On 23rd October, HMS Sutherland returned to Devonport for the last time before entering major refit. Although just one of 13 similar vessels in service with the RN, the activities of this ship in the last three years provides an informative snapshot of the hard-run Type 23 frigates at work.
HMS Sutherland emerged from a two-year refit in 2015. She had already given great service in the RN, including combat operations off Libya in 2011. By 2015 she had technically reached the limit of the intended 18-year design life of the class but heavy investment in upgrades will see her serve until 2032. With the exception of a deployment to the Pacific, in recent years she has spent the majority of her time in UK and European waters with substantial periods as the allocated Fleet Ready Escort (FRE) and/or the Towed Array Patrol Ship (TAPS).
Being allocated to the FRE/TAPS pool requires the ship to be readily available for any tasking at short notice, mostly around the UK but potentially to respond to incidents overseas. FRE duty is not always held by a frigate and sometimes OPVs or even minehunters can be used for some aspects of the task which frequently involves monitoring Russian warships transiting near UK waters in the Channel and North Sea. With only 8 towed array-equipped frigates (typically 2 or 3 fully operational at a given moment) there are limited options for the Fleet Commander.
While on TAPS duty, frigates are usually deployed off Scotland or in the North Atlantic hunting Russian submarines, either to sanitise water space for the nuclear deterrent submarine or in support of other NATO ASW operations. While the TAPS may occasionally make the first detection, it is safe to assume they are often cued onto the area of suspected contacts initially detected by underwater sonar arrays, friendly submarines, maritime patrol aircraft or other NATO vessels. For the ship’s company, the prospect of slow patrols trailing electronic string around the heaving North Atlantic can be rather dull, but when a submarine is detected and the contact light is illuminated, everyone on board becomes interested and focussed. ASW requires patience and skill but can be very rewarding whole ship activity that engages everyone, not just the sonar operators and the ship’s flight.
In January 2018 HMS Sutherland left Plymouth for a 7-month deployment to the Asia Pacific region. She was the first RN vessel to visit the region in many years and her trip marked a change in UK foreign policy focus – pivoting back towards the Far East. Five weeks after leaving the UK, the ship arrived in Australia to a big welcome and played a part in the successful defence diplomacy mission that secured the selection of the Type 26 frigate design for the Royal Australian Navy. Sutherland also exercised with RAN, RNZN, USN and Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force and visited the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia.
In early June she conducted a remembrance ceremony over the wrecks of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, the last resting places of 840 men killed when the ships were sunk by Japanese bombers in December 1941. There has been no official confirmation about her most notable activities, but the Sunday Times reported she was shadowed by 16 Chinese vessels as she conducted a lawful Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea sometime during June 2018.
2019 saw the ship return to FRE/TAPS work and by October she had spent 149 days away from her home port, sailing over 22,759 nautical miles in 95 days at sea and was officially recognised as “the busiest ship in the RN” during that period. The logistic demands can be illustrated by her consumption of 1,923,000 litres of F76 fuel. During gunnery exercises, she fired 180 4.5in shells with no stoppages, 20,000 rounds from her GMPGs and mini-guns and 460 rounds from the 30mm cannons. The embarked Merlin Mk 2 helicopter, callsign ‘Highlander’ of 814 Naval Air Squadron, flew 77 sorties from the ship spending 135 hours in the air.
After showing Russian warships in the Channel she visited Belfast in June 2019, She made her only foreign port visit of 2019 to Narvik in company with HMS Westminster before participation in NATO ASW exercise Dynamic Mongoose in the Norwegian Sea. In July she conducted the first trials of the Martlet Lightweight Multi-role Missile fired from panniers mounted on the 30mm cannon. Three missiles were successfully fired at automated targets in Cardigan Bay. (18 months later and there has been no further word from the RN about whether this promising system will be adopted across the fleet.)
When not on operations warships undergo Fleet Time Support Periods (FTSP) typically a few weeks which allow contractors and the ship’s company to undertake routine maintenance. For the frigates, this work is mostly carried out in Devonport of Portsmouth but Sutherland also made use of Faslane for an engine change and resupply. HMNB Clyde is not a frigate base but the growing levels of activity in North Atlantic and High north have seen an increase in frigate visits. Despite claims by the Scottish Nationalists that the frigates are too far away to protect Scotland, being based in the South of England, there is almost always at least one Type 23 in the region. In 2020 three frigates HMS Kent (May), HMS Sutherland (Sept) and Lancaster (Nov) conducted separate FONOPS in the Arctic with NATO partners.
During the first 100 days of 2020, Sutherland spent 70 days away from Devonport. Another trip to the Arctic in February included participation in amphibious Exercise Cold Response. In March she joined the considerably scaled-down Exercise Joint Warrior (JW201), was involved in Submarine Command Course (Perisher) serials and served in the Standing NATO Maritime Group One. In the month of March alone she sailed over 7,500 nautical miles.
As the impact of the pandemic began to be felt the ship’s company was effectively ‘bubbled’ with limitations on going ashore. The sailors were told to mentally consider the next few months as if it were an overseas deployment. Officers worked hard to sustain morale as best they could with the crew confined to the ship for long periods. This included traditional shipboard entertainments such as flight deck barbecues, ‘horseracing’, quizzes and film nights. Sutherland was fortunate to have exceptional chefs, quality meals being a cornerstone of good morale. There was also an effort to have ‘downtime’ and when possible, come to anchor where there was a good phone signal.
The ship continuing with TAPS and FRE tasking before joined the large Autumn exercise Joint Warrior Exercise (JW202) where she operated around the North West coast of Scotland, joining the ship of the “opposing force”, threatening the UK Carrier Strike Group mounting flying operations off the North East coast. Afterwards, the ship made a rare foreign port visit, arriving in Den Helder, Netherlands to give the ship’s company an opportunity to ‘decompress’ after an intense period. Sutherland was the last operational ship in the RN to carry the Sea wolf missile system but unfortunately, there was no opportunity for a final live firing. The complications of COVID-19 meant that the necessary clearances and range facilities were unavailable.
After a big welcome home to Devonport and flypast from the already disembarked Merlin, Sutherland commenced the de-ammunitioning and de-storing process in preparation for LIFEX refit. The ship will be handed over to Babcock for care and protection on 10 December. Although still formally a commissioned warship this is the lowest state of readiness. Her crew will disperse to other jobs in the navy and she will be unmanned until she regenerates ahead of returning to the fleet, fully upgraded with Sea Ceptor and new engines, probably in 2023. The Type 23s remain the backbone of the navy and the other frigates will continuine the hard work and diversity of tasks demonstrated by HMS Sutherland.