Britain’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker in the Straits of Gibraltar, which was forcefully commandeered by the Royal Marines on July 4th, has provoked a major international incident with Iran responding by deploying its Revolutionary Guard Corps to seize a British flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz after repeated requests from Tehran to release its vessel were refused.
Britain has refused to release the Iranian ship in exchange for the release of its own, and has responded by threatening a larger military presence in the Persian Gulf near Iranian waters.
Key to projecting power so far from British shores and placing military pressure on Iran is the British Royal Navy, which in 2018 acquired a new base in Bahrain near the Iranian coast.
The current state and capabilities of the British Royal Navy leave much to be desired however, bringing its ability to apply pressure against Iran to serious question.
With the United States distancing itself from Britain’s position regarding the tanker issue, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stating that responsibility for resolving this issue “falls to the United Kingdom,” Britain’s ability to follow through on its threats is highly questionable.
In terms of combat capability, the British Royal Navy has declined significantly in both size and reliability. From a fleet of 4 carriers, 13 destroyers, and 47 frigates in the waning years of the Cold War, Britain today fields just a single carrier, six destroyers and 13 frigates.
The sole carrier currently in service, HMS Queen Elizabeth, has suffered from serious reliability issues including a recent leak which forced it to cut its mission short and return to port.
The country’s Type 45 destroyers are not only increasingly outmatched by those of rival powers such as China and the United States, but also suffer from extreme reliability issues.
The warships’ Rolls Royce Diesel engines reportedly ‘degrade catastrophically’ in hot climates such as those found in the Straits of Hormuz or the waters of Southeast Asia.
A fleet of six destroyers is considered extremely small for a self proclaimed ‘tier one military power,’ the same number as China adds to its fleet annually and over 85% smaller than Japan’s destroyer fleet despite similar levels of spending.
The warships are increasingly outgunned both qualitatively and quantitatively by rival powers, with an engagement range of just 124km against enemy warships and missiles travelling at extremely low subsonic speeds. Anti ship missile capabilities of over 800km are elsewhere increasingly becoming the norm.
Perhaps the greatest shortcoming, however, is that the destroyers’ extreme maintenance requirements and poor reliability mean that only 2-3 warships are ever active at one time.
Indeed, whether the Navy would be able to afford operational costs for any more than this remains highly uncertain.
Britain’s fleet of lighter Type 23 Class frigates fares little better than its destroyer fleet, with 6 warships of 13 currently out of service. Many of these warships will be expected to serve for over 35 years before viable replacements are available in the late 2020s, and the vessels have already aged considerable which increases maintainence requirements and undermines viability against near-peer adversaries.
The replacement Type 31 Class ships are widely considered corvettes, and while newer they were designed primarily to minimise costs and are not considered able to perform at the level of frigates.
With the British economy showing no signs of considerable improvement for the foreseeable future, the Navy’s current austerity budget is unlikely to change meaning a decline of the fleet is set to continue indefinitely. As noted by Iain Ballantyne, the Plymouth based editor of Warships magazine:
“The oldest Type 23s will be 30/35 years old when the Type 26s come in… That is ancient in warship terms. Old ships cost more to keep running and they break down more often. With the rise of Russia and China, instability in the Gulf and the demands of the Falklands and the other British Overseas Territories, and the Navy half the size it was in 1991, it’s a perfect storm.”
Ultimately Britain’s ability to project power overseas continues to be seriously degraded, and with considerations currently being made for a reduction in planned acquisitions of F-35B carrier based fighters and nuclear powered submarines this situation could be further exacerbated.
Fleet modernisation plans, though far from ambitious, have consistently been deemed unaffordable.
It is also of note that while Britain does have a single carrier in service, the sole class of fixed wing aircraft it is able to deploy, the F-35B, is considered very far from combat ready and is unlikely to be for several years to come.
Thus, even if issues with the carrier itself are amended, the warship HMS Queen Elizabeth will function primarily as a helicopter carrier for combat missions for the foreseeable future.
While there was unlikely ever a realistic British ‘military option’ for taking on Iran, the state of the Royal Navy today means that even prospects for asserting military pressure through an increased presence in the Gulf remains highly dubious.
Source: Military Watch