The First Sea Lord’s five priorities for the Royal Navy

Harry Lye 4 November 2019 (Last Updated January 30th, 2020 12:29)

At DSEI the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin outlined his plans for the future of British maritime operations. Harry Lye reports from his speech at the Maritime Capability Conference.

The First Sea Lord’s five priorities for the Royal Navy
The First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin. Credits: MOD Crown Copyright

Admiral Tony Radakin hasn’t been First Sea Lord for long but that doesn’t mean he is worried about the rocking the boat. Rising through the ranks of the navy during tours in the Falklands, the Adriatic Sea and the Caribbean, he is now commanding a force that is rapidly shedding its old skin as it embraces a digital future.

The First Sea Lord’s plans for the Royal Navy are a reflection of this and the rising tensions around the world.

“We are a global Navy, supporting a global Britain,” he said. “And finally, we are in an era of rapid technological change. Our adversaries are exploiting this. And we need to embrace, match and utilise this pace of change.”

North Atlantic and the Nuclear Deterrent

The first of Radakin’s priorities is the North Atlantic. “This is key to ensuring the freedom of movement of the nuclear deterrent, but it is an area where we are facing increasing pressure, especially from Russia,” he said.

As the UK continues to develop Dreadnought, the replacement for the current continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, providing submarines safe passage as they leave their home base in Scotland is increasingly important. As Radakin noted, the continuing pressure from Russia in the northern hemisphere means that safe passage across the Atlantic is as important as ever.

Part of securing the North Atlantic is a combined effort with the Royal Air Force (RAF). Radakin added: “Consequently we are investing even more; we are binding even more strongly with our allies and NATO; and we will leverage off the RAF’s P8 coming into service later this year.”

The P-8A Poseidon recently acquired by the RAF will play a central role in providing intelligence on North Atlantic adversarial activity. The aircraft is fitted with an array of sensors from radar to sonobuoys, giving the Royal Navy the eyes and ears to operate in the North Atlantic.

Return to carrier strike operations

Carrier strike operations are another priority for the Royal Navy, according to the First Sea Lord.

Before the deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth the Royal Navy’s structure changed significantly; the loss of carrier strike capabilities meant the force had to operate in ways it had not done for decades. The First Sea Lord announced the navy’s shift back to carrier strike operations as the HMS Queen Elizabeth set sail to the US East Coast to take part in an exercise to test just that.

“We need to shift the whole navy to being a carrier task group navy. This will allow us to project our power around the world and at a level alongside our American and French allies,” Radakin said.

Carrier operations allow the navy to strike deep far from the UK and easily form floating villages for future operations. New developments in the fleet are central to this, with the F-35 bringing back the short take-off and vertical landing capabilities the Royal Navy lost when the Harrier was scrapped.

The UK’s shipbuilding strategy has also keyed into this push, with the Type 45 destroyer designed to provide maximum air cover. Meanwhile the crew of the HMS Prince of Wales – the UK’s second new aircraft carrier – has recently moved onboard, and the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates will help extend the navy’s reach further.

The current carrier strike force being put through its paces off the US coast is formed of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Dragon (Type 45), and HMS Northumberland (Type 23). In future, these groups could be backed up by Astute-class submarines.

This return to carrier focused operations will extend the Royal Navy’s reach and allow the UK and allies to deploy multiple carrier strike groups to a single theatre, which Radakin said will boost the UK’s “economy of force”.

HMS Queen Elizabeth recently embarked British F-35s bringing the Royal Navy one step closer to full Carrier Strike capability. Credits: MOD Crown Copyright.

Fifth-generation commandos

Radakin’s third priority for the Royal Navy lies in fully embracing fifth-generation technology. “We have fifth-generation aircraft carriers. We have fifth-generation aircraft operating from those aircraft carriers and it makes sense to have fifth-generation commando warriors,” he said.

The Royal Marines Commandos have long been, as he puts it, “the door-openers” for the British Armed Forces.

The Royal Marines execute a range of missions from paving the way for heavier forces by striking adversaries’ heavier weaponry to humanitarian roles assisting in disaster relief. The commando force is highly versatile and Radakin wants to sustain this as the UK’s air and sea power makes strides with new technology.

“We will build on the amazing cachet and specialness of our Royal Marine Commandos, blending them with technology to have fifth-generation commando warriors,” he said.

However, this does not mean we will soon sea commandos embarking on ekranoplans and deploying with laser weapons, as reported by Naval Technology. This push will more likely see an emphasis on networked capabilities, giving the Royal Marines advanced communications and information accessing capabilities as part of the UK Armed Forces’ plans for increased survivability and lethality through the use of data.

Forward basing and increased reach

The Royal Navy has successfully forward-based ships in Bahrain and is now looking to expand this model across the rest of the world.

“My fourth priority is forward presence,” Radakin said. “This is about being able to demonstrate a global navy, project influence and respond to threats more quickly.”

Policing the Strait of Hormuz from its base in Bahrain, the HMS Montrose has proved the merits of having a constant presence in a contested region. However, the rest of the Royal Navy fleet is currently based in the UK meaning when quick support is needed ships need to travel before they can effectively respond.

“Now I want to have a conversation about whether we could deploy more ships, permanently stationed forward in areas where we have significant interests,” Radakin said, explaining that this would allow the navy to back up its operations in heavily contested environments and also project the UK’s power through a continued presence.

HMS Duncan in the Strait of Hormuz. Credits: MOD Crown Copyright.

Putting technology at the heart of the fleet

For a long time, naval digitisation meant replacing analogue systems with digital alternatives, changing the equipment but not the processes behind it. This is something the First Sea Lord wants to change as part of his fifth priority.

“We have to embrace technology and innovation in a much bigger way,” he said. “We are doing some great things across the service. But it has to be stronger, bolder and much more impactful.”

Radakin pointed out that “the world is moving faster than the time we take to assess, trial and introduce equipment,” emphasising the need to speed up procurement processes to give sailors the equipment they need more quickly.

The navy is working on speeding up its R&D through a range of initiatives, ranging from its NavyX artificial intelligence and digital technology accelerator to partnerships with the Defence science and technology laboratory (Dstl) and industry.

The Royal Navy has long been the powerhouse of UK’s Armed Forces, and the First Sea Lord plans to further strengthen its position through his strategies for increased reach, new operational capabilities and faster integration of next-generation technologies.