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From seabed to space

From seabed to space
7 min read

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Tony Radakin has a remit stretching from the ocean floor to the outer hemisphere, along with responsibility for the welfare and wellbeing of more than 30,000 personnel and their families. He tells Robert Hutton he has reasons to be cheerful.

On the wall behind Admiral Sir Tony Radakin is a map of the world showing shipping lanes, highlighted by how heavily they’re used. As First Sea Lord, he’s charged with keeping those lanes open and safe.

One of the most important routes is the Suez Canal, through which the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will travel as she heads towards another of the world’s busiest shipping areas, the South China Sea. The deployment is a government response to China’s increasingly aggressive claims of territorial rights over the area. 

The admiral, a lawyer by training, is careful not to directly criticise China, but he says it’s the Navy’s job to protect the right of ships to navigate freely, supporting “the international rules-based system”. The freedom of the seas has been, he says, “the foundation of our nation's prosperity and place in the world. Navies support governments in expressing how we will enable those rules to endure.

“That's what we do in the Gulf. That's what we did combating piracy off the Horn of Africa. That is what we do in terms of supporting our exclusive economic zone, that's what we do in terms of fishery protection."  

The Royal Navy did well in the most recent defence review, and the First Sea Lord is sunnily positive. He says he’s overseeing a fleet that’s growing for the first time in 70 years. “Our tonnage between 2015 and 2030 increases by 50 per cent.”

With fewer than 100 ships, the fleet is, however, dwarfed by China’s – which contains at least 360, according to US government estimates. 

But Radakin argues that to look at it this way misses the importance of Britain’s connections. Sailing in the carrier group are a Dutch ship and a US ship. He recently showed his opposite numbers from France and America around the Queen Elizabeth. “The conversation was that if you take those three navies you're suddenly talking about a 500-ship navy. That's what alliances mean. It's a phenomenal capability.”

According to Radakin, the mission of the carrier and her strike group is as much diplomatic as it is military. It is, he says, the manifestation of the government’s desire to present an outward-facing “Global Britain”.

Boris Johnson recently announced plans to build a “new national flagship” to support trade missions and host summits, a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia, which retired in 1997. We spoke before the government indicated the Ministry of Defence would bear the cost -- a surprise to some in the Navy, as the ship will be unarmed and is aimed at trade promotion. While Radakin didn't comment on the plan, he was clear that this is the kind of job the existing flagship can already do. When HMS Queen Elizabeth reaches South Korea, she will host the Pacific Future Forum conference of politicians, academics and businesspeople. “There’s a convening power of an aircraft carrier,” Radakin says. “It can draw people together.”

“Treat it as a floating embassy,” he adds. “We'll visit over 70 ports, and over 40 different nations. This is much, much more than defence.”

The carrier also supports the covert side of foreign policy, he says. “Increasingly, we talk about all our ships being an embassy, a sensor and a station for intelligence agencies.” That can mean “the ability to host very secret conversations” but it also means picking up signals intelligence – “to be able to get data”. 

And to secure it, too. Radakin points out that almost all the world’s information is carried by undersea cables, which the navy helps to protect. The map behind him shows only two of the dimensions in which his crews operate. “Our reach is from the seabed to space,” he says. “We are a cyber-navy.”

Covid was a challenge to every workplace, but especially ships. Many Ministry of Defence staff began working from home last year, but neither that nor social distancing were options available to naval staff on deployment. Radakin says it made him think of the earlier days of the navy, when ships with an infection on board would fly a yellow flag, known as “Q” for “quarantine”. 

“How do you operate a submarine [in a Covid-secure way] when you’ve got 150 people in this incredible close proximity?” he asks. “How do you do that on our minehunters, our frigates, our destroyers, our carriers? You do it by very tight protocols, and a phenomenal discipline. If somebody feels unwell, we isolate them very, very quickly from the rest of the ship's company. And then if those symptoms persist, we then look to get them off the ship as quickly as possible. On the whole, we managed that quite effectively. We are a resilient navy. All our operations have been maintained. We maintained our nuclear deterrent."

The military quite often just creates the space for peace and for politicians to be successful in moving things on.

Recruitment stayed high throughout the pandemic, possibly partly due to the appeal of a steady job in difficult times. But that brings us to an area where Radakin says the Royal Navy is failing. It has a no black or ethnic minority officers above the rank of captain, and the first female rear admiral is due to start her duties next year. 

“We do not properly reflect the society that we represent,” Radakin says. “It's true of the whole of defence. We are getting after that, but we need to do a lot, lot more.”

Determined to accentuate the positive, he points to good signs: “We've got 24 per cent more applicants from ethnic minority communities than we had a year ago, we've got 20 per cent more women applying. We've got to build on that.” It’s easier to build a more diverse force when the navy is, as now, growing rather than shrinking. But he’s clear more needs to be done. 

“There's an accessibility issue,” he says, when asked if some groups don’t see themselves as potential recruits. “We have to be more reassuring. It's about us, not them. The onus is on us to tell better stories, to excite people with the amazing opportunities, to advertise the opportunity for people to serve their nation.”

A job that involves long periods away at sea is never going to be the most family-friendly, but “we're trying to make people's lives more stable. We're trying to make ships' programmes much more certain. We've got wraparound childcare. We’ve got mentoring and coaching.”

Asked about how Northern Ireland veterans have been treated, Radakin is careful, deflecting to offer a thought about the general role of troops. "The military quite often just creates the space for peace and for politicians to be successful in moving things on. Northern Ireland is a great example of that. 

“We all have a responsibility to these people,” he adds. “The nation has a responsibility. You've served your country, and there's a specialness in having done so. We've got to zero in on the veterans that have a disadvantage, or have suffered for their service, and we need to ensure that they are incredibly well looked after.”

As ever, Radakin is keen to strike an optimistic note. “We also have to project that, for the vast majority, serving the country in the military is axiomatic with going on to have flourishing civilian careers afterwards.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who answers to politicians, he speaks warmly about Parliament and ministers. "We have enormous respect for politicians that put themselves forward to leadership positions," he says. "They're serving their country, but they're doing it through a political lens. These are sincere, talented, committed people."

And he welcomes the greater prominence of veterans in parliament. "You've had the sharp focus of wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, and because of the focus on the military, maybe some of the back stories of MPs become a bit more prominent. It's been allowed to be talked about a bit more."

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