Saturday, 27 July 2013

To sail no more - the scrapping of the Type 22 Frigates, and why this was the only rational course of action.

News broke a few days ago that the Royal Navy has finally sold its four Type 22 Batch Three (T22C) frigates for scrap – fetching some £3 million from the sale of them to ship breakers for ‘recycling’. The ships were paid off under the outcome of the 2010 SDSR, although they had originally been planned to be run on till the latter part of this decade. Since being paid off the ships had been stripped of parts and were looking increasingly forlorn on the RNs equivalent of ‘death row’ (Fareham Creek) where decommissioned warships are left until disposal. There was some surprise on some RN related websites that what was arguably the finest class of surface escorts produced for the RN since WW2 had not been sold on for use in another navy. The aim of this article is to try and explain why this may not have happened.

The first thing to note is that the MOD always tries to get the best possible return on its investment when selling off decommissioned warships, planes and equipment. Indeed it runs an entire organisation (the Disposal Sales Agency) which is mandated to try and get the best possible return for taxpayers on what can be very expensive assets. All RN surface ships are routinely looked at when approaching decommissioning to see what possible further use can be got from them and the T22Cs will have been no different.

In practical terms DSA would have worked with other parts of Government such as Defence Attaches, the FCO, the UKTI Defence Security Organisation and so on to identify possible markets for the ships to go to. They’d have worked with a number of countries who may have expressed interest in order to facilitate inspections of the vessels and discuss any sale agreement. The problem is that by all accounts no country emerged as willing buyer of these ships, despite several years of marketing.

There are several reasons for this surprising development. The first is simply the age and condition of the ships – all four vessels were over 20 years old and had been worked extremely hard in RN service. Any navy bringing them into use would have found them needing an expensive refit before going to sea again. The next issue is that all four vessels are now effectively an ‘orphan class’. They were the last Type 22s in service in the RN, and on their disposal the stores, training support and other contracts associated with supporting them would have been fairly quickly switched off. Any nation buying these vessels would not have been able to tap into existing support contracts and training pipelines to get the ships ready with spare parts, and the crews trained to the right standard. Essentially they’d have been on their own to do this.
Arguably the finest Cold War escort built by the RN - HMS CORNWALL  
 There is a very big difference between buying an ex-RN vessel while the RN still has plenty of ships of the same class still in service, when the customer can get economies of scale for spare parts, and support, and being the sole user of such a ship. Its notable that since 1998, the only real sales of the 25 escorts paid off (12 Type 42s, 10 Type 22s, 3 Type 23s), has been three Type 23s which were essentially sold on a ‘hot sale basis’ where the Chileans took control of them almost immediately, while only three Type 22s were sold on – (two to Romania and one to Chile) – again with quite quick transfers. In both cases there was interest as the vessels were part of a larger class which was planned to remain in service for many years to come.

Today though, with no other Type 22s in RN service, any buyer would have to absorb significant costs associated with the vessels and bringing them up to speed, and doing so without easy access to RN training facilities, which no longer run courses linked to these ships.

The next challenge is the sheer cost of modernisation of these vessels, all of which were a complex 1980s design relying heavily on the technology of the time. Any purchaser would be reliant on the UK for the spares chain –which not only imposes a certain challenge for assurance of supply, but also reduces the economic benefit to the purchasing nation of buying them (there would be no real boost to the home economy by doing so). Modernising the vessels would take time, and effort and would be extremely challenging – while it can be done (just look at what the Chileans managed to do with the County Class over many years), it is not a task for the faint of hearted. Given much of the challenge in refits is integration – getting equipment never originally designed to go onto a ship to work with the ship as she will become, it can be an expensive and difficult process. Its likely that the buyer would have needed to consider whether it was worth going to a lot of cost, and incurring a lot of risk on a  ship that may be nearly a quarter of century old before she even enters service. Why not build a new design at home, designed from the outset for use with modern systems and where there are easier training and economic benefits? This is perhaps the real challenge –why buy an old vessel, which needs a great deal of work to update, when you can often get extremely good deals from shipbuilders across the globe – indeed many third world navies can get very advantageous deals from Far Eastern shipbuilders, keen to produce new frigates appropriate to an emerging navies needs.

         If you must have a reserve fleet, then you need to do it properly -
USN Reserve Fleet in 1958 (Copyright US Naval Institute)
So, if there is little economic value in selling them, others asked on the internet why not keep them in reserve in order to provide the Royal Navy with a ‘reserve squadron’ (a phrase often associated with fantasy fleet scenarios). In the past there was often immense value in maintaining a reasonably sized reserve fleet – the technology was relatively simple and the skills needed to operate the vessels was widely available, and easily trained to ‘hostilities only’ recruits. The RN stopped relying on the concept of the Reserve Fleet in the 1950s, when it quickly became clear that any war would probably see nuclear strikes take the fleet out before it was able to go to sea and play a part, despite it absorbing a great deal of RN finance and manpower. Since that point the RN has not really had much truck with the concept of reserve vessels, beyond a small ‘standby squadron’ which existed in fits and starts until the end of the Cold War.

The problem has been though that as ships got more complicated, it has become ever harder to maintain them to the right standard in reserve so that they can come back to sea at short notice. Warships are immensely complex beasts, and require a great deal of effort and husbandry in order to be truly effective. To keep a warship in reserve actually requires a lot of work to keep the vessel ready for sea and her systems working – to the extent that you may as well just keep the vessel in commission in the first place! The other challenge is that as ships lurk in reserve, they are often cannibalised for spare parts – for instance during the 1990s, HMS INTREPID was essentially turned into a floating hulk in order to keep HMS FEARLESS at sea, despite nominally being available for sea herself.

In the case of the T22Cs, the problem becomes more pronounced – had the RN put them into reserve, and kept a small pool of manpower to maintain them, where would the crews come from the run the ships? This problem has two parts – firstly the reality that the RN today is incredibly lean manned, and that the equivalent of four ships companies worth of crews are simply not floating around unallocated. To man these ships would need nearly 1000 personnel, or roughly some 5% of total RN (not including Royal Marine) manpower.

The next problem is that when a class of ship goes out of service, the support network that is in place goes with it. The bespoke training courses, the maintenance, the stores chain – all of the very complicated aspects of support needed to keep a single ship in service quickly break down once a class has gone out of service. It was one reason for the disposal of the T22Cs in the first place – the RN would have saved far more money by taking an entire class out of service, with its associated chain of support, than it would have done by paying off some T23s.

Had these ships been kept in reserve, then none of the support network would have existed to provide trained crews after a certain time. Its not just a case of having the buffers party out on deck, its about having the trained operators and mechanics who know all the specifics of how to keep the bespoke equipment in service, and use it to full effect. The average length of service in the UK military is 8 years, which means that fairly shortly after decommissioning, the corporate knowledge and understanding of how to run the ships will quickly go.

Even basic things like maintaining the Seawolf stockpile would have been a challenge – you’d have had to still run all the support chains to keep the missiles safe, up to date, to keep the stockpile ready for use – missiles are phenomenally complicated and many people don’t understand just how much effort is required to keep an effective missile design in service and able to do its job. It requires a lot of support, both from Government and industry (who would expect to be well paid for their services to keep the design in service). Keeping the vessels in reserve would mean either running on Seawolf, or disposing of it and putting them to sea without its primary defensive missile system.

Even if they had gone back to sea, and a collection of bodies was identified to become the crew, it is a long process of refitting and working them up to a reasonable standard – even in a crisis, from the point where the hull enters dry dock to commence a crash refit, through to the point where the crew begin its work up, this is a process which will take months, potentially over a year. You can refit a ship in time, you cannot create a fully effective crew in a hurry.

While in the Falklands it was possible to bring some ships back into service where they had very recently been paid off (the Tribal Class and some Type 12s) , it is very much the exception (a combination of fairly simple technology in the Tribals case, plus wide availability of spare parts for the Type 12s doubtless helped). Today, the value of being able to bring a first rate escort into service from reserve is minimal – indeed, one only has to look at the navies of the world to realise that all the serious players, such as the UK, US, Canada, Australia, France etc do not really embrace the concept of a reserve fleet in any meaningful way.

So, the hard reality is that there was no real future for the T22Cs once they had paid off from RN service. Too expensive and old to refit effectively, it is perhaps a lesson that should be remembered for the next 20 years. While in previous years the RN has been successful at selling middle aged ships into foreign service (with associated benefits of interoperability, and wider economic success), as there are fewer ships in service, these opportunities will reduce. Its likely that the Type 23s will only be disposed of when they are very old, and very tired – it is hard to see any navy wanting to take them into service after many decades of being worked hard by the RN (which in contrast to most navies gets very good value out of its ships being at sea). One would go so far as to predict that baring an unlikely set of circumstances (such as a pair of Type 45s decommissioning very early) it is highly unlikely that any RN escort will ever again sail on after decommissioning from RN service. 


  1. A more rational commentary on the Type 22Cs aps opposed to uninform sites (I shan't name who).

    Bravo Zulu!

  2. I'd like to see a proper combat exercise done with at least one of them.
    Program an evasive maneuver pathway in the auto pilot.
    Set the decoy launchers and Sea Wolf to automatic.
    Pummel it with air, surface and sub surface firepower.

    Essentially all the ships equipment is junk, and in the round, whats a few Brimstone, storm shadow, paveway and a spearfish
    See if anyone else want to throw anything at it.

    I for one wouldnt mind seeing whether a brimstone can knock out a radar, whether a Storm Shadows Camera can match and hit a warship, and if a Spearfish really will break a frigate in half.
    And indeed, how many of those incoming weapons SeaGnat can spoof and SeaWolf can shoot down.
    Sadly, my opinion carries little weight.

    1. I had a look for any footage of a spearfish and couldn't find any.
      I've not seen any footage of any warship traveling at speed, deploying counter measures and turning aggressively attacked by anything in a test.

      At the end of the day, it immovable object irresistible force.
      We seem to claim to have unstoppable missiles and infallible decoys, but they dont ever seem to get proper testing.
      Blowing up ISO boxes might be visually cool, but it isnt really challenging

    2. TRT - ignoring the fact that it is impossible to run automatic simulations in the manner suggested, you should realise that actually the test work required to get a weapon system into service is extremely complicated. Its not a case of firing into an ISO container, but instead doing an awful lot of stuff that doesnt necessarily become seen, but which does ensure that the services have confidence that it does what its designed to do. Military equipment testing is about ensuring it does the job designed, not about self gratification.

    3. Yes Sir H, I'm well aware of things working on paper...

      I seem to remember the SA80 family were accepted in to service, and then 50 serious faults were identified.
      I have seen various test firings of Storm Shadow, but none hitting targets more difficult than an ISO box, or a pile of them.

      Thats all my concerns answered, as long as the other side neatly stack their vehicles, we have nothing to worry about. Lets hope no one turns up with a roll of camo netting.
      What exactly did that clip do except provide a bit of warporn?

      "ignoring the fact that it is impossible to run automatic simulations in the manner suggested"
      Any half arsed day sailor has an autopilot, are you saying our warships dont?
      Or are you saying our defensive systems cant run on automatic?
      That would seem to be contrary to everything else I've read.

      Perhaps I wasnt clear no "simulation", I would actually send one to sea and see how many targets it could intercept and how many were needed to disable and sink it.

      Not ours, but if anyone had bothered to run the patriot on batteries for a few days, they might have identified the problems with its time keeping before it started missing scuds that blew up full mes hall.
      But of course, it was all tested on paper so thats ok

  3. Quite. A shame the unenlightened posters responding to the increasingly frequent "end of the RN" articles in the press cannot understand the reasoning behind decisions such as this. In response to a recent piece on the end of the T42s there were protests that the RN should have hung on to a couple of these for another 5-10 years as there is (apparently) still plenty of life left in them. Unfortunately Joe Public does not appreciate the impact a seemingly insignificant act like this would have on our overstretched manpower, support network, operational budget etc.

    1. Yes hanging on the the Type 42s in incredulous. Sea Viper and Sea Dart?!

  4. Quit with the superlatives. Not everything has to be staggeringly, immensely or tremendously. Let alone phenomenally.

    It spoils the read.

    The ships have no beneficial use other than recycling, market forces.

    1. If you don't like my writing style, then don't read the article. I'm perfectly happy with how I write, and I have no intention of changing my style.

  5. Every time I visited a T22 B3 over the last few years it was very apparent the poor old things were worn out. They reminded me of some of the very sorry Russian ships I have seen. Sad but true. They were superb ships in so many ways. I hope what is to come with T26 is very much in their mould.

  6. A logical expose of what happens and thanks for that. However, the greater story is the will to maintain a fleet and the pressures a reduced fleet has on (a) keeping an industry going and (b) ensuring that vessels are cost-effective. I fear that a policy based on fleet reduction will ultimately have disastrous effects on national capability to build.

  7. A good read but it failed to mention the Chilean navy has the 'Shiny' Sheff so not all was correct regarding training, handover etc...

    1. Actually Sheffield is mentioned, but not by name in the piece (text reads - while only three Type 22s were sold on – (two to Romania and one to Chile) – again with quite quick transfers. In both cases there was interest as the vessels were part of a larger class which was planned to remain in service for many years to come.)

  8. Not to mention that the Campbeltown had completed an expensive refit literally 12 months before it was taken out of service

  9. I wonder if the batch 3 T22's had been removed from service in 2005 instead of Norfolk, Marlborough and Grafton whether further reductions in surface fleet numbers during the 2010 SDSR could have been avoided.

    As you say Sir H the reduction to 19 escorts was as much about wanting to remove an entire type of vessel and it's associated support structure as it was about identifying how many units the RN could afford to lose.

    Perhaps with 16 Type 23 in commission the guys swinging the SDSR axe would have looked elsewhere to make savings. Although you could of course speculate that such a situation could have resulted in an even more important capability such as the amphibious fleet feeling the burn.

    All swings and roundabouts I guess!

  10. I have to admit I thought they were relatively young but I was thinking of the batch 2's when they were taken out of service (HMS London - 12 years!) With the T22C's perhaps selling 2 and keeping 2 would have been a relatively low cost option which could have overcome some of the problems (spares, marketability, training etc). I think they would be proving invaluable at the moment, they really were great for independant operations with a wide range of capabilities and I suspect the RN are really missing them.

  11. Excellent article.

    I have read that the 3 type 23s that were decommisioned were quite worn out. And that the type 22s offered far better command and control facilities then the 23s. However, i too would have been intrigued to see if the 23s had been retained how the SDSR axe would have fallen.

    Another class of ship that was retired in the early 90's that would have been interesting to have kept, i believe would have been the peacock class patrol vessel. I wonder in hindsight whether they could have been utilised perhaps in a gib guard ship/ carribean patrol vessel role. Similarly to how hms clyde is currently utilised.

    Obviously at the time the peacock class and 3 type 23s were retired, there was a much larger surface fleet. And its easy to suggest options now. However, would have been interesting to see how differently things may have turned out post SDSR, the surface fleet imparticular could have been shaped had different decisions been taken.

    Cheers sellers

  12. I think it's very sad that our Armed forces have to be cut at all, especially when it leaves us short. We now have no carrier cover since the Ark was scrapped and no aircraft to fly from a carrier either yet. STOL technology was very ingenious and British! The Russians tried it and failed so why scrap the concept altogether? There must be situations where this would still be not only useable but the only viable type of aircraft? The government made these cuts to save money but now they want to spend that money (and more) on a second railway that goes to the same places that the existing track goes to. I can't see the sense myself.

    p.s. I'm speaking as a layman, I am not involved nor have ever been involved in defence and am just an ordinary Joe off the street. So if my details are incorrect I stand to be corrected, this is just how I see it at the moment.

  13. I believe the T12 Berwick and Falmouth provided 2/3 years of useful service including two post Falklands Sth Atlantic patrols in 1982-83 after their period in stand by, from the public info it is difficult to determine how long they had actually been in reserve. It appears they were held for possible conversion to towed array frigate. At the time in the first years of the Thatcher govt with the RN heavily restricted by fuel allowances, half the fleet was on a form of standby. I would assume the standby maintenance on Berwick and Falmouth was fairly substantial. In contrast the RNZN T12 Taranaki was out of service in 76-7 thru lack of crew and after a year refit in 1978 was never reliable in service, the Seacat had been removed as unmaintainable and used as spare parts for HMNZS Otago system and the plans to convert Taranaki to gas turbines appeared prohibitively expensive. Whether the T21s as an example of intermediate technology could have been maintained on standby is an interesting question. The USN appears to have plans to maintain some Ticonderoga's in reserve, with a form of fully wired deep 'freeze' maintenance. The earlier USN methods of preservation of the Iowas with greased guns, humidity control and total ceiling from the air never seems to have been practiced by the RN, but could have been useful on HMS Victorious in 68 or Eagle in 72. I do not see your point , in the claim that the T81 was simpler tech than the T12 other than the guns.