Integration, interchangeability and innovation: a new balance of advantage?

Topic: PeopleSenior leaders Storyline: Second Sea Lord

Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Nick Hine's speech at 1SL's Sea Power Conference 2021.


In a world where the UK faces threats from resurgent and developing powers, states and non-state actors and a continuing threat from violent extremism there is an undeniable requirement to transform at pace.  The Royal Navy has arguably for many years set the bar in maintaining operational and technological advantage, however, this was only possible by constantly challenging daily norms, utilising emerging technology and striving to outthink our adversaries – the requirement has not changed and so we must redouble our efforts in this space.  By embracing integration, interchangeability and innovation, today’s Royal Navy remains Global, Modern and Ready.  But we must do better if we are to continue to be relevant.

How to deliver on the promise of transformation in the maritime domain.

Maritime transformation requires a Vision which is tempered with reality but informed by the art of the possible and science of the deliverable.  But you need more than just a “Vision”.  Organisations are full of people who are either futurologists or individuals who deliver Business as Usual within a stable system.  What the world is short of is people who are able to visualise the future, interpret what it means for them in the present, and then, with confidence, deliver that change within bureaucracies which tend to be self-reinforcing and highly disposed to not liking change.

Certainly in our recent experience, the early stages revealed organisational inertia where success depended heavily on constant communication to reinforce the message that we really do intend to achieve this, its ok, its safe and it’s exciting to go on this journey - together.

What we have learnt is that change at scale, (pause) even inside an organisation as complex as the Royal Navy; is possible and at a pace and scale that should be apparent. It’s meaningful, it’s happening now, it increasingly looks, feels and is different on the front line. We have a long way to go but we have embarked on a journey and every day we try and accelerate the pace. To deliver a more thinking organisation we need to take more risk, reward challenge, accept failure and be confident in the face of external nay sayers.

The challenges and opportunities of dramatic technological change.

The challenges of technological change are well known – many actors are embracing hybrid, below-the-threshold warfare in a way not seen on the international stage in the modern era. At the same time there has also been a focus on nullifying the West’s late 20th century supremacy in large-scale-warfare stealth, precision, range and hi-tech weaponry. But perhaps the single greatest concern has been in our adversaries capacity to embrace risk whilst accepting that they must focus on targeted areas to get the most value in order to achieve outcomes - see nuclear powered torpedoes, hypersonic maritime strike weapons, cyber bombs and weaponised drones in all-environments. Put simply, their systems are driven by a competitive urge that historically we have failed to emulate outside of wartime.

But at the same time modern technology provides us with some huge opportunities. Technology is no longer the problem, no longer the constraining factor – the tech itself can solve just about anything. And whilst we might opine for the old days where the best technology came from Defence outwards to the world, the fact that much of the best tech now comes from the civil sector in to Defence is an opportunity to be seized – we have so much more choice, the cost (should) be coming down, and by embracing the best of global tech acceleration we should be able to get it faster to the hands of the warfighter than ever before. Whilst research is needed, we should focus on the development part of R&D to optimise our outcomes more rapidly at greater scale and lower cost.

The task of innovating in force design and in the whole operating model, incorporating technology and data-driven integration, transforming agility and force integration.

A new world requires a new approach and as such we began at the top – what is good and bad about how we operate, command, lead change and run our business? As a result, we have moved from a legacy model of stovepiped vertical activity to collective responsibility for all outputs. We are no longer about helicopter vs Ships vs Submarines vs Marines, we are now all about outputs – Operational Advantage in the North Atlantic, Carrier Strike, Littoral Strike etc - all focussed against well understood, and ever-changing Problem Sets. 

But we have also recognised that critical to success in the modern world we have to embrace best-practice-problem solving techniques such as Scrum. We are now Problem-led; we Prioritise, we Sprint, we Deliver. At all levels we are transparent, optimise cross-functional teams to get initiatives done at speed and reduce friction by crushing systemic impediments to go faster. We are Zooming-Out, looking at the bigger picture, and then we are Zooming-In – if you are not delivering a product inside 6-9 months (not the traditional Defence 6-9 years) then you will struggle to get traction in the Royal Navy today, you will simply be too slow to be relevant. We are Learning-by-Doing, we are Showing-not-Telling and we are willing to fail fast – all powerful upgrades to how we go about our modern business. There are clearly exceptions to this in some of the long term and large scale projects we have but they too must adapt to deliver better, faster or we risk pricing ourselves out of the market. And the we is all of us at this conference.

Weighing the new concepts of ‘the balanced fleet’ and how to make them work.

A balanced fleet is not a new idea – Nelson had only 8 ships of HMS Victory’s stature and many more frigates and sloops. So the obvious conversation around a “balanced fleet” being sensible and affordable and providing enhanced global persistent engagement has its roots in history. The mix of high-end T26, mid-range T31 and lower-end, but still highly capable OPV B2 should be welcomed. And in the modern world with today’s technology, small does not mean irrelevant or incapable.

But it’s about more than the platforms. As we drive towards a pan-Navy ‘Naval Strike Network’ which incorporates a mix of lethal Uncrewed Vessels of increasingly larger size we actually want a force mix in the high-end force as well, working towards a fully autonomous major warship in the next decade.

Further, new technology allows us to become even more radical with a modular “Navy POD” approach. We have always sought modularity as the nirvana of capability flexibility but have never been able to afford it. Rather than ‘design modularity in’ we have chosen to design it out. These PODs will be bespoke containers housing new ways of delivery in minehunting, survey, air systems, communications, lethality, medical and more. This means that all platforms have the ability to become upgradeable with the arrival of a new POD.


So what?

For the Royal Navy, Integration means Multi-Domain Integration – Our Commando Force is a new multi-domain operational capability, spanning Land, Littoral, Maritime, Space and Air domains, plus OGD activity by several agencies.

Interchangeability is more than interoperability. It means the seamless transfer of assets between our allies to achieve maximum operational effect – US F35 Jets on HMS Queen Elizabeth for CS21 is a timely example but we can and should do more.

Innovation means continuously challenging ‘our’ today in order to remain ahead of tomorrow – We must push the boundaries, be humble enough to get it wrong, embrace technology and innovate across every area of the Royal Navy, business and operations, in order to fight and win. 

From the seabed to space, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, A Global Navy for a Global Britain. Thank you.