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Royal Navy’s Oldest Frigate Gets a Second Career LIFEX Adding 5 Years

life extension Royal Navy's oldest frigate
HMS Argyll in dry dock for her second career life extension for the 31-year-old vessel (Babcokc)

Published Aug 19, 2022 4:10 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UK’s Royal Navy, which is already grappling with accusations of operating too many "elderly vessels” in a security environment that is becoming less stable, has begun an effort to keep its oldest frigates in service. Commissioned in 1991, HMS Argyll is the longest-serving Type 23 frigate in the fleet, and now the vessel is undergoing her second life-extension overhaul. She had been scheduled to retire in 2023.

Defense contractor Babcock International has started what is being called a post-life extension (LIFEX) for HMS Argyll at its Devonport Royal Dockyard. It is the first of the aging Type 23 fleet to undergo the next post-LIFEX upkeep.

The overhaul, which aims to keep the 31-year-old Argyll in service for a minimum of another five years, comes only five years after the frigate became the first UK navy warship to undergo a LIFEX. She underwent an extensive overhaul from 2015 to 2017, which became a model for upgrades that were later carried out across the fleet.

Despite these significant investments, politicians and others are critical of the Royal Navy and its approach to managing the fleet. They argue that the aging vessels are expensive to operate and cannot effectively respond to an increasingly hostile and unpredictable international environment.

According to a UK House of Commons Defense Committee report, the Type 23 frigates are among the UK’s navy equipment that should have been replaced years ago because it has become increasingly challenging and expensive to maintain the aging vessels. The report, which is critical of the UK government for cutting budgetary allocations to the Royal Navy, says government policy is making it impossible to modernize the fleet. This comes despite the promises from the outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to invest in UK shipbuilding. The committee report contends that it cost $13.2 million annually to run a Type 23 frigate. The Royal Navy operates 12 Type 23 frigates currently with only about eight available at any time while the others are undergoing maintenance.   

The post-life extension of Argyll will involve a complete overhaul of equipment and design changes for new capabilities such as communications upgrades and mixed crewing. The frigate will also receive a full spray coat of paint on the outer bottom and sides.

“HMS Argyll presents a huge opportunity to demonstrate Babcock working in collaboration with our customer throughout the planning period and by implementing new efficient and innovative processes we are striving to complete the project in a reduced timescale compared to a standard upkeep,” said Sarah Hilder, Project Manager for HMS Argyll’s upkeep.

She added that work has begun with the vessel being prepared for a Lloyds structural survey to achieve an early full ship assessment in just nine weeks.

At 4,900 tonnes, the 436-foot long frigate was deployed on operations for much of 2018 and 2019 to the Far East and Arabian Gulf as the first Sea Ceptor Missile fitted warship. On her return through the Bay of Biscay, Argyll rescued 27 mariners from the Ro-Ro ship MV Grande America that caught fire while traveling in the Atlantic Ocean and sank in the Bay of Biscay in March 2019.

The warship, which has deployed operationally not only in Asia-Pacific but also in the U.S., Caribbean, and West Africa, has steamed about 700,000 nautical miles over its long career. First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, Tony Radakin, suggested to Parliament in 2021 that older Type 23 frigates would be retained in service longer than anticipated to maintain the fleet at a critical level. The success of the LIFEX suggests that she will again serve as a model with other members of class to follow her with the second upgrade.