The new First Sea Lord and his vision for the Royal Navy’s future

Tony Radakin was appointed First Sea Lord (1SL) and Chief of the Naval Staff in June 2019. He is seen as a reformer who is keen to accelerate change within the Royal Navy. Here we examine the issues he may face in his three-year tenure and what his priorities for the Naval Service may be.

During his time as Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson was keen to make a significant impact, rejecting the ‘caretaker’ approach of Michael Fallon, his predecessor. Williamson selected a group of new defence chiefs who are seen as innovators, willing to think in new ways and not be too bound by the traditions which still dominate thinking in the MoD. If these new leaders are given the opportunity and enough resources to make real changes, then this may prove to be a very important legacy left by Williamson. Vice Admiral Ben Key, who held the post of Fleet Commander, usually seen as the last stepping stone before selection as 1SL, was expected by many to be appointed but Radakin was selected instead. To an extent he will continue the work begun by Admiral Zambellas and Admiral Jones, but with even more emphasis on innovation.

The RN is still committed to delivering much the same outputs as defined in the 2015 SDSR. The RN successfully made its case based on three main pillars, Maintaining the Continuous At-Sea Deterrent (CASD), Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) and Amphibious Capability. Ensuring these core functions can effectively operate in the face of rapid technological change without major new resources is the main challenge for Radakin.

Relentless

The enduring requirement to maintain to nuclear deterrent will continue in much the same way and the next big change, when the first Dreadnought submarine commissions, will not happen until Radakin’s successor’s successor is in post. The material state of the ageing Vanguard boats will become more challenging and protecting them on patrol is not made any easier by declining SSN numbers. On the plus side, the first of the new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft should start to become operational, plugging a serious gap in the protection of the deterrent boats. The new 1SL said there will be “greater investment in the North Atlantic” but other than the arrival of the Poseidon, it is unclear quite what this means, the first of the long-planned Type 26 ASW frigates will not arrive until 2027. This could be a nod toward greater investment in underwater surveillance networks and off-board unmanned ASW technology.

Last month Admiral Radakin, with the Second Sea Lord and Fleet Commander visited naval bases, naval air stations, Royal Marine barracks and headquarters around the country for ‘town hall’ meetings to deliver his vision for the future of the Royal Navy.

CEPP up

Perhaps the biggest transformational challenge for the navy is the move to become what Radakin called “a proper, Carrier Task Group Navy”. Instead of generating ships ready to send on mostly single deployments, the whole pattern of the fleet will have to change so that a group of escort vessels and support ships are all brought to readiness together to deploy with the aircraft carriers. Changing the rhythm of deployments to this new model, while still retaining the flexibility for ships to operate independently, perhaps detaching to and from the carrier group, will be a complicated balancing act.

Limited escort numbers offer limited choices but the RN is moving towards a new manning model which may get more from the same number of hulls. HMS Montrose’s permanent deployment in Bahrain with her crew rotating about every 4 months is effectively a trial to see if this is workable. More forward-basing could be adopted with another vessel permanently based in Singapore as an option under consideration. Crew rotation for ships on long deployments is also a possibility. There are great efficiencies to this system as it saves long transits to and from the UK and extends the time a ship can be deployed in a particular region. It may also help retention as sailors are away for shorter and more predictable periods.

On the downside, the crew that is about to fly out to replace the current ship’s company need to train and become a coherent unit on a near-identical ship in the UK which imposes limits on how that vessel may be deployed. There is also a reduced sense of ownership and pride in being part of a particular ship’s crew if frequently rotated on an off. This system has, however, already proved workable for many years on the smaller minehunters but can it be made to work for much larger and more complex vessels?

Besides providing adequate and timely escorts for the carriers, the operation of the two largest ships ever built for the RN presents a steep learning curve and management challenge. Considerable progress has been made on the path towards full CEPP but there is still much to discover and re-discover about operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in a complex joint environment at sea. In the next three years, the manning, logistical support and availability of the carriers will have to be defined more precisely while being balanced with the needs of the navy as a whole. The employment of the carriers will have an especially weighty political and strategic dimension that may demand careful handling by 1SL. HMS Queen Elizabeth will undertake her first, very high profile, operational deployment, probably to the Asia Pacific in 2021.

Royal Marines conduct weapons drills on the flight deck of HMS Albion during deployment to the Far East in late 2018.

Going commando

Radakin has said “we will develop a Future Commando Force, with more of our Royal Marines operating from sea”. The RMs have already begun a significant structural transformation, to operate less like an Army brigade and move back to their roots as a commando force. They will have a greater role in supporting special forces, spend more time at sea and have a greater emphasis on using new technology on the battlefield. Assuming the new 1SL is supportive of the Future Littoral Strike Ship (FLSS) project, it will provide a forward-deployed base for special operations.

The Marines will, of course, retain their core amphibious assault role but the approach to beach landings may have to evolve to survive in contested environments. The future shape of amphibious forces must be refined and work to design and fund replacements for HMS Albion and Bulwark started. HMS Prince of Wales will begin sea trials in Autumn 2019 and subsequently take the lead in developing the QEC carriers as helicopter assault ships in the ‘Littoral Manoeuvre’ role.

Observe Orient Decide Act

The new 1SL is promising “We are going to use technology and innovation in a much bigger way than we have been to drive everything that we do.” Cyber, AI and unmanned systems are already in the hands of peer and non-peer adversaries and the RN has no choice but to respond quickly if it is not to become obsolete. The devices in the pocket of every civilian sometimes appear more advanced than equipment in the operations room of warships. This is the result of cumbersome procurement paths that in some cases lag far behind the development and deployment of new technology in the commercial world. NavyX is a recent initiative to rapidly develop, test and deliver cutting-edge equipment and new technologies to the fleet and making this a success is critical.

The navy still needs its traditional heavy metal, the ships, submarines and aircraft but these platforms must be more adaptable to accept the insertion of new technology that can be frequently refreshed and updated. New processes must be found that can put equipment into the hands of sailors in months or even weeks. The establishment of the ‘Transformation Fund’ is an acknowledgement of this, but is only a small start. Radakin will need to drive parts of the RN’s management OODA loop to react more quickly.

The RN may be slightly more content than the other services, having a more settled future roadmap than either the Army or RAF and 48% of the 2018-28 Equipment Plan (EP) is naval expenditure. (Although if the Dreadnought programme, which could be considered a national project is put aside, the RN has about 30% of the EP). The Type 31e may be a valiant attempt to reverse the trend but in general, credible platforms look set to be ever more complex and costly. About £7 billion for an SSBN, more than £1Bn for a Type 26 frigate, and about £100 million for an F-35 help explain the limited choices. Then there is also a whole new wave of Hypersonic and Directed Energy weapons that the RN needs to both develop and counter if they want to remain a front rank navy.

Whether the Type 31e frigates can be successfully brought into service on schedule will be more of a matter for Radakin’s successor but he will oversee the decision on which design is selected at the end of this year. There is understood to be a lobby inside the RN to ensure the Type 31e emerges with a fully credible package of armament and sensors befitting a frigate. Of course, this will have to be balanced with other cost pressures such as an interim replacement for the Harpoon anti-ship missile and a desire to invest more heavily in Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS).

Assuming the budget will stay about the same, then the Navy must continue to make trade-offs and prioritisation. For example, do you buy an additional weapon system which may be ‘sexier’ and make a more obvious political statement or fit a sophisticated electronic warfare system that maybe virtually invisible but can have much wider tactical effects? Alternatively, there is a case for prioritising funds for housing, welfare and facilities that will benefit personnel and their families.

The haemorrhaging of experienced personnel may have been reduced and the situation stabilised, but the service is still well under its target manpower strength. Measures to improve retention of its sailors must remain a top priority for the Navy, which is nothing without its people.

After years without many staunch advocates holding positions of influence, there are now several politicians very sympathetic to the Navy in government. In the short term, 1SL must navigate the severe political turbulence engulfing Westminster and make plans against a background of uncertainty. It would be fair to say the new man at the helm has plenty to deal with in his in-tray.