The Royal Navy is a huge part of Britain’s military strength and, indeed, historically it was the major part.
Still known as ‘The Senior Service’, the Royal Navy was once the world’s pre-eminent naval force, and a vital component in maintaining Britain’s empire.
What follows is an overview of the various sea vessels that make up today’s Royal Navy, both its surface and underwater ships.
- Know Your Air Force – RAF Organisation
- Know your air force – transport and training aircraft
- Know Your Air Force – Combat, Support And Heritage Aircraft
If the Royal Navy wants to send out a fleet equipped with air support today, it has two ships made for the job: HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
Both Queen Elizabeth Class vessels, and Royal Navy flagships, these enormous machines are both 280 metres in length and can carry 40 aircraft on what amounts to four acres of flight deck.
Sailing at a speed of up to 25 knots, these floating villages are crewed by at 700, a number raising to 1,600 when additional personnel for the various aircraft are accounted for.
Taller than Niagara Falls, the Queen Elizabeth class propellers generate the power of 50 high-speed trains, which is not necessarily surprising when considering that this is the largest surface vessel ever built in the UK.
HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are also equipped with the fifth generation F-35B Lightning multi-role aircraft, which are being jointly crewed by the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and the US Marine Corps.
According to the MoD, the UK’s Daring Class ships (its six Type-45 Destroyers) are some of the most advanced warships to date. They are also versatile, serving in multiple roles, from anti-piracy, to humanitarian missions to their more conventional role as a means of defence against air attack on Britain’s fleet.
The primary weapon system the vessels have for performing this role is the Sea Viper. This is a guided missile system that can launch eight missiles in 10 seconds and guide 16 airborne missiles to various moving targets up to 70 miles away. These might include incoming cruise missiles, jet aircraft and UAVs.
The Daring Class ships also have a range of guns and radar, radar-jamming and sonar with which to protect themselves. In addition, their weapon systems are to be updated. MBDA UK has been awarded an 11-year contract to integrate the Common Anti-Air Modular Missile (CAMM) programme (sometimes referred to as Sea Ceptor) into the Daring Class' Sea Viper weapon systems. Also, a 10-year contract with Eurosam will provide a refresh of the Aster 30 missiles system that are currently in use.
The six Type-45 Destroyers are HMS Daring, HMS Dauntless, HMS Diamond, HMS Dragon, HMS Defender and HMS Duncan.
Airborne threats are not the only ones faced by the fleet, and for those on or under the sea, the Royal Navy has its frigates.
These are versatile ships and their roles include submarine hunting (anti-submarine warfare, or ASW), surface warfare (anti-surface warfare, or ASuW) as well as guarding Britain’s maritime and trade routes.
They have a variety of guns as well as the anti-ship missile system known as the Harpoon and a guided-missile system known as Seawolf. This is designed for defending individual frigates from air attack, and is therefore less sophisticated than the Sea Viper system borne by the Daring Class.
Currently, the Royal Navy’s frigates are all in the Duke Class, also known as Type 23 Frigates. There are 12 of these vessels currently operational, usually along the UK’s maritime and trade routes east of the Suez canal, or in the South Atlantic.
Named after British dukes, these are: HMS Argyll, HMS Northumberland, HMS Kent, HMS Lancaster, HMS Montrose, HMS Westminster, HMS Richmond, HMS Somerset, HMS Sutherland, HMS Portland, HMS St Albans and HMS Iron Duke, which is named after the Duke of Wellington.
There was also HMS Monmouth, or “the Black Duke”, recently decommissioned, in June 2021.
In addition, there are eight anti-submarine City Class (or Type 26) frigates due to replace the eight of the Duke Class vessels in the near future.
Patrolling and counter-mining ships
There are also a number of classes specifically for patrolling and counter-mining duties. These are the Hunt Class, Sandown Class, Scimitar Class, River Class and Archer Class.
The six Hunt Class vessels (HMS Cattistock, HMS Middleton, HMS Brocklesby, HMS Chiddingfold, HMS Ledbury and HMS Hurworth) perform a mine hunting role; so too do the Sandown Class. These are based in Scotland and there are six vessels in this class currently in service: HMS Shoreham, HMS Bangor, HMS Grimsby, HMS Pembroke, HMS Penzance and HMS Cromer (the last of which is now used as a training ship at the Britannica Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.)
Patrolling is usually carried out by ships in the Archer and Scimitar Classes.
There are 16 Archer Class vessels – HMS Archer, Biter, Smiter, Pursuer, Blazer, Dasher, Puncher, Charger, Ranger, Trumpeter, Example, Explorer, Express, Exploit, Tracker and Raider – and according to the MoD, each one is unique in being able to operate in ports and constricted waterways that other vessels struggle to enter or navigate. They are therefore used for coastal and other security operations, including the guarding of the UK’s Nuclear submarine fleet (more below.)
The Royal Navy’s two Scimitar Class ships, HMS Scimitar and HMS Sabre, often work alongside the Archer Class and have been used around Gibraltar.
In addition, there are a number of offshore patrol vessels, a role filled by the eight River Class ships currently in the Royal Navy – HMS Forth, HMS Mersey, HMS Tyne, HMS Medway, HMS Trent, HMS Severn, HMS Spey and HMS Tamar. They act as the eyes and ears of the Navy and protect British territorial waters and fishing stocks.
LPD – Landing Platform Docks
One role performed by the Navy is the deliverance and support of the Royal Marines.
This role in large part carried out by its Albion Class ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, which are LPD (or Landing Platform Dock) vessels meant for amphibious operations – in other words, they are designed for putting Royal Marines ashore.
This can be done via smaller boats travelling from the main ship to shore, or by the two helicopters carried on the flight decks of either or both vessels.
Each ship is 176 metres long and can travel 8,000 nautical miles at a top speed of 18 knots before refuelling.
The normal carrying capacity of each ship is 256 troops with vehicles and supplies, though this can be taken up to 405 troops. The vehicle deck on each ship can hold a total of 67 vehicles, or the total carrying capacity can include up to six Challenger tanks or 30 armoured all-terrain tracked vehicles.
The two Albion Class vessels operate in rotation, with one being put into reserve (and usually given a refit) whilst the other remains operational. At present, HMS Albion is operational and HMS Bulwark in reserve (known as extended readiness.)
There are also a number of non-combat ships operating in, or along with, the Royal Navy.
The Echo Class ships HMS Echo and HMS Enterprise conduct survey missions which includes the support of amphibious and submarine operations; there is also HMS Magpie, a hydrographic survey ship, HMS Protector, the Royal Navy’s ice-patrol ship, and HMS Scott, an ocean survey vessel.
The Royal Navy also has the support of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), which is not technically part of the Navy though its multiple vessels do support its operations. The RFA has six different classes of ships: Wave Class, Tide Class (both fleet tankers), Fort II Class, Fort I Class (both stores and equipment replenishment ships), Bay Class (three amphibious transport ships known as 'Landing Ship Docks', each capable of carrying either 24 Challenger tanks or 150 trucks) and a casualty ship.
As well as its surface ships the Royal Navy also has submarines divided into two main types: its nuclear subs and attack subs.
The latter are made up of the Astute and Trafalgar Class. Of these two, the Trafalgar Class submarines are the oldest, having originally been designed for the Cold War and for attacking enemy ships and nuclear submarines. They have since expanded into other roles that include covert surveillance and reconnaissance (i.e. of landing beaches in support of amphibious attacks, such as those performed by the Royal Marines.) According to the MoD, Trafalgar Class submarines have sonar that can detect other vessels 50 miles away.
HMS Talent and HMS Triumph are the two subs currently in the Trafalgar Class. HMS Trenchant was decommissioned in March of 2021.
The Astute Class are the Royal Navy’s largest and most powerful attack subs, equipped with Spearfish torpedoes for attacking other subs and ships, and Tomahawk cruise missiles for launch against ground-based targets that can be struck from hundreds of miles away. There are four submarines in this class: HMS Astute, HMS Audacious, HMS Ambush and HMS Artful.
Unlike conventional ships, Royal Navy submarines are nuclear powered and this means they can remain at sea indefinitely, and are limited only by the supply of food for their crews rather than by needing to refuel. This food supply can last for three months.
The Navy’s other class of subs, the Vanguard Class, is also nuclear-powered, as well as being armed with nuclear weapons - Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Trident.
The four submarines in this class are HMS Vanguard, HMS Vengeance, HMS Victorious and HMS Vigilant. All four are also armed with the Spearfish torpedo for defence against enemy attack submarines.
Although the exact composition of the Royal Navy will continue to evolve over time as it adjusts to new challenges and utilises new technology, what follows is a comparison of its current sea and underwater fleets.
A side-by-side comparison of the UK’s naval ships and subs:
Length in metres
Max range (in nautical miles)
Top speed in knots
Daring/Type 45 Destroyers
Duke/Type 23 Frigate
79.5 - 90.5
5,000 - 5,500 miles
20 - 24
Weight (in tonnes)
Number of ships in the class
Approx Number in Ship's Company
At least 700
Daring/Type 45 Destroyers
191 (can take up to 285)
Duke/Type 23 Frigate
685 - 725
1,700 – 1,800
45 - 60
Cover image: An aerial view of HMS Northumberland, RFA Tideforce and HMS Queen Elizabeth showing all three ships participating in Exercise Westlant 19 (picture: MOD)