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Admiral Sir Ben Key's speech to industry leaders in Rosyth

The First Sea Lord addresses defence industry and shipbuilding leaders in Rosyth
11 February 2022
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First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key delivered a 20-minute keynote speech outlining his vision for the Royal Navy to 2035 to defence and shipbuilding industry leaders in the new assembly hall at Rosyth on the Forth - the hall where the first Type 31 frigate, HMS Venturer, is taking shape.

It's a real pleasure for me to be here today in Rosyth in this state-of-the-art frigate facility which will produce, in the next few years, the most exportable ship built for the Royal Navy.

And it feels exciting. It feels different and I'm delighted that so early on in my tenure I can be here in Scotland. The centre of UK shipbuilding, an important example of the Government's levelling up agenda, to talk about the Type 31 and also to understand more broadly the progress going on around the Type 26 frigates over in Govan later.

10th of February is an auspicious date, because today 116 years ago, Jackie Fisher's HMS Dreadnought was launched. A ship that revolutionised our Royal Navy by really casting aside the concept of sail and committing the Service to steam. And it was something that revolutionized, in hindsight, how we went about our business. It affected navies across the world, just as I'm confident Type 31 will do so now.

But 12 weeks into my tenure, I wanted to take the opportunity to set out how I see things, not just for my time as First Sea Lord, but looking out to 2035 and just considering whether or not we find ourselves in a fundamental inflection point, something that feels new. Now, that will be for historians to judge in the future. You can never know that you're necessarily living in it. But one of my theses is that I believe we should be behaving as if we are in one of those moments.

I come with a perspective forged in the operational space: an aviator, an aircraft carrier captain, a Fleet Commander, and most recently as the Chief of Joint Operations when I commanded the UK’s global commitments around the world, ranging from Iraq to Afghanistan, countering Islamist fighters in Africa, Baltic air policing, and most recently the Carrier Strike Group deployment to the Asia Pacific region.

What these roles have shown me is how much the threats we face are changing. Russia and China, today, autocracies by nature are seeing fit to challenge the international system by which most other nations abide by. The pace of technological change means that what was once a very steep difference between state and non-state actors is now much more flat.

Where standing still risks immediate obsolescence, and where societal understanding is shifting faster than perhaps we realise. And we need to be ready to fight now not just in the traditional domains of maritime and land but also cyber and space.

And we're also seeing a recognition that navies are not just fighting powers, but also instruments of national influence and reach. My arrival as First Sea Lord reflects very much that shift. The geopolitical tectonic plates are moving, as we shift from the large land centric campaigns of the last 20 years. It feels as if we are returning to a maritime era, our Government realises that, with decisions in the Integrated Review making some significant and profound investments in what we do.

Our Prime Minister has charged us with becoming the foremost naval power in Europe. Now, that is a good challenge and one I accept. But it's not something we measure in terms of number of people who are serving in uniform, or the tonnage of the fleet albeit it's great to see that growing, or the number of miles steamed. I think it's more fundamental.

It's about changing the way we think, of utilising the maritime as an instrument of national power. It's about packing more punch, more lethality, as the Chief of Defence Staff talked about recently, into our ships, submarines and aircraft.

It's about innovating in everything we do, working hand in glove not just with our allies around the world, but with you our industrial partners to maximise every drop of energy and resource into achieving our shared aims.

And it's about forging a Navy, truly representative of the nation, helping to secure a prosperity agenda and standing up for the values that we, you, our country believing.

It's about being a place where people are attracted to be and I, we, the Royal Navy can't do this alone.

We're building on decisions that have been made some time ago in many cases. And we are seeing now a number of fantastic transitions ahead of us. The Type 23s being replaced by the Type 26s, a design also chosen by Canada and Australia. The Type 31s here coming on stream for us, and Indonesia and hopefully other nations not far behind.

We need to bring into service the remaining Astute-class submarines. We need to invest in forward deployed presence around the world. And running right through the middle of it, the central plank of our Service: Continuous At Sea Deterrence and the transition from Vanguard to Dreadnought.

And it's exciting the decade ahead, but the scale of the challenge is huge. And at the same time, we're also thinking differently about the elements of our Service that involve people. Returning the Commandos back to their commando roots, and building a different way of employing people such that we can ensure their long term commitment in an era when tradition or excitingly now, people seem to be more mobile in their thoughts.

So this transition is going to place enormous stress on us. And by us, I mean we in uniform and those who support us. It's going to require us to commit wholeheartedly to a hugely coordinated and time driven shift. If we are to achieve what we need to achieve at the speed and scale that we must.

Because we can't afford to stand still, because the world in which we are operating is also not standing still. The threat is setting the pace, and that is what we need to respond to.

And I think therefore, we also need to acknowledge some hard truths. We have to recognise that if we're not careful, we will lose our operational advantage.

Our Prime Minister has charged us with becoming the foremost naval power in Europe. Now, that is a good challenge and one I accept.

Admiral Sir Ben Key

We've spoken for some time, it's clearly in the press a lot at the moment, about an increasingly assertive Russia and we've seen now with their forces massing near the Ukrainian border, with a Foreign Secretary in Moscow, with the a number of talks going across NATO, that there is undoubtedly tension in the air.

And having spent the last five years in the operational space and seen what Russia is doing. I say to my Russian counterparts we are watching you and we will match you.

The Russian Navy itself has gone through a major recapitalisation programme in the last decade and a half. It’s upgrading its frigates, its amphibious ships and its submarine force. And we must do the same.

And we can't allow a near abroad focus to take our eyes off China. The huge economic clout. It is modernising and building its armed forces at an astonishing rate and deploying them around the world at speed.

The People's Liberation Army (Navy) is building a fleet of the world's largest cruisers, it's making huge advances in operating its aircraft carriers. It has a 160 ship Coast Guard and a maritime militia that extends extensively around the Western Pacific.

These are step changes that we must acknowledge and we have to respond to, and as I mentioned earlier, we also have non-state actors who can influence and impact us because of the rapid and freely available technology that they can exploit.

Now, I'm not frightened of this from a Royal Navy perspective. We are an organisation that has always embraced change. We're fascinated by innovation, and we love technology, sail to steam, steam to nuclear.

And so it's the sort of challenge that we will thrive on. And we're not going to do it the hull for hull and we're not going to do it person to person. But we are going to do with allies. We are going to do it by combining the latest technology. We are going to do it by thinking differently.

The Carrier Strike Group showed us what we could achieve last year when HMS Queen Elizabeth deployed all the way to Japan and back. Operating across a number of nations. We have friends who want to be with us and we want to be with them, demonstrating levels of interoperability and interchangeability that make us far greater than the sum of our parts.

And we will continue to do that with the Fleet that we build.

At the steel cutting for HMS Venturer back in September, on this site, the Defence Secretary said it was not so much a milestone in the life of a single ship, as a glimpse of the future of our Fleet.

It's a future where we are setting ourselves a challenge to become a global leader in hypersonic weapons. A future where we'll become more adaptive in how we use our platforms, high end war fighting, command and control, floating embassies for the United Nations. Highly lethal, highly reassuring and highly adaptable.

It's where we will blend crewed and uncrewed systems, operating both F35 and drones from the same flight deck. A future where the Royal Marine Commandos will operate from our Multi role support ships, and ashore in small groups delivering training and support to teams afloat in the Littoral Response Groups and also delivering in a different way special support to maritime operations.

And it's a future where we will regain and retain operational advantage in the underwater domain.

So I have a call to arms for you in industry. I want you to feel as invested in this as we are, not because of your share price. Not because of the wonderful manufacturing facilities that allows you to create, but because you recognise you are integral to the success of a Global, Modern, and Ready Royal Navy.

We're going to be global operating around the world with our allies. In the last 12 months the Service’s operated in both polar regions in all the oceans of the world and crossed every line of longitude. We have not done that for some time.

It's a navy that can capitalise on our partnerships for whom we become a natural ally and partner of choice, either to lead with confidence or us operating with humility to listen.

It's about being modern. A modern Navy that attracts the right workforce regardless of background, gender, educational attainment. I'm interested in potential. The people challenge Is perennial, but we need to accept that we won't overcome it unless we show people the opportunities we offer. Train, incentivize, recognize, reward, and retain them and acknowledge that their families and their friends are also impacted by what we asked them to do.

Not before time we have now got our first female Rear Admiral. We're looking to build command opportunities across the Service and very soon all four of our training establishments will be commanded by women.

So we're making some progress. But we need to be honest, it's not enough. We need to show people across the nation. That regardless of what you look like, where you come from, the accent that you have, the perspectives that you want to offer, that to be made in the Royal Navy means for us to embrace you.  We need to show that we're learning and that we're improving our lived experience.

Unacceptable behaviours have no place in the Navy that I lead. And we're acting on the lessons of the Wigston and Atherton reports. Not because we've been told to, but because it is the right thing to do.

I want us to be able to shout with confidence from the rooftops not only that we thrive off the diversity amongst our people. But that we demonstrably live those values, that background doesn't matter. What you bring to work does.

And we also need to be ready. This is about being a ready Navy, where our lethality is available at our fingertips. We're less wedded to defensive systems, much bolder with our transition to effective and offensive systems. And to quote my predecessor as First Sea Lord and now Chief of Defence Staff, the answer for increasing lethality, is “not more people or more cash”.

It's about upskilling, it's about changing the way we think about how we move from traditional means to untraditional, new and innovative methods of achieving the effects we want.

We have to be willing to dispose old equipment earlier and adjusting our programmes in order to generate the space and resources to embrace radically emerging technologies.

We have to overcome some of our natural risk aversion that dominates in the business space and infuse it with some of the operational confidence and risk taking we have when we're deployed.

Now I'm sure that every First Sea Lord sets out their stall at the beginning of their tenure saying it's exciting times ahead. I don't blame them. It's an exciting moment to take on a role.

But I do genuinely believe we're experiencing a once-in-a-generation moment where the maritime reasserts itself in a position of geopolitical conscience. It will be for the historians to judge whether this is actually true. But my message to you and to the Service that I lead is that we have to behave as if it is.

We need to ensure that we are taking the steps now that means over the next few years we can achieve all that has been laid out for us. Not just by the Government in the recent Integrated Review, in its ambition for the Navy but in order to meet the task set against us in a rapidly changing world.

Much of that transition will not come to fruition on my watch. But we have to get that groundwork right whilst continuing to deliver on operations around the world if our successors are to exploit the opportunity.

It feels to me a little bit like a moonshot moment. We have to set ourselves the recognition that time is not standing still, and neither are our adversaries. And rather as President Kennedy all those years ago, I'm confident today that we have been given by the Prime Minister, a very clear vision to be the foremost naval power in Europe.

We understand some of the big moments that will take us to that point. And working back year by year, day by day, we can see the path we have to go forward. And we just have to execute relentlessly with energy, focus and direction.

Every barrier needs to be turned into an opportunity, and every opening exploited. We just have to get on with it. If we don't, we will have been found wanting and our successors will be very quick to know it.

So thank you for your time. Thank you for your support. Thank you for helping produce a hugely exciting moment: for our Service, and for what I believe is the same for the shipbuilding industry in the United Kingdom. And over the next few years. I look forward to working hand in glove with you to realise it. 

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