Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary - Today, past and future (a quick overview)

Written by D-Mitch

RN warships from WWI to 2010. By
In this post I aim to present in brief the impressive decline of the United Kingdom's naval force (Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary) through the last decades as well as the current and the future status of the fleet and its synthesis according to the decisions that have been taken the last years. I will not describe all the kind of cuts in the numbers of the various warship categories and craft neither I will expand upon this topic as numerous other very good sites (first of all the that its main aim is to put pressure on the UK government to properly resource the RN, others such as the, the, the, the and more) have focused and analyze thoroughly this issue and the decline of UK's naval power. My main target is to summarize in a simple way the UK's naval power through the last decades by using a variety of infographics, charts and useful information compiled from some good sources.

Royal Navy forces from 1650 to 2007. Image:
Τhe Royal Navy, once the largest in the world has reduced dramatically its force the last decades. In 1918 the Royal Navy had in its fleet 70 battleships and battlecruisers, about 140 cruisers and 440 destroyers, 147 submarines and four (4) aircraft carriers. At the start of WWII in 1939, the Royal Navy was still the largest in the world, consisting of 15 battleships and battlecruisers with five (5) under construction, seven (7) aircraft carriers, 66 cruisers with 23 more under construction, 184 destroyers with 52 under construction, 45 escort and patrol vessels with nine (9) under construction and one on order, and 60 submarines with nine (9) under construction (see more about the Royal Navy WWI and WWII classes here). After the WWII, the decline of the British Empire and the economic hardships in Britain at the time forced the reduction in the size and capability of the Royal Navy.

The mighty Royal Navy in WWII, a truly superpower!

HMS Invincible returns to Portsmouth, carrying British
troops home from the Falklands War, 17 September 1982.
The Falklands War found the Royal Navy with only four light aircraft carriers operational and not well prepared for a war. Despite some important casualties, the Royal Navy fought and won a war over 12,000 km from Great Britain. This conflict, that lasted for 74 days, underlined the importance of aircraft carriers and submarines and exposed the weaknesses of the service's late 20th century dependence on chartered merchant vessels. However the Royal Navy's force continued to decline slightly the following decades. Despite the construction of some advanced classes of destroyers (six more Type 42 DDG were commissioned after the Falklands War from 1982 to 1985), frigates (11 more Type 22 FFG from 1982 to 1990 and 16 Type 23 FFG from 1990 to 2007) and amphibious warfare ships (HMS Ocean LHA in 1998, two Albion class LPD in 2003-4), the number of the ships built were not enough to replace the older classes. As a result, the Royal Navy surface fleet continued to reduce in size even more. In the '90s six surviving Type 21 frigates were sold to Pakistan, while till the end of that decade almost all the Type 22 frigates of the first two batches were decommissioned. In the beginning of the new century the Ministry of Defence began the acquisition plan for the replacement of the old Type 42 class destroyers. The initial plan was to construct twelve (12) ships and thus to replace one by one the Type 42s. But this once again changed through the years. In 2003 the procurement plan was referring to eight (8) ships which also changed in December of 2006 to only six (6) from the initial twelve (12). In June of 2008 this was officially confirmed. The first ship of the class was commissioned in 2009. In parallel, from 2005 the Royal Navy began the decommissioning of the remaining ten Type 42 class DDG (HMS Birmiham had been retired in 1999 and two ships from the class had sunk in 1982 in the Falklands War) and the early decommissioning of the last four +5,000ton Type 22 frigates (Batch 3), a group of definitely very well armed frigates. Some years earlier from the Type 22s' retirement, three modern Type 23 frigates had been sold to Chile reducing even more the RN major surface combatants...
Cuts to the Royal Navy from 1990 to June 2012. Image:

Entitled "Royal Navy Utility Today Compared with 20 Years Ago" and dated November 1 2007, a 14-page document was drawn up by Rear-Admiral Alan Massey, the assistant chief of the naval staff and one of the services' most influential officers that time. The report reveals that there was a reduction in ship numbers over the past 20 years, from a fleet of 136 in 1987 to 75 in 2007 and a 66 per cent reduction in the number of submarines from 38 to 13. Meanwhile, the Navy's manpower was fallen from 66,500 sailors in 1987 to 38,860 in 2007. The report states: "The most striking difference is in the numbers of units operating in home waters. In 1987 there were 35 destroyers, frigates and submarines and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships at sea around the UK, compared with only 10 in 2007."And this was eight years ago...

Cuts to the Royal Navy from May 2010 to June 2011. Image:

The past and the future of the Royal Navy destroyers.
Photo: GaryDavies/Maritime Photographic.
The last of the Type 45 destroyers, was commissioned on 26 September 2013 while some months earlier the last of the Type 42 destroyers was decommissioned. So six (6) Type 45 destroyers replaced twelve (12) Type 42 destroyers! Many reports refer to the new destroyers as some of the most sophisticated and powerful air-defence ships in the world, that one Type 45 destroyer is superior in the AAW role than five (5) Type 42 destroyers or that they carry one more helicopter than their predecessors. It should be mentioned that the new class entered into service with almost zero capability to engage enemy ships with the exception of her medium caliber gun. In 2015, four of the six Type 45 destroyers received the Harpoon launchers from the four decommissioned Type 22 Batch 3 frigates. The ships do not have torpedo launchers as well, so they lack the capability of engaging enemy submarines (or other ships depending the torpedo they would carry) and they rely only on their embarked helicopter. In comparison with similar modern European designs, the Horizon/Orizzonte class or the Spanish Alvaro de Bazan class destroyers and frigates are all equipped with torpedo launchers and surface-to-surface missile (SSM) launchers. Moreover, the Spanish frigates are not only equipped with a heavier gun than the Type 45s but they can also receive in each of their VLS' cell, four ESSM, and thus giving an impressive armament of 192 short-to-medium range AA missiles (the ships usually carry 32 long-range SM-2 and 64 ESSM). In comparison with the other major European naval force, the French Navy (Marine Nationale), United Kingdom has a naval force equivalent or perhaps inferior to France's. France has one aircraft carrier and 60 fighters, United Kingdom has none, France has more than 20 long range maritime patrol aircrafts, United Kingdom has none. France has approximately 15 light corvettes/offshore patrol vessels (Floreal class, D'Estienne d'Orves class) that some of them carry either torpedoes or missiles in contrast to Royal Navy's ships that they may be able to receive a helicopter on their flight deck, but they are very few ships and they have only light guns and machine guns as an armament. Royal Navy has one more SSN in active service, has a class of frigates (Type 23 or else Duke class) that are superior to their French counterparts (Georges Leygues, La Fayette class or even the Cassard class with the obsolete SM-1 SAM) and they will be in an even better level when their modernization will be completed. France on the other hand is procuring a new class of frigates, the state-of-the-art Aquitaine class. The new French Mistral class LHD ships are superior in capabilities than any of the Royal Navy's vessels however Royal Navy counterbalances this with its numerous amphibious support vessels (which need replacement in the next decade though).

French Navy (Marine Nationale) today. HD image and more info here.
Royal Navy & Royal Fleet Auxiliary today. HD image and more info here.
The RN helicopters 2009 vs 2019. Source:
The submarine fleet did not also avoid the cuts; the attack submarines from twelve (12) in 2000 they were reduced to seven (7). Similarly, the ASW and ASuW fleet of aircrafts and helicopters of the Fleet Air Arm was reduced and will be reduced even more in the future significantly. The actual number of helicopters in Royal Navy service will have declined dramatically by 57% (from 194 to 83) in the decade between 2009 and 2019! It should be emphasized that Royal Navy lost completely the capability of long patrol missions with the retirement of all the Nimrod variants and the fail of the development and procurement plan of the Nimrod MRA4 aircrafts (the procurement plan was ultimately cancelled in 2010 as a result of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, at which point it was £789 million over-budget and over nine years late). Moreover, all the nine (9) constructed Nimrod MRA4 aircrafts were.. scrapped. The Public Accounts Committee concluded in February 2012 that the decision had been made without a proper understanding of the cost implications and had wasted £3.4bn! Fixed-wing carrier operations ceased in 2010 with the retirement of the last Harrier aircraft. HMS Illustrious, the last Royal Navy light aircraft carrier operated as a helicopter carrier. This capability will not be restored until the F-35 and the first Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier,  the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy, become operational around 2020 (paradoxically the first aircraft carrier will be commissioned in 2017, three years earlier than their F-35 squadrons). All these cuts the last decade left the Royal Navy with insufficient ships and aircrafts to meet its requirements. For sure its nuclear-powered submarines and more over the ballistic missile submarines give a great advantage to the Royal Navy but still the fleet is too small and without them Royal Navy could be in a much lower position in the ranking of the most powerful navies in the world today. For example Japan has 16 large attack submarines in active service, three helicopter carriers (another one is under construction) and more than 26 heavily armed destroyers and 14 frigates. Similar but not so powerful as the Japanese Navy, they are the South Korean Navy and the Indian Navy with the latter to have already in service two aircraft carriers.

United Kingdom's Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary as of September 2015. High resolution image here.

The Ministry of Defence, in its report (Statistical Series 4 – Equipment Bulletin 4.01 Formations, Vessels & Aircraft Annual: 2014 edition) published on 19 February 2015 states "At 1 April 2014 there were 76 vessels in the Royal Navy (RN), including 11 submarines and 65 ships, and 13 vessels in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Service. The RN total is a decrease of 29 since 2000; though note that a decrease in the number of vessels does not necessarily mean a decrease in capability, due to intergenerational performance improvements." To clarify this, from the three (3) aircraft carriers in 2000, today Royal Navy has none (!), from the 11 destroyers in 2000, Royal Navy has today six while from the 21 frigates has only 13. Similar reductions in the number of units occurred also in the mine-countermeasure force, the auxiliaries and the rest of the categories of warships. The only force that remained unharmed during the defence cuts was.. the fleet of the patrol boats and craft!

United Kingdom's Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary in December 2020. High resolution image here.
The Tide class RFA Tidespring during
fitting out in DSME. Photo: Tarbatness
HMS Queen Elizabeth during fitting-out
on 1 Dec. 2014.
Photo: Andrew Linnett
Except the two large hi-tech aircraft carriers and the F-35s, the Royal Navy will procure in the coming years four more Astute class nuclear powered attack submarines (SSN), one of the most advanced submarines worldwide nowadays and in the near future. The new submarines will replace the rest of the Trafalgar class SSN. The last Astute class submarine will enter in service in 2024. The Global Combat Ship (GCS) also known as the Type 26 frigate, is a ship design and construction programme of the Ministry of Defence to replace the thirteen (13) Type 23 frigates of the Royal Navy. After though the reduction in the numbers of the Type 45s planned for purchase there are justified doubts about whether or not at the end they will be built 13 ships to replace one-by-one the Type 23 class FFGs. The House of Commons Defence Select Committee recommended to procure at least 17 Type 26 frigates as the current 19 destroyers and frigates and not enough to escort the amphibious support ships and of course the two giant aircraft carriers in the near future in large scale operations across the globe (source). According to the information that have revealed the new frigates will be very well armed to accomplish a variety of missions given. Three new River class Batch 2 offshore patrol vessels (OPV) will have entered in service by 2020. These ships have received a lot of criticism as they will carry light armament (their heaviest weapon will be.. a 30mm gun!) and they will not have a hangar to accommodate a helicopter. At the same time the cost will be very high in comparison with other successful European OPV designs such as the the Italian Comandanti class and the Spanish Meteoro class. Both these two classes have similar dimensions with the River Batch 2 class however they carry superior armament and they have a hangar. You can learn more about this design (and not only) in these excellent articles written by Gabrielle Molinelli. The Tide class tanker is a class of four fast fleet tanker currently under construction. Originally known under the project name Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability tankers (MARS), they will be tasked with providing fuel, food, fresh water, ammunition and other supplies to Royal Navy vessels around the world. The vessels were ordered on 22 February 2012 and they have a projected in-service date of 2016. The four vessels will replace the RFA Gold Rover, RFA Black Rover and RFA Orangeleaf. It should be mentioned that by 2020 the HMS Ocean helicopter carrier will have been decommissioned (source). A complete summary of the ORBAT (Order of Battle of the UK's naval force) in 2020 can be found in this document.

An F-35 replica aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth CV
Red Arrows pass over the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier
during the naming ceremony at the dockyard in Rosyth,
Scotland (July 2014). Photos:

Computer-generated image, provided by the MoD,
shows how the new CV will look in action.
I will conclude this article about the increasing skepticism over the reduction in the number of the Royal Navy's warships the last decades with the following words borrowed from an article by Save The Royal Navy published in 2011 (original post): "Don’t be fooled by the nonsense often spouted by MoD spin doctors that imply that improvements in capability of individual ships can compensate for a reduction in numbers. The huge and obvious flaw in this argument is that any potential enemy has also improved their technology and capability over time. The bottom line is that the RN needs hulls in the water and for example 6 “technically advanced” Type 45 destroyers cannot do as much as 12 “obsolete” Type 42 destroyers due to simple physics – a vessel cannot be in two places at once!"

Sources with links to the articles:


  1. The image titled 'past and the future of the Royal Navy destroyers' - used without permission - should be credited GaryDavies/Maritime Photographic.

    1. I am really sorry, I did not do that intentionally. I could not find who took the photo, as you can notice in almost every image I give the proper credits. The photo was without signature so it was impossible for me to discover who took the photo.I will delete it immediately if you want, there is no problem.