Podcast — the slow decline of the world’s once-greatest fleet
by MATTHEW GAULT
Today the Royal Navy is capable of routinely deploying no more than six warships on short notice. The British fleet, once the world’s mightiest, is now down to fewer than 90 ships in total — a token force.
Why? Because the country stopped caring about its navy — and stopped paying for it.
To be fair, virtually all the world’s major navies have been getting smaller, trading large numbers of older ships for fewer new vessels that are generally bigger and more high-tech.
The U.S. Navy, by far the world’s leading maritime force, has declined from more than 600 ships and support vessels to fewer than 400 today, including just 280 frontline warships.
But the Royal Navy’s decline has been more precipitous, resulting in a devastating loss in capability. As recently as 1982 the United Kingdom could quickly muster no fewer than 115 ships — including two aircraft carriers carrying jet fighters plus 23 destroyers and frigates — to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina while also undertaking other missions.
Today the Royal Navy doesn’t even have jet fighters or carriers capable of supporting them, having mothballed the last Harriers in 2010 and the final flattop in 2014. On a good day, the Royal Navy can call on just 17 destroyers and frigates for all of its operations everywhere.
How did we get here? This week on War College, War Is Boring editor-in-chief David Axe explains the Royal’s long, slow decline — and what the United Kingdom could do to reverse the fleet’s sad trajectory.