Answering questions in Parliament in the wake of the Integrated Review announcements yesterday, the Prime Minister said “…we will have, by the end of this decade, 24 frigates as opposed to the 15 today.” Here we unpack that statement and look at the likely shape of the RN’s frigate and destroyer fleet over the next 15 years.
The PM’s statement is clearly wrong as we don’t have 15 frigates today – there are currently 13 in commission and there is no intention or capacity available to deliver 24 frigates by 2030. The PM clearly misspoke and meant the total number of both frigates and destroyers, this was later confirmed by the MoD press office. To be fair to politicians who are not subject matter specialists, it must be difficult to remember precisely all the facts and figures covering every aspect of government off the top of your head. In recent years the MoD has become very shy about publishing Out of Service Dates (OSD) and In-Service Dates (ISD) for anything. A public commitment by the PM to some kind of warship building target can only be seen as positive. Sources within the RN say they aspire to have an escort fleet of 24 ships by “the early 2030s”, although 2035 is probably more realistic.
Our analyses suggest that to have 24 escorts in commission by 2030 would be virtually impossible. If the second batch of Type 26 frigates are built more quickly than the first 3 ships, then 24 by 2035 might be achievable. This assumes the last five Type 26s would be laid down at about the rate of one every 18 months and ready for operations within about 6-7 years, considerably faster than the first batch. This delivery schedule for Type 26 is more optimistic than those assumed previously but should be possible within the industrial capacity limitations at the Glasgow shipyards.
The Type 31 frigate programme must also deliver the 5 ships exactly on time as promised, and work on the first Type 32 must follow on immediately, construction starting several years before the last Type 31 is operational in 2030. Assuming obsolete Type 23s will not be extended in service further, to get to the figure of 24 escorts would require all 8 x Type 26, 5 x Type 31 and 5 x Type 32 to have been delivered (plus the 6 Type 45 destroyers.). The Type 45 replacement project (Type 83) will also need to begin in the early 2030s to ensure continuity of the air-defence destroyer force. In summary, every aspect of the warship building programme would need to proceed smoothly and to a tight schedule to achieve an escort force of 24 vessels by the mid-2030s.
The chart below is an estimation of this ‘best-case scenario’ for the frigate programme.Frigate-Schedule-2021-3
The Defence Command White paper says two Type 23 frigates, HMS Monmouth and HMS Montrose will be retired early. This is not as serious as the loss of four that was previously speculated. As we observed in our earlier article, although the headline total number of frigates in commission will go down, the overall availability of escorts on the frontline will actually increase. In the next few years, the Type 23 LIFEX programme and the Type 45 PIP project will conclude, returning ships that have been in dockyard hands for a long time to the fleet in a more reliable condition. Retiring Monmouth and Montrose early is a sensible choice that will release funds that can be better used elsewhere.
HMS Monmouth is stripped of most equipment and has effectively been retired since 2019, being used to train crews before flying out to serve on HMS Montrose. HMS Montrose arrived in the Gulf in 2019 to be based in Bahrain for 3 years. Despite her likely demise in 2022, ironically the First Sea Lord recently described her as “currently the most efficient Type 23 in the fleet” due to her dual crewing system maximising availability. Montrose is clearly being run hard and giving great service in her twilight years but retiring her ahead of the original OSD of 2027, will save further significant maintenance costs. The cost of LIFEX for HMS Monmouth will be avoided entirely, her original OSD being 2026. Both these ships will be close to hull life expiry, a money pit to run on further and unlikely to be sold for anything but scrap.
In order to keep frigate numbers from dipping too low in the mid-2020s, the RN plans to extend the life of HMS Argyll, Lancaster and HMS Iron Duke beyond their original OSD. Lancaster has completed LIFEX refit and Iron Duke is currently being worked on in the shed at Devonport, so the material state of these two vessels will be good enough to keep them in service for a little longer. Five years after completing LIFEX, HMS Argyll will have a refit in 2022 will remain in service for up to another 5 years or so. Just how long these three old ships remain in service will be determined by when the Type 31s are operational and ready to replace them.
Main image above – HMS Montrose salutes USS Sterett after working together on maritime security operations in the Gulf of Oman, Oct 2020 (Photo: US Navy).