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How Europe and Britain are getting ready for ‘WWIII’: Interactive graphic reveals how West will stop Putin unleashing Armageddon, with nukes at Russia’s doorstep, mass conscription at 18 and arms factories firing up

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 saw the horrors of a large-scale war darken Europe’s doorstep for the first time since the end of World War II.

For a short while, hope endured that a swift resolution to the conflict would materialise, but before long the prospect of a speedy diplomatic solution lay in tatters as Moscow’s drones and missiles continued to batter Ukraine’s cities.

Now more than two years into the conflict, Vladimir Putin has doubled down. 

His forces have made noticeable gains on the frontlines in recent weeks as they pressure war-weary and ammo-starved Ukrainian defenders, and his decision to appoint civilian economist Andrei Belousov as defence minister suggests the Kremlin is committed to sustaining its war economy over the long run. 

Meanwhile, the president’s long-serving and intensely loyal foreign minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this week challenged what Russia calls the ‘collective West’, declaring Moscow‘s troops are ready to meet NATO on the battlefield.  

In light of the downward spiral of East-West relations – not to mention the alarming escalation of tensions further afield in the Middle East and Indo-Pacific – the UK and its European partners could soon be forced to contend with any number of major military threats. 

As a result, many countries are reversing decades of peacetime policy to reignite their war engines. Others never stopped and are only consolidating efforts to ensure they are fit for conflict. 

But there is little doubt that all Europe is now scrambling to prepare in anticipation of what may lie over the horizon.

Here, MailOnline assesses what Britain and its continental allies are doing to ready their armed forces, economies and citizens for the prospect of war. 

Ukrainian service members of the 37th Marine Brigade fire a 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzer toward Russian troops, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine

A British soldier looks into a telescopic sight as he holds his sniper rifle during the NATO DRAGON-24 military exercise in Korzeniewo, northern Poland, March 4, 2024

A British soldier looks into a telescopic sight as he holds his sniper rifle during the NATO DRAGON-24 military exercise in Korzeniewo, northern Poland, March 4, 2024

British soldiers stand inside armoured vehicles as they cross the Vistula River during the DRAGON-24 NATO military defense drills on March 05, 2024

British soldiers stand inside armoured vehicles as they cross the Vistula River during the DRAGON-24 NATO military defense drills on March 05, 2024

Lead soldier from B Company, 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, peers around the corner of the trench during the combined arms live-fire exercise (CALFEX) phase of Exercise Swift Response on the 4th of May 2024

Lead soldier from B Company, 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, peers around the corner of the trench during the combined arms live-fire exercise (CALFEX) phase of Exercise Swift Response on the 4th of May 2024

A Minuteman III nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile is tested at the US' Vandenberg Space Force Base

A Minuteman III nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile is tested at the US’ Vandenberg Space Force Base

Defence spending

Armies can only fight with the resources made available to them.

There is no clearer example of this axiom than on the frontlines of Ukraine where Kyiv’s troops have only been able to hold off Russian invaders thanks to a huge quantity of Western supplied weaponry.

After years of drawing down military capabilities in the UK and Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union, such resources were until recently languishing at levels far below those maintained during the Cold War. 

But now, in the words of Britain’s Defence Secretary Grant Shapps: ‘The peace dividend is over’.

NATO expects two-thirds of its members to commit 2% of their GDP to defence spending by the end of this year, of which at least 20% must go toward the development of new military technologies and equipment.

Rishi Sunak declared last month the government would raise defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by the end of the decade – part of Britain’s transition to a ‘war economy’.  

On the continent, the European Commission has earmarked almost €2 billion to ramp up defence production among EU member states. 

€500 million of these funds will go toward the production of artillery shells, with the stated target of producing 2 million shells per year, among other ammunition, by the end of 2025 for Ukraine.

The rest of the budget is to facilitate procurement, boost manufacturing capacity and enhance research and development in crucial defence domains, including ‘countering hypersonic missiles, developing a range of unmanned vehicles in the air and on the ground, and ensuring secure space communication,’ as well as ‘next generation defence systems, such as helicopters and mid-size cargo aircraft’. 

Meanwhile, Norway – a member of NATO but not part of the EU – is leading the charge in the Nordics. 

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre proposed last month a ‘historic’ 12-year defence spending plan that commits a whopping 1.6 trillion NOK (£118 billion) to revitalise his nation’s armed forces, with a particular focus placed on upgrading naval capabilities in view of its proximity to Russia‘s nuclear submarine fleet, and the increasing maritime prowess of China

And Finland, a country already renowned for its military preparedness, has tested its defence procurement contracts and has built up a huge stockpile of fuel, grains and ammunition in preparation for a possible war. 

It has also invested heavily in defence infrastructure – there are now enough air shelters scattered across Finland to house the entire population.

The Royal Navy's Merlin helicopter from 820 Naval Air Squadron, fires flares after being airborne from HMS Prince of Wales, while embarked for NATO Exercise Steadfast Defender 2024

The Royal Navy’s Merlin helicopter from 820 Naval Air Squadron, fires flares after being airborne from HMS Prince of Wales, while embarked for NATO Exercise Steadfast Defender 2024

Ukrainian servicemen of the 82nd Separate Air Assault Brigade prepare for combat Challenger 2 tank in an undisclosed location near frontline in Zaporizhzhia region

Ukrainian servicemen of the 82nd Separate Air Assault Brigade prepare for combat Challenger 2 tank in an undisclosed location near frontline in Zaporizhzhia region

German servicemen with their main battle tank Leopard 2 participate in the Canadian Army Trophy (CAT) tank competition at Adazi Military Base, Latvia, 03 May 2024

German servicemen with their main battle tank Leopard 2 participate in the Canadian Army Trophy (CAT) tank competition at Adazi Military Base, Latvia, 03 May 2024

Finnish soldiers perform war simulation exercises during NATO military drills

Finnish soldiers perform war simulation exercises during NATO military drills

Conscription and military service 

It was revealed this past weekend that Germany is considering a reintroduction of mandatory national service, according to leaked documents, with military planners discussing three potential approaches to preparing future generations for large-scale conflict.

It is understood that officials are in the final stages of discussions with German defence minister Boris Pistorius, and are expected to go public with official plans next month, The Sunday Telegraph reported.

In one proposal being considered by military planners in Berlin, all men and women would be subject to conscription once they turned 18, provided a constitutional amendment to include women in mandatory service is passed.

But many European countries still maintain national service – and others have recently reintroduced it following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago.

The Baltic and Nordic states are all well ahead of their Western European counterparts when it comes to military preparedness – perhaps as a result of their proximity to Russia. 

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all maintain some form of national service, with Latvia having reintroduced the policy in 2023 as concern over Russian aggression in Ukraine prompted a rethink of defence strategy. 

All male citizens aged 18 to 27 are now required to complete a year of service there. 

Further North, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland all maintain their own programmes, with Sweden having reactivated their national service policy in 2018. 

Denmark announced earlier this year women would also be subject to mandatory service and revealed plans to extend the duration of the training.

Meanwhile, one in three Finns are reservists, meaning Finland boasts one of Europe’s largest armies despite having a tiny population of just 5.6 million. 

Germany is considering a reintroduction of mandatory national service, according to leaked documents

Germany is considering a reintroduction of mandatory national service, according to leaked documents

Young men called up for national service perform basic shooting drills at a training ground in York. Mandatory national service in Britain continued after the Second World War but was abandoned in 1960

Young men called up for national service perform basic shooting drills at a training ground in York. Mandatory national service in Britain continued after the Second World War but was abandoned in 1960

General Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff, says Britain should 'train and equip' a 'citizen army' to prepare for a land war

General Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff, says Britain should ‘train and equip’ a ‘citizen army’ to prepare for a land war

British soldiers take part in the Swift Response 22 military exercise at the Krivolak Military Training Center in Negotino, in the centre of North Macedonia, on May 12, 2022

British soldiers take part in the Swift Response 22 military exercise at the Krivolak Military Training Center in Negotino, in the centre of North Macedonia, on May 12, 2022

Austria, Greece and Switzerland are the other three European nations to maintain national service, albeit with varying durations and degrees of intensity. 

For now, the UK continues to resist calls from the continent to reintroduce national service, which was abandoned in 1960.

But several top military figures in Britain have also backed the calls following a years-long policy of reducing the size of the UK’s armed forces.

The British Army shrunk by 28% in the past 12 years to around 103,000 soldiers, of which around 76,000 are regulars and 27,000 are reservists, according to YouGov figures. 

General Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff of Britain’s Armed Forces, said in January that Britain should ‘train and equip a citizen army’ to prepare for the possibility of a land war in Europe in the coming years. 

And General Sir Richard Shirreff, a former NATO commander, warned that the UK might need to introduce a system akin to Finland‘s, in which all 18-year-old males are required to perform 6-12 months of service in the military, or with border guard units. 

They subsequently enter the reservist programme until age 60.  

Sir Richard, the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2011 to 2014, said earlier this year: ‘I think now… is the time to start thinking the unthinkable and really having to think quite carefully about conscription if we are to deliver the numbers needed.’

War games and enhanced security cooperation 

Perhaps the most overt display of Europe’s renewed focus on improving its military readiness comes in the form of NATO’s stunning war games. 

Steadfast Defender 2024, a suite of training exercises running from January to June, is among the largest military drills ever conceived by the security bloc since the Cold War. 

Before its end, the mammoth undertaking will have witnessed the involvement of 90,000 troops from all 32 members of the alliance in a host of different missions including live fire exercises, strategic and logistical game-planning, and the deployment of cross-continental forces from the High North above the Arctic Circle to Central and Eastern Europe. 

The drills are not just reserved for land forces – hundreds of military aircraft and more than 50 naval vessels will also perform drills to gauge and strengthen NATO’s air and maritime capabilities.

An area of renewed focus for military exercises this year is the Arctic, which could soon become a new frontier where world powers clash for strategic superiority, control of new trade routes and access to previously untapped natural resources.

Russia reveres the Arctic as an ‘indisputable priority’ and has committed to building up military and civilian infrastructure in the region. 

But the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO in recent months means Europe’s Nordic powers are now able to operate more closely than ever before and are helping the US to upgrade its own understanding of the Arctic and approach to polar policy. 

Norway has hosted NATO’s Cold Response winter training exercises since 2006, but this year launched ‘Nordic Response’ – a dramatically enhanced programme that saw 20,000 troops participate in expanded drills on the frozen coasts of the remote Finnmark region some 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. 

Military exercise with Swedish and foreign military units at Kvarn's training and firing range in Sweden

Military exercise with Swedish and foreign military units at Kvarn’s training and firing range in Sweden

NATO troops take part in Nordic Response 24 - a phase of the larger NATO exercise Steadfast Defender. The exercise involves air, sea, and land forces, with over 100 fighter jets, 50 ships, and over 20,000 troops practising defensive manoeuvres in cold and harsh weather conditions

NATO troops take part in Nordic Response 24 – a phase of the larger NATO exercise Steadfast Defender. The exercise involves air, sea, and land forces, with over 100 fighter jets, 50 ships, and over 20,000 troops practising defensive manoeuvres in cold and harsh weather conditions

A Russian howitzer fires toward Ukrainian positions at an undisclosed location

A Russian howitzer fires toward Ukrainian positions at an undisclosed location

Britain's Challenger 2 tank moves during the Winter Camp 23 military drills near Tapa, Estonia, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023

Britain’s Challenger 2 tank moves during the Winter Camp 23 military drills near Tapa, Estonia, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023

Meanwhile, Oslo has worked with counterparts in Stockholm and Helsinki to help formulate Washington’s brand-new Arctic Strategy.

This is set for publication in the coming weeks – almost 18 months after the US Department of Defense announced the creation of a new office dedicated to improving America’s capabilities in the High North. 

Elsewhere, the invasion of Ukraine prompted a reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank, with more European nations willing to welcome foreign troops on their soil.

Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria and Hungary are all now hosting a contingent of NATO forces, upping the total of multinational battlegroups in Europe to eight from the original four in the Baltic states, plus Poland. 

And in move defying pressures from the Kremlin, Moldova is reportedly set to deepen its defence ties with the EU.

The country, which shares a land border with Ukraine, is close to signing a new defence pact that would see Chisinau increase its intelligence sharing with European partners, participate in joint military drills and win inclusion into the EU’s joint weapons procurement programmes, according to the FT.  

Hosting US nukes and upgrading Europe’s nuclear deterrent

Europe’s nuclear deterrence relies massively on the US, which has the second largest stockpile of nukes at around 5,200 to Russia’s 5,800 – though more a thousand of them are thought to be retired and awaiting disarmament.

Several hundred of these warheads are deployed in various European territories – primarily at locations in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

But Sweden earlier this week announced it would be willing to host US nuclear weapons on its soil in a time of war, a move that has been hotly criticised by de-armament advocates.

NATO’s newest member sensationally abandoned two centuries of military non-alignment to join the security bloc in March this year, and its parliament is now set to vote on a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) with the United States in June which will give the US access to military bases in Sweden.

The Swedish Peace and Arbitration Association, among others, is campaigning for the government to put in writing in the DCA agreement that Sweden will not allow US nuclear weapons on its soil.

But Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said hosting US nukes may be necessary ‘in a war situation’.

‘In the absolute worst-case scenario, the democratic countries in our part of the world must ultimately be able to defend themselves against countries that could threaten us with nuclear weapons,’ he told Swedish public radio. 

Kristersson’s declaration came weeks after Polish President Andrzej Duda said last month his nation would be ready to station American weapons on its territory, given Russia’s decision to deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles in neighbouring Belarus late last year.

A Minuteman III ICBM is pictured in its silo prior to launch

A Minuteman III ICBM is pictured in its silo prior to launch

An unarmed Trident II D5LE missile launches from an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, similar to the UK's Vanguard submarines that carry Britain's nukes

An unarmed Trident II D5LE missile launches from an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, similar to the UK’s Vanguard submarines that carry Britain’s nukes

Royal Navy personnel in the control room on HMS Vigilant, submarine on January 20, 2016 in Rhu, Scotland. HMS Vigilant is one of the UK's fleet of four Vanguard class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines

Royal Navy personnel in the control room on HMS Vigilant, submarine on January 20, 2016 in Rhu, Scotland. HMS Vigilant is one of the UK’s fleet of four Vanguard class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines

The UK has four Vanguard class submarines that carry our Trident nuclear weapons

The UK has four Vanguard class submarines that carry our Trident nuclear weapons

Russia will make NATO nuclear weapons in Poland one of its primary targets if they are deployed there, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said (Russian Yars nuclear missile launch is pictured)

Russia will make NATO nuclear weapons in Poland one of its primary targets if they are deployed there, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said (Russian Yars nuclear missile launch is pictured)

Meanwhile, Britain and France – the only European countries to have their own nuclear arsenals – are both in the process of upgrading their existing capabilities and adding new ones in the coming years.

In March, defence contractor Babcock announced a contract with the Submarine Delivery Agency (SDA) – an MoD agency – to perform a £560 million overhaul of HMS Victorious, one of the UK’s four Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).

HMS Vigilant – another SSBN – is already next in line to undergo such transformative maintenance as soon as Victorious’ upgrades are completed.

Though the Vanguard class vessels continue to maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, these submarines will be replaced in the next decade by four fearsome ‘Dreadnought’ class submarines – three of which are already under construction. 

Defence Procurement Minister James Cartlidge said earlier this year the Dreadnought programme is on track to replace the Vanguard fleet at a cost ‘within the original £31 billion plus £10 billion contingency budget’. 

All the while, Britain continues to increase its stock of nuclear weapons from 225 to 260 – bringing it closer to France’s total – and is also thought to be manufacturing a new class of warheads. 

France is also embarking on an overhaul of its nuclear sub arsenal, announcing in March that construction had begun on its latest generation of SSBNs called ‘SNLE 3G’. 

Three more are planned to enter service before 2035 and are said to be so advanced that they will remain in service until the 2080s and beyond. 

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