The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin

September 2021

Dr Sam Willis meets with the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin to discuss the many challenges the Royal Navy faces exercising sea power in the modern world. They discuss life on a modern warship; how the sea provides prosperity, security and stability; exercising seapower hand in hand with a Government’s policies; G7 and NATO; ‘Global Britain’ and Britain’s overseas territories; the Gulf of Guinea and the Ukraine; the Rule of law, Exclusive Economic Zones; the nuclear deterrent; the new technology of the new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales; the challenges of providing manpower for the navy; drone technology and naval power; and the role of history and tradition in the Royal Navy.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast, we have a very special guest for you today to explore the role of the Royal Navy in the modern world. Now, we always like to bring you the best position guests to talk about their particular subject.  In this instance, there is no body finer to talk about the changing role of the Royal Navy, and the innumerable challenges it faces in the modern world, than the head of the Navy itself. So today we have for you Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the First Sea Lord, who invited me to come to his offices at HMS Excellent on Whale Island in Portsmouth. Now, regardless of my guest, HMS Excellent and Whale island itself is really a very interesting place. It’s been a naval shore based training establishment for over a century and was a gunnery school. Initially in 1829, based on the third grade warship of the same name, that was moored alongside the creek, acting as a gunnery range. The gunnery school was moved to shore in the 1880s, by which time the island itself was growing. This is because all of the spoil excavated from the naval base, as it expanded, was deposited on the island. Now it is no longer a gunnery school, but it is the home of the Navy command headquarters. At the very top of that tree is the First Sea Lord, who is the Royal Navy’s professional head and chairman of the Navy Board and Chief of Naval Staff. He is responsible to the Secretary of State for the fighting effectiveness, efficiency, and morale of the naval service, and support the Secretary of State for defence in the management and direction of the armed forces. Admiral Radakin has been in positions since June 2019. He first joined the Navy in 1990 and 13 years later became commanding officer of the frigate HMS Norfolk. He was commanding officer of the US UK Iraqi naval transition team in 2006, and commanding officer of the US UK combined Task Force, Iraqi Maritime in 2010. He was promoted to Commodore in 2011, became commander of the naval base in Portsmouth in 2011. As well, he was appointed director of force development at the Ministry of Defence in November 2012. promoted to Rear Admiral in December 2014, and became commander, United Kingdom maritime forces and Rear Admiral surface ships that same year. He was promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral on the 27th of March 2018. On his appointment as Second Sealord, and Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, and the following year, he took up his current position. The role of First Sea Lord has changed over time, but it has a long history indeed, originally the title it was the senior naval Lord to the Board of Admiralty when the post was created first in 1689. It was held by Admiral Arthur Herbert, a really remarkable man and one well worth investigating if you have a little time. Herbert was strategically astute and farsighted. He was courageous, and he was certainly popular with his men. He was also responsible for significant and long lasting changes in the way that the Navy was run. He was, however, utterly loathed by his enemies and can claim to have some of the most appalling reviews ever written of a human, let alone have a naval officer. Samuel Pepys said, of all the worst men living, Herbert is the only man that I do not know to have one virtue to compound for all of his vices. And the historian John Ehrman described him as, almost a professional badman. It’s the first and only time I’ve ever come across the word badman as a single word and a noun. Anyway, Admiral Radakin not only walks in the footsteps of Herbert but also a long, long list of the most remarkable people to wear the naval uniform, including Sir George Rook and Sir Charles Wager from the 17th century, Lord Anson, and Earl Howe from the 18th. Sir George Coburn and Sir Sidney Dacres from the 19th century, Admiral Earl Beatty and Admiral Sir John Cunningham for the 20th century, and Admiral Sir Mark, Stanhope and Admiral Sir George van Bellis from the 21st We met in his office on Whale Island, overlooking Portsmouth naval base, with huge floor to ceiling windows, where you could sit all day and watch the comings and goings of the maritime world, from ferries to tiny fishing, craft, and of course, brand new aircraft carriers. For those of you who want to see what this looks like, please bear in mind that this episode was filmed. So all you have to do is pop over to the Mariners Mirror podcasts YouTube page, where you can meet the admiral in person. And so here is Admiral Radakin.

     

    Sam Willis 

    First of all, I do love your office, did you choose it to make it as like being on a ship as possible without actually being on one?

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    So I suppose we’re lucky. So this is a fantastic place to base a navy headquarters. So we’re at the top of the harbour, we’re on Whale Island. The island was created by the excavation of Portsmouth harbour. And so it seems a suitable place to have a Navy headquarters. And it’s fantastic to have large windows. And it’s great for me to be able to look out and see our ships, I think is less good for our ship CEOs. out there under the gaze of the other headquarters, but now it’s we’re lucky.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, do you miss being on board a ship?

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    I do I because I think for most of us, your first 10 years are intimately on board ship, you then tend to have a mixture the next 10 years. And then you tend to be a bit further away from the bridge in your in the following 10 years, if that’s an easy way of describing it. And there’s a comfort, it’s, in a way, it’s reassuring that when you go back to a ship, whether it’s the ladders or the food, or it’s a smell. Personally, I don’t like going to ships and not going up to the bridge. And I still can’t understand the engineering community that can just descend into the engine rooms, and almost not know where the ship is, and not look outside. So I think this it does become part of your DNA. And that’s why we’re all speaking to the commanding, our new commanding officers this afternoon. And it’s a genuine sort of congratulations. Because they’ve got the best jobs going. And it’s a it’s also a it’s, I’m envious of you, and I am, and some of the opportunities we got the Navy at the moment. I think for most of us, we’d love to turn back the clock and do it all again.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I love that you said about the smell of the ships in the 18th century, they would have smell to Stockholm tar that would have primarily been theirs. Now what are the what are they smell like? What does the modern warship smell like?

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    It’s interesting

     

    Sam Willis 

    Is it Food

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    No, no, it’s definitely not to eat, you get there, you’re inevitably you get the you get the worst of the ship, as you go around the ship, there’s still, if the bridge is always a good place to just sort of reassure yourself and look out and sort of get that comfort. The other place to kind of get a feel for a ship is to go to the galley. And you chat to the chefs, and they’ve got you know,  what’s the latest buzz. So I think that’s probably never changed. I think the focus on is the food good and the food is, I think it’s extraordinarily good and pleased to say some things have changed. And then the other smells are, are a mixture of you feeling that you if you go to a carrier, or you’re arriving, frequently for, me to be arriving by helicopter, then there is a sort of AVCAT aviation smells. You then go into the ship, and if I’m honest, it’s the you know, it’s a smell of cleanliness, it’s the fact that the decks are varnished, the place is clean. And then you go into engine rooms and engine rooms smell the same way as in my mind the same way as when I was a mid-shipman. And I was doing my task book and might learn about how the ship actually works. Yeah,

     

    Sam Willis 

    so many different influences all poised and ready to go. I love this map. Let’s talk about this briefly. And I’d also I’d like to talk to you about you know, the challenges of exercising sea power in the modern world. What exactly is this?

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    So this is, I love this. This is a brilliant graphic. And to me, this describes the world that we’re actually in, which is a world dominated by the sea. And the different colours represent the different trades that go around the world on the sea. So whether that’s your energy, whether it’s the mineral ore, whether it’s the container vessels, and there’s the piece, the piece I love about it is that you could almost you could, you could subtract the land and you would see a new way you would see the definition of the world that we live in. And so it feels to me and that’s a snapshot of all of those ships flowing around the world over a 12 month period. And that that’s what it looks like. And hence to me, that is the world that we’re in. It’s a maritime dominated world. It’s a world that goes back to, either to some extent, the early 1600s, and gracious and the notion of the high seas, and what that has meant for us, in terms of our prosperity our security our stability. And that still dominates. And I think the other piece for me is it’s the martial book on the seven, the seven maps or seven charts that have influenced the world. So Africa and its difficulty because its rivers are less navigable compared to a Europe that has this abundance of navigable rivers, which then means that that trade from sea can actually get into the hinterland. And actually, prosperity then grows,

     

    Sam Willis 

    you know, I love that idea of, you know, maritime powers, it’s conceive not just being about the sea, you have to compete, think of the the inlets going deep into the into the continent as well. And but with this scale of maritime commerce affecting the world, how do you? How do you exercise sea power, we know faced with this kind of challenge.

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    So I think, I think you exercise it at a lots of different levels, and you exercise it definitely within the frame of your government and its policies. And if you look at that, you actually exercise it in an international sense. So and by the way, I think these big ideas, they actually come down to a very practical level. So if I take this week, the G7, is about to start. These are these magnificent democracies, that do have shared values, shared interests, and they come together, and many of them were in this amazing military alliance called NATO, which again, has got, represents shared values, shared interests, and a commitment to defend each other. You then if you’ve got those political frames, and you’ve got those shared interests, particularly around security, stability, trade, prosperity, belief in democracy, and so on, then I think you then start to look at your various instruments of power. And that could be economic, it could be diplomatic, again, he could extend it to social, cultural, and so on political. And if you look at the military one, well, you want to use your power, with your land forces with your air forces, your ability to work alongside intelligence agencies, and so on. And then for the for us as a Navy, I think we’re at a really sharp clarity about what we offer a government and fulfilling a government policy. So if that’s encapsulated, and there’s a debate in the phrase global Britain, then we start to provide a global Navy for global Britain. And then what does that need to do? Well, it needs to project our values, it needs to first the look after the homeland. And part of our looking after the homeland is a physical, our EEZ our Exclusive Economic Zone, our territorial waters, but it also extends to the fundamentals of UK defence. So that’s a nuclear deterrent. So if I want to operate in the North Atlantic, I need to keep that nuclear deterrent, safe and with a freedom of manoeuvre. In order to do that, I have to, I have to know where there might be some actors that are trying to find our nuclear submarines. So I’m instantly in a competition there. So that then starts to project what I’m doing here, we’ve then got this incredible responsibility to look after Overseas Territories well suddenly I now need to have some forces in the Caribbean, I need to be support the Falklands, I need to also have an eye these days to the Pitcairn Islands in the middle of the Pacific and the one of the world’s largest maritime protected areas. So how do I do that? I then I want to meld in with my NATO allies. And we want to demonstrate to Russia that where we’ve got freedom of manoeuvre in in in the North Atlantic, we might want to demonstrate that we can operate around the world. So we’re operate further north. And then we want to demonstrate that we are a global Navy as part of global Britain. We’ve got shared interest with our friends and allies in the Indo Pacific. We’ve got important interests in the Gulf. So now I’ve started to operate in that area. And then in the Mediterranean. Again, the Mediterranean is is is is through a security lens increasingly becoming an operational theatre. Particularly the eastern end of the Mediterranean. We’ve then got the Black Sea, we’ve got Ukraine, we’ve got those issues there. We want to demonstrate our closeness to Ukraine. And can we help the Ukraine government grow in its its capacity? We’ve got amazing UK interests in the Gulf of Guinea, enormous investment going into Senegal. So the government level can we align in that sense? So we’ve got HMS Trent, who’s operating in the Mediterranean, but will also be operating in the Gulf of Guinea, we then operate with the with the with navies in the Gulf of Guinea, and the operate might be as light as we’ve got this amazing hydrographic office, one of the if not the best hydrographers in the world. Therefore, can we support in that sense, can we support in terms of our information flows in the maritime space

     

    Sam Willis 

    The hydrographic office, keeping, keeping us going with improving the safety of the sea and improving charts and our understanding of the oceans.

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    So it’s, it’s got all of those fundamentals, and then it’s got some, some pieces that are really important for me, if we’re operating submarines, and we want to be able to operate submarines around the globe, then we need to know the seabed in an incredibly detailed way. And that, but that then aligns with there are other actors, energy companies, undersea cable companies, environmentalists that want to understand the seabed as well, so so you can you can align your interests. But it also extends in their modern sense, is that this is all data. This just happens to be data about the sea, the seabed, the ocean, or the actual graphics of it. So can we go in partnership, allied again, with our policy of what’s the information that we hold? What’s the information of their coastal radars? What’s the information of their local hydrographic institutes? What was their view about the rule of law? What’s their view about how they protect their Exclusive Economic Zones? Can we align in that way? Do we have shared interests again? Can I help them to grow capacity? And that does that then help me and that’s what I think is constantly going on. And then there are challenges where some people might have a different view. And actually, we need to show that we were we’re not going to be carried by that. That freedom of navigation is key, and we’re going to maintain it. And so again, that that that’s going on the whole time.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, this idea of it all being about information, I think is fascinating. And information obviously leads on to questions about technology, what’s your view on how on the Navy’s future in terms of new and modern technology.

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    So I think we have an amazing story to tell and back to your. And I think we’ve always been at the leading edge. And we continue to do so. And it extends across the whole of the Navy. So at the at the top end, are these phenomenal technological instruments called Nuclear Submarines that have our nuclear deterrent. And it’s just a notion that it’s hard enough having a nuclear reactor on land, you put it into a black tube, you put it in in with 100/150 people alongside it, if you will be put some armaments in, whether that’s missiles or torpedoes, and then you operate it under the oceans. And you want to have the freedom to operate it where you choose. That, and by the way, that you’ve got to look after your people to keep them incredibly safe. But if I take the nuclear deterrent, I’ve got to guarantee to the Prime Minister, the notice that he wants, that we’re able to respond, should he require it. And at the same time, I never want that nuclear submarine to be found. It’s invulnerable, is never to be detected, that that the technology that goes into enabling that the skills of the people is phenomenal. If I then go to another phenomenal piece, aircraft carriers, we have just built and the UK should be immensely proud. We have just built the world’s best modern aircraft carriers. They, they cost just over 3 billion pounds. That’s, that’s that is a lot of money. But when you compare it to the cost of aircraft carriers across the globe, that looks like a fantastic achievement. If you then look at the ship’s company, it’s got a ship’s company of 800, That’s 800 for 65000 ton ship. If I look across to America, their modern aircraft carriers are 100,000 tons with a ship’s company of 2700. So the design that we’ve got with HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, which, which uses an Amazon storage system for all the armaments And that saves 250 people. And then there are other things in that ship design that make it this what we call a fifth generation aircraft carrier, you then put the world’s best jets on board, F-35. And these are, these are phenomenal aircraft. And they have a bit of an ability to again to information. They can suck up data, they can share that data in the in the formation so they fly, and they can project that data back to their sea bases, their land bases and so on. That this is the top end technology and then it carries on through, we are investing in in drones so that we replace on mine hunting ships, because that is a more effective and safe and better way of finding mines. We are investing in our Royal Marines so that we have a future commando force. These amazing people who have this physical courage, and they have the ingenuity of commandos are blended with technology, so that they can work more closely with special forces, with intelligence agencies. A traditional company attack of 150 people trying to get to point A, and there you had 20 years ago, less than 20 years ago, they will be operating under quite a narrow front, it might be I might be five kilometres wide, it might be three kilometres deep. When you then take the same 150 people or reduce it down to 120 10 teams to 12 with drone technology, and the ability to maybe operate under a narrow breath which is 100 kilometres. And to speed up the battlespace and the decision making and they’ve got fires as well as the what we call ISTAR, their reconnaissance and surveillance. And a company commander has got all of that projected onto a screen in front of him. And then each of his section commanders have got the same picture. Then that’s what’s happening. And I’m a I’m an advocate of in a technological revolution, we have to embrace that because our competitors might embrace it and are embracing it. And if we carry on as we are we risk falling behind. And that my worry is that sometimes armed forces as relatively conservative institutions, we revere what we know and hold dear. And we might be slow to change. And to me there is more risk with carrying on as we are, then actually the risks involved with adopting new technology and then getting after it and actually getting after it in such a way that we have an advantage over our competitors. And so that’s what we’re trying to do.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, the idea of a technical revolution is really important, isn’t it. And the point is, it hasn’t happened, it is happening. And it will continue to happen. And you’ve got to see yourself as part of that big flow.

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    Absolutely. And it’s across all spheres. So I think we and we can, we can leverage off that technological revolution, because of the quality of our people, the men and women, down to the most junior sailor and the most junior marine is an enormous advantage that we have as a Navy. And that either again, in a historical sense, I would say that’s been one of the endearing features of the Royal Navy, our success is grounded on the quality of our men and women, you then that then enables you to keep shifting and changing in order to retain your position. And your position is about delivering for the government giving choices for the government. And you can offer them more choices if you’ve got an advantage over your competitors.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s interesting, we’re talking about you know, the present and the future. Let’s just think about the opposite of that. How important is the past to the Navy, in terms of precedent, example, prestige, whatever it might be.

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    So I think it’s important in that it gives us this incredible tradition. It gives us It just gives us a status, and I don’t mean this in in a jingoistic sense. I mean it in a when we as a great privilege being First Sealord and when you travel the world, and you see that our Navy has quite often been a reference Navy for other navies and amazing stories, like Admiral Cochran and on our Chilean friends. That’s what we got to that, and that’s more than a door opener. That is a respect. It goes back to the shared values, shared interests. It allows you to work together more closely. And I think it does allow you to be able to look out on the world and say right,  how did our previous assessors deal with the same challenges? What were they doing in order to succeed? So I think that’s, it’s an enormous, enormous backdrop that lifts you and gives you this perspective and elevation, I think there’s a there’s a potential downside. The downside is that you’re slightly intimidated by this incredibly majestic background, or that you revere the past. And you worry that actually you’re going to take some risks, and that the organization, when, when I’ve been having these conversations about why we might have to shift, it’s interesting, because some people’s views is that the organization is quite precious. And if you bend it a bit too much, it’s going to break, like I said, the opposite. This is an incredible organization that’s been around for at least 500 years. It’s got resilience, it’s got incredible prestige, it’s got incredible clarity about what it does as a Navy, and the importance of leadership, of camaraderie, of ethos, of delivering for our government of working with our friends and allies. And that they’re, they’re ingrained in our DNA. But it’s not it’s not, it’s it’s malleable, you can adjust it to the here and now. It’s not something that is brittle. And if you just if you’re just aware of it too much, you’re going to let everybody down and you’ve taken these enormous risks. No one’s betting the organization, and so it’s just a continuum. And the continuum should always be adjusting and changing in order to serve our government and our people.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And in terms of education, I suppose you’ve got to be very careful what lessons you decide to pull out of history to inspire your young officers or your young non-commissioned officers, then,

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    Yes, and I again, I definitely. So we’ve got this richness of of lessons that we can learn and some of them are positive lessons, some of them are negative lessons,

     

    Sam Willis 

    Success and failure.

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    Exactly. So we’ve got it we’ve got a draw is helpful if you’ve got if you’ve got more successes or failures. So if you’ve got a draw on that, but I also I think, got to be careful of, of romanticizing, or super romanticizing. So I think you know, we all in the Royal Navy, revere, Admiral Lord Nelson, but there’s the to me, there’s a danger that the more you learn about it, and also you kind of the more the risk kind of thing. You can never be him, and therefore you’re intimidated, and you’re kind of you kind of go in on yourself. A personal hero for me, Shackleton, the notion, and it’s Shackleton’s leadership that Shackleton stranded in the South Atlantic, and he gets in an open boat. And his ships company know that he’s going to go and get help. And they actually believe he’s going to go and get help. Yet the journey that he had to make in an open boat in the South Atlantic to get to South Georgia, an unsurveyed Island to then make his way across Georgia, climb

     

    Sam Willis 

    over a mountain

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    and get lost in the glacier. Come back up, go to another one, find a whaling station, get the help. And then, and then he goes back and he rescues his ship’s company. And they all they all expected him to come back and rescue them. I mean, that’s as an act of leadership. I can I find that intimidating. But it’s to try and say right to take the intimidation part. Take the aspirational part of what can you do with the human condition? when everybody is aligned? And you and you have a clear sense of purpose. You have integrity, you have honesty, you have moral courage, you have physical courage. Well, you can do great things.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I mean, it’s faced with the ultimate problem. And I like the idea of his crew sitting around going well, if there’s one person amongst us, you can actually do it. It’s him, you know, off the Off you go. A wonderful story. And let’s just finish by referring back to this map again, and here’s little UK here. How do you cope with being a relatively small Navy faced with immense powers in East in China and America,

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    So we have the good fortune of being able to have them, blend our Navy with these other navies so that you can multiply your effect around the world. So and that that happens everywhere. So in the North Atlantic, we’re operating with our NATO navies, in the Caribbean, where we’re doing counter narcotics as well as looking after our Overseas Territories with the nations in the Caribbean but also the United States Navy, the United States Coast Guard, Canada, France, the Netherlands. If I look down to the Falklands, that’s more of a singular peace, but we’re doing that alongside the British Army and the Royal Air Force. If I then carry on around the world, if you go into the Gulf, we’ve been there for a long time. It’s at one level, it’s a relatively modest footprint. It’s a frigate, its a support ship, its four mine hunters. At another level, well, there’s no other international Navy from outside the region that has got a bigger footprint other than the United States. I then we then leverage off these amazing touch points. You’ve got Cyprus at the eastern end of the Med, we’ve got Diego Garcia, the British Indian Ocean territory in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We’ve got Singapore, we’ve got Brunei. And then we’ve got friends. We’re going to have numerous friends in the Gulf, we’ve got India as a growing Navy, we’ve got Japan, Australia, South Korea, these are all navies that you then link with in order to have a more significant effect, and to blend with their values and interests. And if you’ve got shared values and interests, well, actually, you can come together and you’re going to be successful.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, well, it’s a wonderful challenger. Best of luck.

     

    Sir Tony Radakin 

    There’s really, it’s great. So it’s a privilege to have that responsibility in that challenge. And it’s a delight, to be able to pull it off. And to do it for our government and our nation, but to do it aligned with all these other countries.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening. If you are enjoying these podcasts, I hope you are pleased, please tell your friends please leave us a review on iTunes. Get in touch on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and tell us how much you are enjoying it. And in particular, what you found particularly good, and we will like, and share your post. Best of all, however, do please join the Society for Nautical Research. It really doesn’t cost very much but it supports this podcast. It helps the society with its mission to publish the world’s most important maritime history in the quarterly Mariners Mirror journal, and it helps preserve our maritime past. But best of all I reckon is that you can apply for a ticket to come to our annual dinner on HMS victory. Yes, that is something you will never, ever forget. You can join us @snr.org.uk

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