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Commander UK Maritime Forces speech at Palace of Westminster

17 January 2017
The Commander of UK Maritime Forces Rear Admiral Alex Burton delivered a speech to the All Parties Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Armed Forces at the Palace of Westminster on Monday 16 January 2017.


 Welcome to 2017 the ‘Year of the Royal Navy’.  How true for a year that will see some extraordinary statements of our island nation's ambition; cutting steel on the Type 26, the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth and much, much more.

But I want to steer clear of this well publicised and hugely exciting strategic intent and spend a few minutes describing why, for those on operations and those of us supporting operations, every year is the year of the Royal Navy.  

2016 was no exception, with on average a third of our service deployed – a shame then that, if you relied solely on the press, you would be forgiven for thinking that 2016 saw your navy alongside on half pay, seeking employment as prison hulks.  So let me dispel those myths.

Why me this evening? Well, I am the Royal Navy's only sea going, fighting, Admiral - in army parlance my peer is General Commanding Three Division Patrick Sanders and for the historians; Sandy Woodward is my forbear.

Let me start with a short reflection on the exploits of a couple of Warships.


First, HMS Daring the Type 45 destroyer you may remember photographed in the summer alongside,

Fair, I’d suggest - getting her only leave before deploying in September on a 9 month deployment East of Suez and the Gulf - an area of the world that the Royal Navy could almost call home having spent half a century in the region providing reassurance, deterrence and when required, hard power.

Daring arrived in theatre on the day that an Emirati civilian ship was attacked by the Yemani Ansar Allah group.

In the following 7 weeks she conducted 17 transits between the Southern Red Sea and Bab-El-Mendeb Strait. This was protecting shipping ranging from HMS Bulwark, HMS Ocean and the maritime joint expeditionary Task Group to 650,000 tonnes of merchant shipping, equivalent to three typical WW2 transatlantic convoys of approximately 50 ships.  

I have spent much of my time at sea in the region and I would observe it is the perfect example of a congested battle space - a large number of Gulf warships and aircraft conducting operations in the vicinity of the Straits against Houthi forces ashore, as well as continuous merchant traffic passing through the choke point. So there is a very real risk of misidentification.

HMS Daring remained ready and available for operations for every day she was tasked; spending 39 days in Defence Watches, a heightened but sustainable internal posture, with a further 97 hours at Action Stations, the Ship’s highest protection posture with every seat manned. That is longer than she spent alongside during that tasking.  HMS Daring is still deployed and will not return until May.


The second vessel is HMS Enterprise, one of 2 specialist Survey Ships with a Ship's Company of approximately 75 personnel. She has 3 watches with 2 onboard at any one time. Both ships deploy globally for several years, spending on average 330 days a year at sea.  HMS Enterprise left the UK in June 14 to undertake Strategic Data Gathering operations in the Mediterranean and Middle East with a plan to return to the UK late last year.

She is still away and not likely to return until April 17.  

Her tasking was nothing like the military data gathering and defence engagement we planned for her and included Evacuation Operations and Humanitarian Saving of Life at Sea in the Central Mediterranean. She has now departed the Mediterranean but not for home, instead to the Falkland Islands where she arrived around Christmas time.

Upon her return in May she will regenerate for further deployment as the command platform for NATO’s Mine Counter Measures in the Autumn.  

But she deserves her story to be told more fully: Two months after leaving UK waters, HMS Enterprise was re-tasked from her tasking East of Suez to undertake OP OVERLAP, the extraction of UK Entitled personnel from Tripoli, Libya.  Entering the harbour at Action Stations she withdrew over 200 personnel to safety.  On release from OP OVERLEAP, She resumed the planned tasking East of Suez. She conducted harbour surveys of Port Rashid, Dubai, the Royal Jordanian Naval Base in Aqaba and the approaches to the Egyptian Port of Safaga, greatly contributing to safety of Navigation and Defence Engagement.  Returning from the Suez to the Mediterranean, she was once again re-tasked this time to participate in OP SOPHIA, the UK's contribution to the European operation against Illegal Arms Trade and assisting with the migrant crisis.  

In the 30 months from deploying she has spent 75% of her time at sea on task. Only 4 programmed sea days have been lost due to defect rectification requirements in over 2 years; she has steamed 88,000nm, visited 30 ports in 17 countries, surveyed over 5600 km2 and rescued 9180 personnel.

This was all delivered by one ship, about 75 sailors and marines over a 30 month period with a planned programme that was nothing like that which we and she had planned. No wonder she won the Firmin Sword of Peace and my efficiency award.


Beyond this, the surface fleet has conducted 50 named operations from chasing Russian submarines in the wilds of the North Atlantic to our decade of duty providing mine countermeasures in the Gulf, and spent 7,106 days at sea, of which 2,630 days almost 40% has been on operations.

30% of the Fleet have deployed away from the UK which does not include those mine countermeasures and hydrographic and patrol vessels more permanently deployed.  

A final fact may put into perspective everything I have mentioned about the tempo and intensity of Royal Navy operations; of the personnel who spend more than 1,900 days away from their families over the course of their career the Royal Navy has 5,260, the Army 310 and the RAF 25.

Effective and calibrated unit action relies on effective command and here the Royal Navy has been the benchmark upon which many other Navies have judged themselves for years.  

2016 was a pretty routine year for us but what might surprise you is how intense that routine is:


Let's start in our second home: For the past 13 years the Royal Navy has held the Deputy Commander’s position in the Gulf for all coalition forces. Cdre Will Warrender is the Commander of all Royal Naval forces in the region but he is also the right hand man to the US Navy Admiral, Cdr Fifth Fleet.  He has a small team of 86 people and perhaps I can bring to life his responsibilities.  

With an area of operations covering over 4 million square miles spanning the Eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea, Arabian Gulf, Northern Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean south to Diego Garcia, He commands over 1000 RN/RM/RFA personnel. They support a range of aircraft to achieve over 3000 flying hours including embarked Wildcat and Merlin helicopters, the Merlin detachment operating in support of the Royal Omani Coastguard conducting Maritime Security Operations and the venerable Sea Kings embarked in RFA Fort Victoria who provide a surface search and airborne early warning capability.  

We have come a long way since HMS Jufair closed its doors in 1971 and it will not be long before JUFAIR reopens back in Bahrain.

Staying in the Middle East Region: One of these coalition task forces was commanded by my deputy for 5 months last year and has a standing responsibility for counter terrorism and drugs in the sea areas.  Leading this fight he commanded vessels from the Navies of Australia, France, Pakistan, the United States and the United Kingdom. He has provided 431 ship Days of support, 2 Focused operations resulting in 80% of the coalition seizures of heroin and 100% of the seizures of hashish, removing over 2000 kgs from making their way to the streets.  Equally important has been the Key Leader Engagement with regional partners including Tanzania, Seychelles and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  

And this year we will be bringing to life a key tenet of the Lancaster House agreement. We will form a combined battlestaff with our French colleagues to deliver this task as CTF 150 again, and current plans have us repeating this in 2019. So, not exercises but frontline combined operational command with the French.

Finally, sticking to the Middle East, Command of the Minewarfare task group in the Gulf has been vested in the Royal Navy since 2006.  This means routinely taking command of a multi-national MCM Task Force of up to 700 people including air, surface and underwater MCM assets alongside the command and support ship from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the four mine counter-measures ships permanently based in Bahrain.

It is worthy of note that many of our mine warfare Senior Rates may conduct 8 tours in a 10 year period in the Middle East.  Indeed, some personnel have never deployed in the traditional sense as they simply fly from the UK to Bahrain and back.  


For myself, I have just completed a year at five days notice for operations as NATO’s high readiness maritime commander.  This is a role that rotates between 5 nations.  Preparation in 2015 culminated in command of the largest maritime Task Force formed in recent history.  There were 6 Task Groups, 42 ships from Minehunters through Frigates and Destroyers to the larger amphibious platforms including HMS Ocean and HMS Bulwark, plus 7 submarines and fast jets from several aircraft carriers.  The breadth of capabilities was immense with Swedish and UK boarding teams, Netherlands and US diving teams, Netherlands afloat role 2 medical facilities, a US engineering department and French, Spanish and UK Marines.

And in the summer a Royal Navy Commodore will be taking Command of the Standing NATO Maritime Task Group for the year - a permanently formed flotilla of ships that operate from the Black Sea to the Baltic remaining at immediate readiness and offering both presence and reassurance. And by the Autumn we will also be commanding one of the NATO mine-countermeasures task groups.

So, Royal Naval NATO Command reaches from the permanent maritime component commander Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone in Northwood, through last year’s routine rotational responsibilities of the high readiness commander vested in me and my own staff to the front line task group commands of frigates destroyers and mine countermeasures warships of 2017.

But it doesn’t stop here:


Cdre Andrew Burns is currently my Commander Amphibious Task Group, he deployed in September with the Royal Marines Brigade Commander and a Joint Expeditionary Force Task Group comprising of HMS Bulwark, HMS Ocean with a Tailored Air Group embarked, RFA Mounts Bay, MV Eddystone, and the Lead Commando Group (42 Cdo RM).  The Task Group operated in close proximity to zones of conflict where coalition forces have been actively targeted and where the Russian maritime presence has been reminiscent of operations during the Cold War.  

They reached Full Operating Capability in the early Autumn following Exercises in Albania which included Non-combat Evacuation Operations by land, sea and air and commando raids onto a heavily defended island, delivered by the lead commando group which is equivalent to a battle group.

Let me provide some facts and figures to put their operations in context; they have exercised Command and Control over UK, US and French assets with distances between units of up to 6,500nm, they have achieved 7 amphibious exercises within the Mediterranean and Middle East and have engaged with 15 nations, including the first visit to Egypt for seven years and significant capacity building in Somaliland.  They have operated with 10 different aircraft types including USMC MV-22 Osprey aircraft and Chinook helicopters of the US Army 77th Combat Air Brigade.  These facts are interesting in their own right but I mention them to draw out the more important points of operational flexibility and international integration.

Whilst some forces returned home just before Christmas to remain at readiness, you will know from visits by both the Prime Minister and Chancellor that some remained and Andy is now commanding the principal US task force in the region.  The near term future incorporates the preparation and execution of an exercise which will see Cdre Andy commanding 20 surface vessels, maritime patrol aircraft, organic and non-organic helicopters as well as French and Australian assets - I would estimate over 5000 sailors and marines.

His staff and HMS Ocean return in the spring after over six months away.


Let me close.

The Commanders and our Surface Ships are emblematic of the Royal Navy – its energy and its purpose

I would suggest that in today’s world, wars can only be truly prevented in partnership with other nations and herein is a true strength of the Royal Navy

We are not just international by design we are instinctively internationalist - we act in concert with our NATO allies and partners, punching well above our weight in both unit output and leadership,

Welcomed by our partners, emulated by many, and feared by our enemies.

And the Royal Navy, through being out there projecting power and through its breadth of command is the epitome of demonstrating our country’s resolve and capability in the service of war prevention.

Thank you.

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