof Futter says.
More likely than an attack on the UK, there is a chance that Russian short-range tactical nuclear weapons might be used against troops or military installations along the NATO/Belarus/Ukraine border, Prof. Futter says. But that too remains a remote prospect, as radiation and fallout would likely impact Russia and Russian supporters in Ukraine, which wouldn’t do Putin any favours.
Instead, his nuclear rhetoric is a signal to NATO to do nothing, given there’s a sword of Damocles hanging over Western countries’ heads. So, should we be worried? “We should be concerned, but there isn’t an obvious way of doing anything different soon. We put our eggs in the basket of nuclear deterrence,” Prof. Futter says.
A government spokesperson would not respond to these questions directly, but told MyLondon: “As the Prime Minister has said, Russia’s actions are an attempt to distract from the reality of what is going on in Ukraine.
“What we are seeing is innocent people facing a totally unprovoked act of aggression against them, and in response they’re fighting back with a far greater level of resistance than The Kremlin had bargained for.”
Josiah joined MyLondon as the outlet’s first City Hall Editor in October 2021, reporting on the Mayor, the London Assembly, the Met police, Transport for London, and wider London politics.
He moved to South London from Brussels in 2015, working in communications for the Electoral Reform Society, and covering Westminster politics as a freelance journalist. Originally from Cornwall, he is now also a proud Londoner. Josiah has appeared on BBC Radio 4, Times Radio, LBC and other outlets to discuss current affairs and general political chaos.
If you have an untold story – whether it’s a housing nightmare, an unfair decision or a local scandal, get in touch at [email protected] or contact Josiah on Twitter.
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