The programme of LIFEX refits to upgrade and repair the ageing Type 23 frigates fit for service beyond their 30th birthdays continues. While delivering an important capability boost, the work has mostly taken longer than expected and here we look at progress to date.
Each frigate undergoing life extension (LIFEX) refit has a hull survey and repairs, the Sea Wolf missile system replaced with Sea Ceptor, new Artisan radar (if not already fitted) and miscellaneous other upgrades and refurbishments. Originally it was intended that 11 of the 13 ships would receive the Power Generation Machinery Upgrade (PGMU) engine upgrade, although that number may now be in doubt. (More details of the technical aspects of PGMU are described in our earlier article) Essentially the upgrade involves replacement of the four main propulsion diesel-generator sets to provide much greater fuel efficiency and performance, especially in hotter climates.
The time spent in refit appears to vary significantly between vessels, somewhere between 19 – 28 months. The impacts of the pandemic clearly do not help but progress was variable, even before lockdown. The main limiting factor appears to be the availability of enough skilled people at Devonport. Discovery of significant hull deterioration and structural problems that need to be rectified on some ships has extended their time in dock.
Although a very different era, it is interesting to compare the major conversion work to upgrade Leader class frigates that mainly took place at Devonport during the 1970s and averaged around 36 months. The dockyards of the 1970s were in the grip of obstructive unions and notoriously inefficient. The Leander conversions proved to be astronomically expensive and in hindsight, of dubious value for money. Although the failure to begin constructing their replacements sooner is indefensible, the £600M Type 23 LIFEX programme represents relatively good value. In addition to receiving an effective new weapon system, habitability improvements and much else, the service of 13 vessels is being extended for an average of about 8 years.
Summary of progress, November 2020
|Frigate||PGMU status||LIFEX refit
| Out of
|Service remaining (yrs)|
|HMS Westminster||2014||Jan 2017||2028||8|
|HMS Argyll||Jun 2015||Feb 2017||2023||3|
|HMS Montrose||?||2015||July 2017||2027||7|
|HMS Northumberland||May 2016||May 2018||2029||9|
|HMS Kent||Jan 2017||Aug 2018||2033||13|
|HMS Lancaster||Mar 2017||Dec 2019||2024||4|
|HMS Richmond||Aug 2017||Feb 2020||2030||10|
|HMS Portland||Feb 2018||Mar 2021||2034||14|
|HMS Somerset||Nov 2018||2021||2031||11|
|HMS Iron Duke||Mid 2019||2022?||2025||5|
|HMS St Albans||Mid 2019||2022?||2035||15|
|HMS Sutherland||Dec 2020||2023?||2032||12|
Assuming that the frigates are very unlikely to be run-on beyond their planned out of service dates, it becomes apparent that the expense of upgrading the engines of 3 more vessels is questionable value for money. HMS Montrose is doing a sterling job forward-deployed in the Arabian Gulf but is not scheduled to return to the UK until 2022. Even if the engine change was completed in under a year, she would emerge with just 4 years or so left before decommissioning. HMS Iron Duke is currently having her LIFEX and was in a particularly poor material state before it began which may extend the time required. If her refit is completed sometime in 2022 she will have just 3 years left to serve.
There is now some doubt that HMS Monmouth will have LIFEX refit at all and maybe decommissioned prematurely. She has been alongside in Devonport since March 2019, officially she is described as a Fleet Time (FT) unit in Long Readiness (LR). Stripped of her weapons and sensors, the majority of systems are dormant except those required to maintain a habitable environment for watchkeeping and maintenance. She retains a very small duty watch and is occasionally used as static damage control and fire-fighting training platform for crews preparing to take over forward-deployed ships. Due out of service in 2026, she could not be made seaworthy without a LIFEX refit and considerable investment. No decision has been announced but, even before the pressures of the pending defence review, HMS Monmouth looks unlikely ever to go to sea again.
Testbed – HMS Richmond
The first frigate to have the PGMU, HMS Richmond went back to sea in February 2020. Effectively she is the testbed for the engine upgrade which has inevitably extended her work up and return to the fleet. Her refit employed 350 Babcock staff working a total of 1 million man-hours. 8 km of new cable and 600m of new pipework and were installed. The new diesel-generator sets have to be placed into the Forward Auxiliary Machinery Room (FAMR) below decks. The Upper Auxiliary Machinery Room (UAMR) is on main deck level and is more easily accessible via deckhead soft patches but was also completely stripped and much equipment re-sited. Early indications are that the upgrade has been a success but there are still issues to be resolved, especially the integration work with new software upgrades having to be iteratively applied. Once the system is proven and fine-tuned on Richmond, it should be faster to complete the work on the ships following on after in the PGMU programme.
Next out – HMS Portland
HMS Portland began her refit in early 2018 and as one of the youngest frigates, she likely required fewer repairs to her hull. She was fitted with Artisan 997 radar for the first time but does not appear to have received the PGMU. She is the first of 8 Type 23 to be fitted with new Ultra Electronics S2150 Bow Mounted Sonar (replacing the legacy Type 2050). This system will also be migrated onto the Type 26s in future. Portland emerged from the FSC sheds in February 2020 but subsequent has progress appears to have been slow, spending most of the year in the basin. She is scheduled to go to sea by Easter 2021 and will belatedly replace HMS Sutherland after she returned to Devonport on 23 October for the last time before entering the LIFEX cycle.
When the final Type 23 completes its engine upgrade, the Frigate Support Centre (FSC) at Devonport will be almost redundant with no major frigate refits required for some time. Both the Type 26 and Type 31s that will join the fleet in future are too large for the three dry docks in the FSC. The facility was completed in 1977 with much smaller Leander class and Type 21 frigates in mind. The dry docks were later lengthened to accommodate the stretched batch II and III Type 22s frigates but the ‘light cruiser-size’ frigates of the 21st Century will have much greater beam, demanding bigger docks.
Babcock have begun looking at options for re-building the facility to accommodate these ships but such a significant investment would need to be backed by some form of guarantee that they would be allocated refit work. As a Babcock product, they would probably be in a good position to secure maintenance for the Type 31s, although this may be complicated by the intention to forward-deploy them overseas for long periods. BAE Systems would be in the stronger position to win the upkeep work for the Type 26 and would likely want to undertake the work in Portsmouth where they already have a major presence.
By 2023-24 when the LIFEX programme is complete the RN will face a renewed challenge to find personnel. With so many frigates unmanned during the LIFEX cycle, this has temporarily reduced crewing pressures and it will be instructive to see if any of the frigates and destroyers have to be returned to ‘low readiness’ due to lack of people. RN recruitment is buoyant and the pandemic has reduced voluntary outflow for a while, but the ‘pinch points’, particularly the lack of experienced engineers and skilled trades cannot be quickly resolved.
In the period 2023-27 RN frigate numbers will inevitably fall below the ‘on paper strength’ of 13 as the first Type 23s leave service and there is nothing ready to replace them. The first Type 26 HMS Glasgow is likely to to be handed to the RN in 2025, commission in 2026 but conduct lengthy first of class acceptance trials before being declared fully operational in 2027. The first Type 31 should also be operational by 2027, although unlike Type 26s, the following 4 Type 31s will arrive relatively quickly, the last being operational by February 2030.
Main photo: Andy Amor