Today the Royal Navy is capable of routinely deploying no more than six warships on short notice. The British navy, once the world’s mightiest, is now a token force.
Why? Because the country stopped paying for it.
To be fair, all the world’s major navies have been getting smaller, trading large numbers of older ships for fewer new vessels that are generally bigger and more high tech. The U.S. Navy, by far the world’s leading maritime force, has declined from more than 600 ships and support vessels to fewer than 400 today, including just 280 frontline warships.
But the Royal Navy’s decline has been more precipitous, resulting in a devastating loss in capability. As recently as 1982 the U.K. could quickly muster no fewer than 115 ships—including two aircraft carriers carrying jet fighters plus 23 destroyers and frigates—to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina.
Today the navy doesn’t even have jet fighters, having mothballed the last Harriers in 2010.
The fleet has declined amid steady cuts to the Ministry of Defense’s budget as a share of overall government spending, from 4.1 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 1988 to 2.6 percent in 2010. Reductions in 2010 sliced another eight percent from the ministry budget in real terms.
Today the Royal Navy possesses 97 ships. That includes two helicopter carriers, five other amphibious assault ships, six destroyers, 13 frigates, seven attack submarines and four ballistic-missile submarines. The rest are minesweepers, survey ships and other support vessels. Roughly half the ships are in maintenance or training at any one time. Several others are committed to small standing patrols, leaving a tiny core of vessels to respond to emergencies.
This so-called “Response Group Task Force” is built around a helicopter carrier plus one assault ship, a pair of escorts—frigates or destroyers—plus probably one each submarine and supporting tanker ship: between four and six vessels in all. “The keynotes to the Navy’s Response Force Task Group are flexibility and adaptability in size, shape and range,” the sailing branch crowed in its latest yearbook.
But the task group is dwarfed by the British naval forces that helped attack Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003. Twelve years ago the Royal Navy mustered 11 frigates and destroyers and 23 other ships. In the 2003 assault on Iraq the British naval force included some 40 vessels. Britain’s contribution to the next war at sea will be a footnote in comparison.
British officials are fast to highlight the new and improved ships planned for coming years, especially the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers and their F-35B stealth fighters, slated to enter service starting in 2018 to replace the current helicopter carriers. The Royal Navy yearbook calls the new flattops the sailing branch’s “biggest game changer.”
Not true. The biggest game changer—pardon the cliche—has been the inexorable decline of the British fleet, from a decisive power during World War II to a comparatively insignificant force today.
We previously covered the mystery weapon terrifying America’s admirals. Subscribe to War is Boring: medium.com/feed/war-is-boring.