This one-mighty fighting force which ruled the seas and allowed Britain to get its own way by the use of the world's largest cannon-bristling warships is still the world's second-most powerful navy and one of only three true Blue Water navies in the world (the others being the US and French navies).
But its two new giant aircraft carriers which are to be built - HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth - will cost £4 billion, leading to possible cuts elsewhere in the Armed Forces.
Some of the Royal Navy's submarines - capable of firing nuclear weapons - are also to be replaced by the fearsome new Astute class submarines, the largest, most advanced and most formidable submarine of its kind ever operated by the Royal Navy. She incorporates the latest stealth technology combined with a world beating sonar system and equipped with Spearfish torpedoes and state of the art Tomahawk land attack missiles to make her a supremely effective naval asset.
This article takes a look at the future of the Royal Navy.
The future of defence part two: The Royal Navy
It will cost £20 billion to replace the Trident nuclear submarines
From The Times
February 2, 2010
The Navy is having to pay for two of the Government’s biggest military equipment procurement projects. Gordon Brown and the Conservative leader David Cameron say that they are committed to replacing Trident and to building two £4billion, 64,000-tonne aircraft carriers.
However, with a strategic defence review only months away, that will inevitably lead to cuts — particularly in the Navy and RAF — naval commanders believe that the cost implications for the Senior Service have not been fully grasped.
“The submarines carrying the deterrent have to be protected. That ties up anti-submarine assets such as Type 23 frigates, hunter-killer submarines and Merlin helicopters. It’s a big package. You can’t just cut the fleet without taking this into account,” one defence expert said.
The submarine-based deterrent is paid for out of Navy funds although it is a national — and political — weapons system. “I’d prefer to have the carriers than Trident,” Commodore Stephen Saunders, editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships, said. “Trident doesn’t have an every-day military utility, it’s a political asset. I don’t think Trident is likely to be seriously considered for binning,” he said.
If the Trident replacement programme survives in its proposed form — four new submarines and an upgraded ballistic missile — the next government will have to commit to ensuring that the submarine on patrol is properly protected. Any serious cuts in anti-submarine warfare platforms could put the deterrent at risk.
Devastating: The Royal Navy has the capability of firing nukes at any nation
A gamble has already been taken with the announcement last year that the RAF’s Nimrod MR2 surveillance aircraft, which helps to protect the nuclear submarine fleet, is to be scrapped before the replacement MRA4 is in service. During the interim, the Navy will have to take on more of the protection responsibility, with an increasing number of Merlins and Type 23 frigates being assigned to guard Trident.
The same argument goes with the aircraft carrier programme. Carriers do not operate in isolation, they have to be protected — by anti-air destroyers and submarines. There are rumblings in the other Services that the new carriers will absorb too much of the defence budget in the years ahead.
The Navy argues that once the carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, are built, they will be available for operational service for 50 years, providing a versatile platform from which the Army and RAF can launch missions worldwide. This is the perceived way ahead for the Navy for the next few decades, irrespective of what happens in Afghanistan.
An artist's impression of one of the Royal Navy's new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers
Countries with the most aircraft carriers
United States: 11 (+1 more under construction)
Britain: 4 [including helicopter carrier] (+2 more under construction)
France, Russia, India, Spain, Brazil, Thailand: 1
Total number of aircraft carriers ever operated by each nation
United States: 67
Australia, Canada: 3
India, Spain, Brazil, Argentina: 2
Thailand, Netherlands: 1
Not everyone is convinced by this argument — there have always been doubters in the higher echelons of the Army. But the carrier issue will lie at the heart of the defence review to be conducted after the general election, not just as part of the debate about capabilities and resources but because the new government will be making a political statement about the role it wishes the Armed Forces to fulfil.
Projection of power would remain the keystone of the Government’s defence policy.
Counter-insurgency or irregular warfare — such as land operations in Afghanistan — may be absorbing a large proportion of the resources at present and seems likely to do so for four or five years. But strategic planning has to be longer term and ministers have to make judgments about future threats and what security contribution Britain can offer to meet them.
Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the First Sea Lord, told The Times: “As an island nation in a globalised world it is vital that the UK continues to promote and protect its interests across the world. The naval Service is deployed around the world from Afghanistan to the Caribbean, the South Atlantic to the Gulf. We are a constant and watchful presence, reassuring allies, deterring potential aggressors and, if necessary, taking the fight to those who would harm UK interests both on land and sea.
The Royal Navy is one of only three true blue water navies and the second-largest navy in the world in terms of the combined displacement after the United States Navy. From the beginning of the 18th century until well into the 20th century it was the most powerful navy in the world, playing a key part in establishing the Britain as the dominant world power from 1815 until the early 1940s. The Royal Navy's ability to project power globally is considered second only to the U.S. Navy. The Royal Navy maintains the United Kingdom's nuclear weapons. As of April 2009 the Royal Navy numbered almost 100 ships and approximately 39,100 Regular personnel of whom 7,500 were in the Royal Marines; in addition, there were 3,600 Volunteer Reserve personnel, giving a total of 42,700 personnel. This makes the Royal Navy the largest navy in the European Union in terms of the combined total of ships, aircraft and personnel.
“It is this constancy of effort that ensures the nation’s interests are being looked after by a Service which is on operations every day; in ships, aircraft squadrons and commando units which are able to adapt and react to circumstances. It is this flexible approach to operations that offers the Government choice and the taxpayer value for money,” he said.
Admiral Stanhope has been fighting against what is perceived in Whitehall to be a public battle for more resources, notably from the Army and its forthright leader, General Sir David Richards.
The new Astute Class submarines - the largest, most powerful and most advanced submarines ever to be operated by the Royal Navy - are being built in Cumbria. Here's one under construction on the slipway in 2006
How the new Astute Class submarines will look
Admiral Stanhope’s view is that having two large aircraft carriers, capable of deploying a range of military assets, from fixed-wing combat aircraft and helicopters to remotely controlled spy planes and special forces, would provide an insurance policy in an increasingly competitive and dangerous world. Afghanistan, the Navy argues, is not going to be the big player for ever.
If, however, the Ministry of Defence’s budget is going to be cut by 10 to 20 per cent — likely, despite Mr Brown’s avowed intention to ring-fence military expenditure — something is going to have to give. As one senior Navy source said: “The impression we’re getting is that if the Army is prepared to give up a lot of its tanks [which General Richards hinted at in a speech last year] then we should sacrifice something as well.”
Should it be one of the carriers, or elements of the anti-submarine capability, or some of the frigates? Or should there be a reappraisal of the Trident replacement programme?
Senior naval sources claim that minimum levels in ships and submarines have already been reached to meet present commitments. There are to be only six of the new Type 45 Daring-class destroyers — down from the 12 originally planned — and the Navy will be lucky to get seven of the new Astute-class nuclear-powered submarines that are to replace the Swiftsure and Trafalgar-class boats. There is no question of reverting to cheaper diesel-electric submarines. The nuclear boats have proved their worth.
“I’d like to see a bold decision made by the Government, not death by a million cuts. If we can’t afford our current security policy, then the policy should be changed,” Commodore Saunders said.
In the battle for resources, the Navy insists that it is not trying to “wrap itself in a White Ensign”. The carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, frigates and destroyers patrolling the globe, as well as the Royal Marines, Navy medics, naval bomb disposal teams and the Special Boat Service which serve in Afghanistan, are all part of a combined tri-Service effort.
But the current debate, with individual Service chiefs banging the drum for their share of the defence budget, seems to be swinging in favour of the Army — more soldiers for fighting the Taleban, fewer ships for chasing pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
The Navy says that Britain’s defence strategy is all about prevention, intervention and stabilisation, and provided that there are sufficient military capabilities — including warships — to deal with all three elements, the Government can be presented with political choices when an emergency arises.
“If you remove capabilities, the choices will be restricted, and if you scale down too far in terms of platforms, you will lose credibility as a fighting nation,” a defence official said.