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Royal Navy: Frigates

Volume 798: debated on Thursday 11 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the number of frigates in commission available for operations will fall below 13 in any year before 2026.

My Lords, the Government remain committed to a surface fleet of at least 19 frigates and destroyers. The Royal Navy will have the ships it requires to fulfil its defence and policy commitments. All ships rotate through planned operating cycles involving maintenance, training, deployment, leave and capability upgrades.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. As he well knows, there are 13 frigates. I was in the yard at Devonport a few days ago, and five of the Type 23s were there. That is not unusual—one was in deep refit and four were coming back from operations and preparing. It effectively means that this great maritime nation of ours has eight frigates available for operations, one of which is being used in the Gulf at the moment. The nearest major warship to that one is on the other side of Suez, which I find rather worrying. We are planning to order the Type 31e. I cannot see how we will be able to get the first of those ships in commission, having done its first-of-class trials, before 2024. Yet the first of the Type 23s, the “Argyll”, pays off aged 34—it has a planned life of 25 years—in 2023. Is it possible, as a matter of urgency, for the MoD to look at the speeding up of the build rate of the Type 26 frigates? Then we can ensure that we are getting frigates in place, because we have too few as a nation. It makes us less secure and means that wars are more likely. It is really important to move forward.

My Lords, I take very seriously the noble Lord’s concerns on this issue. As I have said on earlier occasions, we want the first Type 31e in 2023, with five ships delivered by the end of 2028; that is to replace the five Type 23 general purpose frigates. As he knows, the Type 31e is being procured through competition between UK shipyards. We will not have the result of the competition until the end of this year, so until then, it will not be possible to make predictions about whether the delivery date that we have charged industry with is definitely deliverable—but we hope that it is.

My Lords, since the noble Lord raised the question of the Type 31e, I remind the Minister that when it was first promoted, it was described by some as a cheap frigate—a description which appears increasingly inept, to use the word of the moment. Originally, the price was to be £250 million. Do the Government now accept that a figure of £350 million is much more realistic, and that such a figure will require additional funds from an already overstretched budget and will make the obtaining of the promised export orders much more difficult to achieve?

My Lords, I do not agree. As I said, we want the first ship in 2023, with five ships delivered at the end of 2028, and we are still setting industry the target of an average production cost of £250 million per ship. All the information I have had says that that is still realistic.

My Lords, I would like to back up the noble Lord, Lord West, in his question on how effective our present fleet can be. As noble Lords will have seen, the frigate now in action in the Persian Gulf goes by the name of “Montrose”, and I have been fortunate enough to have contact with all the captains since it was launched. It has done duty chasing pirates in the Gulf of Arabia, protecting shipping in the China seas and now in the Gulf. I understand that the present arrangements are for quite a long spell in that situation. Do we have enough of these very effective vessels to carry out the duties that ensure our security?

As I am sure my noble friend would expect, we keep our fleet deployments under constant review to adapt to evolving security situations around the world. That is the case with the current situation in the Gulf. Having said that, the recent actions of HMS “Montrose” demonstrate that we have the right assets in the right places. I stress that our priority now is to reduce tensions in the region.

My Lords, can I build on that point? Does that incident in which HMS “Montrose” was involved indicate the probability that more frigates will have to be deployed in the Gulf and, if so, what tasks elsewhere will be left uncovered?

My Lords, I understand why the noble Lord should ask that question, but it is hypothetical. At the moment, we think we have the right assets in the right places but, as I said, we keep our deployments and our tasking under review.

My Lords, with no disrespect to my excellent, gallant and noble friend, is it not the case that we now have two admirals for every ship we have serving? Is it not about time we did some trimming of the admirals?

My Lords, the Navy has already reduced the number of senior officers across the piece, including its admirals. We believe we have an appropriate number of senior officers to take charge of the various responsibilities, not all of which directly relate to ships of the fleet.

My Lords, I am admonished that I should not ask a question which could cause a Minister to answer in a way that contains secret information. However, in view of the ambiguity of the noble Earl’s Answer to the Question, perhaps I may ask this: will the Royal Navy continue to control those 13 frigates in future, or are the Government subject to some private arrangement under which they intend to transfer the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to the control of a central European defence force as soon as we have reached a Brexit solution—a resolution or a remain?

My Lords, the Government will never give up our sovereign control of our Armed Forces. I can give my noble friend that absolute assurance. If he found any ambiguity in my Answer, I am sorry, but, as he knows, it is not uncommon to have planned, temporary, small fluctuations in overall numbers when transitioning from any class of ship or submarine to another.