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First Sea Lord's keynote address to his annual Sea Power Conference in London

First Sea Lord delivering his speech at the Sea Power Conference in London
17 May 2023
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This year’s Conference is part of the London Sea Power Series, a set of events deliberated designed to celebrate the maritime domain and bring together those with an interest in it in order to consider the challenges and opportunities of our time, and celebrate some of our closest relationships.

On Monday we in the Royal Navy marked the 50th anniversary of signing of an agreement between the United Kingdom and Netherlands Amphibious Forces which has seen the Royal Marines and Netherlands Marines Corps train, exercise and deploy alongside each other in our oldest amphibious relationship.

Tomorrow, in the grandeur of the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, we will mark the 60th anniversary of the Polaris Sales Agreement, one of the most significant intergovernmental agreements the United Kingdom has made, in this case with the United States.  Laid in 1963 it has been fundamental to the United Kingdom’s ability to deliver Continuous At Sea Deterrence.

So this is proving quite a week.

Art of Admiralty

I would really endorse to you Professor Andrew Lambert’s ‘Art of Admiralty’ essay in your conference programme, preferably after I’ve finished speaking.  Because it underscores much of the reason and the ideas we have brought you together in this format.  To try and join together the public and private sector, industry, business and academia to talk about the maritime environment as holistically as we can.

For 500 years the Royal Navy has stood ready to defend the United Kingdom and her interests at sea.  To upholding the right to freedom of navigation, enabling trade and supporting the economy, the life blood of our country.  We are here to defend the nation and help it prosper.

And it is a role we gladly undertake on behalf our of island community.  It involves engaging with allies, making new friends and fielding the best technology, making the most of every opportunity across the domain.

I look forward to much more of this.  I don’t know if there will still be ships upon the sea in another 500 years but the sea will still exist, and we at least will be around for much of that history.  Our trade will continue to travel by sea and our energy and data under it – the statistics on volumes, all above 90%, need no repeating by me. 

And there are threats to our peace and prosperity which have been discussed in great detail already.  As a navy we also have to be able to support our commitments to NATO and the Euro-Atlantic, to be able to deploy globally to engage with and reassure our partners and allies wherever they are, and to ensure that the people who share our values, likeminded around the world, can see us as reliable, dependable and engaged

In the 21st Century seapower has to be from seabed to space, from sea and at sea, and a whole of nation endeavour if we are to deter those who would increasingly seek to challenge the rules based international order and our way of life through activity in the grey-zone.

So the ‘art’ that Professor Lambert describes is something not of historical curiosity but an essential, necessary piece of today and the future, and it is something I think we need to regain.  Regain a confidence in practising, regain a confidence in talking about it and regain the way in which we go about our business.  And the Royal Navy cannot do it all alone by any stretch of the imagination.

But as an organisation with an interest in the maritime discourse, with a recognisable brand, and some deep dependencies on others then it is essential I believe that we step into the space and help catalyse and convene the conversations and initiatives like the one that we are having today.

We will always be an island and the opportunity exists therefore, in fact the obligation, for us to be a seapower state, aligning our national interests with our investment and engagement in the maritime, creating prosperity and security, working with allies and deterring our adversaries.

Shipbuilding

This will not happen overnight, but I am hugely positive about some of the things I am seeing already.  Just over a year ago I spoke in Rosyth where our Type 31 frigates are being built and issued a call to arms to industry to be not just contractors, but partners on the journey as we develop the fleet of the future.

They have responded, and frankly I needed them to.  We now have on order, or in build 16 ships and 6 submarines and that just  represents the major capital programmes. 

The investments in the Royal Navy, even in the last 12 months, have been significant – three new Fleet Solid Support ships, a further five Type 26 have been put on order. SSN-AUKUS is in design.  HMS Anson has joined the Fleet. RFA Proteus and RFA Stirling Castle will very soon be in service.

The next decade is one of real change for the Royal Navy and the investment is hugely welcome across a spread of capabilities.

I recognise that some of them are deemed exquisite and have vocal detractors who advocate simply for more mass saying that we cannot afford to pursue high-end, niche capabilities.  Clearly, I would welcome more ships, but that cannot be at the expense of being able to undertake the most complex tasks.

As we watch the increasing deployment by Russia of their most modern submarines, some of the very quietest in the world, you would expect me to be investing in the cutting-edge technology anti-submarine capabilities that allow us to detect, find and if necessary defeat them.

This is not cheap.  But I don’t see coming second in the theatre ASW battle as a desirable option.  As we look to the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Atlantic in a week’s time it wasn’t something that we contemplated then and it isn’t something that we should contemplate now.

But we don’t need all of our platforms to be high end and exquisite and there is a place for a ship that has a lower price tag without the same range of capabilities but something that can be operated flexibility, updated with greater agility and delivered in greater mass, deployed widely around the world and this is what we are seeking in the Type 31 class.

Technological Change

Platforms alone are not the answer.  Such is the speed of technological change, it is likely in the future that the hull will be one of the few bits of a ship that actually remains constant.

If we are to be a credible navy for a seapower state then we must be at the leading edge of developing and adopting new technology and innovations. 

This cannot be done on fluffy vision statements or science projects and a sprinkling of fairy dust; it must be about adapting at the speed of relevance, understanding what is available to us, taking some risk, innovating, experimenting and then finding that technology and systems are available to us when we need them and when we don’t, moving on.

This week, Patrick Blackett, our experimental technology ship is in London.  She is dedicated to exactly this purpose: trialling new equipment, new ideas, to help us introduce it to service rapidly and to inform our learning as we do so.

For example, in partnership with Imperial College, she is currently testing a quantum accelerometer, a means by which we can safely navigate in a satellite denied environment, ensuring we can continue to operate, even if others cannot.

It matters because others are investing here heavily too.  By some estimates Chinese public investment in quantum technology in 2021 was 50% of the global total. 

And in the future both our escorts and aircraft carriers will operate a mix of crewed and uncrewed aircraft. 

Leading the way in this field will be persistent uncrewed rotary wing systems and jet powered Banshee drones.

We have a vision in the near term of deploying more highly capable, long range and long endurance surveillance and offensive strike platforms: launched from aircraft carriers, recovered to them and ensuring therefore deployable agility around the world.

But it is not just about the sensors.  We also need to advance our ability to deliver lethal long-range offensive fires against our adversaries.

Hence the decision to ensure the Mark 41 Vertical Launch Silo is fitted to the Type 26 and, I am delighted to say, we intend to fit it also to our Type 31 frigates.  This will enable potential use of a large variety of current and future anti-air, anti-surface, ballistic missile defence and strike missiles

AI

So we are making significant investment in physical technology but we are also working in the digital space too.  Because if that the pace of change is rapid, at times, particularly in AI, it is breath-taking.

Everyone, friend and potential adversary alike is stepping into this space and it is causing us to reimagine warfare, creating dynamic new benchmarks for accuracy, efficiency and lethality.

So we are being deliberately ambitious, because we have to be.  The goal is enhanced lethality and survivability through the deployment of AI-enabled capabilities. 

So we must build this into everything we do, particularly how we gather, process, move and store data not just at the tip of the spear but also in our business practices and processes.

People

However, for all the technology and data and the potential it has to enhance and support their work, it will remain our people who are the beating heart of the service.

The fundamental nature of human conflict is well understood and is such that well educated, well trained and well led people will still be the decisive factor in 21st century competition and war.

We will continue to offer our people the opportunity to travel globally and we will continue to give them the chance to operate the best and newest technology. 

They join the navy to see the world and we will do all we can to show them it, not leave them in port.  But the workforce and their expectations of employers are changing, and we have to change too. 

We know that many of our new entrants to the service are no longer choosing a career for life and so we must be more agile in allowing people to enter and leave, seamless transition between regular and reserve service and out into broader industrial space.  And also recognise that some of the specialist skillsets we need will not require years of journeyman’s time through the ranks.

So, I really welcome the review of Armed Forces incentivisation by Rick Haythornthwaite due to be published soon which I think will lay out a framework for us to envisage a really radical new workforce offer.

Clearly, if you want to command an anti-aircraft destroyer, we can set the template as to the qualifications you need to have for command. If you want to be an engineer working in AI, why can’t you have something the Second Sea Lord describes as a zig-zag career, moving in and out of uniform, moving in and out of the sector with great freedom.

Competition in the employment marketplace is fierce, but underneath that we must also do the best by the people we have now, and so ensuring that we are making a holistic offer to them and their families has to be the heart of any new future design for the Royal Navy. 

Geostrategic Picture – Power of maritime forces

As I look at our current and future platforms and the opportunities available to those who are young and serving today or soon to join, I do so with a degree of envy. 

As a result of investment over the last two decades we now operate two fifth-generation aircraft carriers, nuclear powered ballistic and attack submarines a range of aircraft, escorts and support ships to allow us to deploy globally, as well as fielding an elite amphibious fighting force.  There are very few navies in the world which can do this and so I am delighted that we remain in that first tier.

I am also delighted that people are still interested in what we are doing and thinking about and so many foreign heads of navy would come here to contribute to our debate, in the same way we seek them out and learn from what they are doing.

It is why when the need to evacuate citizens from Sudan came about last month, it was the Royal Marines of 40 Commando, our rapidly deployable early intervention force, who were the first in, supported by strategic lift from the Royal Air Force, with HMS Lancaster soon arriving in Port Sudan days later.

The decision by the Secretary of State to deploy the Carrier Strike Group into the Indo-Asia Pacific in 2021, as has been much discussed here already, enabled us to showcase on the global stage the convening power of fifth generation deployable aircraft carriers and an international task group.  We sailed halfway around the world and back, sustained through a period of difficult global COVID pandemic.

Although the big deployments make the international headlines, it is just a fraction of what the carriers are capable of. 

In the last year they have trained and operated across the EuroAtlantic, from the High North to the Mediterranean, underscoring our commitment to NATO, to our JEF partners and to our wider allies.

And we have plans and ideas being put forward to reinforce that 

It is the UK’s strategic conventional deterrent capability and we will continue to hold the aircraft carriers at very high readiness to deploy in the event of crisis, demonstrating the flexibility and agility .

Back to Art of Admiralty

So the pace of change we find ourselves in in the world today and our navy is rapid; we are facing an environment that is evolving faster than ever.  And the scale of the challenge ahead of us also feels generational; it feels like another Dreadnought moment.

But it will be for nought if we do not consider this as a national endeavour, reflecting the essential nature of the sea for our prosperity, our way of life, our place in the world.

So as well as the change we are generating inside the service, I am determined that we capitalise on an even more collective maritime endeavour of national and international undertaking

I recently met with the  Secretary General of the International Maritime Organisation at their headquarters here in London. 

Kitack Lim and I talked how we as a Service can help support his intent for reinforcing leadership and engagement in the international maritime community, around UNCLOS and its importance.  How we can help bring to the fore voices not just from Government but our international partners.

We are talking to University Technical Colleges about how we can continue to invest in the young of the country Ensuring the development of STEM skills in the next generation. 

Working alongside not just those who would join our service, but also the Merchant Marine.

Talking to some of the City Colleges about the sort of apprentices we offer and how we can invest in the development of the next generation.

We also have a remarkable network of former Royal Navy personnel working across the maritime enterprise from business, to industry, in shipyards and ports, to Government.  Whilst they no longer wear their uniform, they help provide a network that for us enables the catalysing conversations that we want to have.

And our Maritime Domain Awareness programme provides an understanding of activity at sea to improve security internationally, providing free support across the breadth of the maritime sector.

These are just a few of things that I think Art of Admiralty is about.  As I have said on a number of occasions, we are not the sole guardians of the great ideas, not by any stretch of the imagination.

We want to listen humbly to what others have to say, we want to learn from them and then understand where we can engage and make a difference.

Conclusion

Because as a Navy we have with national and global reach, increasing punch, technically minded and we are just starting to exploit the opportunities ahead.

We have a wealth of people, talent and connective tissue across the maritime organisations in this country and we have national and international friends, allies and partners who matter to us, and we like to think we matter to them.

We must make our voice heard and increase the recognition once again about the vital importance of the sea for our island nation and the global community.

This is what a seapower state does, what I believe the United Kingdom is and should be and must be into the future and I look forward to the part that we will play in continuing to drive it forward.

Thank you.

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