On the anniversary of the launch of Jacky Fisher’s HMS Dreadnought, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key visited the Scottish shipyards building the Type 31 and Type 26 frigates and parts of the Dreadnought class submarines.
He used the opportunity to set out his vision for the Service out to 2035, delivering on the Integrated Review, doing the best for our people, and preparing for the opportunities of the future.
Setting out the scale of the challenges and opportunities, he described this as the Royal Navy’s Kennedy moment, as bold as the space programme, as we bring on stream two new classes of frigates, new support ships and the transition from the Vanguard- to Dreadnought-class nuclear submarines.
And acknowledging the scale of the threat, he said the Royal Navy – and the nation – had to rise to the challenge posed by Russia’s resurgence and any potential threat to peace and stability.
In a wide-ranging speech – his first since taking over the Royal Navy last autumn – the admiral set out his goal of forging a bolder, more potent, offensively-minded Fleet over the next dozen years, equipped with the latest tech, including drones and crewless systems, its ranks filled with the nation’s best, brightest, drawn from every race and social background.
Addressing defence and industry leaders in Rosyth, where the first of a new generation of warships, HMS Venturer, is under construction, Admiral Key said the investment in the new Type 31 frigate was symbolic of the Government’s belief that a thriving, successful Royal Navy was key to national success and prosperity.
After two decades largely focused on operations on land – notably in Iraq and Afghanistan – the First Sea Lord believes the coming decades will be dominated by the oceans.
“The geopolitical tectonic plates are moving,” he said. “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.
Admiral Key said he had accepted the challenge – but stressed it was not about becoming the biggest navy, with the largest vessels and most sailors, but about “packing more punch” with the ships, aircraft and submarines at its disposal and “working hand in glove, not just with our allies around the world, but with our industrial partners to maximise every drop of energy and resource into achieving our shared aims.”
To do so, he said, would require facing some “hard truths”: the Navy should be prepared to retire old ships, weapons systems or sensors and invest in more modern solutions at times, taking the same calculated risks with business decisions that it took on front-line operations.
And he issued a “call to arms” to industry to work side-by-side with the Navy to harness new technologies and new ideas to the benefit of all.
He sees a bolder Navy “less wedded to defensive systems”, equipped with “hypersonic weapons”, with lethal firepower “at our fingertips”, pilotless drones sharing the flight decks of carriers with F-35 stealth fighters and Royal Marines “returning to their commando roots” by conducting hi-tech raids unseen from specialist support ships.
But it’s also a navy supporting, training and working with its allies and partners around the world, delivering humanitarian aid, its ships acting as “floating embassies for the United Nations”.
Admiral Key says such a Navy must reflect the nation it serves, its ranks filled with “the right workforce regardless of background, gender, educational attainment”.
2022 has already seen the first female admiral in the Royal Navy’s history – “not before time”. Soon all four of its training establishments will be commanded by women.
“We’re making some progress,” he said. “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.
“I want us to be able to shout with confidence from the rooftops not only that we thrive off the diversity amongst our people – that background doesn’t matter. What you bring to work does.”
For the past five years, Admiral Key has directed front-line operations: firstly as the Royal Navy’s Fleet Commander, more recently as the UK’s Chief of Joint Operations.
Throughout, he said he had “seen what Russia is doing. I say to my Russian counterparts: we are watching you and we will match you”.
He also warned that Britain could not “take its eyes off China” which was investing massively in its Fleet, “modernising and building its armed forces at an astonishing rate and deploying them around the world at speed”.
Admiral Key acknowledges that the Royal Navy – or UK – cannot match its potential adversaries and challengers ship for ship, but it could by harnessing the latest technology and by working with its allies “making us far greater than the sum of our parts”.
Last year’s Carrier Strike Group deployment – led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, supported by ships, sailors and air power from the USA and Netherlands, and involving dozens of allies and partners on the way to Japan and back offers a glimpse of such a future.
And the past 12 have also underlined the Royal Navy’s renewed global ambitions: its ships and submarines operated in both polar regions, in all the oceans of the world and crossed every line of longitude, something it has not done for some time.
To match ambitions and live up to the vision of the foremost naval power in Europe, Admiral Key said the decade ahead for the Royal Navy was “exciting, but the scale of the challenge is huge” as it introduced a flurry of new ships and new equipment and adapted to new ways of working and thinking.
“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.”