14 Feb 22. Outlining his ‘vision’ of the Royal Navy to 2035 in the new Babcock International manufacturing and assembly hall in Rosyth last Friday one can perhaps be forgiven for reminding that very sadly, making projections of what defence, and in this case the Royal Navy, needs is fraught with political dangers. Even so, I make no criticism whatsoever of what the new First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Ben Key said in his speech and that was predominantly about transition, change, what in his view the Royal Navy needs in respect of equipment capability, and of how we respond to increased tensions and threats from state and none actors who have the power to influence and impact on us. Indeed, I very much welcome the refreshing and extremely professional manner and stance of what Admiral Sir Ben delivered in his speech (the speech is copied in full at the end of this commentary), of his ideals and what he seeks the Royal Navy to be through to 2035.
I share in all of these desires but vitally important that the Royal Navy is to our integral defence, to our Nato allies, to our ability to trade, the stature as a nation and in projecting presence, the Royal Navy is but one of three primary military elements of UK defence capability. The Army continues to fight for relevance and coming from where I do, the Royal Air Force and air power as a whole has equal merit. Will, I wonder, we be hearing similar challenging themes from the Chief of the Air Staff and Chief of the General Staff in the weeks and months ahead?
As I regularly remind, whether we like it or not, defence is and will likely remain a political choice and while thinking and planning forward. as Admiral Sir Ben is quite rightly doing, is absolutely the right thing to do, it is a very basic fact that in a nation that long ago decided that defence was not the absolute priority that it should be and with the words ‘affordability’ ringing from the ears of the Treasury, he will have to fight hard for every inch of ground and the transition he seeks.
Questioning Tobias Ellwood Views on Ukraine
Headlined as “The West’s toothless attitude towards Ukraine leaves world on the brink of a new Cold War” and that “Had Western Forces taken a confident approach, NATO would have dispatched a Division to support Ukraine and averted disaster” appear to show that in his Sunday Telegraph article published yesterday that the Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and who is also the Conservative MP for Bournemouth East has either taken leave of his senses or is readying himself to challenge for future Tory leadership.
Tobias Ellwood thrives on publicity but this time he may have gone one step too far. Does diplomacy not exist in the eyes of the HCDC chairman I wonder and while I accept that he is speaking a purely personal view as opposed to one that the Defence Select Committee would necessarily take and be prepared to put its name to, I find his lack of judgement in respect of Ukraine not only unhelpful but extremely alarming.
Mr Ellwood suggests that “we fail to understand our adversary’s intent, that we are missing the bigger intent and that as soon as we ruled out sending Nato forces into Ukraine, we were no longer in control of events”.
Perhaps Mr. Ellwood would do better to realise that we were never in control of events and that Nato works by agreement rather than dictate. Ukraine is not and probably never will be a member of Nato and all that we can do is to support its plight ensuring wherever possible that it has the equipment and necessary training in order to defend itself.
Nato neither has the right nor has it been requested to intervene and while Mr. Ellwood is perfectly correct in his assertion that how we handle the Ukraine crisis could have long term security consequences, my view remains that to have ignored efforts of diplomacy would have been even more damaging.
Mr. Ellwood claims that having failed to send a division to support Ukraine we have opted for a ‘Chamberlain’ approach rather than ‘Churchill’ one. In doing so he is using the history of Munich in an attempt to claim the moral high ground ignoring that historians have tended to become more kindly disposed to Chamberlain’s attempts at appeasement over recent years although that is not my suggesting that either approach was either right or wrong.
One senses that being one of those that has already submitted a letter of no confidence in Boris Johnson to the Tory 1922 Committee that Mr. Ellwood might well be laying out his claim within a potential future leadership contest should this arise over the next few weeks or months. In any case, Mr. Ellwood has criticised just about every aspect of current defence strategy and policy and has, as many others have, sought to strengthen our armed forces and equipment capability. I take no issue with that although I do accept that in a nation that has chosen to spend so much on health, welfare and other departments of government affordability will always be an issue.
Mr Ellwood claims that “while it is true that the US has absented itself from the international stage our history shows that is normally when Britain steps forward to fill the void”. Time was when our voice was appreciated, respected and heard and that we played a massive role in international diplomacy and militarily when required. Not today though in respect of diplomacy and with the dramatically reduced scale and capacity of UK military capability, we are sadly not in the position that we once were.
Mr. Ellwood suggests that the West has been found divided and with little appetite to stand firm” and that “it’s not too late for Nato. Remember why it was formed and rekindle a sense of purpose in defending European security. This could” he suggests “be exhibited by introducing a Ukraine no-fly zone”.
Such a response by Nato itself is not possible and would require intervention by the United Nations Security Council. Neither should a no-fly zone be seen as being a necessary answer. Mr. Ellwood calls for leadership and I do not criticise the need for that. But while I can readily accept his assertions that Russia and China can smell weakness and that events in Ukraine could well lead to two spheres of competing geopolitical influence, I feel obliged to remind Mr. Ellwood that the same was said during the situation in Georgia, Chechnya and when Russia annexed Crimea.
After Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and even Syria and the subsequent failure to establish a basis of required freedom there remains little appetite for the West to deploy into the wars of others. I may regret that and share the longer term geo-political concerns expressed by Mr. Ellwood but I also believe that after Afghanistan – a situation of geo-political and military impossibility and one that over many different decades both Russia and the West suffered inextricably – the public would be unlikely to support any direct UK intervention in Ukraine.
That is not to suggest that we should stand idly by but it is to recognise that with the public and political mood across the western alliance diffident, diplomacy and common sense should come before idle rhetoric a publicity seeking opportunity.
(First Sea Lord. Admiral Sir Ben Key speech)
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.
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 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 [The first Type 31 frigate] 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.
CHW (London – 14th February 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785