Long Reads

AJAX: What's Going On With The Army's New Armoured Vehicle?

Forces News spoke to two defence experts to find more out about the issues with the Ajax project.

The Ajax family of vehicles are being designed to be the British Army's 'eyes and ears' of the battlefield.

The Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper set out the future of the Army's tanks and armoured vehicles.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Third Division would "remain the heart" of the UK's warfighting capability, and would be built around a "modern armoured nucleus" – including Ajax.

However, nearly four years after the Armoured Reconnaissance Vehicles were first expected to be delivered, personnel have needed medicial attention, with noise and vibrations being recorded by crew conducting trials, which were "paused as a precautionary measure".

Defence minister Jeremy Quin has defended the Ajax programme, but admitted: "I don't deny that we've got serious issues that we need to resolve."

He also went into greater detail about the cases of noise and vibrations on the vehicles, which first came to light in a leaked Government report.

"We will and we must get this right, and get it delivered."

Prior to Mr Quin's appearance in the House of Commons on 8 June, Forces News spoke to Francis Tusa, a defence expert who has seen the leaked report, and Retired Brigadier Ben Barry, the Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Impact upon troops: 'I'd be very concerned about the survivability of my armoured cavalry'

One major issue with Ajax is the impact it is currently having on the personnel testing the vehicles.

Mr Tusa told Forces News the vehicle is causing vibration so intense it causes extreme noise to such a level that personnel's noise-cancelling headsets "don't work".

"Crew can be limited to as little as 90 minutes in a vehicle before they have to stop training," he said.

"They then require time off and then a specialist ear test to ensure they've not got ear damage."

Watch: Defence minister Jeremy Quin answered questions in the House of Commons about Ajax.

Mr Tusa said it would be "very difficult to spin one's way" out of the report's findings as the "noise and vibration have been known about since 2017."

"The only thing at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, Ajax can deliver is tinnitus," he said.

Mr Quin confirmed, answering a written Parliamentary question, that some crew members involved in the trials of the Ajax vehicles are continuing to receive medical attention.

"All personnel who were at risk of exposure have had their hearing tested, and a small number of personnel are receiving ongoing medical attention," he said.

In the House of Commons, Mr Quin said he would "not hide" that the MOD has "two primary concerns: noise and vibration".

"All personnel who may have been exposed to excessive noise have been tested and training was paused," he said.

"It now continues with mitigations in place as we pursue resolution.

"We're looking at two headsets which hopefully within the next few weeks... will be approved for use which will further extend what we can do in terms of training." 

He also said the MOD was "concerned" about the excessive vibration.

Mr Quin said this was despite General Dynamics, the prime contractor on the Ajax programme, not having "had the same experience of vibration", adding he "absolutely trust[s] the reports that have come to me by our service personnel".

"We have also commissioned independent vibration trials from world-class specialists at Millbrook Proving Ground which should conclude next month," he said.

As well as the physical impact of trialling the Ajax, Brig Barry pointed out how a four-year delay on the vehicle's delivery has left the Army's armoured cavalry regiments "inadequately" equipped.

"It is effectively at least four years late and that is a great worry for the officers and soldiers of those armoured cavalry regiments who are in obsolete, inadequately protected armoured vehicles with inadequate firepower and surveillance gadgets," he said.

"So, if there was an operation against a serious peer enemy, if I was a British brigade or divisional commander, I'd be very concerned about the survivability of my armoured cavalry in those obsolete vehicles," he added.

"And I'd probably have to be much less ambitious about what I used them for."

Watch: Is the Ajax programme 'doomed to fail'?

Mr Quin addressed the Ajax programme's delay, telling the Commons: "Maingate One approval was granted in March 2010.

"Negotiations with the prime contractor to recast the contract were held between December 2018 and May 2019.

"The forecast initial operating capability, the IOC, was delayed by a year to 30 June 2021, later this month, at 50% confidence – with 90% confidence of 21 September.

"Despite the ongoing impact of COVID, we have stuck by this IOC date – though it remains, of course, subject to review."

Brig Bradley added that he believes the Government intends to devote "quite a large share of the extra money for defence" to the Army.

The Defence Command Paper said the Army would "receive significant investment", with an extra £3bn in new Army equipment as well as the "more than £20bn planned", transforming "the Army's equipment over the next decade".

However, without Ajax upgrading the Army's current Scimitar vehicles, Brig Barry said "you'll have part of the Army that's operating an early 1970s piece of technology".

"It's rather as if the Royal Air Force [was] still being invited to keep going their Phantom Fighters from the late 60s and early 70s, or their original versions of the Harrier."

"I think also we have to think about the morale of the armoured cavalry units, and they've obviously been exhibiting great patience waiting for this long-overdue replacement.

"But the reports in the media can't be good for soldiers' and officers' morale."

Cost: 'Ajax is undeliverable within the current budget'

Another major point of concern with Ajax has been the cost of the project, and Mr Tusa told Forces News "£3.47bn has been spent out of a current budget of £5.5bn".

"The report, from the Cabinet Office's Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), has said that Ajax is undeliverable within the current budget," he said.

"So the question is if it is to succeed, and there is significant doubt it can ever succeed, is it going to cost what? An extra £1bn, £2bn, £3bn?

"It is also worth noting that at no stage has the MOD ever been able to levy liquidated damages on the contractor General Dynamics.

Ares, part of Ajax family of armoured vehicles, in 2017
Brigadier Barry said the Ajax is "at least four years late", and added the reports on the programme "can't be good for soldiers' and officers' morale" (Picture: British Army).

"It is equally worth noting that over the Warrior upgrade programme, the MOD got at least two sets of damages from Lockheed Martin for non-delivery.

"But for some reason, over Ajax there has been no damage payments made but nothing delivered."

Mr Tusa added that General Dynamics "have not delivered any working vehicles", but got paid £577m last year for the Ajax programme.

He also said that "in the last three years, over £1.7bn" has been paid to General Dynamics, and while some of it has gone to subcontractors, "no working vehicles have been delivered".

In his defence of Ajax's cost so far, Mr Quin said the agreement with General Dynamics is a "firm price contract".

"So, £5.5bn is the maximum that is payable, including VAT," he said.

"Currently we're at... just under £3.2bn spent.

"There is a heavy incentivisation on our suppliers to ensure they get this over the line."

Ajax procurement is a 'fiasco'

Another matter the Ajax programme has faced scrutiny on is in the procurement process.

"If I was to be cruel, I'd say that the procurement of the new armoured vehicles has been a bit of a fiasco, and a lot of time has been lost," Brig Barry said.

He added it was "disappointing" a House of Commons Defence Committee report found that there was such a "skill fade in procurement of armoured vehicles between the Army, Defence Equipment and Support and the manufacturers".

The Defence Committee's report said Ajax was "yet another example of chronic mismanagement by the Ministry of Defence and its shaky procurement apparatus".

The committee's report also stated "procurement practices and skills were frequently found wanting" and there was "poor accountability for long-term equipment projects".

It added that "the department's standard acquisition processes for armoured vehicles was not working" as no vehicles had been introduced since 1997.

And the Defence Committee said the MOD, particularly Defence Equipment and Support, "may not have sufficient technically qualified staff and capacity to manage effectively the multiple armoured vehicle procurement".

The Department of Defence acknowledged the issues with procurement, stating "defence acquisition remains inherently challenging and complex".

However, they also said a series of changes "provide a sound basis" for programmes delivered after the Integrated Review.

Ben Wallace and Rishi Sunak smiling on an Ajax vehicle 170720 CREDIT MOD
Ben Wallace and Rishi Sunak on an Ajax vehicle in 2020 (Picture: MOD).

Brig Barry said the procurement issues caused not only the delay in delivering Ajax, but also added "cost overruns and people having to take difficult decisions".

"I don't think there's a conspiracy here," he said.

"The Army chief, the Army headquarters and Government ministers, it's their job to take difficult, tough decisions and I suspect they're very concerned."

And Mr Tusa added that the issues started in the 2000s, when the Army made "a lot of really rather bad decisions".

"Does every piece of equipment have problems? Well, sure as hell not the level of problems that the Ajax family is having, no," he said.

"If you were to ask me for one single reason why this has gone badly, and there's a host, basically the Army accepted that they were taking a tried and tested armoured vehicle, the Pizarro 2 built by the Spanish subsidiary of General Dynamics.

"And because this was a tried and tested vehicle, it would lower the risk.

"Sadly, the Pizarro 2 was cancelled 18 months before the Army selected it because of the global financial crisis.

"So they basically accepted what is widely known as, in the business, as Powerpoint engineering. 

"They saw some really super duper slides and went 'well that looks fine, we'll take that one then'."

'There's some compatibility problem between the gun and the current Ajax'

Fitted with a CTAI 40 mm CTAS (Cased Telescoped Armament System), Ajax was supposed to be able to fire on the move.

Brig Barry said the "radical new type of ammunition" is supposed to take up less space in the turret, as well as allow for programming – meaning it can be used in a multitude of ways.

"It can be used as an anti-aircraft fuse, it can be used to burst in the air, which makes it much more effective against enemy infantry and enemy trenches and again a step forward," he said.

However, Brig Barry said there seems to be a "compatibility problem" between the gun and the current Ajax.

"I have to say the gun has been very successfully fielded to the French Jaguar Armoured Vehicles and, talking to French contacts of mine, they aren't having any of the problems with it," he said.

"So it appears that the gun is basically sound and the French are very content with it, but there does appear to be some integration issue with Ajax."

The Defence Select Committee's report also said the MOD should "publicly justify" why the gun was used, stating the MOD added to delays on Ajax, as well as Warrior vehicles, by "insisting on a complex, new generation 40mm cannon, when other tried and tested alternatives were available".

Mr Quin, however, said Ajax is "capable of firing on the move".

"It is not something that we have certified it to do as yet," he said.

The Government has previously acknowledged the alternatives to the 40mm cannon, but says "they do not meet the lethality requirements and are unable to fire the new Cased Telescopic Ammunition".

Also, the MOD said there was "no suggestion" the gun contributed to Ajax delays, adding they "remain committed to it".

"I don't know if it can be fixed"

The report has led to questions as to whether the Ajax programme can be completed.

Mr Tusa said he had "never seen a report as damning" after seeing the Government document, while Brig Barry said he doesn't know if the problems "can be fixed".

"The British Defence Procurement Minister was saying that Ajax, it's in its assessment phase, and he's determined not to let it progress if it's not ready," Brig Barry said.

"And that's absolutely right and proper."

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) said it's still committed to the Ajax programme, with plans for Initial Operating Capability still scheduled for this summer.

And a defence source said: "One of the first things the Secretary of State did when entering office was to take a fresh look at Ajax.

Watch: A 2017 tour of an Ares-variant Ajax vehicle.

"It was no secret the programme, that was originally contracted in 2010 and 2014, has had problems which is why the MOD has intensified scrutiny and work to rectify the issues.

"The Army, General Dynamics and the MOD is now engaged in an intensive round of assessments and rectification work to resolve any outstanding issues."

However, Mr Tusa said "if the IPA report is anything to go by", Ajax is "undeliverable" without "significant changes and costs".

"To date, I've not seen anyone inside the MOD, and I had lots of friends at the Land Warfare conference…  and they were speaking to all of the brass there, no one is saying the report is wrong," he said.

"No-one has said that at all.

"All they're saying, and this goes back to, again, a common sin called the conspiracy of optimism, everyone's just saying 'but we're sure we can make it work'.

"Well £3.47bn in, it isn't working, the report says categorically, in current form, and without significant changes and costs, this programme is undeliverable.

"And it's worth noting in its previous assessment of the Ajax family, it had given it an amber rating, which is 'it's in trouble'. 

"It has now downgraded it to red, which means it is 'undeliverable'."

The Defence Select Committee's report said the MOD must ensure "no further delays to this expensive programme".

In response, the MOD said"it is fair to recognise" Ajax has been "more demanding and challenging than originally envisaged".

However, it said, issues are now being addressed and this learning is driving an improved approach into other programmes.

When addressing the Commons, Mr Quin stated that Ajax is a "first-class vehicle".

"It is the first of its kind," he said, adding: "It's got an important job to do."

Cover image: Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Chancellor Rishi Sunak smiling on an Ajax vehicle (Picture: MOD).