A Brief Historical Overview
The Royal Navy is Britain’s only naval warfare force and sole defender of the seas around Britain (and its associated Commonwealth Territories). Although warships were used by the English kings in wartime and to conquer new lands from the early medieval period, the first major battles at Sea by the very first British Royal Navy were fought during the Hundred Years War against the Kingdom of France. The modern Royal Navy traces its origins to the early 16th century; as such it is the oldest of the UK’s armed services, and it is known amongst the British Armed Forces as the Senior Service.
During the 17th and 18th Centuries, the British Navy was engaged in nearly constant battles with the Dutch and French Navies for maritime supremacy in the seas around Britain. From the mid 18th century, it was the world’s most powerful navy – a position it held until it was surpassed in size by the United States Navy during the Second World War. The Royal Navy played a key part in establishing the British Empire as the unmatched world power during the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries. Due to its historical prominence, it is common for it to be referred to as ‘The Royal Navy’ – without specifically mentioning the country of Britain, even by commentators and military personnel from other countries.
Following World War I, the Royal Navy was significantly reduced in size in part due to losses suffered during the Great War. However, even at the beginning of World War II it was still the world’s largest Navy by quite some distance. By the end of the war, however, the United States Navy had emerged as the world’s largest maritime superpower.
It was during the Cold War, that the Royal Navy transformed into a primarily anti-submarine force, hunting for Soviet submarines and mostly active in the GIUK gap. This of course changed following the collapse of the Soviet Union, although the Royal Navy does still retain an active submarine corps. In peacetime, its focus has returned to expeditionary operations around the world and it remains to this day one of the world’s foremost blue-water navies.
However, 21st century reductions in naval spending, in particular under the current Conservative Government – in real terms, the Navy has suffered over £9bn of budget costs during the Conservatives term in power; and these have led to both a personnel shortage and a reduction in the number of warships.
The Royal Navy maintains a massive fleet of technologically sophisticated ships and submarines, including: two aircraft carriers, two amphibious transport docks, four ballistic missile submarines (which maintain the UK’s nuclear deterrent as part of its NATO membership), six nuclear fleet submarines, six guided missile destroyers, 13 frigates, 13 mine-countermeasure vessels and 23 patrol vessels.
Whilst not of the size it once was, this is still an impressively large military force however, it is now widely considered to be only the 5th largest in the world. At present, in terms of maritime power and superiority, the United States of America is still top, followed by (in order): China, Russia, Japan, The United Kingdom, France, India, South Korea, Italy and Taiwan.
This is reflective of the rise of China, Russia and Japan as economic superpowers – they have grown their military capabilities as their economy has grown; rather than shrinking as has been the case here in Britain.