That’s the stark warning given by two ex-navy bosses yesterday at a defence review into the Type 26 programme.
Labour peer Admiral Lord Alan West accused ministers of deceiving the public over ordering Type 26 Global Combat Ships to replace the Type 23 vessels.
It comes amid concerns the timetable for the new ships has slipped, with work that was due to begin this year now pushed being back to early 2018.
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The former First Sea Lord warned MPs such delays would leave the Royal Navy’s strength ‘grossly inadequate’.
While another ex-First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, told MPs that to not have the new frigates built in time would put the carriers at risk.
Lord West said: ‘There is almost no money available this year and we are really strapped next year. The government isn’t coming clean about that.’
There are a total of 13 frigates in the Royal Navy’s arsenal – six of which are based in Portsmouth. The last Type 23 commissioned was in 2001.
Admiral Stanhope told the Commons Defence Committee the frigate fleet only had a shelf life of 17 years.
But he feared these frigates would still be in service protecting the £6bn Queen Elizabeth-class carriers – which will be based in Portsmouth – well past this.
‘We are therefore looking at the remaining 13 being decommissioned over the next period where we would have hoped that for every one that is decommissioned a new one would come off the build line,’ he said.
‘That’s clearly not going to be the case unless the new shipbuilding strategy wreaks some miracles.
‘There are going to be some very, very old ladies in their mid-thirties that we’re using to protect brand-new carriers.’
The government confirmed in its Strategic Defence and Security Review in November that eight Type 26 frigates would be built, although that was scaled back from 13.
To make up for the dip in numbers, PM David Cameron pledged to build at least five new, lightweight general purpose frigates.
However, Lord West cast doubt over such promises.
‘To pretend that you’re going to order all of these, that they are really important, but that “there are little problems over design and things” is, I’m afraid, being economical with the actuality.
‘The reality is there is not enough money in the MoD this year and next year. We’ve run out of money effectively, and therefore they have pushed this programme to the right.
‘And that is bloody dangerous because whenever you do that it costs you more money,’ Lord West told MPs.
The peer, who sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords, told the committee there needed to be a steady drumbeat of shipbuilding in the UK.
He said to delay such programmes causes costs to sky-rocket.
Citing delays in the building of the Astute-class submarines, he said: ‘It has taken almost 20 years to get submarine building back on track properly and has cost an extra three-quarters-of-a-billion more than if we had got on with it then.’
John Hudson, managing director of BAE Systems, told MPs the defence giant was in on-going ‘detailed negotiations’ with the MoD over the Type 26 build programme.
He said: ‘We would need to accelerate some of those activities to accelerate the building of those vessels.’
A Downing Street spokeswoman has since added the government would be spending £8bn on UK defence in the next decade.
‘This government has committed to meeting our two per cent of GDP spend on defence, looking particularly at how we invest in first-class equipment for our armed forces.’