First Sea Lord's speech at Sea Power Conference

Topic: PeopleSenior leaders Storyline: First Sea Lord

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key has spoken at the Sea Power Conference, in London, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Ladies and gentlemen, guests who are present and also online, I'm delighted to welcome you to this year's Sea Power conference at Arundel House. Thank you to John and your team for supporting us in enabling this conference. 

It's always great, they say, when somebody else makes your argument for you. 

There were two things, two moments of joy, and one of trepidation which struck me as I listened, Minister to your fabulous enthusiasm and exposition on the case for the maritime. 

The first was, you've got it, you can now properly badge yourself as ‘maritime.’ The second was, my speech is going to be a lot shorter. A third was, which of the paragraphs can I actually scrub out from a carefully constructed script so it doesn't sound repetitious. And we do look as if we tried to do it, so we don’t talk across ourselves in the messages we want to get across today. 

But I think most importantly, I really am grateful to you, Minister, because what you have encapsulated, were two things that are:

Firstly, I could not wish for more profound government support and enthusiasm for the maritime, and that some of my predecessors could only have dreamed of. Through no fault of their own, or the Government, it was just a fact of the geostrategic times we found ourselves in over much of the last 20 years. 

But also, because as you say, so much of what is going on has not changed, and the facts of a Navy, the facts of our nation, are exactly the same. 

So it gives me a great opportunity in my first Sea Power Conference, where the case for the maritime has been unquestionably made to delve into some of the implications for that case, and how I, as a person, see my role and obligations over the next few years. 

And I'm delighted that as we explore some of the very difficult questions that still confront us, and some of which you laid out Minister, I'm privileged to be joined by some of my fellow Chiefs from navies around the world, who are themselves also seeking to confront the same challenges as we are today. 

We'll be joined by Admiral Mike Gilday, the Chief of Naval Operations in the United States. And I'm particularly pleased that my French opposite number has come from Paris to join us, welcome Amiral Pierre Vandier. 

And I'd also like to welcome those not in the room, the First Sea Lord Fellows and a number of future maritime strategists. I look forward to what we're going to talk about. 

It is also a delight to welcome Sir Henry Leach's daughter to the memorial lecture given in your father's name. It is particularly poignant, as the Minister said 40 years on from that moment, when Sir Henry found himself standing in front of the Prime Minister, in that well known moment where he gave her that confidence that liberating the Falklands was something we could do. 

He was part of that group of four Admirals whose names are carved very much in the Royal Navy's contemporary history. Sir Terry Lewin, Sir John Fieldhouse and Sir Sandy Woodwood. We owe them all an enormous debt.

Now back in February, I delivered my ‘call to arms’ speech to industry in Rosyth, in the massive modern, forward-facing shipbuilding hall, where our Type 31 frigates will be built and where the keel for HMS Venturer was so recently laid. 

I set out my priorities for the Service over the next decade. Looking at the important transitions we have to introduce to the Surface and Submarine Flotillas. 

I described our ambition to embrace modern technologies, and also laid out our obligations to protect the planet's climate and characteristics. And the absolute essential need to embrace the diversity of the society we have today. 

It was intended to be forward looking, to say that the Integrated Review recognised a huge and ambitious investment in the Royal Navy by the Government. 

And it looked at what were we going to do to turn that into delivery. And at the same time, we were maintaining an operational tapestry around the world so well laid out and described just now. 

Of course, we now know that at the same time, President Putin was making his final preparations for operations against and subsequently invading Ukraine.

So has Ukraine changed the IR? Do we need to revisit its conclusions? Now clearly, I'm not going to disagree with the minister's very clearly assertive statement. In fact, I think it doubles down on some of those conclusions. 

We will have to react, we will have to respond to the reality of what we see going on around, we have to recognise that some of our assumptions about Russia were clearly wrong. 

And we’ve been reminded forcefully and impressively about what ‘the courageous will of the people,’ that fine staff college centre of gravity analysis, what that can do for the defence of our home. 

We've also seen the brutal reality of what state-on-state warfare means, the damage that we see, the misery of human life, laid out in our television screens on a daily basis. 

Yet we've also seen what light-signature forces like the Ukrainians have deployed can do, and how effective they can be against some of the more traditional armoured vehicles and tanks of an army that is not as my colleagues in green tell me, “operating with contemporary imagination,” and that doesn't understand mission command. And it doesn't innately seize the opportunities laid out before it. 

All of which has left me convinced that the journey that we are on with the Commando Forces in our world is entirely right. Because that means to operate at speed with agility with a light footprint, and to get inside the OODA loop of your opponent is absolutely crucial for success. 

And that has also been a reminder, just as we were reminded 40 years ago, that in state-on-state warfare, big items, and lives can be lost. The loss of HMS Sheffield, almost 40 years ago today was a huge wake up call for us in the Royal Navy. The first ship lost in conflict since the Second World War. 

But it didn't stop us it, didn't bring us to a grinding halt in our tracks. Indeed, it was set within a context by my predecessor Sir Henry, of one of the brutal realities of what we are about. And it is a sobering reminder of just how quickly events can change in the maritime either in conflict or through bad luck. 

So what are the conclusions of the Integrated Review? Do they remain valid?

It concluded there was an increasing risk of return to state-on-state conflict. It also saw the importance of alliances and partnerships and reaffirmed the need for us in Defence to future proof by embracing technology and innovation; it reiterated the need for a joined-up approach across government if we are to achieve what the national endeavour is. And we have to embrace all of the talent to deal with these problems.

NATO remains the key cornerstone of what we are going to do. As signalled in the Integrated Review, we have to be ready to defend our homeland, we must be resilient, demonstrating an ability to protect all that matters to us, as was laid out by the Minister, some of which has changed very recently. 

But we are not constrained to the Euro Atlantic and I welcome the announcement today by the Prime Minister about closer Defence ties with Japan. Just as we have made long standing commitments with our friends and allies including in New Zealand and Australia. 

We have to have partnerships if we are to stand up to autocratic states. And if we don't, then, as Sir Henry remarked to Mrs Thatcher in 1982, we will find ourselves living in a very different country whose word counts for little. 

So we count on the strength of our alliances and partnerships. 

In the year that we mark a century since the signing of the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922, by signatories from the United Kingdom, from America, from France, Japan and Italy in Washington DC, it is telling how closely those five signatory powers now are. 

Once divided by mutual fear and mistrust, they are now nations united in common endeavour.  These are nations committed to the free and open global commons. In the last year, the Royal Navy has exercised and operated with all of them.

This was most amply highlighted by the Carrier Strike Group 21, which was not only a major deployment, but also a useful means by which we operated with our Royal Air Force and British Army colleagues. 

It demonstrated the convening power of the aircraft carrier, the ultimate platform that can flex across the full spectrum of hard to soft power, and a statement of national competence. 

HMS Queen Elizabeth has flown F35B fifth generation jets, her sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales has trialed jet drones. 

And I am delighted that later this year we will host the Atlantic Future Forum aboard HMS Prince of Wales on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. This ‘summit on the carrier’ will take place shortly after the UN General Assembly. I can think of no better location for us to convene with allies and our partners in the United States, to reaffirm the rules based international order and our steadfast commitment to the North Atlantic alliance. 

It’s right that the RN should be hosting this, reinforcing the commitment we make to our strategic alliances and partnerships. John, I know you and IISS will be participating, and I look forward to seeing you there. 

NATO after all is our key security alliance. Four of the five Washington Naval Treaty signatories were founder members of the Alliance in 1949. It has grown since then to 30 democracies in a profound defensive alliance, committed to peace, stability and security. The Alliance has shown that whilst we must stand firm, we can’t stand still, we need to adapt.

At the extraordinary Summit in Brussels in March, NATO leaders agreed to reset NATO’s longer-term deterrence and defence posture across all domains in response to Russia’s actions and June’s Madrid Summit will consider future steps for the Alliance. As one of the most capable navies in the NATO, we have an obligation to reflect this in our future posture, integrated with those with whom we may one day have to fight.  

And therefore, it is important for me as a person to acknowledge that some of the closest of dialogues I maintain, are those with my fellow international chiefs of intellectual alignment around what we stand.

This is crucial, because if we mean it, we have to invest in it. 

And we also need to future proof ourselves, embracing technology and innovation just as the Minister said, and embracing diversity of thought and approach. We have always been a service comfortable with adaption from sail to steam, from steam to nuclear. 

Now we are seeing an unprecedented pace of change, which we need to keep up with at the very least or we will be found wanting. We no longer go into combat with muskets. I am one of those who say the death of heavy armour is overplayed. But we still need to consider whether our kit is fit for purpose until we are ready to fight the next fight and not the last one. 

We in the Royal Navy are the beneficiaries of the steps put in place by our predecessors, and the leadership of the ministerial team. We will see over the coming 15 years significant transition as we strive to increase our operational advantage: Type 26, 31 and 32 frigates, multi role ocean surveillance ship; and in the underwater domain, the remaining Astute-class submarines and the key transition - from Vanguard to Dreadnought, for the Continuous At Sea Deterrent. 

These are huge obligations placed upon our Service. And just achieving those transitions will stretch us in a way that we have not seen for a number of decades. This is a proportional level of change in the Fleet over the next decade and a half that we have not seen since the end of the Second World War.

So it's an exciting prospect to one, but it's not just about big lumps of metal. It's also having the agility and ability to adapt and change.

Only last month I visited StormCloud to see how we are changing the way we trial and procure new tech. From AI, to quantum, Cloud/Edge technology, to weaponised UxVs. Working with the likes of Amazon Web Services, Anduril and Microsoft we’re showing that the old ways don’t have to be set. We can pitch, produce and procure much more quickly than we did in the past. 

We have been charged by the Prime Minister with becoming the foremost naval power in Europe. I recognise Pierre, you may have been told to do the same by President Macron. Let’s make it a friendly competition rather than a destructive rivalry! 

Because it isn’t about tonnage or miles steamed. It is about changing our mindset, being bolder, as an operationally effective navy, enabled by agile support and acquisition processes, which is at the heart of the Integrated Force, persistently globally engaged and a leading contributor to Defence and Deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic. 
To achieve that we will have to be digitized, we will have to be data driven, innovative, we will have to focus on offensive warfighting capabilities, and we have to maximise our interoperability and interchangeability with our closest allies. 

We need to be modular, we need to be autonomous, we need to be agile. 

But we will only achieve all of that, if at our heart, are our people. We must attract, train and retain the very best talent available to us across our diverse and wonderful nation. 

We have to make sure that anyone who comes to work brings with them all of themselves, without fear, confronts no prejudice, and feel valued and recognised for the contributions they make. Because for all of the debate about autonomous or all of the debate about high tech, what we are fundamentally is a people organisation, because it is in the minds of people. 

And finally, the IR made the point that many problems we face need a cross-government call for solutions. I couldn't agree more. You would expect us to say that from the Review, which sought to bring together defence, foreign policy security and development. And for these to be in lockstep, not in isolation. 

Unity of thought and action is really clear. It's clearly important if we're to achieve what we need to do. And it's crucial also, that we also maximise investment, and which, dare I say it, we may even get more. 

And it requires us to think in a whole force way, not just within the Service. But as I said in Rosyth, I can only achieve what I want to do with those who support us and your success and my success is the same. 

So we are part of the fabric of the nation. And I'm delighted therefore that so many of you here today come from our industrial and academic partners, because we are not alone in what we are striving to do. We can only do that if you understand what we want, and need, and we understand how you can best help. And in liberating and unlocking that potential, then our ambition can be achieved.

Russia’s actions over the last couple of months, give us all, democracies and autocracies, pause for thought. If Putin’s aim had been to reinvigorate the NATO alliance, persuade nations to invest properly in defence, and unite the world in global condemnation, he has been extraordinarily successful. But I suspect that is not what he wrote in his Op Order.

What we are seeing right now makes for grim viewing, but this alone does not change the conclusions we have reached. Conclusions which call for unity, harnessing the power of our position at the heart of a global network of alliances and partnerships, and for futureproofing our people, our talent, and our equipment.

Whilst Ukraine is but one example of how the world is evolving, we must continue to pay attention to the rest of the world and the lessons that other nations draw from Putin's actions. For the maritime, we need to be clear that some long established truths are confirmed by what is happening today. Mahan and Corbett are both worth rereading, that one is for the future maritime strategists. 

Other more recent assertions, based upon perhaps a narrow or ill-informed view are worth reconsidering. 

We are not good at forecasting the future. 

The trick for practitioners of Sea Power is to offer choice, both in what we can do, and where, such as our Government and our ministerial leaders can make the best decisions. 

And when we are offering that choice, it must be clearly articulated with risk, so that every battle sees us at our best. 

We have an ability to support prosperity, peace and security. We can work with other instruments of power to deliver trade, aid and diplomacy. Indeed we can flex from diplomacy to warfighting, almost in a heartbeat. 

And nations which work so well together ashore can transfer these bonds to working together at sea.  And for those of us in the Royal Navy, huge ambition has been set for us which I will deliver on.

I'm heartened by the strength of everything that I see. And while I know that there are huge challenges ahead for our Service, we have the opportunity, working alongside all of you, whether international friends, commercial and industrial partners, or those who are at risk as well. I'm confident we can achieve what has been asked of us. Thank you.