When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?

Back in September of 2022, an old United States Navy guided-missile frigate, the USS Boone, was dramatically sunk by British fighters. But why was she chosen for this inglorious end?
Christopher McFadden
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  • In September of 2022, an American frigate, the USS Boone was blown out of the water by British fighters.
  • This was part of a joint exercise between NATO forces.
  • But why wasn't she upgraded, sold, or recycled?

Towards the end of September 2022, British RAF Typhoons attacked and sunk the American Navy's USS Boone. But don't worry, this wasn't a hostile attack on an American ship; it was selected as a target for a joint training exercise between NATO allies.

But why was the USS Boone chosen for such an inglorious end? Let's find out.

Why did British RAF fighters sink USS Boone?

During the SINKEX (short for "sinking exercise") on September 7, 2022, the USS Boone, a decommissioned U.S. Naval ship, was blasted to smithereens by various anti-ship weaponry during a rare, multi-domain live-fire exercise off the coast of Scotland.

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
The U.S. Navy guided missile frigates USS Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7), USS Antrim (FFG-20) and USS Jack Williams (FFG-24) underway.

The USS Boone (an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate) was the subject of mock attacks by three RAF Typhoon fighters. The training ship assault was also joined by the Royal Navy's HMS Westminster, a Wildcat helicopter, a US P-8 Poseidon, F-15E Strike Eagles, and the guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke, using various powerful weapons. The exercise was a complete success, seeing the USS Boone end its days at the bottom of the sea.

But why was the USS Boone sunk and not scrapped or sold?

To find out, let's take a quick look at the ships' history.

The USS Boone (FFG-28) was commissioned as a guided-missile frigate and was the 20th ship in the U.S. Navy's Oliver Hazard Perry class. Named after Vice Admiral Joel Thompson Boone, M.D., FFG-28 was the first U.S. ship named after the admiral. She was ordered on January 23, 1978, built by Todd Pacific Shipyards, Seattle, Washington, and later launched on January 16, 1980.

After completing sea trials, she was put into service on May 15, 1982.

USS Boone was part of Destroyer Squadron 14. It was awarded the 2005 DESRON 14 Battle "E" (The Battle Effectiveness Award, given annually to U.S. Navy ships or other craft that win their battle effectiveness competition). She was also awarded the 2006 Battle "E" award on February 16, 2007. 

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
USS Boone passing the Statue of Liberty, Fleet Week, circa 2002.

USS Boone was in the Navy Reserve and had a home port in Mayport, Florida. In March 2010, she was sent to the U.S. Fifth Fleet to fight Somalian piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

She was decommissioned on February 23, 2012, and was sunk in September 2022.

Why was the USS Boone not scrapped, sold, or upgraded?

In short, she was too old, obsolete, and not worth the investment. You'll see why later in the article, but it was deemed more cost-effective to use her as a target rather than attempt to continue her lifespan as a serviceable vessel.

As a class of ships, all of USS Boone's sisters have now retired from the U.S. Navy, with the last, the USS Simpson, retiring in 2015. In 2020, the U.S. Navy announced that the new Constellation class would replace them.

These next-generation guided-missile frigates will be far more capable and flexible than their predecessors. They are being built for the U.S. Navy to replace the modular littoral combat ship. The U.S. Navy announced the FFG(X) frigate project in a Request for Information (RFI) from the U.S. Department of Defense on July 10, 2017.

The U.S. Navy chose five shipbuilders to further evolve their designs into a prospective design for the planned twenty FFG(X) guided-missile frigates. In April 2020, it was announced that Fincantieri Marinette Marine had won the contract with its multipurpose frigate-based design. The project was later renamed FFG-62.

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
Artist rendering of the new U.S. Navy guided-missile frigate FFG(X).

These ships were developed to meet the U.S. Navy's need for a new frigate that could keep up with the aircraft carriers and have sensors networked in with the rest of the fleet to expand the overall tactical picture available to the group. The older frigates were too obsolete to make it economically viable to upgrade them.

When it comes to using the USS Boone for target practice, this is an invaluable opportunity for all participants in the exercise. Pilots undergo extensive training in various scenarios in war, but nothing can compete with actually attacking and destroying a target for real.

With no hope of upgrading or selling the USS Boone, using her as target practice was an invaluable opportunity for NATO forces. The only alternative would be an actual attack on another nation's surface vessel, which is only possible in a time of war, when it would, of course, risk the lives of the crew on such a ship.

What is the average lifespan of a warship?

The first point is that warships can vary widely in their average lifespan, but the typical range nowadays is roughly 30 to 40 years (give or take). This is, for example, the case for the Royal Australian Navy, which aims to keep its vessels in service for at least 30 to 35 years (assuming they are not first lost in combat, accidents, et).

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
A Turkish patrol boat.

To put that into perspective, other large ocean-going vessels, like oil tankers, typically, though not always, tend to last for as little as 15-20 years of continuous service. Commercial ships like these are pushed to their limits to maximize their economy of scale.

However, it is also important to note that this range is not "set in stone," especially as naval technology improves over time.

The technology used to design a ship today is much better than in the past. Before the computer revolution, ships tended to be designed by hand by drafters who would calculate factors like loading and stress calculations.

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This would mean that the final ship had to be made more robust than needed in order to leave a large margin for safety, according to the standards at the design time. Today, with design tools like 3D modeling, it is generally possible to accurately calculate the ship's load and get the desired safety factor more precisely.

For older vessels designed and built before this technology was available, ships would be built with thicker hulls and, of course, higher (relative) construction costs. On the other hand, new ships tend only to use as much steel as they need to be safe.

Lifespans of ships of all kinds, especially warships, are significantly impacted by regular maintenance by the crew and shipyard repairs and upgrades throughout their service life. Commercially-operated vessels will also tend to have shorter lifespans because any repairs/retrofits will depend on a detailed cost-benefit analysis of the existing ship.

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
Warships today tend to last between 30 and 40 years,

This may entail commissioning a new ship or buying a secondhand one rather than keeping an older ship in operation.

For warships, however, governments to keep hold of their older ships for much longer. This is mainly because they are typically publically funded, and although immune from external commercial pressures, they need to present good value for money for political reasons.

Commercial ships also change hands often and get scrapped more often than warships. Companies are more likely to scrap a ship if it has sustained significant damage to its structure or propulsion systems.

All very interesting, but what specific factors typically impact a warship's longevity?

The main factors that impact a ship's lifespan include, but are not limited to: -

  • The ship's hull integrity becomes "brittle" because of the continuous battering they get at sea.
  • Development and build-up of rust over time.
  • Normal wear-and-tear on the vessel's equipment or onboard equipment becomes obsolete. This is undoubtedly the case for frontline naval vessels as military tech advances apace.
  • Changes to maritime law and regulations mean that the ship may no longer comply with safety or other requirements. This is less relevant for warships as they tend to be exempt, but there is a basic level of seaworthiness expected from all ocean-going vessels of all kinds.
When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
Aircraft carriers are an example of warships that tend to have longer lifespans.

However, some ships may have extended lifespans beyond expected due to their "special operational value." This could be for various reasons, but one reason is that they become "famous" for one reason or another. This means some serving vessels are far older than the average 30-40 years quoted above.

In fact, some notable exceptions to the average lifespan include some very famous ships indeed.

Possibly the most famous being the USS Constitution. Also known as "Old Ironside," this three-masted, wooden-hulled heavy frigate was first built in 1797 and is still technically in active service.

While she would never join her more modern equivalents in a naval deployment today, she is a testament to the quality of her original construction and ongoing maintenance and repair over the last few hundred years. Her current mission is to promote the Navy's role through educational outreach, historical demonstration, and participation in public events.

Another famous example is, of course, HMS Victory. Lord Nelson's famous flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar was launched in 1765 and is still under commission today, albeit as a museum ship, although since 2012, she has also been the flagship of the First Sea Lord.

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
HMS Victory is one of the oldest warships still commissioned.

The classic example of a first-rate ship of the line, she has 104-guns all told. Like the USS Constitution, HMS Victory is far too old to go to battle.

However, since these very famous ships from the "Age of Sail" are both museum ships, they are not a fair comparison to most warships today.

For example, the United States Navy has several ships still in active service that were built in WW2 and the 1970s. These include the Banner-class USS Pueblo (a research vessel commissioned in 1945), USS Blue Ridge, and USS Mount Whitney (both amphibious command ships commissioned in 1970-71).

The USS Nimitz is probably the oldest "true" warship today for the U.S. Navy, having been commissioned in 1975 and still going strong. However, plans are afoot to replace her in the not-too-distant future.

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
The Russian "Kommuna" has been in service for over 110 years!

As impressive as that is, one of the most exciting examples of warships far exceeding their initial lifespan is possibly the Russian submarine salvage ship "Kommuna." Built in 1913 as the "Volhov," she was initially designed as a submarine tender but was converted to a salvage ship by the Second World War and is still used for the same purpose today.

That's an estimated lifespan of over 110 years! Of course, very little of her original construction is likely in place today as she underwent continuous upgrades and repairs over time.

What criteria are used to decide when a ship should be recycled?

We've already briefly touched on the essential factors above, but we'll go into more detail here.

1. Is the ship seaworthy?

Warships, like any ship, cannot be put to sea if their hull, equipment, and crew are not up to standard. While merchant ships generally have many international safety standards to comply with, warships tend to be obsolete, as you might expect.

But that doesn't mean that their maintenance and crew training is allowed to become lax. Most professional navies worldwide will employ some form of inspection authority within their command structure to conduct regular checks on naval assets to ensure they meet preset codes and naval regulations.

The United States Navy, for example, has a body called the "Board of Inspection and Survey." Called INSURV for short, this board's responsibility is to inspect and assess the material condition of U.S. Navy vessels.

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
An inspector assesses an anchorage test in the forecastle aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.

INSURV inspects vessels over periods not exceeding 60 months per Naval Ship. Inspection teams evaluate a ship's readiness to conduct combat operations at sea through an extensive system of checks on installed equipment.

INSURV also assesses new vessels to ensure they are fit for purpose and induction into the Navy.

If these inspections deem a vessel no longer able to conduct its duties, the ship will be considered for upgrade, repair, decommissioning, and scrapping or selling.

2. Is the ship too heavily damaged to save?

Warships are built, ultimately, for war.

They have to be able to take the fight to the enemy and, often, are expected to survive at least or escape disaster if they can. While ship-to-ship engagements are relatively rare today, before the era of missiles, this was the primary method of engaging and taking out enemy warships.

Unless the ship was knocked out of the fight and sunk, often, vessels would limp back to port with either minor or significant damage that would need repair. Throughout the Second World War, this was a common theme for ships of the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy, with some ships managing to survive incredible amounts of damage and returning to port.

One famous example was the sadly little-known HMS Penelope. A light cruiser built in time for WW2, she sustained damage from 50-60 bombs, countless bullets and cannon shells, sea mines, and even being grounded! Each time she sustained substantial damage, she managed to return home and was often required to undertake significant repairs and refits throughout her short life.

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
Battle damage sustained by HMS Penelope in June 1942.

It would take a sustained German torpedo attack to sink the ship (with great loss of life) in February of 1944. So although she was sunk in the end, "HMS Pepperpot," as she came to be nicknamed, she might have run up the most significant repair bill of WW2 for any ship!

But why was she repaired often and not simply scrapped? Put simply, warships of the day were much simpler pieces of kit than modern warships, and the Royal Navy was in desperate need of warships.

At that time, it was more cost and time-effective to repair ships like HMS Penelope than commission and build a new ship.

Of course, in the past, their crew also sunk ships if they were deemed too heavily damaged or important to fall into enemy hands. Famous examples include the USS Lexington, sunk in 1942 after the Battle of the Coral Sea to prevent her from falling into the hands of the Japanese, the French fleet at Toulon, scuttled in 1942 to prevent the ships from being used by the Germans, and the German fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919, to prevent the ships falling into British hands during WW1.

Today, warships are more likely to be accidentally damaged through collision, be hit by anti-ship missiles or torpedoes, or attacked by smaller boats than engage in "big gun" battles so common only 80 years ago.

The damage incurred by anti-ship weapons like missiles and torpedoes is far more lethal than in the past, and ships are unlikely to survive such an encounter today. More modern torpedoes are designed to break the back of the ship, for example. There is no coming back from that.

Anti-ship missiles, like the infamous Exocet missile, have been used to deadly effect during the Falklands War with the loss of HMS Sheffield.

Warships are also increasingly likely to have collisions with merchant ships too. If large enough, like a tanker, this could result in significant damage to warships.

And this is more common than you'd think. In 2017, the U.S. Navy's destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with the Liberian-flagged tanker Alnic MC.

The McCain lost ten sailors and was heavily damaged, requiring years of extensive repairs before returning to active service in 2019. Other collisions can be even more severe, with the damage being so extensive that the vessel in question has to be scrapped rather than repaired.

One example was the U.S. Navy's Seawolf Class nuclear attack submarine USS Connecticut. Despite being worth an estimated $3 billion, after she was grounded on an uncharted seamount in the South China Sea in 2019, she is not expected to be repaired until at least 2023.

3. Can the ship be sold instead to someone else?

Another common fate for many old ships, including warships, is for them to be released on the market for sale. This makes sense as it serves as a way to provide liquid funds to invest in balancing the books or maintaining existing or acquiring new ships to serve a surface fleet.

Many older warships have been dispensed of this way, including, famously, the ill-fated Argentinian ARA General Belgrano.

A light cruiser by design, she was originally commissioned as the USS Pheonix that entered service for the United States Navy in 1951. She spent most of her career in the Pacific until 1982 when she was sold to Argentina for about £7.8 million. She was famously sunk by a British nuclear-powered submarine during the Falklands War.

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
ARA General Belgrano.

Any time a warship is sold in this way, most of the sensitive items on board will be taken off and depending on the terms of the sale, the ship may also be sold without any weapons.

Recently, the Royal Navy announced it was putting two old vessels up for sale to the highest bidder.

Announced in 2021, The Defence Equipment Sales Authority (DESA), which is part of Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), the U.K. Ministry of Defense (MoD) procurement arm, sold two obsolete Royal Navy auxiliary shops to Egypt.

The ships, former HMS Fort Austin and HMS Fort Rosalie were sold to Egypt after being officially decommissioned in March of the same year. Both ships were formerly used as logistical transports for the Royal Navy.

The deal cost Egypt around £24 million and was the first sale of old Royal Navy ships in 30 years.

Sometimes, ships are "sold" to private companies too. One of the strangest cases is when Pepsi was offered old Soviet warships as part of a deal with the Soviet Union.

In 1990, Pepsi reached a deal with the Soviet Union and a Norwegian shipping company worth around $3 billion. The deal was made to get around the fact that the rouble was worthless outside the Soviet Union. The Soviets had previously bartered vodka for Pepsi syrup, which was then bottled domestically. However, U.S. consumer boycotts made Stolichnaya less desirable to Pepsi, so Pepsi cut a new deal with threw in 10 Soviet-built ships as a sweetener.

Pepsi, however, never took possession of the vessels because the Soviet Union collapsed shortly afterward. A similar deal a year earlier, for a 25 percent share of the vessels, saw the Soviet ships sent to the scrap heap because they were obsolete.

4. Is buying a new or refitting an older vessel cheaper?

Typically, as we've seen, most warships tend to last 30 or so years. That isn't a problem for a large navy like the United States Navy, but for smaller nations like Australia, this can prove costly - especially "per unit."

For this reason, some of them, like the RAN, are looking at more "radical" warship lifespan strategies.

The RAN currently operates around eleven frigate-type surface vessels and 6 submarines. There are plans, however, to increase the fleet with 12 new ships (3 AWDs and 9 "future frigates") and 12 new submarines over the short- to medium-term.

However, with their existing fleet, operating many ships could prove prohibitively expensive. For this reason, the RAN decided to produce a viability study to reduce a typical warship's life to just 20 years. This study included considerations such as upgrading a warship halfway through life or building a new one.

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
Warships tend to get regular upgrades too.

They found that, somewhat predictably, the answer is "it depends."

"The long-term costs of fleet modernization are driven more by the costs of chosen capabilities than whether those capabilities are delivered through an upgrade or a new build," explains ASPI Strategist.

From a replacement point of view, the main issue is that modern ship costs steadily grow over time per unit. This is for various reasons, but inflation aside, ships today are far more technologically sophisticated than even a few decades ago. Examining the Adelaide-class FFGs, the ANZAC-class frigates, and the Collins-class submarines, the study was able to compare the cost-effectiveness of each strategy by assuming that each ship was built to last 20 years and that an upgrade would give it an extra ten years of life.

The results were pretty interesting.

"For example, the upgrades to the Adelaide-class FFGs increased the average cost per year of service for the class, but some of them have already served for more than 30 years. By comparison, the upgrades to the ANZAC frigates has had the opposite effect—lowering the average cost per year of service—but it’s not entirely clear yet whether more upgrades will be needed to keep them at high levels of capability until they’re replaced," explains the RAN.

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
Like any machine, warships need regular maintenance.

In other words, the RAN believes replacing ships at around the 20-year mark may be more cost-effective than upgrading them.

"In the transition to a continuous shipbuilding program, an overt plan to replace vessels on a 20-year cycle could make the process more efficient. Compared to the 30-year life cycle, 12 surface ships and 12 submarines every 20 years is equivalent to one of each per 20 months. That’s still a little slow by global standards, but it’s more sustainable. And the quicker tempo enables new or upgraded capabilities to be introduced as part of the design and construction program," the RAN added.

5. Is the ship famous?

As we mentioned earlier, some ships can have their lifespans extended indefinitely, if they are in some way famous or loved by the public. The examples above aside, many other ships are saved from the scrapyard thanks to efforts to save and preserve them from the chopping block.

One of the most famous surviving warships in the United Kingdom is HMS Belfast in London. Built over 80 years ago, this Town-class cruiser served with distinction during the Second World war.

When and why are warships scuttled or scrapped?
HMS Belfast at her permanent mooring on the River Thames, London.

Her duties included participating in the Arctic convoys safe from German U-boats, helping hunt and destroy the German heavy cruiser SS Scharnhorst, providing support fire during the D-Day landings, and even providing support during the Korean War in the 1950s.

As the 1970s approached, HMS Belfast was nearing the 30-35 year landmark that typically triggers a warship's time to retire. In the case of HMS Belfast, she was officially decommissioned in the early-1960s and scheduled for scrapping by the 1970s.

A campaign was launched to save her by interested parties, including her former Captain, Rear-Admiral Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles, who also happened to be a Member of Parliament at the time. As is evident today, this campaign was a roaring success, and HMS Belfast remains, in all her glory, moored in the Thames River to this very day as a museum ship.

And that is your lot for today.

As we have seen, the average lifespan of a warship is around 30-35 years. This can be extended almost indefinitely in some exceptional circumstances if the ship is unique. In most cases, however, a navy will dispose of an older vessel by recycling, selling, or scuttling it if it is deemed not worth the effort to repair or upgrade it.

From time to time, some ships are given a grand farewell by being used for target practice to sharpen the skills of their fellow armed forces' capabilities. But, if a ship could speak and be built for war, this might be their preferred end.

Of course, we'll never know.

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