This article considers how the Royal Navy (RN) of the United Kingdom (UK) has evolved since the Cold War ended, and how it is likely to change in the future. In 1991, the RN was the world’s third most powerful navy, after the US Navy and the newly-formed Russian Navy. The service was also still benefiting from the prestige of its success in the 1982 Falklands War. Whilst it was expected that the ‘peace dividend’ being demanded by the public and politicians would mean a reduction in the RN’s size, no one anticipated that cuts would occur on a near-annual basis for the next twenty-five years. UK defence expenditure decreased from 4.1 per cent of GDP in 1990/91 to c. 2.0 per cent in 2015/16. The RN suffered disproportionately; excluding nuclear deterrent submarines it lost around two-thirds of its front-line strength during the period. The navies of China, France and India have all arguably now overtaken the RN in size and capabilities.

The current RN is undoubtedly at a low point in numbers, relative strength, and – perhaps – even in its institutional morale and prestige. The US Navy has become openly concerned about the declining capabilities of a navy that has been long been its key partner in arms.


The ‘downsizing’ of the RN between 1990 to 2015 is landmarked by the publication of a series of government ‘White Papers’, Ministry of Defence (MOD) policy documents, and various strategies; all intended to guide the changing mission, goals and objectives of the RN. Theoretically the required maritime capabilities and force levels could then be identified and provided. However, this never occurred as the necessary funding was not available. Many described in detail all of the maritime security challenges facing the UK, but then announced cuts to the RN. The most influential of these documents, in chronological order, were:

1990: Options for Change: During most of the Cold War the strategic context was clear – there was only one significant potential threat, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. As a result, the UK’s defence priorities were almost self-selecting in the 1970s and 1980s. For the RN, its focus was on providing Britain’s nuclear deterrent, contributing to NATO’s maritime forces in the Eastern Atlantic and the Channel and protecting home waters and ports. Anything that did not support these missions was always questioned, a notable example being the planned decommissioning of the ice patrol ship Endurance in 1982, which encouraged Argentina to invade the Falkland Islands. The only major out-of-area presence was the Armilla Patrol in the Arabian Gulf; this consisted of several frigates and destroyers to help protect UK and Allied merchant ships during the 1980’s Iraq-Iran War.

In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War was ending. The need to respond to the changing strategic environment and exploit cost-saving opportunities prompted the Options for Change review, published in July 1990. An unambitious document, its stated aim was for ‘smaller but better’ Armed Forces. For the RN this meant:

A reduction in personnel (trained and untrained) from 63,000 to 60,000.

Cutting the number of frigates and destroyers in service from ‘about fifty’ (actually forty-eight) to forty.

Reducing the number of nuclear attack submarines (SSN) to twelve, with five old boats decommissioning early.

Limiting the number of conventional submarines (SSK) to the four Upholder class already being built; the remaining Oberon class boats would decommission without replacement.

The aircraft carrier (three Invincible class light carriers with Sea Harrier fighter/attack aircraft) and amphibious forces (primarily two Fearless class assault ships) were untouched.

The RN performed well in the First Gulf War of 1990–1 but had a noticeable lack of influence in the command and conduct of operations, perhaps a sign of things to come. In 1991 a further reduction of 5,000 naval personnel was announced. Two years later, further cuts saw:

The number of frigates and destroyers reduced to thirty-five.

The disposal of twelve ‘River’ class minesweepers operated by the Royal Naval Reserve.

The withdrawal from service of the four new Upholder class SSKs, ultimately sold to Canada. This meant that the RN would now only operate nuclear submarines.

1994: Frontline First: The Defence Costs Study: The Defence Costs Study was a further assessment of spending, and was intended to maintain the fighting strength of the armed forces whilst achieving significant savings in support costs. In practice the cost savings achieved in the ‘tail’ were less than hoped, whilst the reduction in logistical support seriously impacted the effectiveness of the RN. The decline in personnel numbers continued, with the expectation that the naval services would be down to 44,000 by 1999.

Neither Options for Change or Frontline First redefined the role of the RN; they were essentially focused on reducing the defence budget. The main strategic theme of UK defence policy was still Eurocentric, and the MOD attempted to maintain balanced forces by just cutting everything a bit.

Lacking direction from government, senior officers in the RN had, by default, substantial freedom to develop new strategic concepts. Documents such as the Fundamentals of British Maritime Doctrine (published in 1995) and the Maritime Contribution to Joint Operations (1998) made a considerable impact beyond the service. The concept of expeditionary warfare outside the NATO area began to gain traction. Essential enablers for this would be new amphibious ships (already accepted by the government) and new aircraft carriers (not yet accepted, and potentially controversial given their cost). The RN seized every opportunity to demonstrate the operational flexibility and effectiveness of even small aircraft carriers. In the years 1993–5 the RN maintained a carrier in the Adriatic, helping to enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia. The RN also regularly deployed a carrier task group to the Arabian Gulf, in support of sanctions against Iraq.

1998: The Strategic Defence Review (SDR): A new Labour government committed to a review of defence policy was elected in May 1997. This was to be a foreign-policy rather than cost-cutting exercise, with the declared goal that British forces would act as a ‘force for good’ in the world.

When the SDR was published in July 1998, it was clear that the RN’s new ideas had often prevailed. The review accepted that in a world of uncertain multi-centric threats, there was a need to create deployable expeditionary forces capable of operations at considerable distances from the UK. One of the SDR’s main decisions was to acquire two new large aircraft carriers to function as mobile airbases operating strike aircraft; another was greatly to enhance strategic sea and airlift capabilities. It also established a Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF) which would provide a pool of readily available, rapidly deployable, high capability forces from all three Services. In other initiatives, the SDR created a Joint Helicopter Command, which incorporated British Army, Royal Air Force (RAF) and RN helicopter squadrons; and a combined RAF/RN Harrier and Sea Harrier force (Joint Force 2000, later renamed Joint Force Harrier).

In line with the emphasis on rapid deployment, the SDR required the RN to change its focus from open-ocean warfare in the North Atlantic to force projection and near-coast (littoral) operations worldwide. Shallow water operations in UK waters were also given less importance. There was, however, little immediate change to the composition of the RN, which retained responsibility for maintaining the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. Small cuts in force levels included:

A reduction in destroyers and frigates from thirty-five to thirty-two.

A decline in SSN numbers from twelve to ten (but all equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles).

A modest fall in naval personnel.

As well as the new aircraft carriers, SDR committed the government to building new submarines, destroyers, frigates, amphibious and auxiliary ships, as well as buying a ‘Future Carrier Borne Aircraft’ (later renamed the Joint Combat Aircraft, or JCA).

The validity of SDR’s thinking was vindicated when, in 2000, the UK decisively intervened in the civil war in Sierra Leone to support its government. The RN impressed by quickly assembling a substantial task group off-shore. This included the light carrier Illustrious and the ships of the Amphibious Ready Group, centred on the helicopter carrier Ocean.

2002: New Chapter to the Strategic Defence Review: On 11 September 2001, the al-Qaeda terrorist group launched a devastating series of terrorist attacks on the United States of America. Although not immediately clear, this would also have a devastating effect on the RN.

In late 2001, the UK conducted a major exercise in Oman, ‘Saif Sareea II’, to demonstrate the JRRF concept. The RN committed no less than twenty-one naval vessels, again including Illustrious and Ocean. Whilst a success, the exercise was overshadowed by the start of American and, soon, British military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In February 2002, the MOD unexpectedly announced that its Sea Harriers would be retired from service by April 2006. Joint Force Harrier (JFH) would operate only RAF-owned Harrier aircraft thereafter. The reason given was that the Sea Harrier required expensive upgrades to remain effective that could not be justified given the aircraft would be replaced from 2012 by the JCA (a date that has since slipped to the end of 2018). It was also decided to evaluate whether the SDR was still adequate ‘to cope with the threats faced’.

The resulting Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter, published in July 2002, concluded that the SDR’s decisions had been broadly correct, but that changes were needed in the allocation of investment, ‘for example to intelligence gathering, network-centric capability … improved mobility and fire power for more rapidly deployable lighter forces, temporary deployed accommodation for troops, and night operations’. Worryingly for the RN, it was not mentioned once in the document. At the end of 2002, the frigate Sheffield was paid off without replacement.

2003: Delivering Security in a Changing World: In May 2003, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines contributed significantly to the second Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq. A large force of ships was led by the light carrier Ark Royal (operating as a helicopter carrier) and Ocean. A particular success was the seizure of the Al Faw Peninsula by 3 Commando Brigade.

At the end of the year, the MOD published a White Paper which again revisited aspects of the SDR. It stated, ‘The UK will remain actively engaged in potential areas of instability in and around Europe, the Near East, North Africa and the Gulf. But we must extend our ability to project force further afield than the SDR envisaged. In particular, the potential for instability and crises occurring across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and the wider threat from international terrorism, will require us both to engage proactively in conflict prevention and be ready to contribute to short-notice peace support and counter-terrorist operations.’

Unfortunately this policy could not be aligned with the immediate reality of costly military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the need for new equipment to support these. As no additional funding was available, cuts had to be made elsewhere. Accordingly, the paper also said: ‘Some of our older [naval] vessels contribute less well to the pattern of operations that we envisage, and reductions in their numbers will be necessary.’ In practice, this meant:

The withdrawal of three Type 42 destroyers and three nearly-new Type 23 frigates; the latter sold to Chile.

The decommissioning of six mine-countermeasures vessels.

The loss of further SSNs, ultimately taking the force down to seven boats.

Reductions in planned naval construction, particularly the cancellation of four of twelve planned Type 45 destroyers (another two were cancelled in 2008).

A 1,500 reduction in the number of trained personnel to 36,000.

The only compensation was that the paper confirmed, ‘The introduction of the two new aircraft carriers [the Queen Elizabeth class, or QEC] … early in the next decade’. The White Paper also set out the future roles of each of the services; in the maritime sphere it placed an emphasis on land-attack missiles and amphibious ships to project power ashore.

By mid-2005, the RN was down to twenty-five frigates and destroyers, against a backdrop of increased rather than decreased operational demands. The carrier Invincible was withdrawn from operational service in May 2005, five years earlier than previously planned.

2006: The Future Navy Vision: By 2006, the RN faced the reality that its expeditionary strategy was in tatters, its internal plans unrealisable, and that it was in danger of it becoming seen as militarily irrelevant. One of the two remaining carriers was still kept operational in the strike role, but its flight deck was usually empty of fixed-wing aircraft as JFH was stretched maintaining a squadron in Afghanistan. The newly-built amphibious ships were being used for other tasks as the Royal Marines had been committed to Afghanistan. Whilst up to 5,000 naval personnel were sometimes in Afghanistan and Iraq with 3 Commando Brigade, JFH, Joint Helicopter Command and other formations, this was not publicly recognised.

In 2006 the RN tried to make a stand by publishing its own vision for the future. It was drafted under the direction of Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, the First Sea Lord, who wrote, ‘Britain is preeminently a maritime nation whose people will continue to rely on the unhindered use of the sea for their security, prosperity and well-being. The world faces an uncertain, rapidly changing and competitive global environment in the early decades of the 21st century. My vision envisages a Royal Navy that … will contribute vitally and decisively to the security of the UK, to the preservation of international order at sea and to the promotion of our national values and interests in the wider world.’ The vision required a navy capable of Maritime Force Projection (the employment of military power at sea and against the land) and Maritime Security (the defence of the UK home-land and sovereign territories), enabled by Maritime Manoeuvre (seaborne access).

The document further stated, ‘A broadly balanced Fleet represents the most effective means of delivering this capability, both at home and abroad, as well as providing a reasonable assurance against the unexpected. This means that we will project and sustain Amphibious and Carrier Strike Task Groups simultaneously … [Also] our Fleet should have sufficient flexibility and size to deploy single ships and submarines on sustained, independent tasks on a routine basis, with the potential and capacity to switch quickly to combat and group operations.’

The Future Navy Vision document has stood the passage of time well but, unfortunately, has also been largely ignored given subsequent developments.

2010: Strategic Defence and Security Review – SDSR 2010: SDSR 2010, released on 19 October 2015, was a rushed review by a new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, conducted in the context of economic depression and a projected £38bn ‘black hole’ in the equipment budget. In contrast to the new National Security Strategy (NSS) published a day previously, SDSR 2010’s focus was on immediate financial savings; a parliamentary committee could later find no evidence of strategic thinking in the document.

For the RN, the outcome was little short of a disaster. Decisions affecting it included:

Bringing only one of the two new Queen Elizabeth class carriers into service; the other would be placed in reserve or sold (the review seriously considered cancelling the ships; however, this would have cost more than completing them).

Joint Force Harrier would disband and the RN’s flagship and only operational fixed-wing carrier, Ark Royal, decommissioned.

Four Type 22 frigates would decommission, leaving an escort force of just six destroyers and thirteen frigates.

Three RFA ships would be withdrawn from service.

The RAF’s Nimrod MR4A replacement maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) project was axed.

Trained naval personnel would reduce from 35,000 to 30,000 by 2015.

SDSR stated that by 2020, the Royal Navy would be structured to provide:

Maritime defence of the UK and Overseas Territories, including the South Atlantic.

Nuclear Continuous at Sea Deterrence.

A credible and capable presence within priority regions of the world.

A very high readiness response force and a contribution to enduring land operations [by the Royal Marines].

The review was implemented as hastily as it had been conducted. Ark Royal arrived in Portsmouth on 3 December flying a decommissioning pennant, before being sold for scrap. Joint Force Harrier ceased to be operational on 15 December 2010; its Harriers were sold to the US Marine Corps for spare parts. Redundancy notices were soon being issued to naval personnel.

Critics of the review could take little satisfaction from the government’s discomfort when, in March 2011, it intervened in Libya’s civil war as part of an international coalition, and found that many of the required military assets had already been lost, or were about to be lost. For example, French and Italian aircraft carriers conducted intensive air attacks from positions just off the Libyan coast. Lacking an aircraft carrier, the main British air contribution was a small number of sorties by RAF strike aircraft, flying at considerable cost from bases in the UK and Italy. The decommissioning of the Type 22 frigate Cumberland had to be delayed by two months, as the ship was busy rescuing British and other foreign nationals from Libyan ports.

2014: National Strategy for Maritime Security: Presented by the Secretary of State for Defence in May 2014, this document defined ‘maritime security’ to be ‘the advancement and protection of the UK’s national interests, at home and abroad, through the active management of risks and opportunities in and from the maritime domain, in order to strengthen and extend the UK’s prosperity, security and resilience and to help shape a stable world.’ Building on the NSS, it established five maritime security objectives:

Promoting a secure international maritime domain and upholding international maritime norms.

Developing the maritime governance capacity and capabilities of states in areas of strategic maritime importance.

Protecting the UK, our citizens and our economy by supporting the safety and security of ports and offshore installations and Red Ensign Group-flagged passenger and cargo ships.

Assuring the security of vital maritime trade and energy transportation routes within the UK Marine Area, regionally and internationally.

Protecting the resources and population of the UK and the Overseas Territories from illegal and dangerous activity, including serious organised crime and terrorism.

The strategy only discussed at a very general level how the Royal Navy and other agencies might meet these objectives, and did not consider required funding and force levels. However, it did commit the RN to deploying ships in order to maintain vital trade routes and ensure freedom of navigation, and also to contributing to three military alliances which help deliver maritime security, namely NATO, the EU and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).

2 thoughts on “THE ROYAL NAVY -21st CENTURY I

  1. sadly, it would be indicated that British governments have chosen to buy cake for the electorate at the expense of sovereign protection from rising threats. A dangerous move at the best. A fatal move at the worst.


  2. Having said that, my government in Canada has chosen to give away billions of dollars in 2 years to foreign support to bolster our sad Prime Minister’s legacy of stupidity. I guess we are in similar positions.


Comments are closed.