Having, in its infinite wisdom, made yet another bad decision in the abandonment of the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle ‘Capability Sustainment Programme (WCSP) attention has not surprisingly turned to the fiasco that is the Ajax Infantry Fighting Vehicle procurement from General Dynamics.
Just as the whole of the original FRES (Future Rapid Effect System) plan that back in the day before it was effectively scrapped in SDSR 2010 had been (FRES was the original MoD plan designed to replace the Army’s APC, Tracked FV432 and CVR (T) had been deemed unworkable and unaffordable so it is that only surviving part of the original FRES plan – that of Ajax Scout has turned out to be another disaster waiting to occur.
Some may well disagree but that would be my description for what had been in September 2014 following years of design deliberation by the Army, a fixed-firm £3.5bn contract award given to General Dynamics for development, manufacturer and delivery of 589 Scout (the name was later changed to Ajax) vehicles.
I well recall that having expressed doubts as to where manufacturing (as opposed to that of final assembly and testing) would take place being told by the MoD that some 1,300 jobs right across the UK would be secured. I recall also being told that the Scout ‘Specialist Vehicle’ would be the “eyes and ears” of the British Army on the battlefields of the future.
Well, the future that MoD was bragging about then came and went and here we are mid-way through 2021, less than a month before initial operating capability is due to be established, and as far as I am aware not one single turreted version of Ajax has been delivered or accepted by Army Headquarters.
On the 18th February 2015 the MoD announced that Ajax Scout had passed its critical design review stage on time and the plan was that deliveries would start in 2017, the training establishment and first squadron would be equipped by mid-2019 in order to allow conversion to begin with a brigade ready to deploy from the end of 2020. Speaking ahead of the now infamous 2014 NATO summit in Wales, then Secretary of State rather amusingly said: “Today’s multi-billion-pound contract is fantastic news for our soldiers in providing them with the most technologically advanced and versatile armoured fighting vehicles to overcome future threats. This is the biggest single order placed by the MoD for armoured vehicles for around 30 years and is an important part of the investment we are making to keep Britain safe. It is also excellent news for the supply chain of this state-of-the-art vehicle and will sustain 1,300 engineering jobs across the UK in key defence industries.”
With all of the £3.5bn used up and hardly a vehicle to show for it, both the Army and General Dynamics clearly have a lot to answer for. Although, as is typical, MoD has not come clean on what the Ajax problems are, it is has been widely reported that safety related issues which include excessive noise and vibrations that prevent cannons from being fired whilst the vehicle is on the move. And rather than the total £3.5bn original design, development and production costs for all 589 Ajax vehicles to be built, surprise, surprise, the total programme cost that various specialist press articles refer to has jumped to £5.5bn.
That the Defence Select Committee has been severely critical of the cost and delays surrounding the Ajax programme and its chairman, Tobias Ellwood blaming a “mixture of bureaucratic procrastination, military indecision, financial mismanagement and general ineptitude” as being at the heart of “a severe and sustained erosion of our military capabilities” the MOD has chosen to say little – except the somewhat amazing play down remark from Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace reference to “to a slight pause in the area around the turret”.
There is as far as I am aware nothing wrong with the turret – rather it is a problem with the design of the vehicle itself and that the turret sits on.
Having paid General Dynamics a reported £3bn already and having nothing to show for it is nothing short of disgraceful. I realise that it is so easy to criticise but why is it that if this was a problem that had hit General Dynamics in the USA – it would have been addressed with all the energy available.
Weighing in at 32 tonnes compared to the 8.2 tonnes of the CVR (T)vehicle is has been designed to replace one is bound to wonder when and indeed, if the Army will ever get a suitable replacement Infantry Fighting Vehicle replacement. Having stupidly in my view ditched the idea of upgrading the hugely successful if ageing tracked Warrior IFV it seems that the Army may need to retain the existing Warrior fleet for longer than anticipated whilst it awaits the possibility of the Ajax problem being sorted and ahead of its own planned replacement vehicle, the untracked Boxer MIV.
The real point though is that Ajax highlights not only more failings in Army related procurement and a contractor that I might add, set up a plant in Merthyr Tydfil in Wales which had formally been used as a factory to build Fork Lift trucks, to assemble and test Ajax vehicles.
It seems rather untimely that I should repeat the words of then head of Armoured Vehicles Major General Robert Talbot-Rice who said at the opening of the General Dynamics Ajax assembly operation in Merthyr Tydfil that “The design of Ajax builds on lessons learned on the battlefield. It is the Army’s first fully digitised armoured vehicle, able to tackle the world’s toughest terrain and highly resilient against likely threats.”
I will, because he remains as Chief of the Defence Staff, spare you similarly enticing words proffered by the then Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter.
Of course, they will eventually sort the problem out but at what cost, at the expense of the Government or General Dynamics and will this be achieved by cutting back on the originally planned number of 589 Ajax Scout vehicles? Will heads role in the Army I wonder? I doubt that they will for the simple reason that by the time they have sorted out the issue, most of those will have already been long gone. Major General Talbot-Rice has already retired and while extended as CDS for a further six months until later this year, General Sir Nicholas Carter will soon be following his example.
Will lessons be learned by MOD? I continue to live in hope but perhaps the worst element of Ajax procurement for me is not just about the Army not getting equipment capability that it needs but the danger that General Dynamics failure to deliver leaves an unfortunate and unfair scar on UK sovereign capability.
That General Dynamics, MoD and the Army share culpability on Ajax can hardly be in doubt but we must take great care to ensure that the thousands of other UK companies involved across the wider MoD defence procurement programme are not also damaged as a result.
CHW (London – 26th May 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785