CNO Gilday Speaks at First Sea Lord’s Sea Power Conference 2023

First Sea Lord’s Sea Power Conference 2023 — London, United Kingdom — June 6, 2023 —

Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene:  So welcome back, everyone, from the first coffee break at the First Sea Lord’s Sea Power Conference 2023.  And it’s my absolute pleasure to chair this “In Conversation” session with three esteemed panelists.

The “In Conversation” session will focus on the following question:  How connected are the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific theaters?  And we have three senior naval officers who will discuss the growing connectivity between both theaters and also the need to think about them as integrated spaces.  I would like to briefly introduce our panelists.

So we are absolutely delighted to be joined by Admiral Michael Gilday, who is chief of naval operations in the United States Navy.  Admiral Gilday has served as the 32nd chief of naval operations for the U.S. Navy since August 2019.  As a flag officer, he served joint positions as director of operations for NATO Joint Force Command Lisbon, as chief of staff for Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, director of operations J3 for U.S. Cyber Command, and as director of operations J3 for the Joint Staff.  He recently served as director for the Joint Staff of the U.S. Navy.

We are also absolutely delighted to be joined by Admiral Vandier, who is chief of the naval staff in the French navy.  Admiral Pierre Vandier has served as chief of the naval staff of the French navy since September 2020.  Previously, he was principal staff officer of the secretary of state for defense, and he’s also an officer of the French Legion of Honor and of the Maritime Merit.

We are also honored and delighted to be joined by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Ben Key.  And Admiral Sir Ben Key has served as first sea lord and chief of naval staff since November 2021.  Previously, he was the Royal Navy’s fleet commander and served as the chief of joint operations.  Since joining the Royal Navy in 1984, he has been privileged to command four ships – the minehunter HMS Sandown, the frigates HMS Iron Duke and HMS Lancaster, and the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious.

So, Admirals, allow me to set the context for our “In Conversation” session.  And you probably will agree that since the modern invention of the concept of the Indo-Pacific in the late 2000s, the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic have been largely considered as discrete regions.  Some in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific consider their home region to be the most important, while the United States has a vibrant discussion about the relative importance of both.

Europe-firsters argue that the country should prioritize the Euro-Atlantic; while Asia-firsters argue the opposite, prioritizing the Indo-Pacific.  To some extent, in the early 2010s this might have made sense.  But the growth in Chinese power over the past 15 years in terms of economy, trade, the Belt and Road Initiative has been so great that affairs and events in one theater are beginning to impact the other.  And with climate change opening the sea routes in the Arctic, the connectivity between both regions may grow even more.

At the same time, the U.K., France, and other European countries are becoming more aware of the importance of the Indo-Pacific, just as Indo-Pacific countries are beginning to appreciate the importance of the Euro-Atlantic.  Australian and Japanese support for Ukraine is just one example, as is AUKUS and the growth of ties between Britain and Japan and France, and several other countries in the Indo-Pacific.  The Integrated Review Refresh spoke of the emergence of an Atlantic Pacific.  And what undoubtably defines this region, wrapping around the underbelly of Eurasia, is its maritime character.  The Refresh, which was published only one-and-a-half month(s) ago, argues that the two regions should be bound even closer together.  The question is, how can this be achieved?

So I would like to ask the very first question and begin this “In Conversation” session with three admirals by asking Admiral Pierre Vandier:  Which geopolitical, geoeconomic, and environmental forces are binding Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific together, in your view, Admiral?

Admiral Pierre Vandier:  Thank you very much for your opening.  And so I’m very happy to be here with my both friends, U.S. and U.K.  We did a similar exercise in Paris a few months ago, and I think it’s very profitable to have the three of us speaking on the – on the same key issues.

So the links and the forces which are binding the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, I would say four points.


The first one, as you said, it’s quite obvious:  It’s the economy.  The globalization has raised dependence on the Indo-Pac and the sensitiveness on sea lanes.  Commercial trade goes from Asia to Europe through straits, which are Malacca, Bab al-Mandab, and Suez, which are very, very sensitive areas.

As a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe has to source energy supplies from outside of the continent.  It’s what I call decontinentization of energy.  So today nearly 30 percent of energy comes from – for Europe comes from the Gulf, which is quite new and which is at a moment where the U.S. are less dependent on the energy coming from the Gulf.  And so this is a very important shift for us.

Admiral Vandier, Chief of the naval staff in the French Navy — Marine Nationale Photo

As you know, 90 percent of data are running on the seabed.  And so all the cables which are running from Europe to Asia goes through these straits and especially in sensitive territories.  If you look at the maps of the cables, you will find that all the cables coming from Europe arrive in Djibouti, where there is a Chinese base.  And Djibouti telecoms have been bought by China telecom, so just to let you know.

My second point is that I think all of us – and it’s not only linked with the Pacific – is climate change.  We have not finished to measure the consequences of it.  And at sea we are – as seafarers, we are observers and sentinels of the change.  And all these questions, which are – seems to be far away from military issues, in fact are not that far because population will move, and especially in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific a lot of population will move.  The disaster relief will be a constant pattern of operations.  And all the things which are linked with biodiversity will change the way their countries use resources in the area.

Third point is that France has national interests in the Indo-Pacific because we have overseas territories.  Eighty percent of the EEZ, the French EEZ, is in the Indo-Pac, and so for us it’s very important to be there.  We have the second EEZ in the world after the U.S.  And so defending it, surveilling it, it’s something we are – we are giving huge efforts, and especially in the military side.

And fourth, I will finish my point on the historical links which are between the Atlantic and the Pacific on both sides, from Europe to the Pacific.  And it was during World War II, but in the other side it was World War I.  I had realized, inviting my roommate, Mark Hammond, to this – chief of Australian navy – that in 1914 the Australian people were 5 millions and they sent an army in Europe, and most of them in France, of 500,000 people.  They lost 60,000 people and around 150,000 were wounded or as prisoners.  And so what they gave to Europe to remain free is something which is absolutely huge, and I think that that shows what the nature of links we have between democracies all over the world.

Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene:  Thank you.

Admiral Gilday, would you agree?

Admiral Michael Gilday: Yes.  I would add that, at least from the lens of the United States, a little over 10 years ago we began our shift to the Pacific, and so the U.S. gaze began to look westward. 

Over time, what I think that we’ve seen is that we’re not only – we’re not just transfixed on the – on the Indo-Pacific, but also the transatlantic becomes increasingly more important.  And I would say the same – I would say for – Europeans tend to look east now more as well with respect to China’s growth and extension of their – not only their economic, but their military tentacles as they move westward. 

What I think that has done is it has really caused us to look at countries like China as not just a regional problem set, but really a transregional, all-domain problem set.  And I think that’s an important shift for all of us, particularly those of us in uniform. 

Admiral Michael Gilday, US Chief of Naval Operations Adm — US Navy Photo


To that end, you increasingly see combined patrols by U.S. and European navies out of the European theater, whether it’s in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Gulf, or further east in the South China Sea.  So I think that we’re on a trajectory right now that is transregional, that is all-domain, and that has driven us even closer.

Over time, what I think that we’ve seen is that we’re not only – we’re not just transfixed on the – on the Indo-Pacific, but also the transatlantic becomes increasingly more important.  And I would say the same – I would say for – Europeans tend to look east now more as well with respect to China’s growth and extension of their – not only their economic, but their military tentacles as they move westward. 

What I think that has done is it has really caused us to look at countries like China as not just a regional problem set, but really a transregional, all-domain problem set.  And I think that’s an important shift for all of us, particularly those of us in uniform.  To that end, you increasingly see combined patrols by U.S. and European navies out of the European theater, whether it’s in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Gulf, or further east in the South China Sea.  So I think that we’re on a trajectory right now that is transregional, that is all-domain, and that has driven us even closer.

The obvious natural bridge between the Atlantic and the Pacific that you spoke to is the Arctic.  Joint patrols up there are, obviously, increasing.  Just as we have a Rim of the Pacific Exercise every two years, I could see in the future – not necessarily led by the U.S., led by some nation – that we would have an exercise that would be centered on the polar ice rim.  And so I think that is increasingly going to get more attention as that becomes an area of more intense economic competition.

Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene: Admiral Sir Ben Key, you colleagues have just brilliantly explained the main forces that are binding the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific together.  But in your view, what are the geopolitical implications of the emergence of the Atlantic Pacific, particularly for the United Kingdom?

Admiral Sir Ben Key: I think – and I’d absolutely echo both what Admirals Pierre and Mike have said and thank them for making the effort to come – to come here to join this panel.


I think – I think what we see now is that we’ve experimented for a while with an either/or approach.  And what the Integrated Review really gets at in its recent Refresh is that, in the way that the world has sharped itself over the last decade, it’s a both/and.  And there’s not a discretionary aspect that you can take to a national policy that says, we want to constrain our ambition here but we want to extend it over there.  The nature of the interconnected commons that we have around the globe – whether that’s in prosperity, whether that’s in our diplomatic network, whether that’s in our trade network as a country – all of that development then obligates us also to invest in the security.

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key — Royal Navy Photo

Now, that is not to say that the proportion of our endeavor can be equally spread.  We do not have the capacity for that and we have very clear obligations to NATO that we must fulfill.  But that obligation to NATO is not at the cost of what we do further afield, because we have obligations there as well as part of our commitment to the rules-based international system.  What I as head of the navy, therefore, am investing in are building the alliances and partnerships that help us to understand where in the world with our capacity we can – and our particular skillsets – we can – we can offer or contribute most effectively.

For a long period in our history as a service we knew the waters of the Pacific very well.  After the Second World War and with the particular nature of that kind of history, over time we retreated back again.  And now we are learning our way back into being a global navy.  We’re not doing that with any arrogance, that we know better than anybody else how to conduct ourselves.  We want to learn how best to fit into the patterns that are being made around the world.  So we have to go with humility and listening, but we have also to be prepared to engage.  And that is the sort of set of obligations, I think, that are coming through within the – you know, within the wherewithal of the service.

But this is not an either/or.  People who think that are seeking to make a false choice because, as we’ve explored earlier today already, we are but one arm of a globally engaged nation-state on whom – for whom a reliance on the sea is an enduring fact.  And therefore, we have a part to play in that.  Fashioning that part is the role of the navy today.

Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene: Admiral Vandier, what about France?

Admiral Pierre Vandier: So I would say something on what Mike explained.  The question is transregional and it’s global.  And our three navies are engaged on four oceans, and the effect of the rising of insecurity in the Asian area has global effects because especially the U.S. Navy is concentrating itself on this region.  And so that drives some, I would say, vacuums or less-effort regions, and so that drives us, especially the European navies, to fill these gaps.  And I think it’s really important.  It’s the case in the Atlantic.  It’s the case in the Med.  It’s the case in the Gulf.  And it’s regions where we need to be there, we need to build security.  And so I’m advocating to my European partners to engage with us, especially in the Indian Ocean, which is an affordable commitment to fill the gaps and not to let insecurity gain the wall because of what’s going on in Asia.

Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene:: Admiral Vandier, could you please maybe elaborate a bit more on how you view our navies and maritime push as affected, particularly in the French context?

Admiral Pierre Vandier: So I often speak of geopolitical cycles.  I think we are at the end of an era, the post-Cold War cycle, where we thought that we were running for eternal security and so that we could reduce the armed forces.  And so the risks were more financial or medical than military and geopolitical.  So the change of cycle occurred, I think I would say, in – somehow between 2010-2014.  I think the Crimea invasion is really a moment where we, Europeans, realized that what we tried to build during two decades was fading.

So today this cycle drives us to reinvest in our security.  And we know, especially for navies, that it takes time.  A naval program is something which is run – then it can’t be shorter than 15 years to build a carrier, a nuclear submarine, a ballistic missile.  It takes 15 years, at least.  And so the effort we have to produce is now – is ongoing.  But so the risk we have in front of us is that the situation may be harder to take in account than the assets we have in the next 10 years.  And so it’s a tricky period where our countries may go autonomous, may go by their own, may do their own efforts.  And so I’m really – I think it’s really important to advocate for interoperability and for common engagement.

Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene: Admiral Gilday?

Admiral Michael Gilday: I’ll add on Admiral Vandier’s eloquent explanation by just talking about spheres of integration.  So in a previous period of global competition among peer competitors, we talked about spheres of influence.  And now I would tend to think of it as spheres of integration, because these problem sets are global.  A couple of – three examples, perhaps.

One would be the power of a nation’s coming together with unified – in a unified sense, and economically focused on sanctions against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.  Probably no time in history has there been that kind of cohesion across the globe against a single nation, who everybody is unified in disagreement with their behavior.

So we started off this morning talking about steel and statecraft, and that’s obviously a statecraft piece, which I think has been very effective.  On the steel piece, I think the spheres of integration that we have among navies in the Pacific is really important.  I think it is seen by the PRC and Russia as something that they wish that they had.  And what I mean by a sphere – these spheres of influence, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, is that you don’t have that codified security structure like you have in Europe, but whether it’s bilateral or multilateral not a day goes by when we are not operating jointly together with different navies in a – kind of knitted together in a patchwork that’s very, very effective.

And then the last thing I’d say is with respect to industry.  And I look at AUKUS as an example of where we really need to go in terms of leveraging the defense – the defense industrial base of various nations together.  People typically, when we talk about AUKUS, they’re focused on the submarine.  But there’s a whole second pillar of work ongoing that is focused on quantum computing and artificial intelligence and software development that’s really going to be powerful, I think, for likeminded navies that are working together.  And that effort tends to break down barriers and bring us closer together.

Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene: Admiral Sir Ben Key, Admiral Gilday has just mentioned the importance of working together when it comes to maritime democracies and navies.  I would like to ask your view on how can maritime democracies create positive feedback loops and deter opportunism and aggression if this happens in this new Atlantic Pacific theater?

Admiral Sir Ben Key: So I think, and just building on my two colleagues in this instance, one of the – one of the things that defines the maritime domain is that the vast majority of the water on which we operate is open to all to use.  So the land environment – and you know, Andrew – Professor Andrew Lambert this morning was talking about, you know, we live on the land.  All that land is claimed by somebody.  And so you’re either on your home territory or you’re on somebody else’s.  It’s pretty binary.  Seventy percent of the surface of the world is covered in water, the vast majority of which is high seas.

So one of the things that is often forgotten in all of this, therefore, is that areas that we are trying to defend – the majority of which to provide that security and prosperity – are not territorially owned by any one nation.  And therefore, we are by very characteristic then to be operating – or should be operating – in an international community of maritime practitioners.  That drives us, if we all subscribe to that same rule set, to be looking for feedback loops that help us deliver the sort of prosperity – opportunities for prosperity and security on the high seas that we’re looking for.

UNCLOS is the established way of which that framework has been set.  And more than ever before, the UNCLOS framework is under threat.  There are people and nations out there who are choosing to operate against it, or certainly to disassociate themselves from it when they choose.  And so if we are to counter that, we have to be operating in an international and very open dialogue amongst ourselves about what it is we’re going to – you know, and how we respond.  There is probably a narrative that says that in some areas of the world we have been too slow to respond to some of those threats.  And even then, when the International Court of Arbitration makes its rulings about what has and has not been illegal, I haven’t seen concrete islands being unbuilt in the South China Sea.

So we’ve got to speed up the feedback loop, the ability to talk to each other, and the means to find ways of collaborating and cooperating that allow us to deal with and resist the actions and intent of those who wish to destabilize an international framework that has served us very well for a long period of time.  And we have that obligation not because the vast majority of the water belongs to any one nation, but because it belongs to us all.  And because it belongs to us all, then the riches of the sea, whether that’s protein, and the impact of environmental change affect us all as well.

I’m encouraged by what I see.  I do not believe that we are suddenly going to invent a sort of a global NATO.  I think UNCLOS – we make a determination that, you know, that should be sufficient for us.  But what I do see now is increasing confidence amongst the navies of the world to talk to each other about how and where we can interoperate in an interchangeable and genuine open fashion, because there is a range of threats that are very visible to us today and which you can see what the outcomes would be if we don’t resist them.

Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene: Admiral Gilday.

Admiral Michael Gilday: I think all of that is grounded on a common vision, which is really important.  Somebody spoke to that this morning, about the need for that internally in our countries in order to coalesce maritime interest.  I think that likeminded navies around the world share the common vision that underpins what Admiral Ben just talked about.  And I think that’s really important in an age of gray area – what do we call it, gray-area competition? 

Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene: (Inaudible) – competition?

Admiral Michael Gilday: You all know what I mean.  I’m missing the exact phrase.  But what’s most important in combatting malign behavior in that gray space is to – is to call attention to it, is to expose it.  And that’s what our navies are doing.  And on some days, we’re operating together, physically operating side by side, in exposing that kind of malign activity.

What you see increasingly more important, I think, is that in principle we obviously agree with the fact that the maritime commons need to remain free and open.  And so you find navies operating on their own, individually, exposing that same kind of behavior.  So aligned in principle, I think, grounded on that common vision, is really important.  And I think that, hopefully, the goal would be over time, we may not change the aim of some countries but perhaps we can change their behavior and to join us in terms of how we view the commons and how we operate under international law.

Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene: Admirals, thank you very much.