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The Royal Navy is going through difficult times

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HMS RIchmond visits Norfolk

At the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Pericles, a preeminent Athenian politician and general, delivered his immortal funeral oration to honor those who had perished.

Among the praise for the dead and admiration, Pericles highlighted the importance of sea power. Sea power would play a key role in the years-long conflict, and whoever harnessed it would have an advantage over his adversary.

Almost 2,500 years later, the rule of the sea remains a great matter.

Today, the U.S. Navy numbers approximately 233 active combat warships. There are also 60 non-commissioned support ships, 50 warships in reserve, and 36 on order. Although a long way from President Roland Reagan’s dream of a 600-ship naval force, the U.S. Navy is still looking to grow. The goal, according to a recent report to Congress, is a 500-ship naval force that combines manned and unmanned vessels.

To be sure, numbers aren’t everything. Despite the Chinese military’s ability to field over 700 warships and support vessels in the event of a conflict today, the U.S. Navy maintains a qualitative superiority in technology, manpower, and experience. American warships and weapon systems are better than those of near-peer adversaries. The gap might be narrowing, but America still maintains a superiority in that regard.

But in the event of a conflict, the Navy, and indeed the entire U.S. military, would lean into its alliances for help. Traditional allies like the United Kingdom and France would play a key role in the fighting, either directly participating or covering areas of operations so the U.S. Navy can move its warships into combat.

Indeed, it is this network of global partnerships that truly differentiates the United States from its near-peer adversaries. China and Russia might possess varying degrees of individual power, but they lack honest friendships that could be useful in the event of a conflict. However, the navy of America’s biggest ally isn’t in a good state.

Related: The “shadow scheme” Britain used to disperse WWII production

The Royal Navy in trouble

British and US warships sail together
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55), the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales (R 09), and logistics supply ship BRF Jacques Chevallier (A 725) sail in formation during interoperability training in the Atlantic Ocean demonstrating partnership and commitment in the maritime domain, Nov. 3, 2023. George Washington is underway in support of carrier qualifications. (U.S. Navy by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nicholas Russell)

European navies today aren’t in a good shape and their fleets have taken a major hit. A combination of factors, including the end of the Cold War, the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns of the Global War on Terror, and the financial crisis have all contributed to the decay of European naval power.

For example, between 1999 and 2018, NATO’s European countries reduced their destroyer and frigate fleets by 32 percent and their submarine fleets by 28 percent.

The Royal Navy might have once ruled the waves but that time has long passed. Today, the British military can field just 40 surface combatants and submarines. In comparison, the U.S. Navy has about 55 vessels underway as of the first week of April. On a regular day at work, the U.S. military has more ships sailing than the entire fleet of the Royal Navy.

Specifically, the Royal Navy has 12 Type 23 frigates, eight River-class offshore patrol vessels, six Type 45 destroyers, six Astute-class attack submarines, four Vanguard-class nuclear-armed submarines, two aircraft carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, and two amphibious assault ships, which could double as light aircraft carriers in an emergency.

In 1991, the Royal Navy had almost twice the number of warships: In the waning days of the Cold War, the Royal Navy fielded 33 frigates, 30 nuclear attack and ballistic submarines, 13 destroyers, and three aircraft carriers for a total of 79 major surface combatants and submarines.

The British fleet isn’t just smaller, it is also more problematic. In February, for instance, the HMS Prince of Wales, the Royal Navy’s latest warship, failed to depart for a NATO exercise due to mechanical problems. To make matters worse for the Royal Navy, the HMS Prince of Wales was supposed to relieve its sister aircraft carrier and flagship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, after it too had suffered a mechanical problem.

In the event of a near-peer conflict, the U.S. would rely on its alliances and partnerships to fight a war and maintain global order. The state of the Royal Navy, the closest ally of the U.S. Navy, should concern officials in London and Washington alike.

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Stavros Atlamazoglou

Greek Army veteran (National service with 575th Marines Battalion and Army HQ). Johns Hopkins University. You will usually find him on the top of a mountain admiring the view and wondering how he got there.