UK’s First Sea Lord on the Royal Navy
This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on October 17, 2023. Watch the full video here.
Seth G. Jones: Welcome to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And I want to give a particularly warm welcome to our guest today, Admiral Sir Ben Key, who assumed his post as first sea lord and chief of the naval staff in November of 2021. He joined the Royal Navy in 1984 as a university cadet, subsequently graduating in physics from Royal Holloway University of London. He qualified as both helicopter aircrew and as a principal warfare officer, and as a junior officer saw service around the world in a wide range of frigates and destroyers. He’s commanded four ships: the minehunter HMS Sandown, the frigate HMS Iron Duke and the HMS Lancaster, and the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. Among his many noteworthy credentials, I wanted to read one from the Ministry of Defense biography: “Now much better at talking about sport than actually playing any, he is president of a number of Royal Navy and U.K. Armed Forces sports.”
So congratulations on a wide range of talents.
Admiral Sir Ben Key: Thank you very much, sir.
Dr. Jones: Well, welcome to CSIS. I wanted to begin by highlighting that this is the anniversary week of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805 against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish navies. How are you celebrating the Royal Navy victory?
Adm. Key: Well, obviously, we’ll be doing it modestly, quietly as we do every year, but actually recalling not just one of the greatest admirals, I think, that ever plied our trade and recognized as such around the world, but also just understanding the brutality and humanity of war at sea, what that means and its defining nature. And I think sometimes it’s good for us just to pause and reflect upon some of the truths that were evident then that apply for today and into the future.
We’re not shackled by our history in the Royal Navy. We’re very proud of it. We continue to kind of evolve and move on. And that kind of annual anchoring just gives us a chance to reflect on that.
And actually, there were French and Spanish sailors fighting in the British fleet – such was the sort of slightly mercenary nature of what was going on back then – as there were Americans. So it’s always an international event. I’m lucky enough to be here and with U.S. colleagues tomorrow. Actually, one of the things we’re going to draw out is the comparison between Nelson and Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was, you know, celebrated recently by the commissioning of the submarine that so proudly bears his name last weekend and was another great naval leader – of a different generation, but shared many of that same commitment to deep professionalism, a drive, a strategic vision. So those are the sort of things we will – we’ll be doing.
Dr. Jones: That’s great. And welcome, again, to Washington. It’s great to see you here.
I wanted to start also with the prime minister’s recent talk publicly about stepping up the U.K.’s presence in Northern Europe. He’s talked about deep cooperation and tackling hybrid threats in the region and protecting critical national infrastructure as part of the Joint Expeditionary Forces, or JEF. Can you talk a little bit about the objectives of this? And then I’ve got a couple of follow-on questions from that.
Adm. Key: Yeah, of course. So the JEF – the Joint Expeditionary Force – which has really been in existence since 2014, has a political leaders gathering recently hosted – co-hosted by the Swedish prime minister and the British prime minister on the island of Gotland. And one of the things, it’s a community of likeminded nations drawn from Northern Europe who share the same sort of range of security challenges baked into geography and were looking for something that was complementary to NATO. It’s definitely aligned with NATO but perhaps gives us some agility in the sub-threshold space, which is an area where we find ourselves under increasing threat.
There was only recently the undersea pipeline explosion between Estonia and Finland, the causes of which are not yet fully understood. But when you consider just how much energy and data now moves across the seabed around the world and the importance that that has for international economies, organizations like the JEF that are thinking deeply about how we provide security in this sort of space I think is very important, as well as providing agility and something that can, you know, ultimately operate within the – within the NATO framework.
Dr. Jones: So I wanted to touch – you mentioned the attack or the potential attack on the Baltic connector Pipeline. I think when you take a step back and look at threats to fiber-optic cables going under the ocean – and we saw those before the Russian invasion of Ukraine off the coast of Ireland as well; oil and gas pipelines – we’ve certainly seen attacks against oil and gas pipelines as well – what’s your general assessment of the threat from these kinds of attacks? And how, in other ways, are you looking at dealing with them?
Adm. Key: So I think we’re exploring a whole area which we don’t fully understand at the moment in terms of the solution space, because when we first put together the United Nations Convention for Law of the Sea, for instance, it was very much focused on what happens on the surface of the sea. How do nations trade freely in a safe and secure maritime environment to the benefit of all? And the seabed was sort of considered in that. But when you consider the amount of prosperity and economic security that now travels along the seabed – whether that’s in the energy pipelines or even more so the data cables that circle the Earth countless times – and no one really knows where or how the data that is carrying your banking transactions or my emails or all of these, you know, which cables are in, the computers are moving it around so quickly – most of those cables are actually on seabed that are in the high seas, and therefore on land that is owned by nobody. And this is a sort of question we’ve got to get our minds around, because when you look at something that’s – a pipeline that traverses over land, it’s very clear at any one point whose territory it’s in and how it should be policed and how it should be protected, even if that pipeline itself is owned by a commercial entity.
When that data cable is traversing the Atlantic or the Pacific, for the overwhelming majority of its journey it’s in territory that is owned by everybody. And so we, as the group of likeminded nations, have really got to think quite carefully now about how we protect our economic security. Because when you consider some of the challenges we face, you’re going to be taken into the gray zone because the power of the Western nations acting as a collective in a traditional security sense is still really quite impressive. It’s a strong deterrent effect. So if you’re an adversary who wishes to do harm, you’ve got to get into the phase-naught space and try and disrupt the patterns that allow us to go about our business and to cause that sort of classic gray-zone uncertainty in the minds not just of decision-makers, but also populations.
So the response for us now as militaries, as maritime communities is to work out how we work together best in order to deliver that sort of security. We have just in the U.K. commissioned the newest ship into the fleet, Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Proteus, which is specifically designed and purchased to use modern and innovative technologies to better understand what is going on on the seabed, and then to give us a range of choices as to how we respond to that. When I look at how Norway has developed some of its sort of both state and commercial intersections to better understand what’s going on in its huge energy pipelines that are just off its coastline, a JEF member now sharing its thoughts with us, these sorts of exchanges are a really important part of developing that kind of upfront economic security that is what is the new – you know, in many ways it’s the new dimension.
And you could say, well, everyone talks about space and cyberspace. I would add seabed warfare now very much into the mix of the new domains.
Dr. Jones: Yeah. Well, we’ll come to a couple other areas. I want to get to the Arctic in a moment. But I have to ask, and we – our fact-checkers – hopefully this is right – had to go back to 1968, the last time a prime minister spent a night on a Royal Navy ship. So the prime minister spent a night on the HMS Diamond. How did you – how did you convince him to do that?
Adm. Key: He took no convincing at all.
Dr. Jones: OK. (Laughs.)
Adm. Key: He asked.
Dr. Jones: OK.
Adm. Key: And clearly, he – this was something he’s wanted to do for some time. You know, he’s been very clear that he understands the role that the Royal Navy and the other services play. And for him, it was an opportunity to go and meet some of the sailors and Royal Marines embarked at sea, operating in the NATO and the JEF context. And I know for a fact that he thoroughly enjoyed himself because his military assistant rang me the following morning to say it was – you know, it was a homerun.
Dr. Jones: That’s good.
I want to – I want to touch base on a couple of issues, including some that are current. U.S. has deployed two aircraft carriers with carrier strike groups to the Middle East. The prime minister announced several days ago that a Royal Navy taskforce has deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean to help mitigate the humanitarian crisis in response to the Hamas attacks in Israel. What capabilities from the Royal Navy perspective have been deployed? What can you tell us about what kinds of actions you’re up to?
Adm. Key: So the prime minister has been absolutely clear – and I just, you know, want to echo his words – that, you know, Israel has suffered an outrageous terrorist attack by Hamas, and we are unequivocal in our support for their right to defend themselves. But it’s also very important, as the prime minister said, that we do not allow this to broaden out into a wider, a more regional impact. And so, alongside the U.S. and other partners, the role that these ships have is to help provide a sense of stability into the region, to deter other actors from potentially extending the instability, and if necessary to provide humanitarian and other support to the Israelis should they ask for it.
And it’s that combination of things – the two – the two main ships we’re deploying are amphibious ships by nature, and they have helicopters and Royal Marines embarked. So you can see –
Dr. Jones: Probably P-8s there, too.
Adm. Key: And we’ve got some P-8s who are providing some maritime and overland surveillance. So you can see that really what we’re trying to do is to make sure we understand what’s going on and to offer some choice, should it be requested, to support the Israelis in the areas that the prime minister has laid out so very clearly in the last couple of days.
Dr. Jones: Good. Hopefully, the situation is contained. Boy, that would be –
Adm. Key: Let us hope so.
Dr. Jones: – unfortunate if it – if it expands.
You’ve spent a lot of time talking, and the government has, and we’ve watched and read the various iterations of the Integrated Review, including the refresh, on the tilt towards the Indo-Pacific. Can you talk about how you’re thinking about the Indo-Pacific, how in – I mean, you’re in Washington – how you’re thinking about partnering and continuing to partner with the U.S. Navy in the Indo-Pacific? And then I’ve got a couple of other questions after that on the – on the Pacific.
Adm. Key: No, of course. So the Pacific is a fundamental part of our economic lifeblood, and we’ve got a long history in the – in the United Kingdom of interests across the Pacific region. And those interests haven’t gone away at all. When you consider the way that the global economic order is growing faster and being driven more by Southeast Asian nations than we’ve – you know, than almost anywhere – than anywhere else, it’s really important for us to have a presence, to understand what’s going on, and to work alongside our allies and partners in the region – U.S., Australia, Japan, Korea, the ASEAN nations, India – to ensure safe and secure seas from a naval point of view so that people can go about their lawful – their lawful business, which in our case is, you know, prosperity and economic trade, because that’s what we all – you know, in our interconnected world, that’s really important.
There are some in the United Kingdom who, you know, offer a view that, actually, we’re a Euro-Atlantic country and that’s where we should focus, and NATO is absolutely core to our security structure and, you know, we’ve got challenges going on in Southeast Europe with the war in Ukraine at the moment. We’re absolutely not taking our eye off the ball. But we can’t ignore the Pacific. And even if we felt that we could just stay at home, Pacific countries are coming to our part of the world as well. So you’ve got to acknowledge this truth about the multidimensional nature of the interconnected world and for us, therefore, to reach out.
And so what the Integrated Review in 2021 and the refresh that was published earlier this year really confirmed was that we want to invest in those relationships and partnerships. We want to understand a region which is not our backyard, but matters to us. And if you want to do that, then you’ve got to stump up. And that’s what – very much what we’re doing at the moment.
Dr. Jones: So you mentioned some pushback, I think, in the U.K. We’ve heard it here as well, about not just the U.K. but the French having limited power-projection capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, you know, some challenges with some other European countries. And this gets out of your area into the air force area – refueling, transport capabilities. Why not focus, when we’ve got an invasion of Ukraine right now, primarily on the – why don’t you just focus primarily on the European theater? It’s the predominant area right now.
And then as part of that, too, how do you – how do you look at a scenario where the U.S. gets pulled into – I was recently in Taiwan looking at Chinese incursions towards the 24 nautical mile and then some of the drones the Chinese are flying over Kinmen and Matsu and some of the Taiwan islands. The U.S. gets pulled into a conflict, certainly a contingency there, whether it’s a quarantine or blockade or something more serious, I think it probably will have to pull assets from Europe or might have to pull assets from Europe there. So, you know, you’re at least talking about two major fronts. How are you thinking about juggling both a European – which is probably your primary theater; that’s what the Integrated Review says – and the Pacific theater?
Adm. Key: So you’re absolutely right our primary theater is the – is the Euro-Atlantic theater, but the premise of the question that I – that those that I think you’re sort of arguing on behalf or offering on behalf of others that is wrong and I fundamentally disagree with, that this isn’t either/or. This is a both/and. But it doesn’t need to be equal. What it needs to be is proportionate and appropriate to what is going on.
And so when I look at the order of magnitude of where the Russian forces are at the moment and the – you know, and they are threatening Europe; let’s just see the illegal invasion of Ukraine – and then the mass might of the – of NATO, then there is a very considerable imbalance in favor of the Western countries. And even if you take your premise out that the U.S. would be pulled very much into the Indo-Pacific, there is a predominance of military capability across the European nations that keeps the – keeps the balance in our sway.
But the both/and bit is that we can’t ignore our obligations, responsibilities, and partnerships in other parts of the world. If we’ve got economic dependencies in other parts of the world, we can’t – we can’t hide that out for others to do. We’ve tried those policies in the past and it’s an unsatisfactory thing. And an important part of kind of national influence, national impact and reach is that you can bring together trade and economic diplomacy and security assets and thinking and make a contribution elsewhere.
This is where you come into what is appropriate. Now, that needs to be judged on any one day by the political leadership at the time, and will ebb and flow a bit. But when I sit with my European – fellow European chiefs and we talk about what are our options and what can we do, it’s very clear to us that we can do both/and.
And a good example would be the European carrier cooperation initiative, which has been around for some time, anchored around the U.K., France, Italy, and Spain but also with a number of other European navies contributing into that. It gives us a presence – a carrier presence – that can apply both in the Euro-Atlantic theater, but also deliver a force protection – sorry, a force projection further afield. And I sit and talk with my fellow chiefs about how we just make sure through this mechanism that we’re coordinating and cooperating so that you can cover those range of shared interests. It seems to me an entirely natural thing. And the joy of the NATO framework is we’ve got a common currency that we can operate within, and we also know that we can dock alongside our key American partners when that’s required.
So as I said and I think I’ve tried to lay out, I don’t think this is an either/or conversation; this is a both/and. Of course you protect your homeland. Of course you have to do that. You know, protect the nation and help it prosper is a key part of any government defense organization’s obligations. But we’ve got a phenomenal range of capabilities within the United Kingdom. I’m tremendously proud of the fact I head a navy – the only navy in Europe that operates two aircraft carriers. We’re one of the few navies in the world, possibly the only navy in the world –
Dr. Jones: Both deployed right now?
Adm. Key: Both deployed right now. The only aircraft carrier in the world specifically designed around a fifth-generation aircraft, the F-35, and which we have demonstrated through the 2021 carrier strike deployment that we can project that all the way to the Indo-Asia-Pacific back, in COVID, and do so alongside some key allies. In particular, that we had a U.S. Marine Corps squadron embarked for the entire deployment. I mean, if that’s not a demonstration of being able to cover a range of bases, I don’t know what is.
Dr. Jones: So one follow up there. And this was certainly a concern on my recent visit to Seventh Fleet after Taiwan, which is the evolution of the Chinese Navy, and the industrial base that has come with that. What is your assessment of where the Chinese are headed? If you look at the shipbuilding that the PLA Navy is on, the path that they’re on right now. They’re producing significant numbers of ships. They appear to be getting better at some aspects, not so much at others. I mean, their anti-submarine warfare capabilities are probably mediocre, maybe getting better in some areas. But what is your general assessment of where the Chinese are headed, and how big of a challenge that they may be in the future in the Indo-Pacific?
Adm. Key: So I’m not surprised that the Chinese are doing what they’re doing, because they’ve – it’s clearly – they’ve clearly realized that having a maritime influence and a maritime reach is what makes nations successful and prosperous over time. And one of the joys about the global commons that is the high seas that we can all interoperate and interact with each other. So clearly, they’re making a huge investment in this that’s entirely consistent with the sort of statements that Xi Jinping has been making about restoring Chinese confidence.
And actually, all I want to do is to see in them, and for them to recognize, that others can also operate on the high seas in – you know, delivering safety and security for all, and complying with the kind of rules-based international system that has built up over time, and by which nations choose to give each other space and freedoms to do – you know, to do what they need to do, and respect those individual rights, whilst also understanding that the best way for the global order to work together is to cooperate around a common rule set that we all understand.
And, you know, the U.K. is very clear. And in the same integrated review we postulate that we want a, you know, productive relationship with China. But it needs to be done, one, on mutual respect, and it needs to be one that’s founded on a system that the world recognizes and seeks to comply with.
Dr. Jones: When talking about the Pacific, I think we have to still touch on AUKUS. Some have argued that the process has been slow, some even use – have used terms like “glacial.” How do you measure progress in AUKUS so far? I mean, it certainly started off with an important program and statements by the three leaders of Australia, the U.S., and the U.K. Where do you see it right now, the various pillars? How do you measure progress for AUKUS?
Adm. Key: It’s a fascinating thing, that in this sort of modern world of instant gratification, something as strategic and as profound and multi-decade as AUKUS then suddenly has to deliver within six months of the leader statement –
Dr. Jones: Or less. Or less.
Adm. Key: Or less. You know, building a nuclear submarine takes many years. Creating the capability to build your own nuclear submarine from scratch, you know, not surprisingly, takes a bit longer. And if I go back to our own experience, you know, 1958, and the mutual defense agreement when the U.S. very generously decided to share its nuclear submarine propulsion technology with us, it was another 11 years before we had our first deterrence submarine on patrol. And so when you look at those sorts of timescales, and yet some of the – you know, the additional complexity that is now involved, I don’t think progress is glacial at all.
I think what is being worked through at the moment is the hugely profound nature of the commitment that the Australians have made to become a nuclear submarine operating nation, and the commitment that the U.S. and the U.K. have made to help them, whilst also delivering on our own major transformation programs. So, under the bonnet, a lot of work is going on. And I think that people need to be really careful about what it is that they’re trying to judge. Meanwhile, the pillar two work, which is looking at hypersonics, electronic warfare, the implications of artificial intelligence, other investments in the underwater battle space, is piling apace. But, of course, because that hasn’t got a good snappy photograph – I mean how do you –how do you take a photograph of AI? You can’t. Those sorts of things get missed in the narrative.
So I think AUKUS is a real strategic game changer. It is a phenomenal investment that is going to create a very different and positive strategic effect. But it’s going to be hard work on the way. But the commitment, so clearly underlined by Prime Minister Biden – sorry – President Biden, Prime Minister Albanese, and Prime Minister Sunak when they spoke in San Diego earlier this year, has set a very clear head mark for us to operate with. And alongside Admiral Frank Kelley as the acting chief of naval operations here and Admiral Mark Hammond, the Aussie Navy boss, we are – you know, we’ve got our orders. And along with our broader nuclear, you know, community and colleagues, we’re marching hard.
Dr. Jones: One area that has certainly been challenging on the U.S. side as part of AUKUS, and I think what is an important step to try to encourage broader cooperation including on the technologies that you mentioned from artificial intelligence to hypersonics, is the foreign military sales and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR. The U.S., I would argue, is still operating on what I would call a peacetime environment. That is, when you look at Department of Defense, State Department, and then even congressional steps on ITAR, there are – the bureaucracy is still complicated, probably overly complicated.
The speed with which sharing of technology happens is still far too slow between the U.S. and the U.K. These are Five Eyes countries, same with the Australians. We share exquisite intelligence. I know, from my time in government. Can you talk about, though, you know, we’ve seen a little bit of at least talk with the National Defense Authorization Act on potentially giving blanket export control exemptions to the U.K. and to the Australians on artificial intelligence, on hypersonics, on quantum computing, and in a few areas.
I’m not asking you to get involved in U.S. domestic politics. And I’m sure you would stay away from that anyway. But it would be helpful to hear your perspective on how helpful it would be to improve cooperation, whether it’s for co-development, co-production, and other activities. There’s also a no foreign element to some of this as well. So how helpful would it be, at least for the maritime domain, in improving cooperation?
Adm. Key: So we would seek as open an environment as possible, and that in a completely two-way basis, because fundamentally what we want to be able to do is to move quicker – with a quicker speed of thought, a quicker speed of action, a quicker speed of development than those who would wish us harm. And we have to be very careful as to what it is that you want your rules environment to achieve. If your rules environment is to prevent your adversaries from getting in and seeing what it is, then that’s probably realistic. If your rules environment is to allow you a competitive edge in a different way, then I would question whether that’s really enabling what matters to us all, which is to try and ensure a security framework that works for the majority into the future.
There’s a there’s a famous book – well, it is for just about anybody who goes through the British Staff College system, called Rules of the Game. Written as an examination of what happened between the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Jutland in in the history of the Royal Navy. And what the author postulates is that in long periods of peace, the regulators predominate and in war rat catchers predominate. And if you take the basis that at the moment, we are in as contested an environment as we have been in for many decades, in terms of kind of the global order in the uncertainty that we do, then we want rat catchers to start predominating and the regulators to be taking a back step.
And we just need to be really careful that we’ve got that balance right, because what we – the analysis in Rules of the Game is very clear. That one of the reasons that we were not as successful in the Battle of Jutland as many thought we should have been is because we had become hidebound by rules. And therefore that movement of information that was so critical to success in war could not happen, because it was being done by flag hoists which were fundamentally obscured by smoke.
Compare that – you began your session here by how do we celebrate Trafalgar? You know Nelson in the run up to the battle issued very few flag signals, because he knew that in the chaos of battle they could not be read. What he wanted to do was to instill in his commanding officers his intent, most famously encapsulated that no captain could do much wrong if they placed their ship alongside that of the enemy. And his famous signal, which is not the last before the battle that he hoisted, was England expects every man will do his duty. And then the last signal, actually. was one prepare to anchor, because anticipated the weather was going to change and there was going to be a storm. And as many lives and ships were lost in the storm that came after Trafalgar is – and trying to keep the ships afloat as were lost during the battle.
But the clarity of communication, take the Nelson thing, a well-known ratcatcher. He avoided rules whenever he possibly could. But what was he doing? He was setting out a very clear intent. He spent time discussing it. And then he let his captains get on with it. And that was very clear. Take that through the hundred years where we became – you know, there’s wonderful pictures of sailing fleets, absolutely immaculate line astern, guns swung out, and all the rest of it. But in a flurry of battle, you can’t control a fleet like that because the signals get confused. So my question is, in this kind of into your modern thing, are we setting up the ITAR and all the rest of it to allow the regulators or the rat catchers? And what is it we’re trying to achieve? And my observation is, what we really want to do is in a contested environment, when the pressure is really on, we want the information to move between allies and partners and friends as fast as we possibly can with as few hurdles as can, because the intent is that – is very clear. We want a safe and secure world that underpins a rules-based international system that people, that nations can freely and comfortably live and work and trade alongside each other.
Dr. Jones: Well, I would prefer to be ratcatcher in in this environment. Is worth noting, to state the obvious, that we’ve got an ongoing war in Ukraine right now and we’ve got an ongoing war now in the Middle East. And tensions are certainly high in the Pacific right now, including in the Taiwan Straits. We are not in the environment we were in in 2021, or 2015, or 2010. It’s a very different environment right now. And just to add to this, it is worth noting, going back to your point on partnerships in the Pacific, I can’t see a single example – whether it’s in Europe or in in the Indo-Pacific, of any contingency where it’s not a multilateral effort right now. And I think this is why this issue is critically important to get right and to get right relatively quickly.
Adm. Key: And I can understand there will be some things that the United States – you know, information that it has that it wishes to protect. You know, every nation has its kind of –every person’s got their core secrets. Every nation. I’ve got that. But it’s lowering the barrier. So the moment comes, and you really need to move this information around, then we’re really clear that we can exchange the things that really matter in order to achieve our shared objectives and aims. And that’s what I would encourage it all. And it’s the same for all of us. You know, there is work going on in the U.K., just as much as I know, there is in the U.S. to ensure that that’s the case.
Dr. Jones: So one of the areas that we’ve kind of danced around a little bit is the war in Ukraine. As we start to head towards the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, what are the lessons from a Royal Navy perspective you’re continuing to identify, just even watching? Somewhat recently much of the focus has been on the land war, but we’ve seen a lot of activity, including on the Ukrainian side, of striking Russian naval targets in and around Crimea and Sevastopol. But more broadly, whether it’s activity in the Black Sea or other locations, what are some of the lessons you’re looking at right now coming from Ukraine?
Adm. Key: So I think there’s stuff in the tactical space and the stuff in the strategic. So in the tactical space, look at the innovation that they’re doing in Ukraine. Look at the way that they’re think – we’re looking at the way that they’re thinking differently about how you achieve sea control, sea denial – you know, the classic doctrinal terms still have huge relevance in what’s going on. And in a kind of an asymmetric sense, Ukrainians are finding ways of ensuring that their own seas are not a threat by the Russians, they’re pushing the Russians back all the time, as we’ve seen, with a lot of the last ships in the Black Sea Fleet being pulled right back now, even in some cases out of Sevastopol. So that’s really good.
What does that mean for us, both in terms of how we achieve effect but also what can be played against us and how do we defend? And then there’s a strategic lesson, which is a sort of reconfirming a truth, which is that a maritime blockade, successfully enacted, can have a strangulation effect on a nation’s economy. And equally, a maritime blockade, when enacted by another, can have far-reaching impacts on nations that are some way away from the action. So if you look at the sadness of Russia withdrawing from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and when they were imposing their blockade on Ukraine, then food is not getting to other people around the world who need it. And so ensuring, again, the security of the high seas and the movement, and this prosperity, and economic trade, is a really important thing to do.
And we need to be sure that we have got the wherewithal within our armory. There’s a lot of conversations across NATO about just understanding, just in the same way that the convoys are the First and Second World War across the Atlantic – something I know that the U.S., you know, were closely involved in, these were really important economic life bloods. And that is true still today. And that’s has been proved, just as in the same way that when the Evergreen got stuck in the Suez Canal it suddenly had an impact on global supply chains. So it’s underpinning the importance of the maritime to maintain those economic lifeblood. And it’s looking at what does innovation look like, you know, when war is the mother of your invention? And we’re seeing as much of that in the maritime as we are on the land as well.
Dr. Jones: When you look over the next five to 10 years, what is your – what is your sense of where the Russian Navy along these lines is headed? You know, much of the Russian Navy is still largely intact, even though the army has certainly suffered some significant attrition in the war. When we’ve done some analysis recently on some of the Russian military journals and looking out into the future on the Russian Navy, they are looking at various ways to strengthen, including the continuing use and expansion of submarines and anti-submarine warfare.
NATO continually in Russian documents is the major threat that the Russians sort of lay out in the foreseeable future. They’ve announced a desire to create five naval infantry brigades for naval coastal troops based on existing naval infantry brigades. So I’m just wondering, as, you know, there are some of the U.S. that will sort of axiomatically look at the Indo-Pacific and China as really the only theater that matters, even though there’s a war right now. How concerned should people be – here be aware of where the Russians may be headed? Is it important not to take our eye off the ball here, to maximize deterrence in the European theater?
Adm. Key: I couldn’t agree more. I see nothing that’s going on in the Russian naval maritime forces at the moment that tells me that they significantly had degraded their major capabilities. Their nuclear submarine fleet has not been affected by what’s gone on to the war in Ukraine. The long-range aviation squadrons have not been affected by the war that’s going on in Ukraine. When you look at their strategic nuclear forces, they have not been affected by what’s going on in the war in Ukraine. And so their ability to offer a very real threat to NATO, to Western forces, is absolutely there.
And, of course, if you’re Russia, and you now look at what’s happened to your army, the length of the border with NATO that you’ve created because of the accession of Finland into join, the way, you know, that Putin, rather than dividing NATO has kind of strengthened and brought it together, then you’re not going to try, I don’t think, in the next few years anything that looks like a sort of territorial push across the border into Europe. But what you are going to try is to continue to try to threaten us and hold us at risk in a number of hybrid, deniable, or sort of phase naught areas, where very quickly you can deliver some sort of impact that destabilizes our confidence in ourselves.
And you can think through all end of that. You know, the Russian underwater research program, GUGI, is still alive and well. And we talked earlier in this –
Dr. Jones: About the JEF and the importance of those –
Adm. Key: About the importance of those pipelines. So if you want – if you want to achieve some sort of asymmetric effect, then Russia’s got a considerable number of tools that are available to do so. And I think we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t – we don’t spend half our time – you know, a lot of our time talking about the importance of gray zone activity, asymmetric threat, hybrid attacks, and all the rest of it, and then suddenly go back to a straight conventional conversation where you just count up everything and say, well, look at the mismatch. You know, therefore it’s good.
Because you’re kind of ignoring how the things that exist, what it is that they actually offer. And so I think we would be negligently complacent if we determined that there was not risk being applied to us into the future from what is still very capable parts of the Russian –eventually, even if their holistic capabilities have been so significantly degraded by Putin’s actions.
Dr. Jones: So where does the Arctic sit for you along these lines? We’ve seen the Russians recently send crude oil on non-ice class tankers through the Arctic. We’ve seen them recently, in the last few days, ship nuclear fuel across the northern sea route in a cargo ship that’s not even specialized in the transport of nuclear fuel. So some risks involved, including environmental risks, in taking some of these steps. How would you characterize both climate change here and kind of where competition is evolving in the Arctic?
Adm. Key: So I find it very interesting that as we see the northern sea routes opening up for much, much greater parts of the year than we’ve traditionally seen, and depending upon the kind of – the documentation you read and the scientific predictions, you know, you could find those routes being open for half the year quite soon, which would be fascinating. Russia is clearly both very interested and very concerned, because it’s trying to invoke a whole bunch of domestic law that says nobody else can go through there, even though the – you know, the high seas rules are really clear. And I also look at the investment China, which is not an Arctic-facing country, is making in icebreakers and the like.
So I think we have to be really clear that there is a – there is a major shift going on because of the effects of climate change in opening up economic sea routes, which very quickly could become the fastest way of moving from the Pacific to the Atlantic and back. And when they open up, what does that mean, say, for the movement of mass fishing fleets? What does that what does that say for how people may start to run export routes, which are less well known? You know, it brings a different sort of sense of some of the chokepoints of the world into it. And we need to pay attention to that, you know, very much so. The U.K. published a(n) Arctic and high north strategy policy document in the last couple of years which recognizes both our obligations and responsibilities in that area as a kind of responsible neighbor to it, even though we’re not on the Arctic Council itself. And we need to be really clear that if we were to just sort of sit there and think this is how it has always been, then we’re missing one of the more rapidly-changing aspects of maritime – you know, of maritime movement, I think.
Dr. Jones: One final question that comes from one of the – one of the individuals who has written in is – and I think we’ll make this the last question – is: Looking towards the future, what role do you see advanced technologies playing? We’ve talked a little bit about this, but when it comes to the role of artificial intelligence, for example, or unmanned or uncrewed systems – could be air, could be surface, could be subsurface – in the evolution of maritime operations, was out visiting a major U.S. defense contractor and looking at one of their unmanned or uncrewed systems that has the capability to fly off an aircraft carrier on its own, to collect a range of information, and to then return to the aircraft carrier without someone necessarily even using a joystick, which is the way we, obviously, operate most of our MQs – for example, MQ-9s. How do you see – how do you see the future technology and systems evolving in the Royal Navy?
Adm. Key: So I think we’re relentlessly curious about it. We’ve got a number of small kind of entrepreneurial cells set up looking into the digital space, looking into the emerging-technology space, deliberately given a range of freedoms to go and explore what’s out there and to think about it. And then we’ve got another group, you know, thinking about, OK, if we spot something good, how do we scale that up and actually bring it, you know, properly into service? We have just commissioned or brought into service an experimental vessel, the Patrick Blackett, named after the only naval officer in the world to win a Nobel Prize for physics. And that’s very much designed to explore, you know, the autonomous opportunities that we can – that we can pull together. HMS Prince of Wales operating here, you know, just off – just off Washington at the moment doing development, test flying with the F-35, but also with a number of uncrewed air systems onboard that we want to test and trial ourselves.
So to us it is really important that we are understanding what’s at the cutting edge, what are the opportunities, and that we’ve kind of got a fail-fast mentality into some of these ideas. And I know that in this we’re exactly the same as the U.S. Navy. The scale of purchasing power, might be sightly different, but the kind of intellectual curiosity is absolutely the same.
But I caution against someone thinking that all of this will very quickly become kind of a robot war. It’s very difficult for me to understand when people sit there – I mean, this might happen in many decades. We don’t know. Anyone who can forecast that far ahead I think is probably more in astrology than astronomy in the way that they are forecasting the movement of the heavens. But I would – I would just observe that, you know, ultimately, conflict/tension is resolved in the minds of humans. And so for it to be resolved in the minds of humans, very often it is when humans are also involved physically in the contest that goes on, because otherwise the jeopardy just isn’t there. And consequently, a lot of the decision-making, a lot of that visceral experience will still be experienced by people. But it’s where the technology, the uncrewed systems allow you to multiply the effects you’re having, to understand very fast what’s going on, to get long-range persistence of information, but decision-making will still – for all the AI that’s available, those judgments about do we or do we not and the like takes place in the mind.
And you know, we saw that. There was an excellent film not long ago, “Eye in the Sky,” which explored some of these really complex topics. And when you think about some of the – as all our prime ministers and presidents have been talking about recently about what’s going on in Israel, a highly technically advanced defense force, but it’s being encouraged to operate within the law. It’s struggling to understand, you know – it’s really been very deliberate in understanding what’s going on. It's been posed a number of very, very difficult problem sets by the way Hamas has decided to hide in amongst civilians and put that at risk. That is not –
Dr. Jones: With hostages, too.
Adm. Key: And hostages. That is not going to be solved by technology alone. And it is very difficult for me – and maybe I’m just a bit of a Luddite – to be able to cast my mind that far ahead and say that we’ll have cleaned that into an entirely robot war.
War will feel very different. Conflict will feel very different. It’s very – you know, it’s impossible to predict how other technologies will emerge. We have an obligation to create an environment as service leaders to make sure that we can exploit those opportunities that arrive and to give the talent of our young men and women a chance to really kind of be intellectually curious about it. But this is complementary stuff. This isn’t replacement.
Dr. Jones: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to be here. Before I conclude this, I have to say that I did not ask you some particularly difficult questions. I stayed away from predictions on English rugby, for example.
Adm. Key: (Laughs.)
Dr. Jones: But in all sincerity, thank you so much for coming again to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks also for the strong U.S.-U.K. partnership on the high seas, in general in the – in the Houses of Commons and Congress here, just across the board in our executive and legislative branches. Really appreciate the special relationship. So thank you for coming here, again.
Adm. Key: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be here.
Dr. Jones: Great. Great to have you.