In a report seen exclusively by HSJ, the RCN warns of the "vulnerability and invisibility" of nursing.
General secretary Peter Carter told HSJ that, contrary to the message coming out of the DH, the need for nurses has not "plateaued".
"I want to say to government that the destabilisation we saw in the maternity services workforce a few weeks ago is nothing compared to the current trend for a lack of nurses in the future. When the DH says the need for nurses has plateaued, that fills me with horror."
Mr Carter said that he was worried that previous lessons on poor workforce planning had not been learnt. He called on the government to work with the RCN, other royal colleges and NHS Employers to ensure more nurses and healthcare support workers were properly trained and regulated.
He admitted that the RCN, along with other workforce partners, also had to "up our game on workforce planning".
"Collectively we have not covered ourselves in glory with this planning, yet something is going wrong somewhere and my worry is that the people doing this planning in government won't be there to be held accountable when it goes wrong.
"Now is the time to get real partnership working, so with the NHS Confederation, the medical colleges and NHS Employers, we want to work with the DH on this," Mr Carter said.
Nursing Futures, Future Nurses calls for debate about the future supply of nurses and the demands on the nursing workforce. It says that "the future will be determined by how we invest in and support [nurses] to deliver care differently".
It also warns that "if the nursing profession does not get a grip and take control of how nursing care will be delivered and by whom in the future, others most definitely will".
It concludes that the NHS nursing workforce is highly vulnerable to the impact and mix of possible policy changes: "If policy makers allow intakes to pre-registration education to remain low and/or allow wastage rates to increase while also avoiding any return to active international recruitment, it appears almost inevitable that the nursing workforce will decline in terms of 10 to 20 per cent in whole time equivalent contribution over the next 10 years."
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "We do not expect to see the rapid growth in numbers that we saw in the years following the NHS plan. SHAs are working with trusts and service planners so we can match supply and demand in the future. We do not foresee a problem with meeting future demand."
NHS Employers head of careers and workforce supply Foluke Ajayi said: "We need to ensure that we have the right calibre of nursesƒ We anticipate that there will be a change in the role of nurses as PCTs look at how services are delivered closer to patients' homes."
Ms Ajayi said that NHS Employers would publish a report on the nursing workforce later this year.