The Royal Navy is facing a “war for talent in this country”, but the head of the service remains confident in the capability of his force.
First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key has highlighted that the shrinking trend in personnel must be reversed as, “for the first time since the end of the Second World War”, the Navy has got to get bigger.
The head of the Royal Navy has reflected on the changes the Royal Navy is going through in an interview with The House magazine.
The First Sea Lord did acknowledge while speaking to The House, that the change would not be easy as it is “not in our DNA; we have had 80 years of effectively getting smaller”.
“We are effectively in a war for talent in this country – there is no great secret in that,” Admiral Sir Ben says.
He added: “One of the challenges is actually, the Navy of today, at 29,000 in a population of… about 65 million, actually, there are very few people who have got direct experience of coming from a naval family, whereas, if you track back 100 years, a lot of people had experience of a military family or a naval family.”
The Navy chief highlighted the problems faced in recruitment with the Submarine Service, which, since 1969, has delivered a continuous at-sea deterrent.
With the development of the AUKUS alliance, which looks to bind the American and Australian navies into closer partnership with the UK, a new class of Trident nuclear submarines, Dreadnought, has been under construction.
The first steel cut on the Navy’s third Dreadnought nuclear submarine came in February.
However, these projects require a significant amount of submariners to ensure no problems occur inflicting any delays.
Attracting a large number of personnel to the positions has not been productive, with quarterly service personnel statistics published by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) stating that between October 2021 and October 2022, the full-time trained strength of the Royal Navy fell by 0.6%.
The First Sea Lord credited this drop to a generational change in the expectations of the workplace.
He recalled in the interview that after a six-month trip away, his son, who was two at the time, did not recognise him on his return.
Admiral Sir Ben believes that now, recruits expect more in terms of communication.
“Expectations of contact with people you love are changing,” he says, “and the ability for near-permanent connectivity cannot be met if you are in a submarine.”
To tackle this, he told the magazine that the Navy is investing in outreach teams to explain to potential new recruits what life is like on a submarine, stressing the benefits for potential recruits to be greeted by relatable people.
“If you’re thinking of joining a Submarine Service as a young person, you want to go and talk to a young submariner and find out what it’s really like.”
The First Sea Lord does, however, remain confident in the Navy’s capability even though it is not the same size as the service of 1982.
He went on: “If I was required to sail a Navy at short notice, to go and do something similar, then in the same way that, in 1982, where the Royal Navy and the dockyards and industrial support lane delivered this absolutely heroic piece, then I’m sure that we could do the same.
“Would the task group be the same size? Absolutely not. Is it as capable? It’s way more capable.” he added.
AI can be ‘tremendously beneficial’
The First Sea Lord took a look at the future, noting the Navy’s investments into new technologies driving its capability, as well as ensuring processes are safer.
He pointed to how artificial intelligence (AI) is, in fact, enabling the Navy to remove sailors from precarious situations at sea, saying: “For instance, autonomous mine hunting systems have proven to us that: why would you put people in a minefield when you don’t need to?”
He says “it is inevitable” that AI takes jobs in the Navy, however, he also says that the operation of AI systems “still requires human beings, and those sailors are still therefore in the mix – they are just doing something different.”
Admiral Sir Ben highlighted that AI can also be “tremendously beneficial” at detecting malign actors at sea: such as people smuggling drugs, fishing illegally, or for surveying what lies on the seabed.
“Most people are pretty predictable in what they do and how they go about it,” he says, “so what is it within that that then looks like odd patterns?
“And. if you start to build up at a large scale of data, then AI is tremendously good at spotting inconsistencies in the patterns or spotting other patterns that we haven’t necessarily identified.”
The Navy cannot, he says, rely on future AI inclusion so continues to seek ways to expand its nuclear-powered submarine fleet, a move that will also require more submariners.