As the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class frigates continue through their scheduled FELEX (Frigate Life Extension) refit, one question that arises is whether, when the time comes, they could be sold on the foreign market. After all, Canada’s costly approach to procuring new surface combatants makes the prospect of selling the Halifaxes to partially fund their successor all the more attractive, and a refit is usually a good first step in attracting potential buyers. The Royal Navy, after all, has already sold three of the Halifax class’s Type 23 contemporaries to the Chilean Navy. The two classes are fairly comparable, both top of the line frigates of their generation.
Who Wants a Used Warship?
A global market for used warships does exist, but it has been uneven at best. Perfectly good offerings have frequently been consigned to the scrap heap because ships were decommissioned at the wrong time for prospective buyers. Lack of advance planning and political will to lay the groundwork for a sale are the most frequent missteps of potential sellers. One cannot simply dump something on the market and hope someone will have room in their defence budget to take it.
As an example, the cash-strapped Royal Navy began decommissioning first its Sea Harrier force and then its carriers in the mid-noughts. With some preparation and adroit laying of the groundwork, India, which already operates the ex-HMS Hermes (at high maintenance cost) with a Sea Harrier air wing, could probably have been persuaded to take a much younger carrier with a more modern fleet of Harriers than their own, in the knowledge that these assets would be sustainable for a decade or more. Granted, India was in the middle of two other expensive carrier programs, but they could have set the price. Anything, from the Royal Navy’s perspective, would still have been better than nothing. The used ship market is fundamentally a buyers’ market. As it was, these assets were liquidated with minimal foresight or planning.
As to who exactly might be interested in our frigates, the traditional markets have been Latin American and Asian. There are some Latin American possibilities in the next seven to ten years- Brazil will need to look for a replacement for its Niteroi class frigates in that time frame, for example, and Mexico has some old American Knox and Bronstein class frigates it might want to get shot of. Nevertheless, of the four substantial navies in the area, the Argentine Navy is trying to survive on a shoestring, and all the rest have their traditional suppliers. The US has already offered Perry class frigates to Mexico, while Chile and Brazil usually buy British. In short, Latin America is hardly a growth market for used ships.
Asia might hold some possibilities, but these are much harder to predict. One thing that has become clear studying these navies is that procurements are motivated less by military considerations than an abstruse combination of political factors (witness Thailand’s aircraft carrier for evidence of that). New frigate purchases will very much depend on the threat perception at the time. However, Southeast Asian states like to do two things- buy in small batches and have ships custom-built, even if they’re completely unremarkable.
In any case, the thing to do would be to put out feelers now.
The Halifax class was a good design, and the refit certainly provides much-needed electronic enhancements, adding Thales Smart-S and Saab Ceros 200 radars, Sirius Infrared Search and Track, MASS decoy system and a complete update of the combat system. However, these electronic goodies don’t make the refit internationally competitive.
The British Type 23s, which are likely to return to the market around the same time the Halifaxes decommission, are also going through a series of upgrades. By the time the Type 23s re-enter the market, they will have BAE Systems Artisan 3D radar, Sea Ceptor medium-range surface-to-air/point defence missiles, and most will also have the Thales Sonar 2087 towed array, widely touted as the best in the world.
In other words, the Halifax class will find itself with nothing much to distinguish it- indeed, its best hope is that the semi-separate replacement of Sea Sparrow with ESSM goes forward as planned. In an era in which frigates are increasingly equipped with more substantial air defences, and in which European navies have more frigates than they can afford to operate, the Halifax class will find the used ship market pretty tough.