DEFENCE chiefs are piling on pressure for the Ministry of Defence to reveal the exact details of how it will replace the Royal Navy’s ageing fleet of frigates.
A report released today by a group of MPs has hit out at the navy’s ‘woefully low’ number of warships and called on the MoD to come clean about what is being done to replace 13 Type 23 frigates.
The number of escort ships we have at this time is a national disgraceAdmiral Lord Alan West, former head of the Royal Navy
The Defence Select Committee’s plea comes days before the National Shipbuilding Strategy is announced – a plan which will be key in determining how the navy will be able to expand.
The current fleet of frigates are due to leave service at the rate of one per year between 2023 and 2035.
But today’s damning report says the MoD has not yet explained how it will achieve this – while maintaining the dwindling number of escort ships needed to protect the UK’s new aircraft carriers, which will be based in Portsmouth.
Since 1998 the number of frigates and destroyers has shrunk from 35 to just 19 now.
It’s a situation the former head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Lord Alan West has said needs to be fixed ‘urgently’.
He said: ‘The number of escort ships we have at this time is a national disgrace. Having 19 of them – two of which are alongside because of a lack of manpower – is disgraceful.’
Today’s report also highlights concerns over the work to replace the engines of the £6bn fleet of destroyers – which keep breaking down.
And it calls on details of how the navy’s next generation of ships – the Type 26 Global Combat Ship and the Type 31 general purpose frigate – will be built, and when, in this week’s National Shipbuilding Strategy.
Among the report’s recommendations includes that the shipbuilding strategy contain:
n A detailed timeline for the delivery of the Type 26s and the Type 31s;
n A comprehensive assessment of the potential to build a new complex warship every two years;
n The criteria against which the expansion of the UK’s share of the export market in warships will be judged;
n The number of apprenticeships required in each of the key trades and how it will monitor them to ensure there are no longer-term skills gaps.
Dr Julian Lewis, defence committee chairman, said decades of decline in the navy had taken its toll and that what remains of the surface fleet now faced a ‘prolonged period of uncertainty’.
He said the National Shipbuilding Strategy had the chance to reverse this but to do that the plan had to contain the details asked for in the committee’s report.
Dr Lewis added if the MoD did not deliver the modernisation programme it would be ‘breaking a promise’ to maintain at least 19 frigates and destroyers, which he said was ‘already pathetically low’.
‘The United Kingdom will then lack the maritime strength to deal with the threats we face right now, let alone in the future,’ Dr Lewis said.
‘We are putting the MoD on notice that it must not let this happen.’
Responding, the MoD said it was investing billions into growing the fleet, including two new aircraft carriers, the Type 26s, Dreadnought and Astute-class submarines and offshore patrol vessels, and that by the 2030s the Type 31s would allow the Senior Service to grow more.
‘This major programme of investment will ensure the Royal Navy remains one of the world’s most modern and powerful navies with a genuine global reach,’ a spokeswoman added.
As for the Type 45 destroyers, the MoD claimed the ships were ‘hugely capable’ and had been deployed successfully across the globe, and that it was ‘committed to improving’ the ships’ propulsion – work which was ‘progressing well’.
The shipbuilding strategy, the MoD added, was designed to place UK warship building on ‘a sustainable footing’.