Royal Navy warship numbers: falling off a cliff

Sep 1, 2011   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog, Featured  //  12 Comments

Royal Navy major warship numbers 1990-2012

Click on the image to see larger version (hosted on Flickr).

As can be easily discerned from this chart, the strength of the Royal Navy has been in decline since 1990. The first big reductions coming in the early 90s as a result of the post-cold war so-called ’peace dividend’. However David Cameron’s coalition government has already ‘achieved’ the steepest fall in numbers in a very short time. It is the work-horse frigates  and attack submarines, (arguably now the most important naval assets) that have seen the biggest reductions.

Obviously it’s not just about numbers and this chart doesn’t show how capable the vessels or manpower strength, but it does give a dramatic overall illustration of what’s happened. 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!


  • […] a future government wake up to the collapse of RN surface warship numbers and want to start a substantial rebuilding programme, the already limited capacity to expand […]

  • Despite the decommissioning of the ageing T22s in the SDSR, 6 T45s and 13 T23s still compares quite well the escort fleet of the Marine Nationale, both now and in the future.

    French “First Rank” frigates

    2 Horizon class (AAW)
    2 old Cassards (AAW)
    1 FREMM in service (ASW)
    6 Georges Leygues (ASW)

    “Second Rank” frigates

    5 La Fayettes (light frigates)
    6 Floreal class corvettes

    And in the future

    2 Horizon
    8 FREMM
    5 La Fayettes (upgraded to “First Rank” frigates to keep the numbers up)

    6 Floreal corvettes

    It’s not all doom and gloom for the RN, QE will be floated out in a few months, construction is well underway on PoW, the first steel will be cut for the Type 26s in 2015, and it seems likely the RN will get all 13, also they will each have 16-24 strike length cells either Mk 41 or Sylva A70, so with the 7 SSNs the RN will have 20 TLAM or SCALP capable platforms, the 4 Tide class tankers are in build, the 3 planned RFA Solid Support Ships look very capable vessels, 4 of the T45s are being fitted with Harpoon, Sea Ceptor/CAMM will start being installed on the Type 23s from 2016, which is obviously a lot more capable than Sea Wolf, 3 new larger OPVs/corvettes are on order, which will hopefully be forward deployed, and new and upgraded helos are coming into service: Wildcat, Merlin HM2 and soon HC4.

  • The current Minister of Defence, Phillip Hammond, is a typical ‘number cruncher’ politician. One look at the number of frigates, destroyers and carriers that are currently operational (Wikipedia), doesn’t take into account that at any one time maybe a quarter of those those ships will be in dry dock undergoing either minor or major refits. The bigger the ship, the longer the refit will take. When the Navy gets it’s 2 new super carriers, and they go operational, sooner or later one of them will be undergoing a major refit. If the other carrier goes to war, and maybe gets badly damaged, or even sunk, that will leave the Navy without any air cover for a long period until the refit of the other carrier is completed. It would have made more sense to have built 3 smaller fixed wing carriers, giving greater flexibility. Well done to the Labour government for getting that one wrong !!

  • It’s pretty simple, successive elected governments have decided that Defence is no longer a priority of the UK government. It follows that they don’t believe that the country needs a Navy. The RN is no more than a token force and, seemingly, this suits the majority of the people. One wonders what real use eleven nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are to the US in these times. They obviously can’t afford them.

  • Vote UKIP it is our last chance.

  • From an American perspective it seems that your bureaucrats and department Mandarins are finally succeeding at something they’ve been working on ever since Duncan Sandys’ day – the unilateral disarmament of the UK by using budget cuts and Defense Reviews. These people are no longer subtle in their hostility to the UK being a great power – they clearly desire a weak island off the coast of France.

    • Nonsense, the RN is still one of most capable fleets in the world. The UK currently has in build/on order/planned: two 70,000 ton supercarriers, 5 more Asute class SSNs, 13 Type 26 frigates, 4 RFA tankers, 3 RFA Replenishment/Amphibious ships, 3 large OPVs, 48 F-35B Lightening IIs (first tranche), new helos: Wildcat, Merlin HM2 & HC4, plus the SSBN replacement program, and those are just the defence programs underway for the RN & RFA, that is hardly a nation that is disarming.

  • this country has just spent 13 billion on the oylmpics..great games lovely.but this country isnt able to defend itself at this moment in time ..all that money should have been put into he royal navy..another carrier.5 more asutes and 5 mors would have also put alot of people in work for the forseeable future

  • The Conservatives dressed up post-Cold War defence cuts in the 1990s, following the economic debacle of shadowing the deutchmark and joining the ERM, as a “peace dividend” to get the public finances back in order. How could a renewed global focus ever be a “peace dividend” for the Royal Navy?

    Labour’s spending priorities were set out in Gordon Brown’s 2000 spending review, 7 years into economic growth and a time of budget surplus and falling public national debt, and defence wasn’t among them. A fortune was spent on health/education/welfare (not that you’d realise) in the rest of the boom years between 2001 and the banking crisis in 2007-08 and the public national debt still rose from £312B to £500B with next to nothing for the Royal Navy. Frigates were cut in 2004. The Sea Harriers went in 2006 and then half the planned destroyers.

    Plague on all the Westminster village……

    • Thank god that Babcock’s operation at Rosyth and the BAe Govan/Scotstoun yards were in Scottish Labour heartlands or we wouldn’t even have the new giant through deck cruisers from GB!

  • Its almost difficult to convey the sorrow that many people have in seeing how tragically the Royal Navy has been run down over the last couple of decades.

    Obviously during peactime you do expect some reductions over a long peaceful time frame………but what has happened in particular during the last decade is almost beyond comprehension.
    The last time i thought the Royal Navy had a pretty good balance was around the beginning of the nineties.

    After the Falklands war, the goverment of the day learnt a lot of lessons, and the defence budget was increased.
    Warship orders were increased, classes of frigates and destroyers were improved with upgrade weapons systems, such as CIWS……….but alas since 1990, its been pretty much downhill for the Royal Navy.

    The goverment of the 90′s seemed to start the ball rolling in the decline of the RN, with delays in replacement Warship programmes such as nuclear subs, which would have an impact later as many of the skills for creating these vessels were lost.

    BUT…to me the most disastrous period for the Royal Navy was under the previous Labour goverment…….Gordon Brown as treasurer just didnt understand defence one bit, and blatantly would not fund the armed forces year after year, which has led to the huge deficit the MOD now has.

    Put it this way how many surface combatants and submarines entered service during 2000-2010…….very, very few indeed and these had been ordered during the previous Conservative goverment of the 90′s.
    The FSC project was constantly stopped and started, and its only now that we are starting to design a new frigate some 10 years late.

    Type 45 Destroyer great vessel, but only 6 off………….and where are the Harpoons and Tomahawks. The class i think should of least of been 8 off, to ensure a reasonable number are at sea while others are being refitted or having maintenance. Alas i dont think any more of these vessels will ever be ordered.
    I cant get my head around the idiots who say.. yeah, we dont need more Type 45′s as they are far more capable than the Type 42′s……….true but as anyone with a bit of commonsense knows a ship can only be in one place at anyone time and doesnt have the speed of an aircraft to reach an area where it could be potentially required in a miniscule amount of time.

    The Carrier programme……..well Mr Brown did eventually get around to ordering these after many delays, and particular as they were to ensure thousands of Scottish jobs………..but alas the goverment didnt seem prepared to give the designers the money to allow for these vessels to have protection with either armour plating or weapons systems such as SAM or CIWS.

    Frigates…..the backbone of the RN, througout my life there has always been a constant stream of new classes of Frigates designed and constructed for the RN, and each year new Frigates would enter the fleet…upto the Type 23 that was.

    What i could never understand was why the Labour goverment didnt keep building these comparatively cheap vessels during the 2000′s while they were supposed to of been designing the FSC.
    In fact they did even worse than this, they held a defence review in 2004, in which amongst other things it was decided to sell 3 perfectly capable Type 23 Frigates which had years of operational service left in them.

    Talking of surface ships, i couldnt believe that the goverment was prepared to send sailors out on ships with their armanent removed such was the case with the Type 42′s with their SeaDart missiles.
    If i was a sailor i wouldnt feel uncomfortable serving on a warship knowing that it was severely underarmed.

    I find it unbelievable that during the boom years of the early to mid 2000′s, when other goverment dept’s were getting huge increases, that the defence budget was barely increased……if it had been so, then we would of had a more capable Navy today, and not be in the mess we are now in.
    Unfortunately the damage has been done………..i was hoping that the Coalition goverment would ring fence defence, but as they have said, no money whatsoever was left in the pot from the previous goverment.
    I understand that difficult decisions have had to of been made, but yet again i think defence has suffered more than was necceassy.

    The RN has got so low in numbers now, that there just can’t be any further reductions.
    I dont agree with scapping of the ‘Ark Royal’ plus all the Harriers. The carrier plus a squadron of Harriers with trained pilots should of been kept in reserve for emergencies at least.

    The Type 22 Frigates, excellent ships……….why scrap them, i was aboard one of these vessels last year during Navy days and it was in excellent shape, an extremely well armed vessel (a rarity on a RN vessel these days).
    As these vessels are being retired, how about the MOD placing the Harpoons on the new Darings, as they are now available, plus the Goalkeeper systems can be used as well on other vessels.

    By 2020 we will have a modern, very small fleet, and hopefully the countries finances we be in a better shape around 2015 for the goverment to keep both aircraft carriers, and hopefully a reasonable number of new Type 26′s will be ordered…..anything less just doesnt bear thinking about.

    In conclusion, these are my general thoughts.

    What is it about defence, that politicians dont get, yet everyone else seems to?

    Defence is the insurance policy of a nation, yes its expensive and we all complain about paying insurances in our lives…..but by god are we grateful that we have it when an unforeseen event has happened.

    Defence is an easy target for politicians to reduce as the hardware are visible assets and easy to dispose of……………yet in other goverment dept’s, cuts are difficult as there is nothing tangible to be seen to make cuts, as its mostly administration, which is hidden away in the network of computers.

    Why does the Coalition goverment say they have to spend only 2% on defence, as recommended by NATO…………surely we could spend a bit more.

    Why is it that other countries in the world are building up their navies such as in Asia, to protect their rights….while we are not.

    We are an island nation, we need a well balanced navy with sufficient ships to safeguard our future.

    There are so many conflicts in the world at the moment, that our few ships are sailing relentlessly around the world doing their tasks of military support and humanitarium aid.

    Another misguided point, is that politicains say we dont need a strong Navy as we are not at war……….but they seem to miss the mind knumbing beedin obvious that you can only fight a war with what you’ve got, and we aint got much much. It takes at least a decade to design and construct a warship with its complicated electronic and weapons systems………….gone are the days such as ww2 when a hull could be launched with just a few guns on it in such a short time.

    The main point is that we as a country seem to of gotten into this mindset that we can only spend so much on defence, when in reality this is not the case.
    We are a very well off nation, and it would only take the goverment to take a few tenths of a % of other goverment depts budgets, and then reallocated to defence for our country to have a strong, well balanced forces to safeguard our future interests, in which turn would create many jobs for people, leading to future engineering innovations.

    All it needs is a stronger goverment to make it clear as to what and where where this countries future aspirations are.

    In the past we have just been see-sawing from one goverment to another, underfunding our forces, which has lead to short term savings but long term huge costs.

    A country safeguards its future by being strong, weakness encourages other countries to take opportunities.
    Look at the Falklands conflict as an example.

    Politicians need to look further than their own personal agenda’s, by not spending more on defence, as they think it would leed to less voters keeping them in power.

    I could go on forever with writing this postt, but i’am getting depresssed!

  • This is a national disgrace; even worse when you go back to 1975. The coalition government is worse than Labour on defence, which really is saying something. David Cameron need to wake up before it is too late; the electorate will not forgive a government that plays fast and loose with our peace and security.

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