British military tacks to blue waters as admiral takes over as chief

Aircraft carriers to project naval power at sea while smaller Rangers Regiment will tackle extremists on land

Adm Sir Tony Radakin, who will succeed Gen Sir Nick Carter as head of the British armed forces, on 'HMS Queen Elizabeth'. PA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

An important changing of the guard will take place at the UK Ministry of Defence on Wednesday, underlining a significant change of course for Britain’s armed forces.

Adm Sir Tony Radakin will succeed Gen Sir Nick Carter as head of the armed forces indicating that blue water rather than land is the nation's political preference.

The admiral was chosen before two operationally experienced British Army officers to become Chief of the Defence Staff, the first Royal Navy officer to hold the post in 20 years.

Gen Sir Nick Carter (L) and Adm Sir Tony Radakin salute at the funeral service of Maj Gen Matthew Holmes. PA

After decades of being the poor cousin to the Army and Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy is becoming a formidable force that the government will be more willing to use.

The lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq have been firmly noted. Neither politicians nor soldiers want an extended expedition of 10,000 troops becoming bogged down in an unwinnable war with countless cost in blood and treasure.

The success of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s six-month deployment to the Far East, that included F35 fighter strikes on ISIS as well as a deliberate steaming through Beijing’s sphere in the South China Sea, show where future warfare apparently lies.

Joined by another aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales, the pair will provide Britain with a potent force to strike from sea. Carriers give commanders – and politicians – 1.6 hectares of UK sovereign territory from which they can launch special forces raids, humanitarian aid, bombing missions and a show of force around the world.

Adm Radakin was intimately involved in developing the carrier strike operations which in the view of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is important – being affable, rugby-loving and personable also helped.

People cheer as 'HMS Queen Elizabeth' arrives in Portsmouth, England. Getty Images

His promotion, and the prime minister’s intent to bolster Britain warship programme with new frigates, suggests Britain’s power projection will now largely come from the sea.

While the fleet will grow by 25 per cent to 24 frigates and destroyers in the next decade, the Army is being reduced from 84,000 to 73,000 soldiers.

Does that mean it will be left behind, especially when land threats from Russia and insurgencies in Africa and the Middle East remain?

While it evolved from a Cold War, conventional, tank-heavy Army in the past two decades into an effective counter-insurgency force, the lessons for future warfare were drawn from Syria, where special forces, bolstered by other troops and supported by air power, were able to roundly defeat ISIS with minimal casualties.

This light footprint led the Army to experiment with troop cuts, while ensuring it will not to be drawn into another Afghanistan.

The announcement last week of four battalions making up the Ranger Regiment, complete with a punchy cap badge, shows the current thinking.

The British Army shared this image of the new cap badge of the Ranger Regiment on Twitter. Photo: British Army / Twitter

The 1,200-soldier regiment will become part of the Army Special Operations Brigade, to counter extremists and hostile states. Two battalions will be sent to Africa, another to the Middle East and the fourth to Eastern Europe.

“Clearly the government wants to do more overseas in areas of strategic interest in the UK, and more often,” Brig Ben Barry, of the IISS think tank told The National. “It wants to do more in Africa, more in the Middle East and more in the Indo Pacific. That theme comes from the integrated review, a military more deployed both on training assistance in friendly countries and also on operations.”

But the ‘heavy metal’ of main battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers has not been abandoned entirely. Wary of the massed divisions of Russian armour gathered on the Ukraine border, the Army is for the first time in a decade sending its Challenger 2 tanks to Germany.

Royal Navy F-35B aircraft are parked on the deck of ‘HMS Queen Elizabeth’ in the port city of Limassol in Cyprus. AFP

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, last week announced that more personnel would be stationed for longer in a “new network of regional hubs” in places such as Oman and Kenya.

The British Army will significantly increase its heavy fighting units in Oman in the military hub of Duqm, reducing its traditional armour training in Canada.

Having British tanks in the Gulf certainly sends a signal to potential opponents like Iran and also provides an advantage for fighting in the desert. As a port, Duqm can accommodate the aircraft carriers allowing all three services to conduct concurrent air, sea and land exercises from the same place. Therefore, the British presence in the Gulf is likely to endure.

The announcements are all part of the prime minister’s cherished Integrated Review launched this year that heralds Global Britain’s new ambitions.

A Challenger tank taking part in a training exercise on Salisbury Plain. Getty Images

That ambition is laudable but it may not come without mishap, especially given the simple lack of numbers. The Army is small in terms of manpower and the Navy is struggling to crew its carriers and submarines. The RAF has to make do with only seven frontline squadrons of F35 and Typhoon fighters.

“What's not clear is what the government's defence priorities are,” said Brig Barry. “Because it seems the Integrated Review contained up arrows in terms of what the government wants the armed forces to do but it doesn't deprioritise anything. If the international security situation worsens, you could see the British armed forces not having enough troops to do all the roles they are assigned.”

War, as admirals and generals acknowledge, does not come without risk.

Updated: November 30, 2021, 2:28 PM