Opening address to NATO Maritime Conference, MARCOMET

Speech by Admiral Sir George Zambellas, First Sea Lord.


Good morning everybody,

I could not be more proud of the leadership [Vice Admiral Peter Hudson] has offered during his tenure, and my goodness me things have changed.

I know this is a rich audience, with admirals, generals and air chiefs present here too. The UK is proud to have the opportunity to welcome you here and it is a privilege for me to welcome friends and partners who I’ve known for many years to this collective maritime gathering.

I speak to NATO because it is a NATO conference, but it’s more than that. It’s a maritime conference amongst friends with common trading needs, collective prosperity, a common language of the sea and a common need for security.

It does seem to me slightly remarkable that as recently as 15 years ago there were a lot of question being put as to the utility of NATO itself and its role in the world, and yet here we are in a very different set of circumstances, drawn together by the need for collective attention and professionalism in our responsibilities.

Many of my friends in the room today have put decades of their lives into the maritime journey, in partnership to a lesser or greater extent with land and air, but a long collective, investment and I sometimes wonder if that long journey has been as rich as it should have been for all of us to deliver what we are responsible for now.

I have no doubt that amongst you, and your chiefs of staff, and your staffs, there is the collective ambition and expertise to draw together the threads of opportunity to make the most of the tens if not hundreds of billions of pounds of equity, investment, training, spares, support, infrastructure that makes this room frankly one of the richest owner-groups in the world.

The past is another country. The past is behind us. Post Afghanistan, we find ourselves operating in a completely different strategic context. And the world continues to be characterised by the speed and surprise with which we see new threats and challenges emerge and the old ones, which we thought were so easily dealt with, evolving.

These developments are reminders, in the most pressing and vivid terms, of the continuing relevance of the Alliance.

But while some of those threats and challenges we face may have an air of familiarity about them, our response cannot be the same as it might have been 15 or 20 or ago. The world has changed, and we must change too.

UK response

Now for the UK, and the Royal Navy in particular, NATO remains the cornerstone of our defence.

Last month, three Royal Navy warships, including our Fleet Flagship, joined 17 partner nations for BALTOPS 15, part of the Allied Shield exercises, and a powerful demonstration of constrained, sensible but collective resolve.

Seen from my office and from the reports I have received, it was a great success. As an ex-FOST, it was satisfactory.

And in May, the Royal Navy joined Maritime Standing Group One for Dynamic Mongoose, helping ensure the alliance remains at the forefront of anti-submarine warfare. This is in addition to our ongoing support to NATO’s Mine Counter-Measures Group.

We look forward to Exercise Trident Juncture in the autumn, which will be NATO’s largest exercise for over a decade. The Royal Navy will be making a substantial contribution in ships, aircraft and personnel, including our Response Force Task Group and Lead Commando Group of the Royal Marines.

Trident Juncture will be the latest milestone on the path to validating our 2* battlestaff, Commander UK Maritime Forces, as it prepares to take on the Maritime Component Command of the enhanced NATO Response Force next year, which will include the new very high readiness Joint Task Force.

I’m pleased that our 2* Commander, Rear Admiral Tony Radakin, is here in the audience today. He has begun his journey to effective, agile command in partnership.

Exercises such as Trident Juncture prove that NATO can deliver mass and scale. But we do need to stand back and critically analyse our qualities. We need to continue to develop the interoperability and command and control which will enable us to work more closely together, and much more effectively.

There is a sense in the past, that sometimes being there was enough to tick the box. Being there is no longer enough to tick the box. Being there, being interoperable, being integrated, and understanding the complex nature of the agility demanded by the new strategic context is exactly what is required.

Over the past year, the UK has continued to develop the Joint Expeditionary Force alongside 6 partner nations, with the intention of establishing full operating capability by 2018.

Our aim is to bring together like-minded allies into a grouping under UK operational leadership, to provide a rapidly deployable force, capable of conducting full-spectrum operations.

It is not actually about a small club; it’s about growing the seed corn of greater professional agility to try to force ourselves and others to be better.

But crucially, it matches this commitment with a practical framework to allow our armed forces to integrate in a flexible manner, at short notice.

To be fair, NATO’s Connected Forces Initiative and Framework Nation Concept underpin the Joint Expeditionary Force, and I believe this capability will provide NATO and other international institutions with a scalable intervention option to compliment the very high readiness Joint Task Force.

All of this, despite the agility, despite the interoperability, sits in the context of European defence.

Future Royal Navy

As for the Royal Navy, after decades of decline and quiet concerns, we are currently experiencing a period of sustained investment in our maritime capabilities. These reflect not only our strategic ambition as a Nation, but also our continuing commitment to the alliance, and our willingness to back that commitment with credible capabilities.

It was at the NATO Summit in Wales that our Prime Minister confirmed that both, both, our 2 new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, will enter service, which will give us 100 per cent carrier availability in the future. What a change that is for us from a few years ago. What a change that is for the Royal Navy to focus on new capabilities.

Following the UK General Election in May, we also have a strong and clear commitment that the government intends to replace our 4 Vanguard class strategic missile submarines on a like-for-like basis.

So continuous at sea deterrent and continuous carrier capability are hard power elements of strategic UK deterrence. They are unmistakable symbols of the responsibility with which the UK views its obligations as a nation and to NATO.

And together with the continued amphibious readiness offered by our Royal Marines and specialist amphibious shipping, these 3 tasks represent the core around which the rest of our modernised Fleet is based.

This includes our new Astute Class submarines. The first 2 have deployed on operations, with a further 5 in varying stages of construction.

It also includes our 6 Type 45 destroyers, which have already earned their spurs in support of US and French carrier groups in the Gulf as part of Coalition operations against ISIL.

Our focus has now turned to the Type 26 frigate, which will replace our 13 highly valued but aging Type 23 frigates. The Type 26 will be the workhorses of our future fleet, and in common with those of our partner nations, the frigate/destroyer mix is the backbone of NATO’s presence around the world, not as single ships but as groups.

Maximising resources

However, in an uncertain and dangerous world, the current tempo of operations invariably places a high demand on relatively scarce assets and the resourcing of NATO’s mandated operations and standing tasks remains a persistent challenge.

Simply waiting for the financial weather to change isn’t enough. Hope is not a plan. Even for those countries who have enjoyed sustained economic growth after a long period of recession, the UK included, public spending restraint will remain a fact of life for the foreseeable future.

That means we must always be looking for new and better ways to extend our effectiveness, our value, our capability and our reach. We simply cannot afford to rest on the prospects of the sunny uplands ahead.

This means for the Royal Navy better intelligence sharing, better coordination and smarter planning to maximise the assets we have.

That sounds very much like the mantras we were shouting some years ago. The fact we are still trying to achieve this shows how much more work we’ve got to do.

I’d like to pick on 3 areas of particular focus, which together can help extend NATO’s collective presence and capability.

First, we need to examine the future relationships between our national activities and our NATO endeavours to identify opportunities for complimentary and mutually beneficial tasking. And to be honest, I’m criticising myself.

Assurance, training and tactical development are all areas where we can support each other. But it requires a more coordinated approach to identify and align opportunities.

We also need to exploit existing interoperability, together with existing capability strengths and areas of expertise, to ensure they work in the interests of our alliance as a whole.

There is a temptation to say that our forward plans will allow us to be better connected; our next generation of ships and submarines will have better C2 capabilities. But the challenge is now.

So, it becomes increasingly crucial that we develop the interoperability, open architecture and modularity in our equipment, now, because these are the things that will allow us to be better than our individual components.

Secondly, we should explore how our individual relationships can support our collective partnership.

Now let’s be fair. The world is made up of numerous bi-lateral relationships, often determined by heritage, habit or history. These might lie outside NATO, and many of my friends in the room work the bi-lateral scene with the Royal Navy - but we should examine ways to bring these partners, their strengths and ambitions, closer to our collective efforts.

Third, contingency. Hard and credible warfighting skills need to be demonstrably developed and sustained. Behind-the-scenes activity, like logistics and manpower, require the exactly same level of scrutiny as those capabilities at the sharp end.

So we must recognise the role that NATO can play to exercise and develop these skills in a complex, multi-national, multi-dimensional battle space, but this requires us to make more effort. I commend to you the Joint Warrior exercise in Scotland as an outstanding and growing example.

For the past 20 years, much of NATO’s effort at sea has been directed toward maritime security operations, such as counter-terrorism and piracy. These are valid and important tasks, and our servicemen and women have acquitted themselves with distinction, as have nations, often against demanding political, and geographic, realities.

But maritime security operations require different capabilities and a different mindset to that of war fighting. War fighting would test NATO’s ability and resolve under altogether more challenging circumstances.

So we do need to be better and quicker. We need much better understanding of regional issues. Cyber, in the maritime domain, continues to be wholly under developed and a great opportunity for improvement. And in that, I would extend the cyber risk to the maritime right through to the defence industrial base, as diverse as they are for all our nations.

And what is our approach to collective defence in the virtual realm? I think we need to think differently and creative about that challenge. I think we need to be more agile than we have been.

So in my view the future of war fighting also needs to be given greater exposure in NATO and, as a group of leaders, we need the place that theme centrally and also debate the evolution of war fighting in our domain.

Maritime offer

But against all these considerations, we should never lose sight of the unique, enduring qualities that maritime forces present for our defence and security.

In a world characterised by the speed and unpredictability of global change, against the backdrop of domestic economic restraint, maritime forces offer utility and political choice, in a manner that’s flexible and efficient. And that’s a powerfully attractive proposition for governments of nations large and small. Indeed, it is our responsibility to draw our political leaders toward that attractive proposition.

NATO’s challenges are far and wide and it’s also important that we avoid becoming focused on one particular threat or one particular region. It might be a means of drawing us together in a concentrated and professional way, but the strength of NATO is to think beyond the obvious. NATO has set a level of ambition for contingent capacity, much of which could be beyond our traditional area of responsibility, and again the inherent mobility and agility of maritime forces will help us maintain that global reach.


So, to conclude, as a UK officer, let me just say NATO has never been more important to the UK; and our leaders have said that. NATO’s maritime forces have never been more important, or more suited, to our collective security, our shared interests and our shared responsibility.

The Royal Navy’s recapitalisation will ensure we can continue to contribute maritime forces to the alliance, so that together we can meet our standing commitments and respond rapidly, at scale, to challenges around the world at sea, but also in the air, over the land and into the cyber domain.

So I set for you, through the old Zambellas technique, some challenges. Look each other in the eyes and ask, in the familiar FOST terminology, are we just sat, sat or very sat?

I have my own views. But together as friends, as allies and partners, we have a terrific opportunity. Some of you have waited for generations to see the maritime taken as seriously as it is now. These next 2 days are an opportunity for you to explore these not just bi-laterally, but multi-laterally in support of a great alliance.

Welcome everybody. I look forward to our discussions today and tomorrow.