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Is Britain still a Naval Power?

BY Ondrej Novak



Is Britain still a Naval  Power?

By Ondrej Novak – With both Government and the Parliament in the United Kingdom (UK) seemingly stuck in an endless deadlock over Brexit, another important issue has been unravelling over the past few months. Since May the crisis around the Strait of Hormuz and the standoff between Iran and the United States (US) has been dominating the headlines. The Strait is an important bottleneck for naval transportation to and from the Gulf. A full scale military confrontation in the Strait would compromise international trade and impact global oil prices. The crisis began following several acts of sabotage by Iran targeting a number of commercial ships transiting through the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. Britain got directly involved in the crisis when it detained the Iranian tanker Grace 1 at Gibraltar — beginning of July — under the suspicion that it was heading to Syria—violating the European Union’s (EU) sanctions imposed on the Assad regime. Two weeks later, Iran retaliated by capturing the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero. The Royal Navy’s temporary inaction in this matter raises question on the present and future of what, before 1945, was the world’s leading naval power. Here is a timeline of the crisis:


4 July – Grace 1 enters BGTW and is boarded by Gibraltar Police and Royal Marines under the suspicion that it is violating EU sanctions imposed on Syria.

11 July – BP tanker is approached by Iranian speedboats, but they are confronted by HMS Montrose and they retreat.

13 July – Britain’s Ministry of Defence decides to send second warship to the Gulf. | The UK Government states that it could release Grace 1 if Iran would offer guarantees that the tanker will not continue to Syria.

19 July – Gibraltar´s court extends the detention of Grace 1 for another 30 days | Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) captures the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero, after the threats of retaliation for British Actions at Gibraltar

5 August – Britain joins the US in the Washington-led international maritime security mission in the Gulf.

15 August – US requests the seizure of Grace I from Gibraltar | Gibraltar states that Grace I is free to leave.

18 August – Gibraltar rejects a second US request to seize the tanker. | Grace 1 is renamed Adrian Darya I and leaves Gibraltar.

26 August – Iran sells Adrian Darya 1 to unnamed owner. | Final destination of Adrian Darya I is allegedly Turkey.

3 September – Adrian Darya I disappears from the radar off the coast of Syria.

4 September – Iran announces that it will release 7 of 23 crew members of Stena Impero.

What do the recent developments demonstrate about Britain´s naval power? Is it still a naval power? Recently, the UK’s somewhat indifferent stance vis-à-vis Iran might raise some doubts. Such discussion requires a consideration of past and present circumstances. From a long term examination, it is noteworthy that Britain has been cutting its defence spending over the past 60 years from almost 8% to 2% of the country’s GDP. If nothing else, this can indicate that Her Majesty´s Armed Forces do not enjoy the same amount of government spending. At the same time it can also mean that the British economy is doing better over the years and therefore the defence spending does not require the same share of GDP. Since the end of the Second World War, when the Royal Navy possessed the country´s largest fleet, the number of equipment in the Navy was rapidly reduced. There can be multiple reasons behind it. Firstly, the maintenance of such an enormous fleet is costly. Secondly, since the WW II, there was no conflict on such a global scale that would require a fleet of this size. Thirdly, Britain became part of NATO, which allowed it to share defence responsibilities with its allies. Fourthly, as the technology advanced, so did the military´s quality and effectiveness, which became more relevant than pure quantity. Another long-term factor that might play a key role in this matter is the fact that, 60 years ago, Britain was one of the few naval powers in the world, while nowadays, there are several new emerging players that need to be taken into account and that can compete for naval hegemony, especially around their territorial waters. Iran is one such player.

Britain´s stance throughout the Grace1 – Stena Impero incident was certainly affected by its current internal distraction as the UK remains paralyzed by Brexit. Such internal preoccupations make the tanker crisis a secondary concern. This seems as more probable cause for the inaction of the British Government, as the Royal Navy certainly has the means and power to provide the government with military solutions to this crisis.

All considered, the British Navy is still an important player at sea, but perhaps does not enjoy the same degree of dominance as it once did. EGIC will continue to monitor the situation around the Strait of Hormuz.