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The Cable

Is the Sun Setting on the Royal Navy?

Her Majesty’s navy is “woefully low” on warships — just when NATO needs them most.


The United Kingdom’s navy is struggling to stay afloat, and its parliament isn’t too happy about it. On Monday, Parliament’s Defense Select Committee issued a report excoriating the Royal Navy’s “woefully low” warship numbers and mismanaged modernization program. With one of Europe’s most powerful navies in dire straits, NATO could face troubled waters in the future as Russia bolsters its own naval forces.

“For decades, the numbers of Royal Navy escort vessels have been severely in decline,” Defense Committee Chairman Dr. Julian Lewis said of the committee’s report, windily-titled Restoring the Fleet: Naval Procurement and the National Shipbuilding Strategy. “The fleet is now way below the critical mass required for the many tasks which could confront it, if the international scene continues to deteriorate,” Lewis added.

The Royal Navy faced embarrassing setbacks in the past year as it undergoes a major fleet modernization program. In January, the Royal Navy announced it would have to refit all six of its Type 45 destroyers — the most modern ship in the navy’s fleet — because they kept breaking down. And the U.K.’s pledge to maintain a fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers is now in question if new ships can’t replace rusting predecessors in time, according to the parliament’s defense committee.

“The current total of 19 frigates and destroyers — only 17 of which are usable — is already insufficient,” the committee charged. “To go below that number, even for a transitional period, would be completely unacceptable.”

This report comes at a bad time for Europe, a continent already struggling with a revanchist Russia and other defense issues. President-elect Donald Trump stoked fears in Europe that the U.S. may neglect its allies with his vocal NATO skepticism and admiration for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

Moscow has made a habit of poking and prodding NATO through close-call fly-bys at sea, aggressive military exercises, and submarine prowls off the coasts of Scandinavia and Scotland. And Russia flexed its own naval might by sending an aircraft carrier-led fleet to join the quagmire of a fight in Syria — though that turned into a bit of PR setback when the aircraft carrier kept billowing smoke as it limped its way to the Middle East.

The U.S. Navy also warned in a report last year that Russia is undergoing its own naval modernization program that could one day match NATO fleets.

Photo credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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