The state of the Royal Navy today

The UK defence budget is still the 5th largest in the world and the Royal Navy remains in the front rank of the world’s navies. Government is committed to a multi-billion pound programme to provide new vessels and equipment. The RN is one of the few navies able to mount effective amphibious operations and has a broad range of capabilities. It is considered the best navy in the world in some areas of capability, particularly the high standards of its personnel and training. It is a world leader, notably in anti-submarine and mine warfare operations. It retains a fearsome reputation built on centuries of success in battle and remains the single most successful fighting force in history.

At first glance it may appear there are many good reasons for optimism about the Navy but closer study quickly reveals serious deficiencies that undermine its credibility as both a deterrent and a fighting force.

The UK defence budget has declined from over 4% of GDP in 1990 down to around the “NATO minimum” of 2% today. (The 2% figure is disingenuous because recent accounting changes have added spending on forces pensions and the security services to what is included.) While the public are more sympathetic and supportive to servicemen than ever, and this government claims to be focused on security, there is actually a lack of public and political will to properly fund the armed forces. During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the navy’s budget was the most squeezed. Now it has largest equipment budget of the three services, the RN, and the carriers in particular, are unfairly accused of “sucking up too much of defence funding”.

At times the Navy has lacked the guile to fight its corner and play the political games in Whitehall against vested interests, often losing out to the other services. Past RN public relations efforts have been underwhelming, although there has been a very marked improvement in communications, particularly in the last five years. Nevertheless much of the general public remains largely unaware what the Navy does for them. Further compounding the RN’s problems is the failure by British politicians to define strategic foreign policy goals and develop a properly funded and directed defence policy to match.

Although equipped with mostly modern and effective vessels, this does not mitigate for severely reduced numbers. However good a naval unit may be, it cannot be in two places at once, a particular problem for a navy with global ambition.

The 2015 “Strategic Defence and Security Review” (SDSR) delivered broadly good news for the RN, focusing on investment for the future, in marked contrast to the cuts and carnage of the previous review. Some of the damage done in 2010 will be repaired but a lot of the equipment will not be delivered for many years. Britain must fervently hope the RN can avoid being called into serious action until the mid-2020s when it may be better equipped.

The 2015 defence review was mostly positive for the RN but very much about ‘jam tomorrow’. Unfortunatley the optimism of 2015 has quickly evaporated as it has become clear the programme was never properly funded.

The fighting strength of the RN in 2017 is at a low point, still recovering from a swathe of ships, aircraft and people lost as a result of the 2010 defence review. There is a sense of expectation as the RN awaits the arrival of two new aircraft carriers and the F-35 (Lightning II) Joint Strike Fighter. There has been a minor delay to the expected delivery of HMS Queen Elizabeth but she is due to arrive in Portsmouth in 2017. The seven Astute class submarines are first rate boats but the programme has been exceptionally delayed and dogged with problems. This has left the RN reliant on ageing and maintenance-intensive Trafalgar class submarines. For at least one week in early 2017, the RN was unable to put a single attack submarine to sea. Even when up to full strength, the critically-important attack submarine force of 7 boats is simply not enough.

Now down to just 19 surface escorts, this number is totally inadequate even for the RN’s routine tasks and allows no contingency to replace combat losses, breakdowns or the unexpected. 5 new lightly-armed OPVs will be delivered by 2021 but they will simply replace 4 relatively modern OPVs currently in service, a net gain of just 1 vessel. The RN is not really interested in building corvettes or vessels without full range of fighting capability as part of its escort fleet. When the aircraft carriers come into service they will need escort vessels to make an effective carrier task group and these can only be provided by withdrawing ships from standing commitments.

The 2015 SDSR confirmed 8 Type 26 frigates will be built, instead of the 13 expected. Orders for long-lead items for the first 3 ships have been placed and construction on the Type 26 Frigate programme is finally due to begin in 2017. This delay and prevarication has created a real risk that Type 23 frigates will be going out of service in the early 2020s, without new ships ready to replace them. A surprise announcement in 2015 was the decision to build additional frigates of a cheaper and simpler design, possibly concurrently with the Type 26. The plan is to construct at least 5 of these alternative GPFF/Type 31 frigates to keep the escort fleet level at 19 vessels, with ‘an aspiration for more’. Quite what form these ships will take, and where they will be built remains subject to much speculation.

While the huge Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier project is very good news for the navy, some of their potential has been lost through political and inter-service interference. It is officially claimed that the decision to convert from a conventional carrier back to a VSTOL carrier ‘saved’ the project on cost grounds. There may have been short-term savings but capability and aircraft options were significantly reduced, their value now hinges almost entirely on the success of the F-35B aircraft. The very ambitious development of the F-35 has been controversial, colossally expensive and considerably delayed. Unfortunately, every problem encountered (quite normal in complex aircraft development) has been magnified by media and internet hysteria, but the F-35 will almost certainly eventually prove to be a very good aircraft. Despite some concerns about the carrier project, they have great potential for improvements and upgrades and are very valuable platforms that can provide great service for the nation for decades to come. SDSR 2015 confirmed  that at least 42 F-35Bs will be in service by 2023, with the MoD planning to buy up to 140 eventually, ending the constant silly jibes about “aircraft carriers with no aircraft”.

The overall financial situation for the MoD and the navy looks bleak. The weak pound will inflate the cost of planned foreign equipment purchases, particularly from the US and defence inflation continues to make major programmes even more expensive. Without further help from the Treasury, the MoD will have to find at least £1Bn savings each year for the next 10 years and it is rumoured the RN is already £500M short of what it needs for this year. Although barely begun, it is predicted that the ambitious Trident submarine replacement programme will consume all the £41Bn allocated, with costs likely to over-run.

There is a worrying lack of resilience in the fleet, with inadequate stocks of missiles, torpedoes and spares. Vessels regularly put to sea without a full complement of munitions and critical equipment is often rotated around ships. Although such a system may appear efficient in budgetary terms, an effective and credible navy needs flexibility and strength-in-depth to meet contingencies.

“The undeniable truth is that we are simply not spending enough on defence, and our sailors, soldiers and airmen are suffering in consequence” Col Bob Stewart

Waves of redundancies have left the RN with just 29,500 personnel and a lack of manpower is further diminishing its strength and resilience. This has created the familiar vicious circle where extra pressure lowers morale, causing more people to leave. The decline in warship numbers is the obvious effect of cuts but this ‘hollowing out’ of the Navy is just as serious, but conveniently hidden from public view. The crisis is particularly acute amongst technical ratings. In the last few years the RN has begun many initiatives in an attempt to stem resignations and aid recruitment. Regenerating manpower is challenging, particularly in competition with well paid civilian jobs. Wholly avoidable, this crisis was largely triggered by the foolish decisions made in 2010 and running the fleet too hard. The 2015 SDSR has given the RN a small uplift of 400 additional people. Together with internal redeployments and a plan to swap 300 officers for 600 ratings, theoretically RN will just about have enough personnel to man its future fleet. However, the manpower situation will be exceptionally tight and the planning depends on retaining its experienced people in the long-term. The unsustainable level of resignations has been reduced a little, but measures to improve retention remain a very high priority for the RN leadership. Recruitment targets in 2016 were not fully met and the RN is now around 2.3% below its liability (ie. the strength it is funded for and has agreed to maintain).

Overall the RN has some great capabilities with much good kit in the pipeline, but it lacks critical mass, has its eggs in a few very expensive baskets and is inadequately resourced for its current commitments, never mind the unexpected.

The RN has not only suffered from cuts to funding, but is also the victim of absurd industrial policy. Over the past three decades, governments have foolishly allowed the consolidation of competing defence contractors into a single giant corporation that can virtually dictate terms to the MoD. Despite the efforts of the new Single Source Regulations Office (SSRO), the MoD has limited options and has frequently signed off on poor deals for the taxpayer. The majority of MPs (with a few notable exceptions) and Ministers have little understanding of the forces and the Navy in particular. For them defence procurement is about ensuring there are jobs for their constituents, the real needs of the frontline are secondary considerations.

Despite having the world’s 5th largest defence budget, it is clear we are getting terrible value for money. British defence procurement has been plagued by waste, cock-ups and mismanagement over the last 40 years and the RN continues to suffer from this. There have been some success stories but most major warship, submarine or aircraft programme has delivered late and over budget. Although there has been a concerted attempt in the last few years to bring some order to MoD finances, there has been only limited progress in reducing the colossal waste and inefficiency in defence procurement.

There is a fundamental problem with lack of political courage to raise defence spending to match Britain’s stated ambitions and to counter proliferating threats. The carrier programme, Trident submarines and a new naval base in the Middle East all demonstrate the right kind of ambition, but inadequate funding threatens to undermine the whole fabric of the Navy and is in danger of making UK defence a laughing stock. For example, from 2018 lack of funds leaves the RN unable to field an anti-ship missile, and will in effect, be a navy unable to sink other warships. It is foolish to be investing very high-end kit, if it comes at the expense of fundamental capabilities. Brexit makes the highly regarded UK armed forces more important than ever and the global reach of the RN of assumes even greater importance. In addition, a resurgent Russia and a less certain US commitment to the defence of Europe, presents a growing danger to UK security.

Failure to properly resource the RN at this critical time is a strategic error on a grand scale.

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22 Comments on "The state of the Royal Navy today"

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Varun Ananth

Very depressing state of affairs and I’m not even British.Not sure whether China is a huge consideration for the U.K, but with recent aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea, can we depend on the RN to come to the aid of their Commonwealth allies? We all have our own navies, but the threat of a big power like the U.K or the U.S coming to our aid was quite instrumental in deterrence. Now the world knows of the capabilities offered and the U.K’s allies are scared. There must be other ways of reducing the budget deficit without taking it out on defence. Like trying to make a tiger fiercer by removing their claws and fangs….while breeding them smaller.


could anyone update me of how many decomissioned ships are alongside and rotting away in portsmouth and plymouth?

Jack Chapman

Having worked in the Royal Navy for 6 years and now no more, I can say that the Royal Navy is a disgrace, its run by people by a bunch of clueless admirals who do not know how to solve the problems that it faces, the navy is no longer a competitive employer as Civillian companies are offering up to double salary for the skills that the Navy gives you and you can have a far better balance of work/home. The Navy is no longer a dominant global force, we are a laughing stock throughout the world with our dwindling amount of ships and manpower problems, I know people who were told that they could reach PO/CPO in a few years leaving because the morale is low and deployments are longer and coming thick and fast. Also there are hundreds of Matelots sat in T23 Pool in Portsmouth and Plymouth doing the square root of f*** all they could be utilised for ships to give them a hand. The Navy needs a complete re-structure and the “top brass” need to face up to a reality that they will not be able to fulfil operations if they continue on this path.


What a shame for a navy that once ruled the waves with a proud history. British leaders should be a shamed for letting so great an armed service whittle away to a joke. No the U.K. is not the world power it once was,born need a large navy like it once had. But to let a once famous and great defense service sink so low is truly sad.


Can somebody please explain to me why we continually spend so much money financing MOD Bureaucrat’s and private companies to design warships like the Type 26, which they tell us are the best in the world. and then not building them whilst the RN warship count continues to fall to dangerous levels? The more it goes on the more it looks like a cosy Political/Bureaucrat Gravy Train!


wasting billions on untried aircraft which are little different than’ souped up harriers, and scrimping on the carrier catapult is dim beyond belief, catapults would have enabled the super hornet or rafales to be bought and operated at half the cost of the f-35 programme. the navy is desperatly short of destroyers, and we’ve got one with plenty left to offer being used as a classroom!! 12 nuclear submarines’laid up’ in plymouth and rosyth, type 23’s sold to chile a ype 42(lancaster sitting in rotten row in pompey harbour, given a new weapon upgrade, could provide years more service, as much blamelies at the admiralty, as does the treasury.


I am sorry but what you are saying is absolutely totally false. There is no rotten row at Portsmouth or any where else for that matter. The ship you say is used as class room is presumably HMS Bristol, she is the only Type 82 destroyer built and is nearly 50 years old and is used as stationary training / accommodation ship. She is far to old to ever be activated. As far as the 12 submarines are concerned they are all of the RN’s decommissioned nuclear submarines, some 50 years or ver. They are stored waiting until the radiation levels in there internal reactors has naturally dropped enough to allow scrapping to start. They defiantly cannot ever be activated again. It seems you are trying to make mountains out of mole hills.


I’ve been considering to join the Royal Navy as a Logistics Officer for a while now and reading the above article made me feel a bit wary about doing that. It’s a shame that the general public and politicians feel so disconnected from the Royal navy and it’s job. Weather or not they’re willing to accept that RN is needed as much as it always has been and neglecting it’s needs will cause nothing more than further degradation of the safety of the nation.

I would really like to have a chance to speak with a couple of long serving Navy personnel to get a ‘real’ view on what’s really going on with the navy.


855% of all british imports come by sea, the R.N. resembles a glorified coastguard service


What the Coastguard Service with 3 vessels to patrol the entire coastline? Yes the Navy seems to be heading that way too…


I’d reconsider because you may lose your job before you’ve got it…


This article begins as if the Navy were still a combination of Nelson and WW2 fleets. Then as we go down the article we learn just how far this is not true… Why do writers on British military always beat the drums so loud at the beginning then end up saying…’well actually…’? If the Navy is a mess (b******d) then say so from the start and be honest and realistic. Flag waving with a limp… is no good to anyone.

David Deakin.

This excellent article “The State of the Royal Navy Today” really deserves the widest possible medial dissemination. A now retired octogenarian who was proud to spend 37 post war years in the Royal Navy, I am consumed with embarrassment and profound disappointment that the “Powers that be” have allowed our once great Service to deteriorate to its present parlous state. As recognised in the article, RN Public Relations have been non existent – whereas it is deployed as the main armament of the RAF to great effect.
We appear to have no naval strategy – just a vague piecemeal, disconnected and inadequate construction policy. The new carriers should have been fitted with “Cats & Traps” providing for the operation of a complete range of current and future sensibly priced aircraft and an ability to cross operate with our allies. The fact is that even in their present configuration we do not have sufficient personnel to man them, or indeed the necessary skills. On present planning there will not be anything like enough escort vessels to form the essential battlegroups, or protection of the associated underway RFA logistic support groups.
There was a time when the worldwide deployment of the Royal Navy served as the hallmark of British excellence. Such a resource will be sadly missed in the post BREXIT international marketplace. However, as a nation, we must heed the expression to “Cut one’s coat according to the Cloth”; being short of funds is one thing, but to allow what we have to be frittered away by ill informed, over ambitious politicians is inexcusable.

C Samuel

A very balanced comment. Until the public & politicians can be ‘allowed’ to know the state of the RN they will expect the excellence of the past. With the resources available to the RN the Admirals are unable to perform their tasks without considerable risks. It is interesting that the citizen is able to talk to policemen,politicians,teachers doctors, local government but not an Admiral suggests that MOD have ‘dirty linen’ to conceal. I fear that there will be no change until there is a ‘mid Staffs’ type crisis. The decay continues.


Today’s navy , what a joke. Did you know there are 6000 officers in the 30000 navy now. Get rid of 3000 officers and pay extra to technical ratings, same as divers.

Montague Whaler

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious:
When one, or both, carriers, and/or our amphibious units, are at sea there will be a need for a considerable Royal Fleet Auxiliary fleet train to maintain the requisite level of essential logistic support. Those various Task Groups will each clearly require several dedicated surface destroyers and frigates to protect them.

Making allowance for those of the remaining escorts which will be non operational for a variety of reasons, just how many other operational destroyers/frigates will then be available to go to sea to carry out the many other escorting duties that the Fleet will undoubtedly be called upon to conduct? Not enough, clearly. Surely someone must have done those very simple sums!

Are we now dependant upon the shrinking resources of other NATO nations to come to our aid – or is it just possible that they might have their own agendas?

This nation, through no particular fault of it’s own, has become ‘sea-blind’. Notwithstanding the fact that we are an island nation many people simply don’t seem to be aware of how much trade is carried by sea, how vulnerable that trade is to potential disruption, and just how dependent they could become upon the RN for the security of their food, gas and automotive fuel supplies, et al. Nor do they seem to be aware that the other armed services could be similarly dependent on those same sea lanes for their fuel supplies – and that without that fuel the army and air force could grind to halt, as indeed could the navy itself.
The only people who recognise all of that are those who are charged with being ‘a security for such as pass upon the seas upon their lawful occasions’. So why aren’t they doing something about it? If the RN has not got the resources to deal with any disruption to our trade it is not those countless politicians of all persuasions, who have harvested the low-fruit of destroyers and frigates endlessly, who will get the blame – it is the navy itself who will be pilloried for failing the nation. The public will not care ‘why’ – they will just point fingers and lay blame.

It’s no good just having Defence presentations to inner-circles on this matter – it’s the general public and the media – even politicians beyond the various Defence Committees – who need to be made more aware, and that has the promise of being a long tough job – but without public concern, and support for the more hulls, (not ‘replacement’ – ‘more’) the politicians will never provide the requisite funding.

All governments give ‘protection of the nation and it’s people’ as is it’s first priority, but that now seems to have become a hackneyed phrase that few believe anymore.
Isn’t it now time that senior people stopped ducking the issue and started publicly banging the table? Nothing of that which I have outlined above will be new to them, so why isn’t there any obvious activity on this front? Lord West is beginning to sound like a voice in the wilderness!

Alan Doig

Our politicians appear to have lost sight of the fact that we live on an island with worldwide commitments. A strong and efficient navy is essential. The highly complex and expensive Daring and Astute Class vessels appear to be unreliable and mostly unable to go to sea. Effective units have been scrapped far too early and the two Aircraft Carriers need for escorts would strip the ability of existing frigates and destroyers to fulfill obligations. The loss of one ship under these conditions would be disastrous. The reduction in personnel has lost skills and numbers to maintain ships at sea. We need to concentrate our defence on sea and air power rather than land forces, we cannot do everything. In the short term some smaller conventional ships with effective weapons for escort and patrol duties are an urgent requirement together with increasing personnel in both R.N. and Marines. More cooperation with the French in developing and purchasing common equipment and encouraging competition in UK shipbuilding would help.


The carriers were a dumb idea that has suicided the royal navy and the top brass are solely to blame. We could have had twice the number of astutes and t45’s all loaded to the gills with missiles and money left over to buy a few aegis bmd destroyers off the US .

That would have been a real navy with real projection and the US considering us as more than a token player , but no the clown school admirals wanted a carrier.

A national disgrace.

Gary Cole

How can we be the 5th largest defence spenders and STILL have nothing?? Less than 20 surface combat ships? No carriers for another two years or so? And then one of them might be put into mothballs ( o0r so I have heard). Just a total disgrace. We should ahve a Navy of at least 50 shipd and sail the seas again!


As long as the British government can orchestrate a foreign policy of physical agresion against militarily inferior states then the inadequacy of our equipment will not be exposed. Take on Russia, China or even North Korea and God help us. Surface platforms of any sofistication and “Smartness” are too slow ,ponderous and vulnerable to the speed of stand-off weapons. Navies in the 21st century are for the bath tub.