First Sea Lord warns China will exploit thawing Arctic sea routes

Harry Lye 9 October 2020 (Last Updated October 9th, 2020 14:48)

The head of the UK Royal Navy First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin has warned that China could exploit once-frozen sea passages to reach the North Atlantic, posing a strategic threat to the UK.

First Sea Lord warns China will exploit thawing Arctic sea routes
The First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin (right) and The Rt Hon Jeremy Quin MP (left), Minister of Defence Procurement held a Integrated Review Event on HMS Prince of Wales about the future of the Royal Navy. Image: MOD/ Crown Copyright.

Speaking onboard the Royal Navy’s second Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales, the First Sea Lord warned that the thawing of ice in the Arctic region due to global warming would make China a strategic threat to the UK.

Radakin told an audience of reporters: “Climate change is a concern for all of us, but it is opening up new maritime trade routes across the top of the world, halving the transit time between Europe and Asia. And we sit at the gateway to those routes.

“But when China sails its growing Navy into the Atlantic, which way will it come – the long route, or the short?”

Radakin added that these thawing sea routes and the threat of China sailing into the North Atlantic were compounded by a ‘resurgent Russia’ that has ramped up activities in the Atlantic Ocean in recent years.

The Admiral’s remarks were in line with earlier comments made by the head of the UK Armed Forces Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter and the head of the British Army Chief of the General Staff General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith who have both used recent speeches to discuss the threat posed by China to the UK.

The First Sea Lord’s comments come as the UK moves closer to unveiling an Integrated Review into defence, security and foreign policy that is due to be published in November.

A report published by the US Department of Defense (DoD) in September said that China had the world’s largest navy and was recently referenced by Carter when he outlined the UK’s new ‘Integrated Operating concept’.

Under the Integrated Operating concept, the UK’s Armed Forces are set to be more actively deployed on operations around the globe, rather than being used as a contingency for emergencies.

The First Sea Lord spoke about the concept of freedom of navigation and international law adding: “But there are those that would threaten this concept. And this is why the Royal Navy is constantly on watch around the world. For everyone. Upholding those freedoms, protecting trade, enforcing those rules.

“This is the embodiment of the Integrated Operating Concept launched last week by the Chief of Defence Staff. Continuously operating. Continuously competing. And where necessary, continuously contesting.”

Next year, HMS Prince of Wales’s sister ship HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to make its first operational deployment where the ship is expected to transit the Gulf, Indian Ocean and enter the Pacific for a freedom of navigation (FONOPS) exercise.

Royal Marines of the Royal Navy pose on their stances at the Intergrated Review Event onboard HMS Prince of Wales. Image: MOD/ Crown Copyright.

Subsea operations and the future force

Moving forward Radakin said that while cyber and space were becoming increasingly important in defence, the Royal Navy would also be turning its attention to subsea challenges and threats to undersea cables that carry 97% of the world’s data.

Radakin said: “This undersea world matters. Because this one remaining stealth medium is also the home to our nuclear deterrent. The UK holds that great responsibility as a nuclear state, standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the world’s leading powers. And it is the Royal Navy that delivers the deterrent, to which this government remains committed: today, tomorrow and for the future. Not just on behalf of the nation but on behalf of NATO and our allies. Hidden. Undetected. Always ready.”

The First Sea Lord also commented on the transition of the Royal Marines back to their roots as part of the Future Commando Force adding that moving forward ‘hundreds’ of Royal Marines would be permanently forward deployed in the “Euro-Atlantic and East of Suez”.

Describing the navy’s transformation Radakin added: “Every ship, submarine and Royal Marine will be a sensor. An intelligence station. An embassy. And a launchpad. And all of them playing their part in increasing maritime special operations.”

Moving forward the Radakin said the Royal Navy will be ‘confident enough’ to ‘swap ships for drones’, adding that this was already being put into practice on the Clyde as the navy looks to develop a fully autonomous minehunting capability under Project Wilton. Wilton is named after HMS Wilton, the Royal Navy’s first glass-reinforced plastic ship and a prototype minesweeper.