Tony Radakin, Britain’s first sea lord, is preparing for a year in the spotlight as the Royal Navy deploys its new aircraft carrier to the Asia-Pacific and assumes the role of promoting the UK as a buccaneering trading nation post-Brexit.
Speaking on Zoom from his home near Winchester, where he works on all but the most classified operations, Admiral Radakin is clearly enthused by this agenda. When Boris Johnson announced a surprise £16.5bn uplift for the armed forces in November, he focused on the country’s maritime strengths, pledging to make Britain “the foremost naval power in Europe”.
Just 18 months into the job, the first sea lord, 55, is already a contender for the post of chief of the defence staff. The current CDS, Sir Nick Carter, is expected to retire this summer but Admiral Radakin deflects suggestions about promotion. “I am massively focused on delivering for the navy so I am loving the fact that I'm first sea lord,” he said.
Alongside the spoils of the new political settlement — an ambitious shipbuilding programme that will expand the fleet with three new classes of frigate — are challenges. The Royal Navy is being tested by increasing Russian adventurism, Chinese military assertiveness, and is attempting a leap into digital warfare while balancing its books.
“[The prime minister] is demanding that we modernise our armed forces and he's ensuring that the navy is part of that and is to the forefront of that,” Admiral Radakin said. “We are this amazing island maritime trading nation, that we are going to support the government on its agenda of trade, prosperity and security.”
His immediate focus is maiden deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, planned for May, intended as a show of deterrence against China while demonstrating the soft power of “Global Britain’s” ties with allies from India to Singapore, South Korea and Japan.
The Queen Elizabeth will host US Marine Corps F-35 jets and personnel, and be joined by a US destroyer, and is expected to conduct joint exercises with other military partners en route to East Asia.
But plans have been complicated by Covid-19: the development of a new and potentially more deadly virus strain means even the UK’s closest diplomatic partners may be wary of welcoming British sailors into port. The rampant spread of coronavirus on US and French aircraft carriers last spring — with the USS Theodore Roosevelt reporting over 1,200 cases and over 1,000 recorded on the Charles de Gaulle carrier battlegroup — showed how easily the disease can spread in cramped conditions.
When asked about coronavirus precautions, Admiral Radakin said he is “hopeful” that the crew and support staff of around 1,700 will have been vaccinated before departure and that he’s confident about sending the carrier away safely and on schedule. Last year the navy adopted asymptomatic testing and implemented quarantine procedures to deploy personnel to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and continued submarine operations and exercises in the Gulf and the Arctic seas towards Russia.
In a year in which Britain is hosting both the COP26 UN climate change conference and this summer’s G7 summit, the prime minister is keen to show that the UK, newly-independent of the EU, remains a military and diplomatic force. However even with a vaccine, there are unlikely to be any of the cocktail parties or trade fairs on board which normally characterise such carrier missions.
A key decision is whether the carrier will enter the South China Sea, where the rapidly expanding Chinese navy is asserting its presence. That is a decision for Mr Johnson’s and the cabinet, Admiral Radakin said.
For now, he has responsibilities closer to home. Britain was accused of gunboat diplomacy in December when it emerged that the navy had four patrol ships on standby to protect British waters from European fishermen in the event of a no deal Brexit. The navy has not yet been stood down, Admiral Radakin said, adding that the provision is “not at the heightened level that it was at before but it's still available to be called upon”.
He carefully avoids giving his opinion on ministerial requests. “We will continue to respond to the government's priorities as to where we are best utilised,” he said.
Early in his tenure Admiral Radakin formed plans to put more personnel on the front line and adapt rapidly to advances in drone technology and automation. But the navy has the largest deficit of all the four UK services, and was criticised by the National Audit Office earlier this month for an £4.3bn overspend in its equipment budget.
In light of the government’s allocation of £16.5bn extra for defence over four years, the first sea lord sounds relatively relaxed about a spending black hole, suggesting it will be part filled by new money. “I'm less concerned because we've got an opportunity of additional funds, an integrated review [of defence and foreign policy], clarity from government [about future spending],” he said.
The admiral is most enthusiastic about the possibilities for technological innovation, emphasising the need for “leaps” forward rather than “tiptoeing” towards change. His vision is that every ship will be “a sensor, a station for our intelligence agencies, an embassy for our Foreign Office but also a launch pad for drones”. The new type 32 frigate could be a “host platform” for high-end autonomous vessels, staffed by only a few personnel, he said.
The first sea lord has evidently taken the prime minister’s challenge of a once-in-a-generation modernisation of the armed forces seriously. “That is a hell of a remit on us as service chiefs to try and meet,” he said.