With the return of HMS Dragon to Portsmouth last week, at the time of writing, all six of the Type 45 destroyers are alongside or in dock. Depending on who you listen to, this is either an embarrassing disaster or entirely routine and no cause for concern. Here we look at the current situation and the complicated back story.
When the Type 45s entered service 80% of their equipment was new to the RN and many of their advanced systems lacked resilience. The Sampson radars and Sea Viper air defence systems have proved to be world-leading but the ships have been dogged by propulsion issues. In summary, back in 2000, the government of the time made the, not unreasonable, decision to fit innovative and potentially very efficient WR21 British-made gas turbine engines instead of selecting a proven US-made design. Pioneering new technology always involves risk and the WR21 gas turbine intercooler-recuperators, part of a complex integrated electric propulsion system, have experienced a series of failures. The RN is still struggling to deal with the legacy of this decision more than two decades later.
The initial shoreside support arrangement for the Type 45s was not ideal and relied on a contracting-for-availability approach for the first eight years. This has now been re-negotiated with BAE Systems and the Common Support Model is now addressing poor in-house stores, tools, training and technical documentation issues. The Equipment Improvement Plan (EIP) has implemented design changes to the ships, helping improve resilience and allowing them to deploy on operations all over the world but with some limitations and total power failures are still occasionally experienced. Funding was agreed in 2015 but actual work on the first ship to undergo the Power Improvement Package (PIP) which promises to cure the problem, was not started until five years later.
In march 2020 the MoD optimistically stated it expected 4 of the 6 destroyers to routinely be at sea or at high readiness by 2021 but the inaugural PIP has not gone well and HMS Duncan’s major refit has overrun. Combined with two Type 45s returning from a lengthy deployment at the end of 2021 and overall availability is below expectations. The recent increased scale of Russian naval activity has put additional pressure on the RN and shone a spotlight on warship readiness. For reasons that are not primarily the fault of the navy, there is brief non-availability of all its destroyers but many people are working hard to ensure this changes very soon.
Daring has not been operational since June 2017. After several years laid up, primarily due to manpower shortages, she began the first part of her major refit in late 2019 and was dry-docked in June 2020 for about a year. She was towed to Cammell Laird’s Merseyside shipyard in September 2021 and will be the second vessel to undergo PIP. She is currently in dry dock at Birkenhead.
After more than 4 years alongside (over two years laid up and then about 18 months in refit) Dauntless sailed for the first time in March 2020. On 1st May 2020, she left Portsmouth under her own power for a short period at sea to baseline existing machinery performance before arriving on the Mersey as the lead ship for the PIP project. The PIP work was supposed to take about 6 months but she has now been in Birkenhead for 20 months.
The surgery aspect of the PIP which involves cutting the hull open and replacing the two diesel generator sets with three more powerful units was subcontracted by BAE Systems to Cammell Laird and appears to have been fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, the integration, test and commissioning phase seems to have run into serious difficulties, taking more than a year longer than expected. It is unclear exactly when Dauntless will leave the shipyard but there is still further work to be done in Portsmouth before she re-joins the operational fleet, probably in the second half of this year.
Diamond returned from the CSG21 deployment on 9th Dec and has since been alongside in a Fleet Time Support Period (FTSP). Diamond notably broke down mid-deployment and required a complete engine change, illustrating the fragility of the Type 45s until PIP is completed for the whole class.
Typically a FTSP lasts around 6-8 weeks and the ship is still considered part of the active fleet, nominally ready to sail at 72 hours notice in an emergency. The ship remains fully crewed, although many people will be away from the ship on training courses. For the ME department, this is usually an exceptionally demanding time as they assist civilian contractors in rectifying defects.
Diamond’s maintenance has been accelerated and she is likely to sail soon. The Prime Minister has announced a destroyer will be deployed in the Black Sea, almost certainly HMS Diamond. Warships of non-Black Sea nations are only permitted to spend 3 weeks in the Black Sea under the terms of the 1936 Montreux Convention. Diamond will be probably be employed as part of a larger rotating NATO presence in a show of strength in support of threatened nations in the region.
Dragon was active in early 2022 and briefly participated in the operation to monitor Russian Warships in the South West Approaches. She unloaded Sea Viper missiles in a trial of newly rebuilt Northern Ammunition Jetty at Glen Mallan on Loch Long before returning home. (HMS Queen Elizabeth made use of the facility in March last year before it was officially completed and the pedestal cranes were not then in commission). Dragon is now de-storing ahead of an overdue major refit in Portsmouth and will likely be the third ship to undergo the PIP. Under the Lloyds Naval Ship rules now applied to many RN vessels, major refit and inspections have to be completed every 5 years, although this has been extended to 6 years in some cases.
Defender returned from CSG21 on the same day as HMS Diamond and was soon moved into 3 basin for what was a more extensive support period than her sister. The work has also been moving quickly towards completion and she will likely be available for operations again soon. Defender will probably one of the escorts assigned to HMS Prince of Wales, whether that is to Norway for exercise Cold Response as planned, or if the carrier is diverted to the eastern Mediterranean instead.
Began a major refit 2020 although she is not scheduled to undergo PIP at this time. The refit is drawing to a close but has proved to be more challenging than anticipated. Unconfirmed reports suggest there were issues with critical spare parts for the WR21 gas turbines. The refit is now several months late, the ship staff move onboard date (SSMOB) was in July 2021 and the ship was expected to rejoin the fleet before the end of the year. Assume HMS Duncan will now rejoin the fleet in “spring 2022”.
The long-term outlook for the Type 45s is positive. They will all undergo the PIP, fitted around their normal maintenance and deployment cycles over the next five years with lessons learned from HMS Dauntless helping ensure the process is much faster for subsequent ships. By the late 2020s, all 6 ships should return to a normal operating cycle with increased reliability and availability. Between 2026-32 they will receive 24 Sea Ceptor VLS cells, allowing their 48-cell Sylver VLS to be completely filled with the powerful Aster 30 missiles. Adding some Ballistic Missile Defence capability also remains a distinct possibility. The Type 45’s primary role is an (outstanding) air defence platform but their lack of anti-ship missiles continues to be a source of concern. There are lots of nuanced arguments to be made to justify this ‘lethality holiday’ but overall RN combatants are under-armed and outmatched by many adversaries.
In the short term expect to see HMS Diamond and Defender return to operations soon and headlines proclaiming all the Type 45s are out of action should soon be a thing of the past. Funding aside, the biggest single obstacle to more rapid progress is the inadequate numbers of experienced engineering staff. The PIP has taken too long but everything that can reasonably be done to improve destroyer availability is now being done.