In this article, we provide an inside view on the saga that has delayed Type 23 frigate HMS Somerset rejoining the fleet following her life extension refit.
In February 2022, HMS Somerset completed a £20M Life Extension refit in Devonport that began in November 2018. The project included more than one million man-hours of work and was inevitably impacted by the effects of COVID. The two propulsion motors were refurbished and over 500 structural inserts were welded into her hull to make her seaworthy. Her four Paxman diesel generators were replaced but she did not, however, receive the complex and more costly Power Generation Machinery Upgrade (PGMU) being given to a handful of Type 23s which involves changing the DGs for more modern MTU 12V 4000 M53B diesels.
In March 2022 she proceeded to sea to for post-upkeep sea trials which were mostly successful, bar the usual issues that an old warship experiences post-refit. A leak around the rudder stock was noticed and Babcock, together with the ship’s Marine Engineers began trying to rectify the issue.
In May 2022 under the auspices of FOST, she conducted Operational Sea Safety Training (OSST) which proves the ship’s company is safe to operate and can deal with peacetime fires, floods or a collision. This was just 3 weeks long and only part of the normal FOST syllabus but there is now such pressure on the frigate fleet that this at least allowed the ship to be tasked for Fleet Ready Escort (FRE) duty while still working up and conducting trials. During this period, Somerset suffered several incidents, the worst being a split High-Pressure Salt Water pipe that flooded the radar office because of pipe corrosion during the refit.
On completion of OSST, it was decided that Somerset needed dry docking and proceeded to Rosyth, the only suitable dock available at the time. This meant many important post-upkeep trials would be delayed and preparing for dry dock is not a simple evolution as all fuel and ammunition must be removed beforehand. Despite having taken on little ammunition since upkeep, it still took about 10 days to prepare the ship in Rosyth before entering Number 1 dock on 20th June 2022.
The ship spent 58 days in dock while engineers worked on the faulty rudder bearing. The precise details are unclear but the repair partially resolved the issue. The opportunity was taken to re-apply the boot topping (black paint at the waterline) as this had been incorrectly applied during the refit. Somerset was brought out of dry dock in late August, although UKDJ reported that during the evolution she experienced a propulsion failure and nearly hit the jetty.
Somerset eventually left the Forth and headed to Santander for a port visit but the rudder bearing was still leaking slowly. The two months in dry dock meant the summer weather window and calm seas needed for various trials including test-firing the Magazine Torpedo Launch System (MTLS) was missed. For the final quarter of 2022, the ship attempted to fit further sea trials around stints as FRE, a visit to Hamburg and preparation for a second phase of FOST certification – Warfare Operational Sea Training (WOST). This included a visit to the NATO FORACS calibration facility in Stavanger, Norway where it was found that most of her sensors were misaligned – although not unusual for a ship recently out of upkeep. Several important serials and trials such as noise-ranging, critical for passive ASW, were not achieved.
The start of 2023 was a busy period, working up for WOST. A Sea Acceptance Trial of the Type 2087 towed array sonar was conducted during a FOST-covered ASW weekend. This time is normally allocated to proving the basic operation and understanding of S2087, not testing it for the first time. FOST weren’t particularly impressed by this, but there was no identifiable time to do this beforehand.
Following completion of WOST, the ship headed to the High North for NATO exercise Joint Viking 23. Severe weather in the Norwegian Sea hampered the exercise and much of it was conducted in the Fjords with some participants leaving early. On completion of JV23, Somerset visited Copenhagen, arriving back in Devonport in late March for Easter leave. The ship entered a planned Fleet Time Support period during which the RN announced she would have “key system upgrades including Maritime Offensive Strike System (MOSS) before continuing Maritime Task Group Operations through the remainder of 2023.”
In April an extended FTSP began centred around the ship being the first platform to receive the MOSS in the form of the Norwegian-made Naval Strike Missile (NSM). The legacy Harpoon missile launchers had been removed earlier in the year but the more complex internal work began with the the Harpoon power room being gutted. The operations room deck was also taken up to fit the wiring for the new NSM console. The NSM launchers were fitted on the focsle, along with new gyros and numerous combat system enhancements and upgrades. Towards the end of the FTSP, divers conducted a routine survey of the ship’s hull and discovered another issue with the rudders.
It was again decided that Somerset needed dry docking. Fortunately, there was now a dock available in the Frigate Support Centre at Devonport so yet again she spent a week being de-fuelled and de-ammunitioned before going into the shed in June 2023. This also meant the post-FTSP testing of new equipment was not achieved.
The ship’s engineers and Babcock staff agreed that the only way to properly repair the rudder stock was to replace the metal plate that seated the bearing so that the hole was perfect for the bearing. Instead, the MoD Equipment Authority (EA) in Abbey Wood directed a quicker solution be tried. On the 21st August, Somerset was flooded up and moved into the basin. Despite being a slow cold-move, it was immediately obvious the rudder leak was even worse.
Two days later the ship went back into dry dock for the third time since her refit. The EA estimates that re-doing the work correctly could take anything between 1-5 months. The consequences of this debacle are quite serious, HMS Somerset was due to join HMS Queen Elizabeth for the CSG23 deployment that begins in mid-September. It is unlikely she will be able to participate even in the latter stages of the deployment. 18 months after finishing the LIFEX refit she still hasn’t conducted noise ranging, magnetic ranging, loaded any Sea Ceptor, let alone fired them, proved her 4.5-inch gun or proved her MTLS. She will also be required to re-do most of her propulsion trials once she is operational again.
The positive news around the RN’s relatively rapid procurement of NSM (once it was finally realised that a credible anti-ship missile capability was not an optional extra) has been dissipated. Somerset is sitting in the sheds with the brand new NSM fit ready for testing. She was scheduled to go to Norway to directly embark the first weapons but this will now be further delayed. Even more significant is the unavailability of a precious frigate with a towed array sonar tail that can’t be utilised, putting further demands on the already very threadbare fleet at a time when the SSN force is similarly stretched. This episode is also unhelpful for morale and retention as matelots hate uncertainty more than anything else.
It is not entirely unheard of for warships to suffer persistent defects or have issues that still need to be resolved after a refit but HMS Somerset’s case is certainly an extreme example. Unfortunately, as hull numbers have been allowed to decline to such a low level this creates enormous pressure to maximise what is available, whatever the consequences might be. The decision to go for quick fixes and savings eventually ends up costing the MoD and taxpayers even more. If a vessel is handed back to the fleet in a poor engineering state then it is forever playing catch-up and can acquire a reputation as a ‘bad ship’.
The staff at Abbey Wood are also doubtless under pressure to get ships back to sea and balance a taut budget but this story is a reflection of the wider hollowing out across defence. The convoluted issues with the Type 23 frigate LIFEX and PGMU programme also raise serious concerns about whether these old ships will be able to last out until they are replaced by Type 31s and Type 26s. Towed-array equipped HMS Westminster already appears to have deteriorated to a point where it has been deemed too expensive to be worth refitting her for further service.
Clearly, the RN does not have enough kit and what it does have is ageing – the problems with Somerset are not a one-off. The situation should improve with the arrival of new frigates in the 2030s but more than ever it’s imperative maintenance and regeneration processes get better, not worse. The official line will doubtless be “the RN continues to meet its operational tasking as directed by government” but perhaps senior leaders need to be more honest with politicians about tasking versus resourcing and immediately bin anything that resembles presenteeism (such as FRE duty with an unarmed and leaky ship).
Thank you to those who provided some of the details for this article which would not normally be in the public domain. Prompted by growing concern and frustration over what has been happening to the fleet, it is hoped that exposing these failures it will contribute to a change of culture. Listen to the engineers, corner cutting costs more in the long run.