Boris Johnson is facing pressure from the defence establishment not to appoint Sir Tony Radakin, the high-profile head of the Royal Navy, as Britain’s most senior military official in the coming days.
Defence officials say the preference among the military top brass is for Sir Patrick Sanders, the general responsible for military cyber operations and special forces, to become the new chief of defence staff (CDS).
“The MoD and military more broadly strongly favours Sanders – or frankly anyone but Radakin,” said one senior defence official.
Ben Wallace, defence secretary, is said by senior government officials to be playing a neutral role and would be happy to work alongside any of the candidates for CDS.
Johnson is expected to choose the new CDS, to replace the outgoing Gen Sir Nick Carter, possibly as early as next week. The prime minister’s allies said no decision had been taken.
Radakin, a former barrister, is regarded as innovative and a frontrunner for the job, but he has critics inside the defence establishment. Among those, according to defence officials, is Johnson’s national security adviser, Sir Stephen Lovegrove.
Lovegrove, a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, is said to have clashed in the past with the admiral, who has a flair for securing publicity. Last month Radakin made Daniel Craig, the James Bond actor, an honorary commander in the Royal Navy.
Radakin was also involved in a crucial meeting at the Australian High Commission in March when the idea of a US/UK/Australia defence pact was first raised, including plans to share nuclear submarine technology.
“The First Sea Lord is a brilliant man and excitingly disruptive but he overspends as a habit and the MoD can’t afford that right now,” said one defence official. “Lovegrove was scarred by Radakin’s serial overspending while he was permanent secretary.”
Radakin’s supporters say he prioritised putting Royal Navy ships out on operational duties – the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth is currently in the Indo-Pacific – while cutting staff in headquarters and reducing the number of admirals by a third.
“In order to achieve the Navy transformation he wanted, Radakin went round the permanent secretary and CDS and spoke directly to the secretary of state,” said one ally of the First Sea Lord.
“That upset both Lovegrove and Carter, and other key figures in a department which is preoccupied with process.”
One senior MoD official who witnessed relations between Radakin and Lovegrove said the permanent secretary would have preferred a “yes man”. “Tony wanted to push for greater deployment of ships while running the Navy more efficiently,” the official said.
No head of the Royal Navy has been chief of the defence staff for almost 20 years; the last was Lord Boyce, who held the job from 2001 to 2003. Johnson approved a big increase in navy spending last year and sees maritime power as embodying “global Britain”.
Defence officials claim that Lovegrove and Carter would prefer the post to go to Sanders, head of strategic command and a special forces veteran.
Sanders is seen as a charismatic leader with the necessary skills in new forms of warfare such as cyber and information operations to take on Russia and China in the “grey zone” between peaceful relations and formal armed conflict. He and Carter both served in the same army regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, also known as the “Rifles”.
Defence officials said that although Lovegrove was on the interview panel, he has played no formal role since then.
The other three candidates interviewed by Johnson were vice-admiral Ben Key, who ran the UK military evacuation of Kabul, Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, head of the army, who was at Eton College with Johnson, and air chief marshal Sir Mike Wigston.