New defence chief Tony Radakin warns 'flat-footed' UK military must reform

Admiral Tony Radakin urges armed forces to become more lethal and change mindset

Admiral Tony Radakin inspecting sailors before boarding 'HMS Victory'. Royal Navy
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The dangers the world faces are at their highest in 30 years lending greater urgency for the “flat-footed” British military to reform, the new armed forces chief has said.

With military threats from China, Russia and Iran now approaching their highest level and technology quickly evolving, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin has called for a rapid mindset reform.

In his first speech as Chief of the Defence Staff, the officer argued that the possibility of conflict was also increasing with climate change, population pressures and the competition over resources.

“The world is undoubtedly more prosperous today and yet our security outlook is far more complex and dangerous than at any time over the past 30 years,” said the admiral who, as First Sea Lord, was responsible for significant Royal Navy reforms.

Britain’s desire to station more of tanks, warships and fighters abroad – including basing armoured vehicles in Oman – to deter and defend against aggressors was also reflected in the speech.

Because the “simple demarcation of peace and war” was now less clear his forces needed “to be out in the world supporting British interests, deterring and shaping on a continuous basis”.

With the dangers increasing, he called on the British military to be “far more lethal”.

“We have to ‘up the punch’ we bring across all domains as increasingly, the political need is for ‘high impact and low footprint’ operations,” the admiral said, addressing an audience of retired and serving senior officers at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, on Tuesday.

“This is not about change for change’s sake. It is an imperative: to be even better.”

Today's modern warfare, the 55-year-old admiral said, was very different to the more clear-cut nature of the Cold War.

“We co-operate and try to trade like crazy,” he said.

“We contest and we even confront but frequently we are doing all at the same time, in the same place and even with the same state.”

A key contest was with China, which was challenging international norms through “economic intimidation or wolf-warrior diplomacy,” referring to its more aggressive foreign policy.

He warned that Iran could soon join North Korea in posing a nuclear and ballistic missile capability and that Russia was “a threat to our values and interests”.

Similarly, the Bosnia conflict could flare up again with Serb nationalists threatening to secede and the Afghanistan defeat had fed into the “decline of the West” narrative.

Those pressing issues meant that the British military needed a rapid change in thinking to address what the admiral called “an ugly truth”.

“Defence’s structures, processes and pace are too large, too hierarchical and too ponderous for the threats we face,” he said. Personnel needed to “embrace technology”.

“The department [Ministry of Defence] still operates in silos and is too flat-footed. We know everything is too slow and too resistant to change. For every person trying to get things done, it can feel like there are four or five other people looking over your shoulder, or worse, standing in the way.”

He also criticised the armed forces for having “too few women” and of “not reflecting the ethnic, religious and cognitive diversity of our nation”.

However, Britain had an edge over its competitors because it had “real friends, all around the world, who share our interests and values”, he said.

Updated: December 07, 2021, 7:12 PM