Unofficial naval sources say that the frigate HMS Westminster has been found to be in such a poor state that it would be difficult to justify the expense of repairs and her refit has been stopped, pending a decision on her future.
Westminster was the first Type 23 to have a Life Extension refit, completed in Portsmouth in 2017. After a busy 7 years of service, mostly in European waters, in early October 2022, she arrived in Devonport and initial work began on a refit expected to last less than two years. It was intended she would become a Devonport-based ship and this work package would keep her going until around 2028-29. Westminster is the next oldest frigate (launched in 1992) after HMS Monmouth and Montrose which have already been retired.
RN policy is not to comment on the material state of vessels but a spokesperson hinted at difficult choices ahead saying: “Refit programmes are constantly reviewed to balance availability against value for money. No decisions have been made about any particular unit.” Official confirmation on the fate of HMS Westminster is likely to come at the end of June when the new Defence Command Paper is published. The Secretary of State made a public plea for an extra £11 billion in funding, essentially to mitigate the effects of inflation and long-term holes in the budget. The Treasury responded with another £5 billion, mainly to increase ammunition stocks with ‘aspirations’ for a gradual budget growth over the next few years. Effectively the defence budget is increasing but is not rising fast enough just to maintain existing commitments or to fully fund the future equipment plan. Another temporary reduction in frigate numbers may be part of the ‘pain sharing’ that the RN will be forced to take as part of the latest review.
The Type 23 LIFEX programme has taken much longer and cost far more than originally anticipated as serious age-related obsolescence, mechanical and structural problems have come to light. HMS Iron Duke returned to her home base in Portsmouth recently, 53 months after starting her LIFEX refit. The RN says the project was the most complex of any undertaken on the Type 23s and structural repairs to the hull involved almost twice the work of any previous refit in the class. The cost implications are obvious and the additional expense of getting one ship to sea may have cannibalised the budget available for others.
So far only HMS Richmond has received the PGMU engine replacement, returning to sea in 2020 – an upgrade originally intended to be applied to all but two of the surviving frigates. HMS St Albans has also had new engines fitted but her refit has now lasted more than 40 months and she is still a long way from being operational.
Keeping the Type 23s going beyond their 30th birthdays is clearly proving more difficult and expensive than had been anticipated even just a few years ago. The oldest frigate, HMS Argyll is in the dry dock at the FSC and a year into a major upkeep period that should sustain her for another 5 years or so. She could be another target for economies or alternatively, HMS Lancaster may not see out her intended 3 years forward-deployed in the Gulf. (This is speculation only).
Westminster is one of just 8 (FFTA) Type 23 frigates equipped with the 2087 Towed Array sonar ‘tail’ that is by far the most effective ASW sensor in the surface fleet. With HMS St Albans and HMS Sutherland yet to emerge from LIFEX refits, there are only 5 frigates with tails currently available at a time when the submarine threat is intensifying. Moving the 2087 equipment to a surviving GP frigate (either HMS Argyll or Iron Duke) would theoretically be possible but is not a simple job and would come with a noticeable cost attached. Although there is an empty well in the quarter deck for the winch, towed body and handling system, there would be a significant amount of inboard equipment to be added, high voltage power supplies, cabling, ventilation and hydraulic equipment to be fitted, integrated and set to work. The long-term plan involves at least some of the 2087 sets being refurbished and migrated to the Type 26 frigates as the Type 23s decommission.
Shephard Media reports the cost of purchasing 5 sets of 32-cell Mk41 launchers for the Type 31 frigates would be around £93M before integration. The unexpected repairs to HMS Prince of Wales are costing around £25M. Besides the headline ship and submarine building programme, the RN has a multitude of other projects underway to develop novel future capabilities, all of which demand funding. Balancing a tight budget is always a series of complex trade-offs, ie. should future capabilities be the priority or refitting an old frigate that may only serve for another few years?
If HMS Westminster is axed, it would take RN frigate numbers down to just 10, although this will return to ‘full strength’ by the mid-2030s as 13 new frigates are either under construction or on order. We will not repeat in detail here all the obvious risks and additional pressures on the fleet that will be created by further loss of escorts during the intervening period.