Royal Navy's Surface Combatant Fleet Set to Decline to 15 Vessels

Babock's winning design for the Type 31 frigate competiton

Published Feb 17, 2020 7:37 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Royal Navy's surface combatant fleet - excluding auxiliaries, minesweepers, submarines and carriers - is set to fall to just 15 ships by 2027 under current plans, according to a new report from the UK Ministry of Defense. 

The service's future Type 31 frigates have been delayed by four years, putting their arrival in mid-2027. The current Type 23 frigates that they will replace are set to be decommissioned beginning in 2023. The retirement of the Type 23s will cut the number of UK frigates down to nine vessels before the first Type 31 arrives. Add in the six Type 45 destroyers and the Royal Navy's warship force will come in at 15 hulls - a smaller surface navy than that of Italy or France. 

“Just 15 major service ships will put us into the second tier of the world’s navies," said former First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West, speaking to UK tabloid The Sun. “Fifteen surface ships means only five on task, as a third will be in maintenance and a third will be training. For a great nation like ours, just five [warships] on task is a national embarrassment and disgrace.”

The United States currently has about 90 major surface combatants (not including hundreds of other vessels), and it hopes to grow its force through autonomous or optionally-manned systems in years ahead. China has 88 warships and rising; Russia has 26; and India has 23.  

The new Type 31 is a low-cost, lightly-armed alternative to the new Type 26 "Global Combat Ship" frigate, which is being procured in parallel. At a contract price of roughly $300 million each, they are an exceptionally affordable option for patrol and law enforcement operations. The Type 31 was conceived as a way to reduce the order total for costly Type 26 frigates while keeping the fleet total roughly the same; the contract competition was suspended in mid-2018 due to a funding shortfall, then reactivated in December 2018 with three main competing designs. Babcock Group won the tender in November 2019. 

Initial planning for the Type 31 envisioned the first vessel entering service in 2023. However, defense secretary Sir Stephen Lovegrove wrote in an accounting memo last month that the schedule has changed: the UK Ministry of Defense's Investment Approvals Committee (IAC) has signed off on a delivery schedule with Babcock that calls for the first ship in the water in 2023; the first in service in May 2027; and all ships accepted off-contract by the end of 2028.