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Frigate HMS St Albans returns to sea after massive revamp in Plymouth

1 March 2024
Back at sea for the first time in four and a half years is HMS St Albans – the penultimate Royal Navy frigate to undergo a massive overhaul.

The Type 23 warship left Devonport Naval Base today on the first stage of her regeneration to return her to front line duties later this year.

She’ll spend the next few weeks flashing up her systems and testing her improved/refurbished machinery in the Channel to ensure all the work which has been carried out is effective.

The ship’s 178-strong crew moved back aboard in mid-November, since when they’ve been working hand-in-hand with contractors and engineers from defence firm Babcock, which has overseen the entire refit programme, to prepare The Saint to move under her own power for the first time since 2019.

“Going back to sea is a huge milestone. Today is the result of a real team effort where Ship’s Company, Babcock, other specialist contractors, shore-based support organisations, Devonport Naval Base and even some people from other Devonport-based ships have come together to help us transition from engineering project back to being a warship,” said HMS St Albans’ Commanding Officer Commander Helen Coxon. 

“Whether it is the first day at sea – as is the case for many of our less experienced sailors – or returning back to where we feel at home for the more experienced, today is a big day and we’d like to thank all those involved in making it happen.”

After nearly 20 years of constant service in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Gulf, St Albans arrived in Plymouth in 2019 to begin preparations for the refit, known as the life extension (LIFEX) upgrade.

The upgrade will help carry the class of Duke-class frigate into the middle of the next decade, while their successors – the Type 26 City-class currently under construction on the Clyde – enter service.

Revamping the 23s been a massive undertaking stretching back a decade. Work on HMS St Albans alone has demanded more than 1.2 million working hours by sailors, civilian engineers and shipwrights, software specialists and many more.

Around 350 structural enhancements to strengthen the ship and allow her to carry new equipment have been carried out, demanding more than four kilometres of welding.

All four diesel generators were replaced, meaning the ship can produce more power, the main engines removed, overhauled, and reinserted—a complex engineering feat, and a first for her project team.

More than two dozen new pumps with four kilometres of pipework have been fitted, and some 10,000 square metres of paintwork refreshed – that’s the size of a football pitch.

She’s now more efficient, more reliable, and brighter, and living quarters overhauled to give them a fresh look and better meet the needs of sailors in the 2020s (more plugs, USB ports etc).

As a war machine, St Albans emerges from the revamp as a far more potent warship: all weapons and sensors have been upgraded, not least the installation of the Sea Ceptor air defence system which can provide protection to an area the size of Greater Manchester against incoming threats in the skies.

One magazine has been adapted for the new Martlet missile which has recently entered service with the Fleet Air Arm, and aviation facilities enhanced to support the latest variants of Merlin, Wildcat and most NATO maritime helicopters. 

As a dedicated submarine hunter, the ship has been fitted with Sonar 2150 in place of 2050, which can detect underwater threats at greater range and is easier to operate.

After the initial trials in the Channel, St Albans will return to base for any necessary tweaks to the work carried out in refit, before starting her work-up to becoming fully operational again, which culminates with Operational Sea Training off Plymouth.

Just one Type 23 frigate is left to complete the LIFEX programme: HMS Sutherland, which is currently in Devonport’s frigate refit complex.

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