In a wide-ranging 25-minute keynote address to the Council on Geostrategy at The Naval and Military Club in London, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Ben Key, outlined the lessons of events in eastern Europe and their impact on the Navy and the nation it serves, emphasizing the ever-growing importance of maritime power as means to promote peace, security, and prosperity.
The head of the Royal Navy said the conflict in Ukraine had underscored both the importance of the sea and global trade on the oceans and the value of the best equipment, operated by highly-motivated, professional armed forces.
But he warned while, “Putin has, through his actions, created a new Iron Curtain from the Baltic to the Black Sea… focusing solely on the Russian bear risks missing the tiger in the room.
He continued: “The world has woken up to the risks that Russia’s invasion poses, and the need for nations to meet their NATO spending targets as a matter of urgency.
“Today we see Russia as the clear and present danger, but China will pose the greater long-term challenge.
“Having overestimated some of Moscow’s military capabilities, we can’t now risk underestimating those of Beijing.”
The First Sea Lord believes China is potentially on the way to building the largest navy in the world, backed up by a massive coastguard and maritime militia, making the Royal Navy’s allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific – including the USA, Australia, France and Japan – crucial in ensuring the continuance of the rules based order that has promoted peace and prosperity since the end of World War 2.
Admiral Key told the conference that thanks to investment, the Government’s long-term shipbuilding strategy and a growing ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific region in recent years, the Royal Navy was in a strong position to meet the challenges ahead.
“We find ourselves in a time when the geopolitical landscape is changing before our eyes. We’re seeing increased state-on-state tensions, and transnational issues like the pandemic and climate change which are driving us to adapt,” he said.
“The reality for us in the Royal Navy, is that recent events haven’t knocked us off course. We’re already modernizing and transforming the Royal Navy, we’ve cut back on duplication, invested in automation and freed up more people for the front line.”
The Royal Navy’s renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific has been underlined in the past 18 months by sending HMS Queen Elizabeth’s carrier strike group, embarked with the latest F-35B stealth fighters from the RAF, Fleet Air Arm and US Marine Corps, to the Pacific Rim last year and stationing two patrol ships on a long-term mission in the region, HMS Spey – currently in Singapore – and HMS Tamar, currently working with the US Navy on a peace and goodwill mission around Pacific islands.
And away from the Pacific and events in eastern Europe, the sea remains Britain's lifeblood – perhaps more than ever.
Admiral Key said there was increasing traffic on and below the waves – from a fourfold growth in merchant shipping tonnage in 30 years to 97 per cent of global communications passing along undersea cables – while nearly half the UK’s food and gas supplies reach us by sea.
To help safeguard this, Royal Navy warships are on patrol all over the world in the Falklands, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Atlantic, having also operated in the Arctic, and Antarctic in 2022, as well as carrying out extensive duties in home waters.
Alongside the right ships with the right equipment in the right place, Admiral Key again stressed the need for the right people.
He joined the Royal Navy 38 years ago and says his path to the top – time at sea, command of warships, senior positions in the MOD – has been largely conventional and could have easily been predicted by senior Naval officers of the day.
However, for a future First Sea Lord passing through Britannia Royal Naval College today, Admiral Key believes the path will be very different – one he cannot predict. It’s just as likely they will serve and command alongside the Army or RAF, perhaps enjoy a secondment in industry or a career break.
“The only certainty I can offer is that the person that follows my career path will not be First Sea Lord. That is why we must change our cultures and be a modern employer that welcomes and challenges our people,” the First Sea Lord continued.
“Because only by being an employer of choice, attracting a diverse workforce, and accelerating career model changes can we properly harness the incredible talent out there, and hence create the operational advantage that matters.”
Admiral Key concluded his address by stressing the importance of the sea – and its guardian in the form of the Royal Navy – to the prosperity of the United Kingdom.
“We are still an island and the sea will continue to matter,” the First Sea Lord declared.“A global nation with global interests needs a Global Navy.
“We strive to retain the trust of the nation, something hard earned over many centuries, that our dependence on the sea is being protected and enabled. We feel it in our bones, in every operation we undertake. We shall be worthy of that trust every minute of every day as we always have been.”