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Overstretched and underfunded – the decline of Europe’s navies

With peacekeeping, nation building and counterinsurgency operations receiving priority over recent years, Europe’s – and even America’s – navies have reduced in size and capability. With an ageing fleet, growing maintenance costs and an increase in operational demands, can Europe’s navies adapt to the challenges of the modern threat environment?

With peacekeeping, nation building and counterinsurgency operations receiving priority over recent years, Europe’s – and even America’s – navies have reduced in size and capability. With an ageing fleet, growing maintenance costs and an increase in operational demands, can Europe’s navies adapt to the challenges of the modern threat environment?

The modern battlespace has changed radically over recent years, not only regarding the technological capabilities of warfighters but the character of the combat itself (note: character not nature to those Clausewitzian loyalists among us). For years, the United States and their allies prepared for operations centred around counterinsurgency, peacekeeping and nation building. And each nation’s military apparatus, whether technological, academic or doctrinal, was modified to support this goal.

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Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its allies exercised unfettered global primacy. This has, however, shuddered to an end and those who support the international rules-based order have been left underprepared in a renewed era of great power competition.

This was the sentiment of French diplomat in residence Pierre Morcos and Colin Wall, research associate with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS in War on the Rocks this week, publishing a sobering analysis on Europe’s military deterioration since the collapse of the Soviet Union and their inability to compete in the new era of conflict.

“European naval forces suffered a dramatic downsizing in the past three decades. This decline is notably due to years of cuts in defence spending following the end of the Cold War. Amid these times of budgetary austerity, European countries decided to rebalance their armed forces at the expense of their navies as they engaged in major counterinsurgency operations after the 9/11 attacks,” the pair allege.

Such preference for counterinsurgency operations resulted in what the pair term as “sea blindness”, whereby European countries were willing to sacrifice their innovative and cutting-edge naval platforms, perceiving fewer uses for the expensive ships in the modern threat environment.

The result is a stark reduction in naval capabilities.

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“Against this backdrop, European navies lost 32 per cent of their main surface combatants (frigates and destroyers) between 1999 and 2018. Collectively, Europeans had 197 large surface combatants and 129 submarines in 1990 but only 116 and 66, respectively in 2021,” the pair argue.

The realisation that Europe and Britain’s navies are simply unable to meet the operational requirements to maintain the international rules-based order came to a head in December 2021 with the UK Parliament’s Defence Committee publishing the curtly titled We’re going to need a bigger navy report.

In summary, the defence committee expects the operational demands on the Royal Navy to increase over coming years, not least amid increasing tensions in the Indo-Pacific. However, the report notes that moving the fleet from an Atlantic-centric theatre of operations to the Indo-Pacific is not simple from a maintenance, logistics or technological perspective. The litany of issues is listed below.

First, Professor Jonathan Caverley of the US Naval War College explained to the committee that “it is somewhat counterintuitive, but maritime territory has a terrain. There is really no substitute for being in the region. The water looks the same everywhere, but the Pacific works differently to the Atlantic”. Second, the UK does not have any home ports in the region to support the naval efforts. To ensure that the Royal Navy’s ships are able to dock at regional ports, the report “[requires] defence staff at UK embassies to be much more active”. Finally, the committee notes that the Navy has to ready for the changing capability landscape with the prevalence of grey-zone operations.

Such issues are not easy to overcome on a strained budget. These complexities, in no way unique to the Royal Navy over its European counterparts, would require the former naval powers to lift themselves up by the bootstraps to completely reinvigorate global networks, supply chains and technological prowess.

Worryingly, this trend has also been observed in the United States with a decline in the US’ quantitative naval advantage.

“While the United States had plans to build a 600-ship navy in the 1980s, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act set a goal of 355 ships, although it is not yet clear whether the Biden administration embraces this goal,” Morcos and Wall explain.

It is evident that the US Department of Defense is in no way ignorant of these sobering statistics. Research published for the Congressional Research Service has already warned Congress that the US has forfeited quantitative superiority to the diverse Chinese navy.

“The PLAN is the largest navy in the world with a battle force of approximately 355 platforms, including major surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, ocean-going amphibious ships, mine warfare ships and fleet auxiliaries,” a Congressional Research Service report warned the US Congress.

“This figure does not include 85 patrol combatants and craft that carry anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). The PLAN’s overall battle force is expected to grow to 420 ships by 2025 and 460 ships by 2030. Much of this growth will be in major surface combatants.”

Interestingly, the report notes that accurate assessments of China’s naval capability are difficult to attain. While Western navies conduct robust debate about acquisition programs, all of which are publicly available knowledge, such public discussions of capability improvements do not happen in China.

While the US, Britain and Europe nevertheless maintain qualitative and quantitative advantages over emerging global threats, the speed at which the Chinese navy can scale their operational capabilities have closed this gap.

“Even though Europeans still have more large surface combatants than China, their fleet is ageing and overstretched while Beijing is building a modern navy at great speed: China already has one of the largest submarine fleets in the world and is building the equivalent of the French navy every four years,” Morcos and Wall argue.

Perhaps it is time to revisit Donald Rumsfeld's adage, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

Your say

Over recent years, the US and Europe's Navies have ceded their qualitative and quantitative advantages over emerging global rivals. Not only are they outgunned, but their naval capabilities are significantly older, being produced at a slower rate and have far higher maintenance costs.

There doesn’t appear to be reprieve on the horizon either. While the US National Defense Authorization Act 2022 may stem some growing pains with the provision of funds for extra ships in the US, difficulties in the production of naval capabilities suggest that there may be poor alignment between the operational-strategic level perspectives of America’s political decision makers, military decision makers and shipbuilders.

As always, please provide feedback and join the debate in the comments section below!

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Overstretched and underfunded – the decline of Europe’s navies
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