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First Sea Lord's speech to the Council on Geostrategy

First Sea Lord's speech to the Council on Geostrategy
19 July 2022
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The speech by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Ben Key, to the Council on Geostrategy at The Naval and Military Club in London on July 19 2022

Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. It is a real pleasure to be here. I’d like to extend a warm welcome to our speakers and panellists; and to colleagues from across Government, Whitehall, the Diplomatic Corps and academia.

Now I recognise looking around the room that we are more a group of critical friends than of friendly critics. So we probably need to take the opportunity now, to avoid being an echo chamber of how marvellous we are in believing in the maritime, and actually to make sure that we’re drawing the right lessons and examining and describing the correct challenges from the geopolitical moment that we find ourselves in.

And that will allow us then to keep our thinking fresh, and not just sit back on the assumption that everyone does understand, we are an island nation.

We find ourselves in a time when the geopolitical landscape is changing before our eyes. We’re seeing increased state-on-state tensions, and transnational issues like the pandemic and climate change which are driving us to adapt.

The nature of the threats we are facing is changing and how we are responding as a government and as instruments of national power is also changing. In my last role as the Chief of Joint Operations when I took over the majority of our overseas international commitments, defence deployments, outside of those with NATO, we were in the Middle East.

By the time I handed over, in October of last year, we had virtually no one serving in Iraq, and nobody in Afghanistan – what a profound and rapid change that was, the speed of 20 years, two decades worth of commitments in the Middle East.

And the largest military deployment trip last year was, as has been mentioned many times, the 3,500 people in the carrier strike deployed to the Indo Pacific.

In the maritime we’re seeing ever increasing movement: of people, goods and data across and under the seas. Almost half our food and gas reach us by sea. 97% of global communications are transmitted by undersea cables.  And this is driving a huge investment in the maritime environment: global merchant shipping tonnage has almost quadrupled since 1990 as over 90% of the world’s goods move by sea and increasing amounts of our power, domestic power is being generated offshore.

In the UK, we’ve seen the recent refresh of the National Shipbuilding Strategy, and in Defence unprecedented investment, increasing tonnage and modernisation across the Fleet.

So while the immediate geostrategic focus is on events in Eastern Europe, and the undoubted implications of this brutal war for our established way of life, we are still an island and the importance of the sea – this great global commons – matters no less and probably more.

That is why I welcome the Government’s new national maritime security strategy. The last one was published just under a decade ago, and the timing is right for a refresh.  Led by the Department of Transport, this is being developed cross-Whitehall incorporating FCDO, Home Office and MoD expertise to ensure the United Kingdom’s peace, security and prosperity at and from the sea is sustained.

Now as First Sea Lord – charged by the government to ensure the Royal Navy is the leading Navy in Europe – I hope it is as far-sighted and bold in its ambition as the Integrated Review.  Not just because of the opportunities and obligations it will place on the Royal Navy, but because the maritime is the key to unlocking the nation’s potential as a global trading nation. This has been true for over 400 years and probably many more, and will do so long into the future.  But the assumption of this security is under threat and we have to be clear-eyed about what it is going to take to protect it.

Now perhaps leading the military part of the maritime you would expect me to say this anyway. 

So today I want to lay out some of the factors I think are germane to this analysis: I’ll cover the impact of the conflict in Ukraine, how this affects our strategy, and the need to look at the wider picture. My underlying message is this: focussing solely on the Russian bear risks missing the tiger. The conflict in Ukraine offers a number of lessons for us: the first shows the interconnectedness across the global commons. Rising fuel prices, shortages of food staples and raw materials are all, in part, traceable to Russia’s illegal invasion. By trying to choke Ukraine’s access to the sea, Russia is restricting the Ukrainians’ ability to trade and exercise their rights of free and open access. The world is being held ransom to a maritime blockade. It is that stark.

The world has woken up to the risks that Russia’s invasion poses.  NATO has a new energy and cohesiveness about it, and most of us agree that it sure was not in Putin’s long term strategy to persuade neutral nations Finland and Sweden to apply to join. 

As the Chief of Defence Staff said over the weekend, Russia represents a near and present danger to us, and to which we must respond.  So as we in the western militaries move to ensure we can deter further aggression along the border of easter Europe,  Putin has, through his actions, created a new Iron Curtain from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

But – and to use a nautical analogy – we must take care to scan our binoculars across the whole horizon. The risk of focussing solely on Russia is that you miss the long term strategic challenge posed by China.

You will have heard the thoughtful speech put forward by my colleague General Patrick Sanders where he sets out the Army’s need for a fundamental change in how they think and structure themselves. An Army prepared for a prolonged fight in Europe.  It is a profound moment for them.

But this does not invalidate the conclusions of the Integrated Review.  Far from it from my perspective.  Rather it underlines the focus we must have on the threats we face and the plans we have to counter them.

The reality for us in the Royal Navy, is that recent events haven’t knocked us off course. We’ve been modernising and transforming the Royal Navy for the last three years, we’ve cut back on duplication, invested in automation and freed up more people for the front line. We are a light footprint Service with global reach.

We need to be like this because fundamentally this isn’t an either/or issue, continental or maritime.  It’s both.

The Royal Navy has two roles: to protect the UK home base, and also to promote our wider global interests and security. That means we shadow the foreign warship going through our waters and protect our undersea cables from hostile submarines. We offer ships, submarines, Commando Forces operating intimately with the Army and fifth-generation aircraft in a shared endeavour with the RAF as part of our commitments to NATO. 

HMS Prince of Wales became the NATO flagship earlier this year, leading 35,000 personnel Exercise Cold Response demonstrating our commitment and deterrence to the High North.

But at the same time, we are increasingly engaged in the Indo-Pacific working with our allies and partners, in the South Atlantic, and the Gulf. In the last eighteen months we’ve seen HMS Spey provide tsunami relief in Tonga, RFA Argus capturing half a billion dollars of cocaine in the Caribbean, HMS Montrose seizing smuggled Iranian cruise missiles. The Carrier Strike Group deployment operating from the Mediterranean to the Western Pacific, countering threats from Russia and China and our Royal Marine Commando Forces operating with partners in Africa and the Middle East. 

A global navy supporting a global nation with global interests.

And the ability to operate in the near and far abroad at the same time is the hallmark of naval forces.

And this matters for our national interests.  For while we see Russia as the clear and present danger, China is posing the long-term challenge. According to the World Bank, China’s GDP is already ten times that of Russia’s. Last year China spent $293 billion on defence, growing their defence budget for the 27th consecutive year, whilst Russia spent $66 billion, less than a quarter. And let’s not forget Russian defence investment is only predicted to drop, as the Western market for their oil dries up and China buys it on the cheap.

So I would posit that China is indeed one of the great beneficiaries of this conflict: if the West is learning lessons from Ukraine, we should be in no doubt so is the Chinese Communist Party.

And for us, having potentially overestimated some of Moscow’s military capabilities, we must be wary of underestimating those of Beijing.

All of us recognise China is a nation with big ambitions. From the Belt and Road initiative to the String of Pearls, from ‘island building’ in the South China Sea to designs on Taiwan. 

As the Wall Street Journal put it last month “First by stealth, then by degrees, and now by great leaps, China is building a blue water navy and a network of bases to extend its military and political influence.” The same month the People’s Liberation Army Navy launched its third aircraft carrier Fujian, the first Chinese carrier to rival a Nimitz-class in size and the first to shift from a ski ramp to electromagnetic catapults.

We are seeing the Chinese develop perhaps the world’s largest navy in terms of pure hull numbers, coupled with a massive Coastguard and maritime militia.

Now in the past, we have done the same. Our history says at one point that our Navy was to be twice, at least as large, as the next two put together. And we felt this was just, to promote our national interest.

So at one level, it is arguable that the Chinese are quite entitled to do what they are doing. But if as they claim and regularly repeat that this is about a commitment to peace and prosperity, why would they feel the need to do this, and behave as they are in the South China Sea? Why are they seeking the sort of diplomatic and trade relations bilaterally with a number of nations in the fashion that they are?

Why did they use the aggressive language that we saw the recent Shangri La dialogue unless they want to dominate the region and the interests of all those who pass through it.

And let’s not forget there is a concerted effort by China to gain the upper hand across the board. Two weeks ago the heads of MI5 and the FBI gave an unprecedented joint address warning of the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to tilt things in their favour: covert theft, tech transfer, exploiting research, all to deliver information advantage.

But perhaps also what the Chinese is learning is about the strength and unity of the international community. As the Foreign Secretary remarked two weeks ago, we need to learn the lessons of Ukraine and the importance of deterring aggression and apply them to protecting “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” Deterrence is expensive but it is ultimately cheaper than conflict.

Through the Rules Based International System, the commitment to free and open use of the high seas is a view we share with our fellow maritime democracies, from the USA, to Australia, to France, to Japan.

Whilst appreciating there was some unhappiness in France, this shared commitment has borne fruit in the AUKUS agreement, announced last September and offering a bold new security construct in the Indo-Pacific and recognising maritime security is a global responsibility. The headlines naturally were about developing Australia’s nuclear submarines but the agreement is much wider, from information sharing to hypersonics, from joint training opportunities to Artificial Intelligence.

The golden thread running through this agreement is our shared endeavour and desire for peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.  But importantly on terms agreed by all, not by just one.

The Government’s ambition for us to be a global, outward-facing trading nation remains undimmed. And our long-term economic interests are not tied to Europe alone. 40% of our economic prosperity is founded in Asia. 

So, as an instrument of national power, alongside the diplomatic and trade arms and our sister services, we in the Royal Navy must mirror this global reach, building partnerships and integrated capability with fellow maritime forces in the near and far abroad.

This multilateral approach is key for strong democracies. Our Chinese friends might argue that alliances, that coupling is something that weak countries do, but history shows that such thinking is flawed. The evidence shows it is those states who don’t build alliances which are the ones which ultimately fail.

Now this is grand ambition, exciting opportunities, a maritime moment. But you can rightly ask how we will realise it.  What does the Integrated Review and subsequent events in Europe actually mean?

What it means is we find ourselves at a moment that none of my First Sea Lord predecessors has enjoyed since the end of the Second World War. We are charged to grow. We have a degree of change set upon the service, a scale of which proportionately we have not had for 18 years.

First, we must deliver on the Government’s really significant investment in our ambitious shipbuilding programme: Type 31, Type 32 and Type 26 frigates, the future support shipping and with the Dreadnought-class submarine, the new generation of continuous at sea deterrent - all of which must be brought into service over the next 10 to 15 years without dropping a single operational fall.

This is no piecemeal investment, but a real coordinated shipbuilding drive under the direction of the Defence Secretary. 

In March as the Defence Secretary announced the National Shipbuilding Strategy refresh, the Prime Minister unveiled a £4 billion investment into the UK regional shipbuilding industry. Across government we are seeing a real joined up effort to ensure we once again become a global leader in shipbuilding, science, technology and engineering.   The MOD’s share into this programme supports some 44,000 jobs across the country. 

And our industrial partners are setting up apprenticeship academies outside all of the main naval bases and shipbuilding yards.

We in the Royal Navy are extremely proud to be part of that fabric: we’ve always been a technology-driven Service and for over twenty-five years have been one of the country’s largest apprenticeship providers, helping to boost skills and economic opportunities.

We’re proud of investing in our people: they are the most important part of who and what we are.  I welcome the HCDC’s imminent review of our culture, and the opportunity to demonstrate that aside from the occasional negative headline, actually what we offer for our amazing Service people.

And we have to because only by being an employer of choice, attracting a diverse workforce, and accelerating career model changes can we properly harness the incredible talent out there, and hence create the operational advantage that matters at sea.

I joined the Navy 38 years ago, and back then the First Sea Lord, could have had a good stab at predicting my career path. The only certainty I can offer is that the young person today who tries to follow my career path will not be 1SL.

In the next entry at BRNC, the future First Sea Lord is about to take her or his first steps as a naval officer. They may well be about to join Raleigh as a Navy rating. We need to understand now that their path to the top will be radically different from that taken before. Some things are a given, so yes it will involve time at sea leading people on operations. But it could well involve more time in the joint space, a secondment to industry, times overseas, a career break. Or even time doing something radically different for a few years that they bring back into the service different skills and perspectives.  

What it won’t involve will be the pure ‘dark blue’ linear progression that I was taught all those years ago was the way.

That is why we must change our cultures and be a modern employer that welcomes and challenges our people.

And we must expect them to challenge us.  What we do about meeting the challenges of climate change and environmental security matter to them.  Our respect for the planet is a value they expect us to espouse, and to reflect in how we adapt and develop.  So we are working hard on our own climate change and sustainability strategy, not just because we are expected to, or that the warming of the seas is changing the way we operate and where we can sail, but because it is the right thing to do.

We have our direction from the Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper.  And we face a range of increasing threats to respond to, and will shortly have a new national maritime security strategy will further integrate us into the nation’s peace, and prosperity agenda.

We are a forward-looking Service by instinct and need. But we also know that the Royal Navy stands on the shoulders of some very great sailors and Royal Marines of all ranks in the past who saw us through two global wars and a dangerous, ‘armed peace’ in the 40-year confrontation of the Cold War.

That same uncertainty faces us today. To what awaits the UK and its allies we bring our bravery and our brains, for our Armed Forces have a duty to think heavier than our weight in the world as well as to punch heavier.

Our Service provides the first-line of the national defence (our boats and our marines ‘Up North) and the last line (our VANGUARD class submarine moving deep, silent and undetectable somewhere below the waves).

So standing here in my tenure as the First Sea Lord, a moment in one of a long, long history, I’m determined that we strive to retain the trust of the nation, something hard earned over many centuries, that our dependence on the sea is being protected and enabled.  We feel it in our bones, in every operation we undertake.  We must adapt to the geostrategic situation we find in front of us and we must exploit the opportunities that are presented and we must harness that talent that is available in the nation. And if we can do that, we shall continue to retain the trust of the nation and be worthy of that trust every minute of every day as we always have been.

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