Since the end of World War II, the US and Britain have been close allies, supporting each other through countless minor and major conflicts. But how do the navies of these two nations compare? That’s what we’ll find out, in this episode of the Infographics show, US Navy vs British Royal Navy.
At the height of its power, Great Britain ruled over an empire so large that it was famously said, the sun never set on it. Through a powerful navy, this small island nation exerted its influence across the globe, remaining on top of the world order for hundreds of years. The US, by comparison, has historically fielded a much smaller navy, though its stunning victories have become maritime legend. After World War II, with the decline of the ‘old’ powers, the US invested heavily in its navy, and quickly became the premier naval power of the modern age. So how do the two navies stack up against each other today?
After the grueling wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both nations are facing problems in the manpower department. For the Royal Navy though, this has meant the mothballing of two of its most powerful ships due to a lack of qualified personnel. Though it’s 2020 plans call for a force of 82,000 sailors, it’s highly unlikely Britain will achieve this goal, as it currently only holds 32,000 seamen on active duty with 3,000 in reserve. By comparison, the US Navy fields a force of over 319,000 active duty personnel with almost 100,000 in the reserves. However, though the US has not suffered from a loss of ships due to a lack of personnel, its sailors- many of whom have been on rotating six-month deployments for over a decade- are facing historic rates of low morale and ‘deployment fatigue’.
While the Royal Navy has new ships in construction, it has also faced severe cutbacks to its budget, which has reduced the number of total ships in its inventory to 73, of which only 30 are combat ships, with the rest being support or patrol craft. The US, meanwhile, has increased the budget of its navy, and not only has a new generation of ships coming online, but is actively increasing the size of its inventory. As it stands, the American navy fields a force of 284 ships, of which 160 are combat ships, though new budgets call for a total force of 308 total hulls by the mid 2020s.
As the vanguards of any modern navy, the aircraft carrier is arguably the single most important ship in any fleet. The US currently operates 10 Nimitz-class supercarriers with 2 of its next-generation Ford-class supercarriers coming online soon, and six more in acquisitions.
US Nimitz supercarriers are the largest warships ever built, at a length of 1,092 feet (333 meters) and a total displacement of over 100,000 long tons. Each supercarrier hosts an air wing of 90 aircraft, though unlike any other navy, American carrier air wings comprise a ‘total strike’ package of fighter, strike aircraft, early warning, electronic warfare, and airborne refueling aircraft- making each supercarrier a mini-airforce onto its own. Through its carrier air wings alone, the US maintains a force of 900 total aircraft.
The British Royal Navy fields only a single aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, though a second Queen Elizabeth-class carrier is currently under construction and expected to be operational in 2020. As the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy, the Queen Elizabeth comes up shy of its American cousins at 920 feet (280 meters) and a displacement of 64,000 long tons.
It is equipped with 40 total aircraft to include dual-purpose fighter-strike aircraft and airborne refueling. However, due to a lack of arresting gear and catapult launch system, the Queen Elizabeth can only launch STOVL (or Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing) aircraft which places a severe restriction on the size of a weapons package each plane can be equipped with versus an American plane.
As the second-most important element of a modern navy, submarines make up a sizable portion of a naval complement. The Royal Navy currently fields 10 total subs, with 6 guided missile submarines and 4 nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Of its attack subs, 3 are of its new, modern Astute class and 3 of the older though still formidable Trafalgar class.
The United States, by comparison, deploys a total of 66 submarines, of which 52 are nuclear-powered attack subs and 14 are nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Of its attack subs, 34 are of the aging Cold War era Los Angeles class, which, along with the 3 Seawolf class still in service, are being replaced by the next-generation Virginia class of which 15 are already in service.
Destroyers make up the bulk of a navy’s surface warfare component, with the flexibility to provide both fleet defensive and offensive capabilities. The US currently has 67 destroyers, of which 65 are of the Arleigh Burke-class, the first ship designed around the formidable AEGIS combat system. In service since 1988, the US Navy plans a future purchase of 24 more ships upgraded to the Type III variant. This leaves it with 2 of 3 planned Zumwalt-class destroyers, with any future purchases canceled.
Though currently the stealthiest surface ship in the world, the Zumwalt-class has been plagued with cost overruns and a lack of mission focus. This lack of focus, combined with the cancellation of specialized ammunition for its main cannon which would have cost a whopping $800,000 a shell, has prompted America’s congress to cancel development of more ships, though the high-tech lessons learned have already been incorporated into future ship designs.
The Royal Navy currently operates only 6 destroyers of the Daring class. Replacing the Sheffield class, the Darings are primarily focused on anti-aircraft and anti-missile roles, leaving them with a lack of anti-ship or land-strike capability versus the American Arleigh Burkes. However, their focus on anti-air and anti-missile missions has many defense industry experts on both sides of the Atlantic considering them the best air defense ships in the world. Unfortunately the future of Britain’s destroyer fleet is in serious question, as originally 12 Daring-class destroyers were planned for procurement, only to have the number drop to eight and then to finally only the six currently in service.
The designation of Cruiser, or Frigate, has varied in meaning over time and across navies; it was originally the designation for scout and patrol ships during the age of sail, and today it fits a niche that blurs the lines between different classes of ships. Modern cruisers sit somewhere between the roles that World War II destroyers offered as anti-aircraft and anti-submarine support and a battleship’s capabilities to hit surface ships and land targets.
Of the cruiser designation, the Royal Navy currently operates 13 ships of the Type 23 or Duke class. Originally designed to counter Russian subs in the North Atlantic, the Type 23 still remains primarily an anti-submarine ship, though it has shown great versatility in air defense and land-attack roles over the last three decades. Equipped with only 8 American-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles though, Type 23 ships remain dependent on other escorts for protection from enemy surface ships.
The Americans, meanwhile, operate 22 Ticonderoga-class Cruisers. At a displacement of 9,600 long tons, the Ticonderogas are twice the size of their British counterparts, though this is due to their multi-role design. Equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles, a Ticonderoga can strike targets on land or other ships while simultaneously defending against incoming air or missile threats with its SM-2 and longer-range and more advanced SM-6 missiles. Unlike the Royal Navy’s Daring class, the American Ticonderogas are also equipped with the RIM-161 Standard Missile 3- a high-speed and long-range missile developed exclusively to destroy incoming ballistic missiles, though in the mid 2000s, the US Navy demonstrated an ability to destroy enemy satellites with it as well.
With over three times the number of ships and personnel, the US Navy is significantly larger than the British Royal Navy. On the whole, American ships are better equipped to handle a variety of threats, making a single American ship more threatening to a potential adversary than its British counterpart. Yet British naval planning has for decades been focused on augmenting the capabilities of their close American allies, not countering them.
American and British forces have for a long time trained and operated together, yet it is their navies which are more intimately linked than any other branch of the armed forces. With its commitments to deterring aggression in the North Atlantic from a resurgent Russia, and Chinese military expansionism in the South China Sea, the US Navy may be the most formidable force on the high seas, but it would find itself hard pressed to conduct its global mission of keeping the high seas free and open to all without its partnerships with close allies such as the British Royal Navy.
So, which navy do you think is stronger and better? Let us know in the comments! Also, check out our other video called American Cops vs British Cops, how do they compare? Thanks for watching and as always, don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time!