DSEI 2023: UK First Sea Lord stresses need for navy to accelerate technological and operational change

The Royal Navy’s carrier strike group
The Royal Navy’s carrier strike group is pictured operating with allies and partners in the Indo-Asia Pacific region in 2021. The navy is seeking to accelerate its response to the twin challenges of technological and geo-strategic change.

The UK Royal Navy (RN) is facing an ever-increasing pace of change in threats, and must pick up the pace of its own technological and operational response to keep pace with these threats, the RN’s First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff told the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) 2023 exhibition, taking place at ExCel London from 12-15 September.

In his keynote address, Admiral Sir Ben Key said “This week I sense ‘pace of change’ is a phrase that will be repeated often from this podium and others, together with superlative adjectives like ‘unprecedented’ or ‘relentless’.”

“As the world changes, we find ourselves in a race to stay ahead,” Adm Key continued. “It’s not only an academic or technical argument – it is very real, very current, and the only outcome can be winning.”

Adm Key set this change in two contexts: the pace of technology change; and the pace of geo-strategic change. The two are interlinked.

In terms of technology, “that future is arriving now,” said Adm Key. “It is … uncrewed, automated; it is digital; it is intelligent, blended, hybrid; it offers to fundamentally reshape the way the RN goes about securing UK trade, energy and data.”

The RN’s response is to seek to build the size of its force structure, but with such force structure more capable and more integrated. The navy has 16 ships and six submarines in build or on order. “They will be in large part, if not entirely, platforms oriented around a digital framework, allowing a fundamental shift in the way we crew and operate them,” said Adm Key.

In terms of geo-strategy, “The geopolitical challenge and technological race unfolding in Europe and in the Indo-Asia Pacific is unlike anything in memory,” Adm Key argued. “Now more than ever is the time for strong deterrence and defence.”

Adm Key said the RN has a long-established tradition of evolution, in terms of technology and operations. “We must continue to accelerate [this] evolution,” he added. “We are not setting the pace; our adversaries are doing that.”

“We just need to work out how to move faster,” Adm Key continued. “In doing so, we will deliver a truly transformed navy, one able to operate in the digital age, but more importantly, to fulfil the role it must play in protecting our island country and helping it prosper.”

by Dr. Lee Willett