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|
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.