RAF Typhoon fighter jets were scrambled on Wednesday after two long-range TU-95 “Bear” bombers were detected flying over the English Channel.
The incident was last night described as “yet another in a series of deliberately provocative” measures by President Vladimir Putin which confirmed that Nato’s status had moved firmly from “rival to adversary”.
Sources within the Ministry of Defence last night revealed that one of the two long-range bombers was carrying at least one air-dropped “seek and find”d nuclear warhead-carrtying missile, designed to seek and destroy a Vanguard submarine.
Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon were alerted after cockpit conservations confirming the bomber’s nuclear payload were intercepted by a Norwegian military listening post, and shared with the Ministry of Defence.
The missile was not armed, and the aircraft’s crew would have required a direct order from President Putin before making it live.
The other bomber was said to have been acting in the role of “mothership”, overseeing the military exercise.
One senior RAF source said: “We downloaded conversations from the crew of one plane who used a special word which meant the would-be attack was a training exercise.
“They know that we can pick up their transmissions and it would only be of concern if the often used release weapon order was changed.
“We also knew from another source that one of the aircraft was carrying a nuclear weapon long before it came anywhere near UK airspace.”
On Friday Russia’s ambassador in London, Alexander Yakovenko, was summoned to account for the incident, which some experts suggest was deliberately timed to coincide with the launch of the official inquiry into the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko.
The former KGB agent, who fled to Britain to become one of the Kremlin’s most vocal critics, died from radiation poisoning in 2006 after drinking tea laced with polonium.
Last week’s security scare was branded an “escalation” of Russian aggression because Russian bombers do not usually fly so far south of Scotland, and happened a month after Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Britain was concerned about the “extremely aggressive probing” of its airspace by Russia.
More than 100 Russian aircraft were intercepted over the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean by Nato allies last year, three times more than during 2013. Eight of those flights were over Britain.
During the Cold War it was common practice for Soviet military aircraft to carry nuclear weapons, though the practise ended following the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it was recently resumed by Moscow.
Experts said the latest manoeuvres showed Russia was “upping its game”.
“This continual and increasing probing of Nato airspace by these nuclear bombers and fighter aircraft, tankers and electronic aircraft by Russian is a pattern of increased pressure by Russia designed to remind the West and Nato that they remain a large nuclear power, and a serious military power with reach,” said Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute, last night.
“Russia now clearly perceives Nato not as a potential threat, but as an adversary.
“But this intimidation belies a misunderstanding of the way the West works. As far as our military is concerned, it is helpful for Putin to be stepping up these actions. It serves to remind the public at a time where defence budgets are under pressure that this threat is still real, active and is not going away.”
Air Cmdre Andrew Lambert, of the UK National Defence Association and formerly a leading air power strategist, said: “Putin is making the point that he has nuclear weapons and will carry them wherever he wants and Nato just has to take it.
“We have reduced the number of or Typhoon squadrons to the bare minimum. They have the Quick Reaction Alert commitments, Nato’s Baltic effort, and of course, the Falklands. So we are stretched three ways. We have too few air defence aircraft bearing in mind the commitments we now have.
“When the next round of defend cuts are discussed, it must be realised that we must have enough F-35s so that the our Typhoons can concentrate on their primary role – the air defence of this country.”