By Michael Knowles
Daily Express – 12 February 2020
National security will be at risk when the Royal Navy's fighting fleet sinks to a historic low, defence experts warn. The number of frigates in service could fall to just nine in the 2020s – a fraction of the formidable naval strength Britain once deployed. Former Navy head Admiral Lord West said:
"We are an island nation and we forget that at our peril. We depend on the sea and we need to maintain our maritime capability."
Navy chiefs were hoping to start replacing the existing force of 13 ageing Type 23 frigates in three years to stop our "woefully inadequate" fleet shrinking further. The Navy is committed to buying eight new Type 26 anti-submarine frigates and five less capable Type 31 general purpose frigates. The Type 23s are to be phased out one by one from 2023. But the first Type 26s and Type 31s are now not expected to enter service until May 2027.
Even "optimistic" estimates suggest that the earliest the first new Type 31s can come into service is 2025, according to a Parliamentary briefing report for MPs. The problem will be made worse by the Navy's six Type 45 destroyers each having to be fitted with new engines in the next five years. Falklands veteran Lord West said:
"The Government promised we would maintain 19 frigates and destroyers but now the number could drop as low as 15. We haven't got enough frigates anyway to do the tasks we have in hand like protecting our shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. When we deploy a carrier to the Far East next year we will need a couple of ships with it. Nelson said, 'When I die I will have 'lack of frigates' engraved on my heart' – and he had 110."
Lord West was backed by the former Naval editor of Jane's, Paul Beaver, who said:
"Make no mistake. This capability gap puts security at risk."
The number of frigates and destroyers has plummeted from 70 in 1975 to 35 in the 1990s and now to just 19. Last September Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, announcing that the new frigates would be built in Britain, said the Type 31 would be fast, versatile warships
"projecting power and influence from the North Atlantic to the Pacific."
But the briefing paper for MPs revealed the Type 23s will begin to leave service in 2023 – while the first Type 26, HMS Glasgow, has an "in-service date" of 2027.
Dr Julian Lewis, former chair of Parliament's Defence Select Committee, said:
"The size of the surface fleet is already below critical mass and there have been substantial problems with recruitment and retention. To reduce the size of the fleet any further will make it very difficult for us to defend our interests at sea worldwide."
Former head of the Armed Forces, Admiral Lord Boyce, described the number of frigates and destroyers as "anorexic". All eight Type 26s will be called after cities including Belfast and Cardiff but the 31s are still unnamed.