Britain should prepare for a nuclear war

I don’t buy the popular scepticism that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t resort to using such weapons

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

13 August 2022 • 6:00pm

The threat of a nuclear attack or accident has rarely been higher. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has warned that “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation”. UK National Security advisor Sir Stephen Lovegrove has said that a breakdown in strategic dialogue between the West and China had raised the risk of an accidental escalation to nuclear war. All this against a backdrop of Putin threatening Nato and Ukraine with a nuclear strike, Xi Jinping’s sabre-rattling against Taiwan, Iran claiming to be nuclear weapon capable, and North Korea working to get there.

And that’s without accounting for the risk of an accident – or worse – at Europe’s largest nuclear power station, Zaporizhzhia, in Ukraine. Russia has been using it as a base from which to launch missiles. The commander on the ground has been reported to be a Major General Vasilyev, who some claim is head of the Russian Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Forces. This is the same role I held in the British Army, but I am trained to counter and prevent a CBRN attack. I expect the General’s expertise is more in its offensive use. The global contamination that would result from blowing up the plant doesn’t bear thinking about.

I don’t buy the scepticism that Putin wouldn’t use nuclear capabilities for offensive purposes. He has already attacked the UK with nuclear material, Polonium 210, which was used to murder Alexander Litvinenko. Is it so unlikely that Putin would make use of a nuclear weapon, even a small one, to achieve his goals now? Soviet doctrine, which Russia seems to be following in Ukraine, allows commanders to employ battlefield nuclear weapons to stave off defeat, which is looking more likely by the day in some areas. Our own nuclear arsenal is meant to operate as a deterrent to a direct attack on the West. But can we be sure that even this would stay Putin’s hand, given his complete disregard for collateral damage and civilian casualties in Syria and Ukraine?

During the Cold War, there was education for the public on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Some will remember the black and white BBC cartoons: far from terrifying our parents and grandparents, they gave them some reassurance. But to be more resilient to a nuclear attack, we need to rethink our entire strategy. The Local Resilience Forums proved their worth during the pandemic, and should be strengthened to cover nuclear as well. We must restore the knowledge and equipment we enjoyed during the Cold War that have fallen into abeyance. We could follow the model of the Nordic countries, South Korea and Singapore, which have prepared networks of shelters and kits. Even school children are trained in how to react to a strike.

It is also crucial that all the checks and balances are in place to ensure that mistakes or miscalculations do not trigger Armageddon, and Nato must work with Russia and China to ensure this. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is our best hope to contain this threat.

It is a tragic irony that the nuclear threat has grown so great at the precise moment when civilian nuclear power has become so essential. It is the most viable way to both save the planet and to ensure domestic security of supply. But this nuclear conundrum must be resolved as a priority. If not everything else vexing us at the moment will prove horrifically irrelevant.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is former commander of UK and Nato CBRN Forces. He is now a fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge


  1. I don’t believe such yellow journalism or the sky is falling hysteria is helpful either to the discourse of the war or otherwise.

    • Except it’s not yellow journalism. The author is a former commander of UK and Nato CBRN Forces. He knows what he’s talking about.

      • Agree to disagree Sir. Because someone was a member of an organization doesn’t make that person an expert or omnipotent. Last I checked no one can read minds especially that of a sociopath. Had he put qualifiers in his article I would have been more understanding. Instead his article was definitive in natureIMHO

        • Yellow journalism is a term for scandal mags, celebrity tittle-tattle and tabloids. The stories
          present little or no legitimate, well-researched news and are often just made up tosh.
          The Telegraph does not fit that category, nor does the writer.
          Cap I never thought this article would generate controversy! It seems to a very restrained and wise one to me! I could not argue with it at all.
          Britain has to be better prepared than most, because we are such a small island.
          Acting alone, we could annihilate Moscow and and a few cities like SP, but the putinazis could finish most of us off.

          • Sorry Sir scradgel. I just don’t care for authors presuming or warning nuclear war. It’s merely my opinion. Don’t mean to denegrate any views.

          • I do think the Telegraph is a bit coloured, but I think it is a good article and I wouldn’t write off the entire newspaper.

            I have the feeling most people consider a nuclear war impossible not because it is, but because they don’t want this to happen and prefer to stick their heads into the sand.

            I don’t think we should all panic or appease Russia, but I think the government should make a plan for when something like that happens.

            No, you cannot build bomb shelters for the entire population and it will definitely be a tragedy of unprecedented scale, but every human life you save because of a plan is another human.

            I don’t really believe in a nuclear apocalypse and I think at most a big part of a city will be devastated once a nuke hits. But it will not be the end of the world nor the country, so preparing for it actually makes sense.

            And then I think about things like who will take the lead if the government was targeted or what and how the population will be informed. Of course you cannot save everyone, but I think there will be less casualties if we stop pretending that a nuclear war is not possible.

            It is. What if Ukraine takes Crimea and Putin is in danger?

            There is a reason he has ordered the development of tactical nuclear weapons and it is not just deterrence.

  2. The West’s anemic reaction to mafia land’s by now countless nuclear threats only encouraged further nuclear threats. Not once did we hear of an appropriate response.
    Be it as it may, I doubt it very much that mafia land will resort to nukes. Even they – especially the ones responsible for pushing the button – know all too well the dire, FINAL consequence of such an altercation. Losing the war in Ukraine doesn’t mean the end of the Russians, a nuclear war, however, does mean the end. There will be no turning back, no second thoughts, no second chance. Even a partial nuclear war will leave this planet contaminated for thousands of years.
    I think that their buddies in Peking wouldn’t be too keen on seeing such a scenario to unfold. I’m sure that XI has made this clear to Putler. Putler, however, if free to use such language to his heart’s content. It does work with many rubbery individuals, to scare the wits out of them.

  3. Prepare for the worst, hope and pray for the best. West should flat out just call his bluff and not bow to his witchcraft(intimidation, manipulation, and attempted domination). Give worthwhile planes to the UAF, pour in a plethora of the spectrum of NATO compatible systems for as much as can be met for Ukrainian needs. Also of course tons of ammo, radios, drones, med kits, and MREs. Sometimes the littlest things can make a huge difference to a soldier.

    I personally am all for a new band of victory minded allies to do all in their power to eradicate the vermin that invaded Ukraine 8+ years ago. In the air, on the blacksea, and boots on the ground. Support active personnel joining the ranks of the International Ukrainian Foreign Legion retaining them to get a clearer picture of how to coordinate efforts. And above all else quit tying Ukrainian hands with conditions on use of formidable weapons. Ukrainians and allies should be free to ghost any sites aiding ruZZian’s occupation and terrorizing campaign including areas on ruZZian, and belaruZZian soil.

    God bless the AFU, God bless and protect the little children, God bless and protect all Ukrainains and restore to them freedom and liberty from this darkness that steals, kills, and destroys. May fire rain down on the worshipers of putlerism and ruskie mir. May the land burn under the orcs feet. May no sleep come to them day or night. May their stony hearts and their depraved minds be consumed with panic, fear, and confusion. May they fall into their own traps, and be left without remedy. May their weapons malfunction destroying themselves. May their camps, headquarters, and strong holds burn to ashes. May they find no quarter or hiding place in all of Ukraine. May their strength fail, and may the sword of Almighty God drive them into the abyss.

    Total Victory for ALL of Ukraine!!!🇺🇦

    Total devastation of the temporary occupants!!!💥🔥☠️

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