Royal Navy Club Founder's Day dinner

Speech by Sir Nick Harvey, Minister for the Armed Forces.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sir Nick Harvey


Mr Chairman, First Sea Lord, Gentlemen, it is an honour to be invited to address this year’s Founders’ Day dinner.

On behalf of the Admiralty Board, may I thank you Mr Chairman for your hospitality and the Elder Brethren of Trinity House for allowing us to celebrate here.

It’s been a busy year for the Royal Navy.

I know that the First Sea Lord intends to speak about operations, so let me express my appreciation, and that of the government, for the incredible work that has been done by the Royal Navy since the last Founder’s Day Dinner:

  • on standing operations around the globe
  • maintaining our nuclear deterrent
  • with the Royal Marines and others in Afghanistan

And of course in the very substantial Naval contribution to Operation Ellamy.

The state of the Nation

Let me start by acknowledging, that as well as being a busy time for the navy, it has been a great stretch, and this last 18 months has been particularly difficult as the reality of what the SDSR means settles in.

It’s not easy seeing ships like Cumberland decommissioned, or Ark Royal, or aircraft like Harrier, all having given such good service to the navy and the nation over many years.

It’s not easy seeing gaps appear in naval capabilities like carrier strike.

Not easy saying goodbye to colleagues you’ve served with for many years.

The redundancy programme, in particular, is a matter of great regret to me.

But I’m sure everyone here recognises that the government had to act to tackle the huge bow wave of unfunded liabilities that had built up in the defence programme.

That, in itself, would have been a daunting effort.

But it is not only this, I think, that has been so sobering over the last 18 months.

It has also been the realisation by many, particularly those of us concerned with the defence of the nation, of just how threatening the UK’s financial situation is.

The national debt has now topped a trillion pounds.

When we are spending £50 billion a year on the interest alone, the equivalent of a dozen Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carriers or 33 Astute Class submarines, the scale of what we, as a nation, are facing becomes clearer.

Four years ago, it was institutions like Northern Rock and the Royal Bank of Scotland that were being bailed out.

This last year it’s been whole countries, Ireland, Greece, Italy, Spain.

Even the United States has had its credit rating down-graded and is cutting its defence budget by a staggering $500 billion.

The Eurozone crisis has thrown a spotlight on just how exposed Britain’s economy is and it has shown us just how isolated Britain could quickly become.

As Nietzsche said, if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

I am convinced, that in this era of great volatility, in this era of interconnectedness, in this era of economic exposure, Britain will continue to need all the benefits, all the influence and all the security that accrue from being a maritime power of significance.

But the question is: how do we sustain that power in an age of austerity and competing demands, austerity and competing demands that are shared by our most dependable allies too?

Before I try to answer that question, let me set out why Britain needs to remain a maritime power.

The utility of maritime power

I am of course preaching to the converted here so I will keep it brief.

From an operational point of view, maritime power is essential in a world where we have to project power to protect our national security.

Where we have to gain access to, and operate in, other domains in far flung parts of the world.

Where the littoral remains the focus of so much human activity.

Sea-basing provides choice and flexibility in deploying and sustaining force.

It provides mobility, range and endurance and can help overcome a whole host of challenges associated with having a footprint on the ground.

That is why we are not abandoning carrierstrike.

That is why we will maintain our amphibiosity.

They are a vital part of the balanced capabilities that we have defined as Future Force 2020.

But maritime power, for Britain in particular, has never been solely about the application of military force in time of hot war, it is about a continuous national presence in other parts of the world.

Floating slices of sovereign territory from which to operate and influence.

The sea is a one of the most important global super highways that Britain, as an island nation, depends upon for our prosperity.

We rely on imports of goods and energy, the vast, vast majority coming by sea.

And that dependence on the sea, especially for energy, is only going to increase in the next few years.

It is not only what comes and goes by sea, the trade which sustains our way of life, it is also about the resources the sea provides which need protecting, oil, minerals, fish, increasingly off-shore wind power too.

Safe seas enable strong economies.

The Royal Navy has always played a part, sometimes alone, sometimes alongside our allies and friends, in making sure the vital sea arteries in the global commons are protected and that international law is observed, providing deterrence, reassurance, and influence, contributing to the nation’s prosperity.

Austerity and the Royal Navy

This is, perhaps, why more than any other institution in the country, you of the Royal Navy understand the inextricable link between economic power and the national interest.

It is woven into much of your history.

It is often said an army marches on its stomach, well it doesn’t.

As Cicero said, finances are the sinews of war.

The whole of the armed forces march on the public purse, on the back of the taxes we all pay and the size of the public purse depends ultimately on the health of the economy as a whole.

That is why, in my view, the coalition government is right to focus its priority attention on getting the deficit under control.

It is right not only for the economy, but in the long term it is right for national security too.

Only with healthy public coffers can we hope to sustain, in the long term, the investment required for the high tech, well equipped military forces we know we will need in the future.

So we have had to act to both balance the defence budget and bring the defence programme in line with the financial reality the country faces.

The defence budget took a hit, not nearly as much as some other departments, but a reduction in resources none the less.

As we approach the next general election, and in preparation for the next defence review in 2015, the approach the political parties take to the defence budget will be a measure of how committed they are to realising Future Force 2020.

Of course, thanks to cross-government agreement, we now have the ability to plan on the budget allocated to defence equipment and support increasing by 1% a year in real terms between 2015 and 2020.

It has been difficult but we are now close to achieving a sustainable budget for the first time in decades.

I am increasingly confident that the end is in sight to the period of retrenchment and the period of growth will in time begin again with funds released for projects outside the core programme.

Let’s not forget that we are still spending considerable sums on defence, over £150 billion over the next decade on defence equipment and support alone.

For the Royal Navy, we are already beginning to see the shape of Future Force 2020.

With Daring, Dauntless and Diamond now part of the fleet, Dragon expected in the spring, and Defender and Duncan coming on line, in the Type 45, Britain can boast one of the most advanced warships in the world and the envy of our allies.

HMS Astute is nearing the end of her sea trials to be followed over the next few years by Ambush, Artful, Audacious, Anson.

By 2020, the Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers, the largest ships the Royal Navy has ever had.

Sometime thereafter, the Type 26 Global Combat Ship will begin to come on stream.

All of these will be leaders in their field and represent the most capable, high-technology platforms the Royal Navy has ever had.

Ship for ship this will be one of the most powerful fleets in the world.

Will the fleet be smaller, yes.

Will the fleet be able to do everything, everywhere, every time?

No, of course not!

We are entering an era in which all of Britain’s security requirements and those of our dependent territories, can only be guaranteed through our alliances and through our partnerships.

And, in reality, it has always been thus.


So we need to turn a page.

We need now to begin the hard work of putting the Fleet of 2020 together, bringing these platforms on line, making sure we retain the right skills, developing new recruits, maintaining the profile of the navy in the public mind, all the while delivering on operations, keeping our citizens safe, protecting our interests.

Let me pay tribute to the way the First Sea Lord has set out his vision of a powerful, adaptable and vibrant Royal Navy.

All of you here are in attendance through your qualification for command.

You know that the moral component of leadership is one of the most important.

For those who are currently serving we need you to be focussed, positive, full of ideas, prepared to change yourself, willing to drive change in others, inspiring those around you.

For those who are no longer serving we need your continued energy and experience, advocating in public for maritime power even if it means every now and then holding people like me to account for the decisions we are taking.

On this Founder’s Day, together we celebrate the long and illustrious history of the Royal Navy, but let us today also look forward with confidence in the future too.

Published 9 February 2012