RUSI First Sea Lord's Sea Power Conference

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Main Image Credit The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) anchored during system tests off the coast of Scotland on 28 June 2017, accompanied by the frigates HMS Sutherland (F81) and HMS Iron Duke (F234). Courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence, OGL v1.0

On 15 May 2019, RUSI held the First Sea Lord's Sea Power Conference to discuss maritime strategy in a changing naval environment.

The 2019 RUSI First Sea Lord’s Sea Power Conference held on 15 May 2019 challenged delegates from navies from around the world to reconcile the competing demands of meeting current requirements of naval operations and achieving a longer-term transformation of naval forces to meet future challenges. The conference addressed the broad geopolitical trends that will shape navies’ future operating environments and the prospects for a UK maritime strategy to emerge in this milieu before delving into the specific technological trends and personnel requirements that might inform naval planning in this context. The links between the navy’s planning and broader policy visions such as Maritime 2050 were also discussed.

Conference participants discussed four central challenges that face strategists and civilian defence planners:

  • The first challenge is correctly ascertaining the nature of changes to the character of war. Williamson Murray and MacGregor Knox usefully distinguish between military–technical revolutions and revolutions in military affairs. The former are primarily technology driven and alter the character of war at the tactical and operational levels. By contrast, the latter typically involve the intersection of technological, organisational and social changes and transform war at every level, from the strategic to the tactical. For example, the US Army’s development of the AirLand Battle framework to leverage the opportunities provided by precision-guided munitions was a military–technical revolution. By contrast, the reorganisation of the French army in the aftermath of the French Revolution was a revolution in military affairs which radically changed the character of conflict. The French Revolution changed the nature of military organisations by including the general populace in warfare and, concomitantly, expanded the size of armies while ensuring that leaders had to seek expansive war aims to justify this level of mobilisation. The changes seen were not just technical or organisational but socially driven and altered the character of war at all levels. Delegates heard that today, as navies contemplate their futures, senior leaders would do well to divine the precise nature of the transformation being asked of their forces and reach deductions as to whether they face an evolutionary military–technical revolution or a disruptive revolution in military affairs. Historical research on the drivers and impact of previous revolutions in military affairs, then, will be a critical factor in helping the navy ascertain the nature of its future strategic and operating environment.
  • Second, having identified agility as an objective, the next step will be to specify the structural and procedural changes needed to cultivate an agile organisation. A central task will be analysis of Royal Navy capability areas to ensure that existing processes are fit for purpose and, where they are not, to alter the navy’s way of doing business. In effect, leaders have to take stock of, and attempt to cultivate, what Michael Horowitz called their organisational ‘adoption capacity’. The adoption capacity of an organisation is its ability to integrate changing technology, concepts of operations and personnel. Generally speaking, three variables predict organisational adoption capacity: the organisation’s ability to sustain the financial costs of adoption; the organisation’s age; and the congruence (or lack thereof) between the organisation’s critical task focus and emerging imperatives. Delegates were asked to contemplate whether navies had sufficient adoption capacity to deal with the challenges being faced.
  • The third challenge is identifying and accounting for sources of uncertainty with regard to the first-order assumptions that drive planning. Military leaders (like all organisational leaders) are forced to plan under conditions of uncertainty regarding first-order beliefs: the assumptions that allow leaders to rank threats as being more or less urgent and identify pacing challenges. However, changing political circumstances can alter a state’s hierarchy of threats and, by extension, what it asks of its military. Consider, for example, the way in which the two-power standard that the Royal Navy outlined at the turn of the 20th century with France and Russia in mind became all but obsolete as both countries became de facto allies against a rising Germany. Or, to use a more contemporary example, one might consider the resurgence of traditional security threats which, it was assumed, would be superseded by constabulary duties in an age of ‘new wars’ conducted not against states but against non-state actors. Documents such as the sixth edition of ‘Global Strategic Trends’ (GST 6) incorporate an understanding of uncertainty by mapping the contours of several conceivable future geopolitical horizons as opposed to projecting the future per se. Naval planning would benefit from a military operational-level counterpart to the multiple futures framework outlined in GST 6 in order to stress-test the viability of future planning in the face of uncertainty regarding first-order assumptions.
  • Finally, and perhaps most crucially, leaders need to distil a broad set of policy imperatives derived from multiple stakeholders into a coherent and parsimonious set of strategic principles. Policy documents like George Kennan’s ‘X Telegram’ and Bismarck’s ‘Bad Kissingen Memorandum’ stand out in the annals of history by virtue of their ability to distil key objectives and waypoints to achieving them from the cacophony of competing aims, debates about the nature of the future strategic operating environment and department-level objectives. The principles articulated in both documents were, moreover, flexible enough to account for unexpected change. The challenge facing both political and military national-level leadership is to articulate a maritime strategy that is more specific than general statements about maintaining world order and yet sufficiently general to amount to more than a description of the needs of the hour. A strategy that can serve as a bridge between policy aims and department-level activity is required.


Dr Sidharth Kaushal

Research Fellow, Sea Power

Military Sciences

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