Glossary

Naval Terminology

This is a basic guide to naval terms and Royal Navy equipment.

HMS Illustrious, helicopter-only aircraft carrier.
HMS Illustrious, helicopter-only aircraft carrier.

Aircraft Carrier – Large flat-topped vessel that can carry aircraft and is the centrepiece of a navy task group. The RN now has just one small carrier – HMS Illustrious built in the early 1980s (approx 22,000 tons) and since the scrapping of the Harrier aircraft she will only carry helicopters. Illustrious completed a major refit in 2011 but is due to decommission in 2014 .

HMS Somerset, Type 23 Frigate
HMS Somerset – Type 23 Frigate

Frigate – Small to medium-sized surface escort ships (approx 4,000 tons) and general ‘workhorses’ of the fleet. Used to be primarily designed for anti-submarine warfare but are increasingly used in general purpose roles. The RN now has just 13 Type 23 frigates.

Destroyer - Traditionally larger than frigates and usually more associated with air defence, the RN now has just 6 modern Type 45 destroyers.

HMS Torbay, Royal Navy Subarine
HMS Torbay Nuclear-powered attack submarine

SSN – Nuclear powered attack submarines. Designed primarily to destroy other submarines but are also very effective against surface ships and when carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles, can attack land targets. probably the most important (and invulnerable) of all naval units, submarines are crucial to naval warfare. The number of RN SSNs has dwindled to 7. This means there are only 2 or 3 actually available for operations at any given time.

SSBN – Nuclear Powered and Nuclear armed submarines. The UK has 4 SSBNs that carry Trident inter-continental nuclear weapons, Based at Faslane in Scotland, one is always on patrol. Commissioned in the 1990s the government is committed to their replacement and have given the go ahead for design work to begin on the new submarines.

SSK – Conventional submarines. Usually powered by diesels on the surface which charge batteries that provide power for electric motors when submerged. The time they can stay submerged is limited to the power the batteries can hold. Recent developments in AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) mean some SSKs can stay submerged indefinitely. SSKs are smaller and cheaper than SSNs and more suited to operations close to land in shallower waters. SSKs are operated by the majority of the world’s navies but the RN has NONE – its last SSKs were retired prematurely in 1994.

HMS BulwarK, LPD
HMS Bulwark

LPD – Landing Platform (Dock). Specialist ships designed to land troops on shore quickly using landing craft floated out from a dock in the stern of the ship. The RN has 2 modern LPDs and 3 auxiliary LPDs operated by the RFA. Increasingly these ships are being used in other roles to make up for the lack of frigates and destroyers. ( 1 LPD HMS Albion has been ‘mothballed’ at Devonport as part of the 2010 defence cuts).

HMS Ocean
HMS Ocean

LPH – Landing Platform (Helicopter). The RN has 1 LPH – HMS Ocean, built rather cheaply and somewhat slow, but still useful for landing large numbers of troops ashore using helicopters. Both HMS Ocean and Illustrious have recently embarked Army Air Corps Apache helicopters which can partly mitigate for absence of Harriers in ground-attack capability. Began major refit at Devonport starting in 2012 with HMS Illustrious taking over her role as LPH.


HMS Quorn, Hunt Class Minehunter

MCMV – Mine Countermeasures Vessels. Combining mine hunting with mine disposal using sophisticated sonar, divers and remotely operated submersibles. The RN has 2 very successful classes of ‘plastic’ MCMV – the Hunt and Sandown classes. These ships and RN mine warfare expertise is considered amongst best in the world but the number of MCMV ships is just 15.

RFA Wave Ruer
RFA Wave Ruler

RFA – Royal Fleet Auxiliary. A vital service that provides support to the RN, allowing ships to stay at sea for extended periods by providing fuel, stores and ammunition. This is transferred at sea by helicopter (VERTRREP – vertical replenishment) or by RAS (Replenishment at sea) where 2 ships steam parallel and fuel is passed by hose and stores passed across on cables. RFA ships are crewed by civilians and rated as merchant ships although some carry self-defence weapons. Increasingly they are taking on RN roles due to shortage of ships although the RFA is suffering the same cuts to strength as the RN.

Fleet Air Arm – The aviation arm of the RN. During its heyday in the 1950s, it numbered many squadrons of fighters, bombers, early warning aircraft and helicopters operating from aircraft carriers. Today it is a shadow of its former self, being a helicopter-only service. The last purely naval fixed-wing aircraft were decommissioned in March 2006.

RM – Royal Marines. the RN’s soldiers, commando trained and among Britain’s elite soldiers they are specialists in amphibious operations (landing from ships).

HMS – Her majesty’s ship – formal title of all vessels commissioned into the RN.

MoD – Ministry of Defence. Government civil service department responsible for the armed forces with a reputation for bureaucracy. Mismanagement of so many defence procurement projects must raise questions about the competence of the MoD.

ASW – Common abbreviation for Anti-submarine warfare

ASuV – Common abbreviation for Anti-surface vessel. Weapons such as missiles and torpedoes and guns for use against surface ship targets.

NGS - Naval Gunfire Support. Bombardment of targets on land from warships operating off the coast in support of troops ashore.

EW – Electronic Warfare, The complex art of detecting, jamming and monitoring enemy radar and radio transmissions.

New RN Warship Programmes


Conventional aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth – currently under construction.

Queen Elizabeth class Aircraft Carriers – After more than 10 years of prevarication, work began on them in 2007. At 65,000 tons they will be the largest vessels the RN has ever operated. Under the 2010 SSDR plan both will be built but only one will be commissioned. In 2012 it was decided they will operate the F35B vertical take off aircraft instead of the conventional F35C announced in 2010. Never before has so much misinformation, media hype and nonsense has been generated by a ship building programme (more details here). Ultimately if funded and supported properly and these vessels could serve for 40+ years and represent great value for money. (See the article ‘the case for aircraft carriers’) Aircraft carriers construction photo board here.

Astute class submarines - 7 new SSNs being built for the RN by BAe Systems at Barrow. They will probably be among the best submarines in the world when they are in service but a delayed and expensive build programme has been a problem. HMS Astute finally went to sea in April 2010 but she experienced an exceptionally difficult trials period – fully operation in 2013. The 2nd HMS Ambush Commissioned March 2013. Astute class photo board here.

HMS Dauntless, Type 45 Destroyer
HMS Dauntless, Type 45 Destroyer

Type 45 Daring Class destroyers. Equipped with sophisticated PAAMS anti- aircraft missile system, 6 of these very large destroyers are being built by BAe Systems in Glasgow. A flawed attempt to produce a common European destroyer was abandoned and a tortuous design history resulted in long delays to the start of the programme. Trials indicate these will be highly effective ships, although considering they cost around £1 billion each, it is shocking that they are NOT fitted with Tomahawk land attack missiles. They are gradually receiving Phalanx CIWS and 4 ships will be fitted with Harpoon anti-ship missiles removed from decommissioned frigates .

MARS – Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability. The ridiculous acronym for the programme to replace the ageing RFA fleet. Many of the RFAs are in need of replacement, particularly the tankers which don’t conform to modern double-hull safety standards. After as series of delays the original £2.5 Billion plan for 12 ships was abandoned. In February 2012 it was announced amid much controversy, that a £485 million contract to build 4 new RFA tankers had been awarded to a British company but the construction would be sub-contracted to South Korea.In November 2012 it was announced the 4 tankers will be named RFA Tidespring, Tiderace, Tidesurge and Tideforce. Tide class photo board here.


Latest BAe Systems model of Type 26 Frigate

Type 26 Frigate BAe systems has been awarded a contract to design the Type 26 to replace the Type 23 frigates as they approach the end of their lives in 10-15 years time. The RN faces a big challenge to keep costs own and produce an effective but affordable design that can be built in significant numbers. Under current plans the project is due for ‘main gate’ in 2013 when, basic design and a building programme is agreed with around 1 ship per year being delivered from 2020. However there remains considerable uncertainty about funding of the programme. Discussion blog post here. Type 26 Frigate Photo board here.

Key RN Weapons


Vertical Seawolf missile launch silo on a type 23 frigate

Sea Wolf Missile – highly effective short-range system for defence against air or missile attack, now only carried by the Type 23 frigates. Unfortunately not fitted to any other vessels due to budgetary constraints. Missile stocks were upgraded to Block 2 standard from 2005. The system software and sensors are currently undergoing the “Seawolf Medium-Life Upgrade” program which will vastly improve performance against the latest generation of agile supersonic anti-ship missiles. The Sea Wolf will be replace in service by the Sea Ceptor missile which began develpoment in 2012. Sea Ceptor development photo board here.

Aster Missile
Aster Missile test launch.

Sea Viper / Principal Anti Air Missile System (PAAMS) is a European project to produce a shipborne anti aircraft & anti-missile system designed to provide ‘area defence’ for a group of ships. It comprises several systems – Aster missiles, Sampson radar, Sylver launchers and the command system. Carried on the Type 45 Destroyers, the RN calls the system ‘Sea Viper’ and if it works as advertised will be able to deal with multiple modern supersonic missiles. HMS Dauntless successfully fired an Aster missile in 2011 but so far it has only been tested against relatively predictable sub-sonic drone targets.

114mm Mk 8 gun - carried by all frigates and destroyers in RN service. General purpose gun with a range of about 20 miles, effective when used for bombardment of targets on land but can be used against surface targets. Most ships have received the improved Mod 1 version of the gun.

Tomahawk Missile- very accurate cruise missile that uses satellite navigation to hit land targets up to 1000 miles away from the point of launch. Currently only carried by RN submarines. As a short-sighted cost-saving measure this highly flexible weapon is not being fitted to the Type 45 destroyers.

CIWS – Close In Weapon System. Last ditch defensive weapons for ships against aircraft, missiles, or even suicide bombers in speedboats. Vitally important equipment for any ship in a combat zone. Only automated radar/gatling gun combinations such as the Phalanx or Goalkeeper systems carried by most RN warships are effective against modern missiles. Other more basic CIWS include manually aimed cannons and machine guns.

Torpedoes. The RN has 2 types of torpedo in service. The StingRay is a fast lightweight and maneuverable torpedo designed to be dropped from helicopters and escort ships for use against submarines. The Spearfish is a heavyweight torpedo fired from submarines against ship or submarine targets. Both the Sting Ray (Mod 1) and Spearfish have recently received upgrades in capability.


Lynx Mk8 Helicopter

Lynx MK8 – Versatile, fast, twin-engine helicopter operated from frigates and destroyers in general purpose role – ASW with (Stingray torpedoes), Anti shipping (with Sea Skua Missiles) and general reconnaissance, search & rescue. Has been in service with the RN since 1981 but has been significantly upgraded over time. The RN is due to receive 28 new Lynx Wildcat helicopters from 2015 which have 95% new components and are currently undergoing trials at sea. Lynx Wildcat photo board here.

Merlin EH101 Helicopter
EH101 Merlin

EH101 Merlin – large, sophisticated 3-engined anti-submarine helicopter operated from some frigates, aircraft carriers and some RFAs, this aircraft is now the mainstay of the Fleet Air Arm. 30 of the RN’s 37 Merlins are being upgraded to HM2 standard with a new mission system and digital cockpit for delivery from 2013.

Comments are closed.