The British Royal Navy Is Down to 17 Frigates and Destroyers
Crew shortage and mechanical problems sideline two more vessels
by DAVID AXE
The Royal Navy was, quite recently, one of the world’s leading fleets. But that was before several rounds of deep budget cuts, the most recent in 2010, that compelled the senior service to officially decommission some of its best ships.
The escort force arguably suffered the most, declining to a modern low of just 13 Type 23 frigates and six new Type 45 destroyers. And now the escort force has shrunk even further.
Quietly and without any official announcement, the Royal Navy has placed the frigate HMS Lancaster in a state of “extended readiness” — tying her up pierside and assigning her crew to other vessels in order to alleviate manpower shortages across the fleet.
Meanwhile, the destroyer HMS Dauntless has suffered serious problems with her powerplant and is undergoing repairs until 2019, at the earliest.
“The loss of these two ships to frontline operations is a legacy arising from years of commitments with inadequate resources, overstretching the naval service,” Pete Sandeman wrote in Warships International Fleet Review.
As recently as 1982 the United Kingdom could quickly muster no fewer than 115 warships — including two aircraft carriers carrying jet fighters plus 23 destroyers and frigates — to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina.
Today the navy doesn’t even have jet fighters, having mothballed the last Harriers in 2010.
The fleet has declined amid steady cuts to the Ministry of Defense’s budget as a share of overall government spending, from 4.1 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 1988 to 2.6 percent in 2010. Reductions in 2010 sliced another eight percent from the ministry budget in real terms.
As part of a defense review in 2015, London vowed to stop cutting the fleet. But the damage is done. Officially in 2016, the Royal Navy possesses 89 ships. These include one helicopter carrier, six amphibious assault ships, six destroyers, 13 frigates, seven attack submarines and four ballistic-missile submarines. The rest are minesweepers, survey ships and other support vessels.
But unofficially, with Lancaster and Dauntless out of action, the fleet numbers just 87 fighting ships and auxiliaries.
Roughly half the ships are in maintenance or training at any one time. Several others are committed to small standing patrols, leaving a tiny core of vessels to respond to emergencies.
Before sidelining a frigate and destroyer in 2016, London asserted it could deploy, on short notice, a “Response Group Task Force” built around a helicopter carrier and one assault ship, a pair of escorts plus probably one each submarine and supporting tanker ship — between four and six vessels in all.
Now missing Lancaster and Dauntless, it’s not clear the Royal Navy could deploy even that many ships.
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