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Artificial Intelligence, drones and technology focus of First Sea Lord's Keynote Speech

17 May 2023

The UK’s Armed Forces – led by the Royal Navy – must invest in Artificial Intelligence, drones and technology to face down the threats they will encounter in the future.

In a wide-ranging speech at his annual Seapower Conference at Lancaster House in London, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key announced more striking power for future warships and continuing investment in drones and autonomous systems.

The head of the Royal Navy told the conference – a two-day gathering of naval leaders, politicians, analysts, strategists, academics, shipbuilders and defence/technology industry leaders from around the world – the nation had to rise to the challenge, especially that posed by Russian submarines as “coming second” was not “a desirable option”.

He explained: “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.”

Over the past 12 months the UK has invested heavily in the underwater battlespace with the advent of new hunter-killer submarine HMS Anson and the acquisition of two new ships to protect undersea cables/infrastructure (RFA Proteus) and deal with the future mine threat (RFA Stirling Castle).

And Admiral Key praised the nation’s defence industry for responding to a “call to arms” to support today’s Navy – and build tomorrow’s: 16 ships and six submarines are currently on the order books or under construction.

But with today’s naval battlefield extending “from seabed to space” and “breath-taking” advances in data and Artificial Intelligence, the Royal Navy had to be “deliberately ambitious” with its goals for exploiting AI.

The First Sea Lord continued: “It is causing us to reimagine warfare, creating dynamic new benchmarks for accuracy, efficiency and lethality.

“The goal is enhanced lethality and survivability through the deployment of AI-enabled capabilities.”

As for more conventional crewless tech, the Royal Navy is pressing ahead with pilotless helicopters and quadcopters and increased use of jet-powered Banshee drones.

Admiral Key wants to go further – with longer range, longer endurance drones capable of both gathering intelligence and striking at targets.

Another vital element of increasing the striking power of the Fleet is the Mark 41 missile silo. The launcher is being fitted to all eight Type 26 frigates, allowing the new warships to potentially use a variety of current and future anti-air, anti-surface, ballistic missile defence and strike missiles, including the RN’s Future Offensive Surface Weapon.

The launchers will also now be fitted to five Type 31 frigates – under construction on the Forth.

As for the current Fleet, with the HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales’ carrier strike groups at its heart, and with other additions to the Fleet, plus innovation, training, the expertise and commitment of personnel mean the Royal Navy is a ‘Premier League’ force in the mid-21st Century.

“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.”

And he underlined the need to champion – and recognise – the vital role the sea, the trade which flows on it and data and pipelines which flow beneath it, plays in the security and prosperity of the UK.

“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,” Admiral Key concluded.

“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.”

The First Sea Lord’s Seapower Conference is part of the broader London Seapower Series, several events celebrating the maritime world, bringing together those with an interest in it to consider the challenges and opportunities of our age, and celebrating some of our closest relationships.

From the Royal Navy’s standpoint, aside from the conference:

It marked the 50th anniversary of the ongoing agreement between the Royal and Royal Dutch Navies and Royal Marines-Netherlands Marines Corps to train, exercise and deploy alongside each other with a conference at HMS President, near Tower Bridge.

Its first dedicated technology experimentation and trials ship, XV Patrick Blackett, is berthed at HMS President with her crew, scientists and technological experts demonstrating some of the equipment they are assessing, including cutting-edge navigational system which will serve the Navy whenever it cannot access satellites.

Today senior Royal Navy officers are taking part in the Centre for Grand Strategy’s Future Maritime Leaders’ Laboratory at King’s College London. They are involved in an interactive seminar-like session to debate three subjects – naval engagement and national diplomacy; deterrence at sea in the age of competition; and the impact of innovation on navies – with around 60 next-generation maritime leaders.

Tomorrow, the Navy will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Polaris Sales Agreement, one of the United Kingdom’s most significant inter-governmental agreements with the United States which remains fundamental to this day to the UK’s ability to deliver the Continuous At Sea Deterrence, carried out by the Royal Navy’s four Vanguard-class submarines.

The admiral’s full speech can be read HERE

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