Adm. Tony Radakin, RN, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord and chief of naval staff, discusses his priorities, increasingly forward basing ships, returning the carrier to the center of British naval operations and fostering innovation with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian following his keynote address at the DSEI conference and tradeshow in London. Our coverage is sponsored by L3Harris and Leonardo DRS and in partnership with Clarion Events — DSEI’s organizer — and working with the UK Department of International Trade’s Defence & Security Organisation to bring our audience the best in British defense.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Excel Center in London covering this 20th anniversary edition of DSEI, one of the world’s truly great defense and security shows here in the British capital.
Our coverage here is sponsored by L3Harris, Leonardo DRS. We’re partnered with Clarion Events, that puts on this great exhibition and so many more around the world. And we’re working with the UK Department of International Trade, Defence and Security Organization to bring you the very best of British defense.
And one of the best in British defense is the First Sealord of the Royal Navy, Admiral Tony Radakin who is new on the job and has one of the coolest titles in the world and one of the coolest titles in the world and one of the coolest jobs. Sir, it’s an honor and pleasure.
Admiral Tony Radakin: It’s great to be here. This is my first DSEI. People ask how on earth can that be? But I’m here because I’m nearly three months as the First Sealord. I’m delighted to be able to say a little about where I want to focus the Navy in the Future. We want to change. We want to continue growing. We’re growing for the first time in 70 years, that’s very, very special. And we also have to change to respond to the strategic context and allow us to then be even better in terms of what we can offer in terms of operations and the defense of our nation.
Mr. Muradian: I think it was an extraordinary brief yesterday at the Day Zero Conference where you laid out your vision and your priorities. The five priorities. Great power competition being one of them.
I just want to ask you sort of a macro question. What are some of the technology trends? We’ve seen proliferation of technology around the world. We’ve got adversaries or potential adversaries that are developing incredible capability. And also gray zone tactics in order to try to employ them. As the First Sealord, you’re thinking globally, not just in any one particular part, given Britain’s global role.
Talk to us a little bit about the dynamic factors and how they shape your agenda, all of those five key priorities that you’ve outlined here.
Admiral Radakin: I spoke yesterday about my five priorities which are the North Atlantic; bringing carrier strike into service so that we become a carrier strike task group Navy; developing our Royal Marines so that we have a future commando force; also developing what we call forward presence, so can we have more of our ships around the world; and then finally, embracing technology and innovation in a much stronger way than we have done.
Your question speaks to why we have to do that. What’s going on is a challenge to the rules-based international system and we’re seeing that at sea. So those disputes about freedom of navigation, those traditional disputes about territorial waters, and also now far worse than that, actually having merchant ships hit by mines on the high seas in the Gulf of Oman. All of these things to me are connected. We’re looking at our freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; freedom of navigation in the High North; freedom of navigation in the Gulf. Because these things are critical for both our security and our prosperity. So that to me is the big theme that’s out there and how we respond to that.
The other big theme you touched on, which is technology. We have amazing technology now, and how do we embrace that? So that can be in terms of using data information, artificial intelligence, machine learning, all of those things, and we need to do that as a nation but with our allies.
The other facet of technology is autonomy. How do we shift so that we use machines to be even better on operations, to be more effective, to be safer, to be cheaper if necessary, but to be more impactful? I think we have a fantastic opportunity to embrace technology and to be even more effective on operations, but we have to get after that.
Mr. Muradian: You have a multiplicity of programs to do that, and I want to talk about how you’re bringing coherence to Nelson, for example, and HMS Defender which has become sort of a tight ship. I know Ian [Ennis] has been working that very well. He’s an old friend.
Let’s talk a little bit, though, about the size of the force. Montrose has been in the region alone. It was great that there was a frigate there, but normally they’re the minesweepers that are out of Bahrain. You have 19 ships that are in the surface force. And there is growth for the first time in seven decades, as you pointed out. We shouldn’t bask in the arresting of the decline as you eloquently put it.
But is the force big enough? And how much bigger does it need to be from a manpower standpoint and also from just a unit standpoint for you to be able to deliver the kind of effect that the nation wants, especially at a time of, as the leadership has been talking about, global Britain.
Admiral Radakin: I am not yet three months in so I’m not going to start banging the drum for we must have a bigger Navy. We have a big enough Navy at the moment to do all of the government’s operations that we’re being asked to fulfill.
My responsibility at the moment is to harness the growth that we have, and we are growing between 2015 and 2025 by nearly 30 percent in tonnage terms. That is a magnificent shift. We’re bringing the aircraft carriers in. We’re being recapitalized. The new bomber submarines, the Dreadnought Program. We’re going to have two new frigate programs. We’ve got new ships, support ships. All of our aircraft are either being replaced or renewed or we’re buying brand new with F-35.
So my job at the moment is to focus on that and harness that. In time I think we will always have this big conversation, do we need to be a bigger Navy? How do we balance some of the broader technologies? How does UK defend [entities’] proper cyber capability? And what is always the traditional balance between what are now five domains for us. So maritime, air, land, cyber and space. But those conversations will come.
For me, as a brand new First Sea Lord, deliver on what I’m supposed to deliver on; harness this growth. And yes, it’s a pleasant change to have an up-tick where we’re growing as a Navy. People will argue that we’re not growing fast enough. I just want to grab the fact that we’re not in decline, we’re growing, and I’m going to deliver on what we’ve been asked to do.
Mr. Muradian: I have to say as a fan of the Royal Navy, it’s extraordinary, right? If you went back, I interviewed Lord West in his cabin aboard Illustrious in 1996 and we talk about the big deck aircraft carriers. So it’s extraordinary that now Prince of Wales is about to get underway on sea trials; Queen Elizabeth is in the United States; 26, steel has been cut; 31 is coming. The announcement is going to, the decision has been made. You’re not going to tell me what it is.
But let’s talk a little bit about coherence. When you put the carrier at the center of operations, that drives everything. The Royal Navy used to be organized around the carrier concept for many, many decades. You’re back to that now. What are all of the other things that you need? Whether it’s long range weaponry, whether it’s more spare parts magazines, whether it’s composition. What are all the things that have to happen to put the carrier back in the center and get to operating it as that unit should be operated?
Admiral Radakin: Thank you. I think the first one is mentality. So how do we now shift back into the mentality of a carrier task group Navy? I think we are doing that and we’ve got to do it with confidence and grasp what that allows us to do and to be able to operate on that bigger stage at a higher level. And I am massively grateful for the help that we’ve had from our partners and particularly the U.S. Navy.
But the first piece is to acknowledge that we have taken a dip, so we lost our previous aircraft carriers and we have had to manage this period in between to get to an even better position. I think that quite often in modern defense sometimes we’re going to have to do that to get to a better position.
So be honest and embrace those changes, then work with our partners.
The U.S. Navy has been exceptional in allowing us to see how the U.S. Navy conducts carrier operations, but also allowing us to take our pilots so they’ve gone through a pipeline so that they’re ready with F-35s to start hitting now British decks and British jets. And we’re going to continue working with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps and having some of their jets when HMS Queen Elizabeth does her first operational deployment in 2021.
But you also touched on all the other things. So this impacts in terms of how do we embrace our nuclear submarines being part of a carrier task group? How do we get the right support shipping? And how do we get our destroyers and frigates so that they’re used to working as part of a carrier task group?
We are very, very clear that we will have a national sovereign capability. So I’m delighted that we’re going to have foreign nations that will join our UK carrier task group, but at its heart will be a sovereign UK carrier task group. And we’re using the American approach and the American system to make sure that all those units are trained.
And we’re also, these things don’t happen overnight. There’s been a long journey to get to where we are and there’s a long journey over the next ten years as we get more and more British jets to get up to the level that we want to be operating at, which is 24 jets on board, and with the capacity to surge to 36 jets.
So I think we’re doing this in the right way. We’re doing it in a humble way that acknowledges the help that we need. We’re being helped with our partners because they are real partners and real friends and it’s in our collective interest that we’re operating at that level. And we’re doing it because we’re being invested at the right level. So we’re being able to look at what’s going to be our support shipping. Look at our Type 45 destroyers which are magnificent. Look at the Type 26 which I think is going to be one of the world’s best ASW frigates, and that’s why Australia and Canada are buying into them.
The main building blocks to me look right. And I come back to that mentality point. Embrace it, embrace it with confidence. And also me and the head of the Air Force are going to work together to deliver this for the whole of UK defense and the nation. So this is not, again, a mentality that stops some of the tensions between our two services in the past and looks to deliver something that’s bigger than both of our services.
Mr. Muradian: Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston and you have been working very closely on that.
Before we get the hook, there are four things I want to try to cover very briefly. The forward operating model you pioneered with the minesweepers in Bahrain. You have a lot of experience doing that. Those ships stay there and crews fall in on them. You want to do this globally. How do you get that right, given that most of the surface combatants that are out there are not designed for that kind of cycle rate, right? The bombers are able to do that on blue and gold crew because that’s what their designs have, high underway time. How do you get this right? How do you export the model culturally, mechanically and otherwise to get it right? Because you want to save all of that wasted steaming time and everything else and deliver capability forward.
Admiral Radakin: It makes sense to do it. We think that we save about 30 percent in terms of what you call the wasted transit time. It’s very, very doable because we’re operating in sophisticated parts of the world. So I think for too long we have said oh, these are complex warships, we can’t possibly look to do the maintenance schedules away from their base ports. Well actually, if you look at the way the world is, if you look at the amazing commercial shipyards that are dotted around the world, then we can put some of our ships into those and we can leverage off that.
You look at the way the rest of the world copes with inventory. Distance is no longer the problem that it’s always been. So I reject the notion that everything has to come back to a homeland national base, and therefore there is a challenge so we can do this differently. We’ve done it with our smaller ships. We’re now doing it with our frigates. Then when we bring our new ships in, the Type 31s, we’re confident that those are relatively simple ships that absolutely fit into that model. And when we then forward deploy and station our ships permanently, it magnifies our presence. It makes a strategic statement. And when we then have those ships there permanently and we flow additional forces through, it acts as a further magnification.
That’s why I’m a fan. The most difficult piece is in terms of the people and having different crewing models. But again, I’m certain that separating this crew from the ship means that we can start to provide stability and certainty for the crew. And when these two are hooked together, those individuals, they have to follow the vagaries of operations or maintenance down time or maintenance schedules not being fulfilled. That leads to disruption, that leads to disgruntled sailors, and we’ve got to respond better.
So this is better strategically and operationally, but one of its biggest, most important facets is its better for our sailors.
Mr. Muradian: Let me take you to the question of innovation. You’re a first-rate innovator. The Second Sea Lord, Admiral Hine, first rate innovator. Jerry Kidd, who’s at Fleet Command. I see a pattern developing here, by the way.
Innovation has been tried before. You belong to one of history’s most innovative organizations if you go back through the centuries in terms of what it’s done. I mean it’s really goose bump inducing. But at the end of the day, sometimes innovative organizations also, the innovators have a challenge driving that innovation forward. Go ask Jackie Fisher. It was not an easy thing what he managed to do, and it’s a different era. I don’t think it’s managed that way anymore.
But talk to us about how you get this right. How do you get it right top down? How do you get it right bottom up? If you’re the best guy in a wardroom and you get syphoned off to an innovative job that ends up costing you your career, there are guys who are not going to be as eager to do that. How do you get this cultural dynamic piece of it right? Because it’s going to fail without it.
Admiral Radakin: I think this is a really interesting and big question. So I think — and I’m not going to pretend that we’ve got this taped. We’re on a journey.
I think the first thing is, at the top of the organization, the strategic leadership has to be incredibly clear that this is the direction we’re going to go in, and that we have the confidence and the wherewithal to challenge the organization.
My time as Second Sea Lord, I experience inertia when we tried to move things on. That’s why we’re so tight. Me, the Second Sea Lord and Fleet Commander, we’re going to work together and we’re going to push the organization on. So there’s a little bit of top down, and that’s energy, that’s commitment, that’s constantly saying to the organization that these are exciting times. These are opportunities and we need to grasp that. That’s our obligation, because we will be better responding to the threats that we face, particularly in 10 or 15 years’ time.
You’re right about lower down in the organization. We have to change the equation so that that person who takes the innovative job and takes a little bit more risk with their career actually they benefit from that. Because my worry is that the safest, and best approach is to stay in the mainstream and bide your time and you’ll get on.
So actually there’s disruption going on all the way through the organization.
The other piece is, we are predominantly, we are an amazing organization with amazing people. So I have immense confidence that the more that we lean on the organization, the more that we can unlock their ability to contribute, the more that we will benefit.
My observation at the moment is that so much is suppressed. We have processes and systems that don’t allow people to flourish, don’t allow people to challenge whether or not we can do things differently. Those are very, very hard to unlock, but we’re absolutely clear that that’s what we’re going after, and that’s why we’ve got a plethora of new initiatives. So whether it’s NavyX, whether it’s Project Nelson. Thirty or forty of our own programmers inside the Navy who are coming from all kinds of different walks of life, and actually they’re saying it’s incredibly cool to be working on the defense and Navy problems that we’re throwing at them and they’re in-house, and they can then generate that. It’s that ability that we’re trying to harness.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you one last question. Everybody is fond of saying, and certainly navalists are saying this is a time for sea power. Right after the Iranians, as you said, in violation of every international convention seized ships on the high seas, effectively nation state piracy. We see the hurricane, Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas. And in both of these cases, navalists have said look, these are great opportunities for sea power to demonstrate what it can do.
There is an airport that’s eight feet underwater. We can bring supplies there. We can land folks there. And yet there’s a concern that actually if sea power doesn’t get it right then everybody looks at navies and says boy, you’re very, very expensive and I love the uniform and the titles are really awesome, but boy you guys cost a lot of money and not deliver. What are the stakes here in delivering and getting ships quickly deployed, for example, to stop a piracy situation or secure sea lines of trade or to give that humanitarian or disaster relief in a timely way? What are the stakes, what are the opportunities, what are the stakes and why is it so important to get it right?
Admiral Radakin: I don’t see the stakes as being quite as finely balanced as you do. So in a big sense, I think our prosperity and the economics of this absolutely benefit navies. And I come from an island nation whose position in the world is founded on the Royal Navy and us being an outward-facing trading nation. That fundamentally pays probably a thousand-fold for the investment in navies.
I absolutely agree with you, though, that that has to be manifest, that has to be clear to people, that the world that we live in and this amazing thing called globalization and the amazing prosperity that we have is founded on trade and that we support that. And when events happen in the world we definitely have to respond, and we have to respond with confidence and with humanity.
So if that’s a humanitarian disaster, having ships there ready to go and playing our part, and I’ve mentioned earlier today the sadness and the tragedy of what’s going on in the Bahamas is awful, but I am very proud of what we’re doing as a Navy and our Royal Fleet Auxiliary, with one ship with a great team on board, with stores that were there pre-planned beforehand, with an aviation team, with British Army engineers that then allows us to offer help I think we have to do the same in terms of other parts of the world.
When there was a challenge on the high seas, we have to respond. And not just on our own, we have to respond with our international allies. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Mr. Muradian: Admiral Tony Radakin, the First Sea Lord, Chief of the Naval Staff and Chief of the Royal Navy. Sir, it’s an honor and pleasure talking to you. There are so many other questions I have, but I want Gary to let me talk to you again in the future. So thanks very, very much, sir. I really appreciate it. Fair winds, following seas on the shore, and look forward to seeing you again.
Admiral Radakin: It’s good to speak to you, and thanks for your time here and interest. I know that we’ll meet again in the future. Thanks, Vago.