Progress on extending the life of the Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigates

In June 2018, we reported on how the Type 23 frigates are receiving engine upgrades and life extension refits. Here we review the state of the frigate fleet and progress on their refits.

The life extension (LIFEX) refit includes hull survey and repairs, replacing Sea Wolf with Sea Ceptor, new Artisan radar (if not already fitted) and miscellaneous other repairs and refurbishments. The Power Generation Machinery Upgrade (PGMU) engine upgrade involves replacement of the four main propulsion diesel-generator sets. The ships are taken in hand at the Frigate Refit Complex (FRC) in Devonport Dockyard. This valuable covered facility owned by Babcock has 3 dry docks and is instrumental in completing the frigate upgrades at a steady pace.

When all the ships have completed LIFEX it will be a stretch to find sufficient manpower to form ships companies for them all. At least one frigate and one destroyer have been laid up in recent times due to lack of people and this arrangement is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The politically important benchmark that the RN ORBAT includes 19 surface escorts needs to be maintained, even if the frontline reality is fewer vessels. It is also important to keep hold of 19 ships in order to get the 19 replacements (which will ultimately have reduced manning requirements). Unconfirmed reports in the Brazilian media continue to circulate that second-hand RN frigates will be offered for sale in the near future. The MoD denies this and their claim is perhaps endorsed by the vigorous ongoing LIFEX programme.

There are those who are apparently unconcerned about the leisurely Type 26 construction schedule but despite the refit programme, the Type 23s are ageing fast. The first Type 23s to be decommissioned should be replaced by new Type 31e if this very ambitious project can deliver 5 ships in a fraction of the time taken by Type 26. Assuming the Type 31e project proceeds smoothly (which is a big assumption), then frigate force numbers should just about be stable until the end of the 2020s. It is the 2030s when there is an increasing danger that the remaining Type 23s will become obsolete and tired, either forced to soldier on or be scrapped without Type 26 replacements immediately available.

HMS Iron Duke towed out of Portsmouth for refit in Devonport.

In deep refit

HMS Richmond (Age 25*)
Richmond entered the FRC in August 2017 and is the first frigate to receive the new engines. She is scheduled to be handed back to the RN in July, although the work is behind schedule. It will now be very challenging for Babcock to meet this deadline, perhaps unsurprising as lessons are learned with the first ship to undergo such a big upgrade. Richmond will be the first Type 23 to change base port and will become a Devonport ship when she rejoins the fleet.

HMS Lancaster (Age 28)
Lancaster completed her last major refit in 2012 and after active service, was placed in ‘reduced readiness’ in 2016. She was towed from Portsmouth to Devonport in March 2017 and began her LIFEX refit soon after. She is due to be floated out of the FRC in mid-February 2019.

HMS Portland (Age 19)
After more than a year in reduced readiness in Devonport, Portland began her LIFEX in February 2018. Despite a minor fire onboard in September 2018, she is just behind HMS Lancaster in terms of progress and will leave the FRC soon.

HMS Somerset (Age 24)
Somerset began preparing for LIFEX refit in November 2018 but only recently entered the FRC and will be out of action until sometime in 2020.

HMS Iron Duke (Age 27)
After being laid up in Portsmouth in 2017, the Iron Duck was towed from Portsmouth to Devonport in mid-January. She is reportedly in a very poor state and it is hard to understand why there was not a greater effort to preserve her while she was in ‘reduced readiness’. She arrived in Devonport with a slight list to starboard, small rust holes in the deck and grass growing on the flight deck. She is due to replace HMS Lancaster in the FRC and will need extensive work. Each refit is done to a budget and expenditure on structural work may come at the expense of some equipment upgrades.


HMS St Albans (Age 19)
After winning the Fleet Effectiveness Award for underwater warfare in 2018, she is has been deployed on familiar duties as the Towed Array Patrol Ship (TAPS) in northern waters in January (ie monitoring Russian submarine activity). She last completed a major refit in Portsmouth during 2014 and is due to begin her LIFEX refit later in 2019.

HMS Westminster (Age 26)
Fitted with Sea Ceptor, she completed LIFEX refit at Portsmouth in January 2017 but will have to await the engine upgrade at some point in future. After a busy 2018 including operations in the Arctic Circle, she suffered a propulsion defect of some kind in December 208 that left her stranded for a week in Gdynia, Poland. She was a repaired and returned to Portsmouth before Christmas and is now in maintenance.

The main areas of work on HMS Westminster during her 2016 Portsmouth refit. (Image: BAE Systems)

HMS Kent (Age 20)
Completed 18-month LIFEX refit in August 2018 but will have to await the engine upgrade at a future refit. She is currently undergoing Operational Sea Training based in Devonport.

HMS Northumberland (Age 20)
Completed LIFEX refit between October 2017 – March 2018 but will have to await the engine upgrade at a future refit. She participated in exercise Trident Juncture in 2018 and was at sea on Fleet Ready Escort (FRE) duty over Christmas and New Year. She is currently operating in northern waters and like HMS Westminster, sporting a ‘blue nose’ as evidence of Arctic operations.

HMS Sutherland (Age 22)
After major deployment to the Asia-Pacific last year and maintenance period, she is in Devonport ready again for operations. Sutherland completed a 13-month major refit in March 2015 but has not had Sea Ceptor fitted or LIFEX yet – which is probably due to begin in 2020.

A weathered HMS Monmouth returns to Devonport after Westlant 2018 deployment. She will serve until at least 2026 when she will be 34 years old.

HMS Monmouth (Age 27)
Monmouth completed an 18-month refit in June 2015. She was in the Gulf in 2017 and sailed with HMS Queen Elizabeth on 4-month Westlant deployment last year. She has not had Sea Ceptor fitted or LIFEX refit yet which this old lady probably needs soon.

HMS Argyll (Age 29)
Argyll was the first ship to receive Sea Ceptor and test-fire the missile. She completed her 20-month LIFEX refit in February 2017 but is one of two older frigates that will never receive the engine upgrade. She currently is on the homeward leg of a 9-month tour the Gulf and Asia-Pacific. She spent around 5 weeks conducting scheduled mid-deployment maintenance in Singapore in November 2018.

HMS Montrose (Age 26)
Montrose completed a lengthy £35 Million LIFEX refit in July 2017 but has not yet received new engines. She sailed from Devonport in October 2018 and will away from the UK for 3 years based in Bahrain. She has taken the Westerly route to the Gulf and is on the kind of exciting voyage that inspires people to join the navy. She crossed the Atlantic and transited the Panama Canal to Chile and then visited Easter Island, the Pitcairn Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand and is now heading for Japan. It is planned she will work with Japanese warships to enforce sanctions as part of attempts at denuclearisation of North Korea.

“Join the Navy, see the world”. HMS Montrose at anchor off the Pitcairn Islands, January 2019.

*Age is the number of full years since launched. (The ships were typically laid down 2 years before launch). Like any manufactured product, age is not always a precise indication of its material state. The condition of ships of a similar age may vary depending on several factors; original build quality, how hard they have been worked in service and the regularity of good maintenance.