Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin RUSI Lecture 2023

Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin gave his annual RUSI Lecture on 13 December 2023

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin KCB ADC

Last year I spoke of an extraordinarily dangerous moment, with the return of war in Europe alongside unfolding great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.

And here we are again: at the end of another year and another set of equally profound developments.  Some are startling and horrific, like the barbaric attacks in Israel; others so frustratingly familiar that the world barely stops to notice.  This summer’s coup in Niger - the ninth in Africa since the turn of the decade – is an obvious case in point.

As the year draws to a close, the security outlook feels even more dangerous than was the case 12 months ago. And that’s coming from me – someone known for their optimism…

People often ask me what keeps me awake at night.  The honest answer is that I sleep well.  Mostly because I am tired.  And because I’m blessed with a supportive family.  And I also sleep well because of the Armed Forces, the Civil Service and our Intelligence Agencies who always seem to pull out the stops when required.  Our evacuation from Sudan in the spring – the largest of any Western nation – reminds us of what we can achieve at scale, at reach, and at speed.

But how well I sleep might not be an accurate barometer to assess the defence and security of the nation…

I think most people now recognise that we’ve entered an era of renewed great power and state on state competition, and that was the theme of my first lecture to RUSI two years ago.

But I’m less sure we’ve really assimilated the scale or the volatility or the pace of the security challenges we’ve seen over the past couple of years and what this means for the future.

So tonight, I’d like to set the scene by offering three perspectives.

First, continued recognition of this turning point in global security, in which the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza both have the potential to further destabilise an already febrile and agitated world, but are part of a broader backdrop.

Second is to say that we are responding.  We are witnessing the return of statecraft and the staples of alliances, technology and investment to manage these dangers.  The increasing trajectory of defence spending in this country, the collective strength of NATO, our network of international partners, and the technological transformation of the Armed Forces, all offer much to reassure.

But is it enough?  For the final part of my speech, I want to consider how we calibrate ourselves to meet the demands of an openly contested and volatile world; not just for the next 5 years but over the next one or two decades.

Let me start with a few words about October’s cruel attacks by Hamas and after visiting Israel last week with the Defence Secretary.

Those of us watching on in horror cannot underestimate the sense within Israel that this is an existential threat.  Or the vulnerability felt by Jewish people worldwide, including here in the United Kingdom. 

The Government has been clear in its view that Israel is entitled to bring the perpetrators of such hideous acts to justice, and to defeat the threat posed by Hamas.

Inevitably fighting in such densely packed urban areas risks causing immense harm to civilians, which is why we have urged restraint and we continue to work with our partners in the region to identify options to deliver aid. 

The attacks of October 7 have served to heighten the simmering tensions and dire conditions in Gaza. Tensions which resonate so strongly on the Arab street and risk inflaming an arc of instability stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf of Oman.  

That is why the UK deployed air and naval assets to the region: to be ready for contingencies, contribute to relief operations, and to safeguard wider regional stability.

The level of uncertainty and degree of potential volatility for the whole of the Middle East is worrying.  We assess Iran doesn’t want a direct war.  And the presence of two US carrier strike groups sent an unmistakable message to Tehran.  But Iran is comfortable with the way events have unfolded.  The dilemmas for Israel.  The threat posed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis.  Militia groups exploiting this crisis to challenge America’s role in the region. Hence the multiple attacks on international shipping in the southern Red Sea, and over 80 attacks on US and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria.

America has shown commendable restraint.  But there are multiple scenarios in which this crisis could escalate.  Our Gulf partners are nervous.  They point to a perceived lack of engagement more generally by the West and more specifically in the two-state solution over many years.  

All of this is sufficiently serious to warrant the attention of responsible nations everywhere.  But the instability that flowed from October 7 does not occur in isolation.  The backdrop includes a broader challenge to the world order.

It occurs alongside rising tension in the Western Balkans.  Increased confrontation in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.  Ever more bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang.  Continued instability in Africa.  The re-emergence of long running territorial disputes, most recently between Venezuela and Guyana.

And then there is Russia’s continuing war in Ukraine.  After two years of bitter sacrifice, it should be clear to Putin that the Ukrainian people will never permit their country to return to Moscow’s orbit. 

And yet President Putin pushes on regardless of the continuing cost: to international stability, to Ukraine and to his own people.

Yes, Ukraine’s counter-offensive gained less ground than was hoped.  Russian defences proved stronger than expected.  And Ukraine is fighting with a citizen Army.  Men in their 30s and 40s with families back home.  Ukraine is cautious with their lives.  We would be too.  And it speaks volumes about the contrasting approaches of Russian and Ukrainian leaders.

But territory is not the only measure of how this war progresses.  And talk of ‘stalemate’ or the advantages to Russia of settling for a long war are far too superficial.  Not enough is made of Russia’s predicament.  Not enough is made of Ukraine’s success.  And Putin is no grand master of strategy.

He sought to weaponize Russia’s energy exports.  But European countries responded by reducing their dependence.

He sought to withhold global food supplies.  But the world responded with the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

He sought to coerce the West with reckless nuclear threats.  But that elicited global condemnation, including from  China, India and Saudi Arabia.

And now he’s wanted by the International Criminal Court.  He’s suffered the shock and humiliation of an attempted coup.  Crimea is no longer safe.  The Black Sea Fleet has scattered. He has to keep 400 thousand troops in Ukraine to hold on to what he has taken.  And he cannot order a general mobilisation - at least not ahead of next year’s election - for fear of how his own people will respond.  Abroad he is a Potemkin-like figure, unable to rely on international support because Russia has few real friends in the world. 

Increasingly he resembles a prisoner of his own making.  But, if his first catastrophic mistake was invading Ukraine, he is now making his second calamitous blunder - the Russian economy is being twisted even more out of shape.  Nearly 40% of all Russian public expenditure is being spent on defence.  That is more than the aggregate of health and education.  And the last time we saw these levels was at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

This is disastrous for Russia and its people.  And it is in contrast to President Zelensky who speaks of a ‘new’ Ukraine: a country fit for its heroes.  A country on the path to NATO and EU membership.  A country that represents everything that Russia is not: confident, dynamic, democratic, innovative, and open to the world.  A country that is respected and embraced by the community of nations.  A country with a future.

This leads me to my second point: the return of statecraft, as countries shift and align in support of common interests across the world and seek to use all the instruments of power.

Witness how the United States, and others, are seeking to engage India to counterbalance China; or how President Biden hosted the leaders of Japan and South Korea at Camp David.

Or consider how European nations were willing to commit some 500 billion euros to subsidise their citizens through last winter’s energy crisis, weening themselves from Russian gas and thus denying Putin the leverage he sought.

The UK is also re-learning the art of statecraft. This includes: the Hiroshima Accord with Japan, the Downing Street Accord with South Korea, the Atlantic Declaration with the US, the extension of security guarantees to Sweden and Finland on their journey to NATO; our leadership of the Joint Expeditionary Force; and the hosting of the AI Summit at Bletchley Park.

Russia’s aggression continues to provoke an extraordinary response.

Across Europe defence spending is up.  In 2022 the figure reached nearly £280 billion, 30% higher than it was a decade ago.  Finland is up 36%, Sweden 12%, Poland 11%.

And NATO is stronger.  This year’s summit in Vilnius saw the biggest transformation of NATO’s readiness since the Cold War.  And the UK is right at the heart of this: offering 25% of NATO’s maritime forces and more than 10% of land and air.

When we stand with NATO we draw on the economic, diplomatic, demographic, as well as industrial and technological heft of 31 nations, soon to become 32.  Our combined GDP becomes 20 times greater than Russia’s.  Our regular armed forces of 140,000 becomes part of a force of 3 million men and women, and with even greater numbers in reserve. It is absurd to entertain the notion that Russia is in anyway a match for NATO. If we stick together, and stick with it, Russia will lose and Ukraine will prevail.

And if we step back, what we see in each of these examples is a community of nations that is confident using its collective strengths to buttress global security.  This is how we should respond to a more contested world.

And if we zoom in on the military instrument, we see a British Armed Forces becoming even more lethal and effective, relative to both Russia and to the wider threats we face.  

A £40 billion land investment programme means we can reorientate the Army to the challenges of state-on-state competition.  With 80% of the deployable force now aligned to NATO, 16,000 troops deploying to Europe next year. Ajax and Boxer are entering service. 1300 armoured vehicles are on contract. Upgrades to Apache are underway.  The contract for the Archer medium range artillery system was signed and sealed within two months.  We have plans for substantial investment in Long Range Precision Fires, Ground Based Air Defence and Electronic Warfare. 

The Royal Air Force is transforming from a fourth-generation to a fifth-generation air force; and is reaching and leading us all into space. With the arrival of A400M, it now has greater lift capacity than at any time since the Second World War; and the combination of P8 Poseidon, E7 Wedgetail and Protector offers a 30% increase in ISTAR airframes.

The Royal Navy is a carrier Navy once again, with both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales at sea this autumn.  The Royal Marines are coming back to their Commando roots, globally deployed and ready to respond.  There are 22 ships and submarines on order or under construction; the past year saw our new Seabed Warfare Vessel enter service, alongside the first support ship for uncrewed mine hunting systems.  With more to follow.

And binding this together is Strategic Command: the custodian of the Crown Jewels of Defence: intelligence, cyber, special forces and our network of overseas experts and bases; generating the concepts and doctrines that underpin how we think and fight; and overseeing the biggest transformation of all. Moving from standalone operations to enduring campaigns.  From three domains to five.  And from forces that are merely joint to forces that are integrated.

We’re also bringing in better support for our people.  Wrap Around Childcare.  Extending Forces Help to Buy.  A better than expected pay settlement for the Armed Forces.  Zero tolerance for unacceptable behaviours.

In all these areas – people, operations, equipment - we have achieved much over the past year, and through the Defence Command Paper Refresh we have a plan to do even more over the coming years.

But this brings me to my third and final theme – is it all enough?

These are extraordinarily dangerous times. We are responding by playing our part to uphold and strengthen the global system, and by the commitment and professionalism of our people.

But it is not just the hideous violence or the competition over territory that should worry us.

It is also the backdrop of ideological struggles and creaking pains of tense democracies which are putting the international system under intense strain.

And what is particularly concerning is the slow dismantling of the security architecture that has been with us since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  It is a backdrop that my generation may have taken for granted.  But it is collapsing.

This year Russia withdrew from or suspended the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between Russia and the United States, known as New START.

And Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine has resulted in expulsion from the Council of Europe; withdrawal from the Barents Sea Council and the suspension of cooperation with the Arctic Council.

And then if we head east, the corresponding frameworks that might govern great power competition in the Indo-Pacific are absent altogether.

When you take the emerging great power competition, and the absent or decaying security architectures and add to that… the pace of technological change… the advent of AI…the impact of climate change…competition for natural resources, migration, health insecurity… as well as deep seated regional inequalities…

…This all represents a profound challenge to global stability, to our physical and economic security, and to our way of life.

It is 77 years since the American diplomat George Kennan wrote his famous Long Telegram from Moscow. He warned of the expansionist threat posed by the Soviet Union and advocated the policy of containment.  But it took years before the institutions and frameworks were in place to make that policy a success.

It feels like we’re in a similar place.  Our diagnosis – like Kennan’s - is the correct one.  The era of state-on-state competition has returned and will remain with us for decades to come.

We’re spending more on Defence.  We’re transforming the Armed Forces.  We’re becoming more integrated.  But is the machinery and thinking deep within the British state truly calibrated to the scale of what is unfolding? In short: Does it all stack up?  The resilience of our nation, and the ability to draw deep on our defence industry or our reserves?  The ability of our extraordinary intelligence agencies to encompass the vast range of new and global threats?  

These are big questions.  And to be clear this is not a discussion about the next spending review.  

All the Chiefs are conscious that we are the custodians of huge sums of public money.  And in the here-and-now, our task is to offer maximum return on the investment we currently receive; indeed - ministers and politicians rightly demand more from us.

And we should recognise the enormity already of the Government’s defence investment programme and its ambition for the next decade.

A decade which will see us recapitalise the Army. Put right infrastructure that has been neglected and better support our people. 

A decade in which we will respond to the lessons from Ukraine and consider whether we need Integrated Air and Missile Defence for the UK.

A decade which will see us develop a 6th generation fighter as part of an alliance which spans Europe and Asia. Developing a new nuclear submarine with Australia and America; and follow on AUKUS projects spanning cyber, artificial intelligence, electronic warfare, quantum technology and hypersonics.

And then there is the biggest undertaking of all – the renewal of our nuclear deterrent, which includes a new warhead and a new generation of ballistic missile submarines.

It represents the next chapter in Britain’s nuclear story – a story that began with Clement Attlee and the transformative post war years; that found expression in the Cold War partnerships of Reagan and Thatcher, and in the concept of peace through strength that was so fundamental to the triumph of democratic freedoms and the fall of communism.

We should be proud to be a responsible nuclear power. And I want to publicly recognise the commitment of those who are ready to spend months at a stretch in a steel tube somewhere in the Atlantic, with no means to communicate with their loved ones back home.

That is a very human example of what it means to provide the Prime Minister and the Nation with the assurance that we have the ability to respond to the most existential of threats.

But binding all of these commitments and programmes together is even more than people or money.

It’s about strategic literacy. It’s about sharper statecraft. It’s about trade and technology. It’s about the strength and resilience of our industrial base and winning the war for talent. It’s about the re-imagining of alliances, the need for new security architectures, and for modern institutions that are configured for the challenges of our time.

Our Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper in 2021 was a first step. This year’s refreshed versions matured our thinking. But these documents are not an end in themselves. We must evolve, adapt and accelerate to match the challenges and opportunities as they emerge.

In sum: A host of long simmering conflicts are coming to the boil. The world is responding.  We are on the right path. But when we think a little further ahead we need to check whether our collective response matches the urgency and gravity of the threats.

Ministry of Defence
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin KCB ADC