George Zambellas – 2016 Speech on the Royal Navy

Portrait of First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas of the Royal Navy

Below is the text of the speech made by Sir George Zambellas, the First Sea Lord, at the Navy Club in London on 4 February 2016.

Thank you for that kind introduction.

It’s a pleasure to follow the Minister for Defence Procurement, and I very much intend to pick up on some of his themes.

But first, I’d like to say a few words on where the Royal Navy stands following the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

SDSR overview

Almost 18 months ago, on a dark November day, the Navy Board met in Scotland to determine our SDSR strategy.

We made what, in retrospect, was a quite extraordinary decision to define a highly ambitious future for the Royal Navy, based around 3 core capabilities of Continuous At Sea Deterrent and Carrier Strike, together with Amphibious Readiness.

It was reasonable in terms of an aspiration for a great nation.

But it was extraordinarily ambitious simply because of the wholesale political and budgetary uncertainties of the time.

Yet, with May’s General Election everything changed, and the first part of our plan looked possible.

The newly elected majority government had already committed to renewing the deterrent, and to bringing both our 2 new aircraft carriers into service, so the big building blocks of our future were already in place, even before the SDSR began.

And then the July budget last year defined a financial future of 2% for defence that gave our plan fiscal depth, perhaps not so much in the very early years, but certainly thereafter.

So, our focus switched, therefore, to making sure that the totality of these strategic promises were met, and that the necessary supporting and enabling components were properly credible.

And that, by and large, is what the SDSR delivered:

8 highly credible anti-submarine warfare Type 26 frigates;

9 new Maritime Patrol Aircraft necessary to protect the deterrent and support sea control;

At least 5, and listening carefully to the Prime Minister and Chancellor, probably more, new general purpose frigates too;

More F35B jets flying from our carriers, and earlier than planned;

Plus the Fleet Solid Support Ships necessary to sustain their global reach.

So nothing fancy, merely the necessary supporting components to deliver these 2 strategic responsibilities credibly.

Balanced fleet

But there are 2 other really noticeable features of the SDSR.

Firstly, we’ve met this objective while maintaining investment in a balanced fleet.The Royal Marines remain the UK’s ‘go-to’ contingency force.

The drumbeat of submarines under construction at Barrow continues, with signs of improved support performance.

Every helicopter type in the Fleet Air Arm is being replaced or upgraded.

There are 4 new tankers as well as supply ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

Plus investment in larger patrol ships, unmanned mine countermeasures technology, Special Forces, reserves and all the other capabilities which deliver power at sea, and from the sea.

National Shipbuilding Strategy

The second noticeable feature was that 2015 marked the first time in decades that the Royal Navy emerged from a defence review unscathed. In fact, we’re set to grow, in ships and people. The increases may be modest for now, but soon the government will unveil its National Shipbuilding Strategy. It will set out plans to replace all 13 Type 23 frigates on a one for one basis. This will be achieved, as I’ve said, with 8 Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigates together with at least five general purpose frigates.

Those 2 small words, “at least”, are hugely significant. For the past 20 years, and longer, we’ve have to make do with the words “up to”.

Remember the phrase “Up to 12 Type 45 destroyers”, which of course became 8 and then 6?

So I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the words “at least” over “up to” any day.

Carrier journey

And none of this journey and outcome happens by accident. SDSR 2015 was a huge team effort across the Royal Navy, and defence.

Yet the seeds were sown many years ago, decades ago in fact.

It’s down in no small part to the strategic foresight and steadiness under fire of the men who have stood in my place, and all those who supported them, many of whom are here tonight.

And while there have been setbacks along that journey, too often the focus was on what was lost, when it should have been on what was retained.

Because the navy of tomorrow is born out of the navy of today; and our case was reinforced, year-after-year, by our sailors and marines on operations, demonstrating what we offer the nation.

Nothing is more reflective of this truth than our carrier journey.

This year, this month, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Denis Healy’s seminal 1966 defence white paper, which cancelled the CVA-01 carrier project. 50 years.

Some thought, perhaps hoped, it would mark the end of British carrier based air power.

Yet there followed in the 1970s perhaps some of the most imaginative staff work the Ministry of Defence has ever seen as 3 “through-deck cruisers” slowly, quietly, evolved into small aircraft carriers.

And so began what Nick Childs aptly termed “the Age of Invincible”: 3 decades of carrier operations: in the Falklands, followed by Bosnia, the Gulf, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone.

Indeed, those who argue that the Queen Elizabeth class carriers are too big, fail to appreciate that their size was determined precisely because of experience gained through back-to-back operations in the 80s and 90s.

It’s now 18 years since George Robertson stood up in Parliament and set this project in train.

It’s not been an easy journey since then.

There were a few moments when it was frankly touch-and-go.

Plenty of people predicted they wouldn’t be built, or that they would suck the rest of the navy dry.

Even 5 years ago, we had commentators helpfully suggesting that the Libya intervention was evidence yet again that we could rely on land based air power for future operations.

Not only had they forgotten the lessons of 1982, but they seemed not to notice when France and Italy deployed their carriers, despite having airfields within easy reach, or our own brilliant creative use of HMS Ocean for Apache strike, which once again showed that the navy does not let the nation down.

And just look at where we are today.

In the United States, the first squadron of US Marine Corps F35Bs is operational, with UK personnel alongside them every step of the way. This summer you’ll see the F35 in UK skies. Get used to the sight because many more are coming our way.

Meanwhile, in the Gulf, our frigates and destroyers have been working with US and French carriers. Our people have been integrated with theirs; in both cases honing the skills that will serve our own carrier centric future.

And then in Rosyth, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s diesel generators and gas turbines are up and running. Her radars are turning and burning. She is alive.

Prince of Wales is catching up fast: now structurally complete; the first members of her Ship’s Company joined last month.

HMS Queen Elizabeth’s sails from Rosyth later this year. It will be a great day for the Royal Navy. It’s the day when the ghosts of 1966, and 1981, are finally laid to rest. The 50 year circle will be closing.

But as you will appreciate, to view these 2 ships as a mere replacement for the Invincible class, or a return to the halcyon days of fast jet carrier operations in the 60s and 70s, is to underestimate entirely what they represent in both practical and symbolic terms.

From the mid-2020s the UK, already one of only three nations to maintain a Continuous At Sea Deterrent, will become one of an equally select few to wield a Continuous Carrier Capability.

Indeed, it was telling that it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who announced that more jets would be ordered sooner than expected to “step up the carrier punch of the United Kingdom”.

These ships symbolise our military strength, our engineering and technical ability, our global economic ambition and our international authority.

So thank you. Through the years we’ve stuck to our course.

We’ve quietly and persistently made the case… well, perhaps not always quietly…

There is now a huge amount of work in the years ahead.

But the Royal Navy is heading forward at full steam to where we belong, back as a big deck carrier operator; back at the heart of our nation’s defence; back to the front rank of maritime powers.

Innovation and the future

So in the last few minutes, I want to look ahead.

Those who know me well know that I couldn’t be on my feet without saying a few words about innovation.

Innovation in the minds of some is fundamentally about technology.

But innovation is much more about attitude than technology.

So what the navy, or perhaps more widely defence, needs to do is create the environment in which people feel free to think, free to change, and comfortable in taking risk.

There is no doubt that the world that the world in which we are operating is changing rapidly.

So the utility of innovation, the flexibility of our approach to leadership, war fighting and capability, has at the very least to match, if not beat, what today’s enemy can achieve.

Meanwhile, underwater, some of you will know, and I won’t expand, we have seen extraordinary performances from our submarines.

We have met our operational responsibilities precisely through imaginative, innovative, utilisation of underwater technologies, and all credit to our submariners for their phenomenal performance.

So I just wanted to say that the future of the service shouldn’t be seen through the binary utility of innovation in a technical sense.

It will be through the attitude of our young leaders, and through the imagination of our command and management structures.

And that more than anything else, is our future.


So the SDSR 15 marks the start, not the end, of the Royal Navy’s ambition.

Much of this will fall on the shoulders of the young men and women stepping off the parade ground at Raleigh, Dartmouth and Lympstone.

But the commitment, the enthusiasm, the professionalism do not change.

They have fantastic careers ahead of them, in a Royal Navy now growing in size and ambition, as well as capability.

If I could do it all again I would in a flash, and I’m sure many of you would too.

But the next generation will continue what you, and what I, have always sought to do:

To protect and advance our nation’s interests;

To take the UK’s message of maritime prosperity and ambition around the world;

And, when called to do so, to “engage the enemy more closely”…to fight and win.

Thank you.