Slammed as being “broken”, “a project on ‘end of life watch” and not to ignore the many that have chosen to use the word ‘shambles’ how much longer before the MOD adopts the most sensible path and the one that would appear, at this stage of the failed £5.5bn programme, to potentially offer the least risk and bring the Ajax armoured fighting vehicle programme for the UK Army to a premature end?
As of now, I can have no idea of what the eventual answer to that question is or will be but I sense and venture to suggest that already there might well be those inside MOD ‘Main Building’ formulating some kind of possible exit strategy and wording!
The reality is that, already late and with £3.9 billion of MOD taxpayer money spent without the capability being anywhere near reaching ‘full operational capability’ the Ajax IFV programme is now under review and investigation separately by the MOD, the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and the National Audit Office (NAO).
This I suspect that unless the various Ajax IFV problems are suddenly resolved – an unlikely prospect in my view, little further momentum is likely before the March 2022 – this being the proposed date for publication by the NAO of a special report on Army armoured vehicles and one that the MOD has requested that within this Ajax IFV is given high priority.
I have no idea when the HCDC report will be published or indeed, in regard of further MOD internal findings. As if to back that sort of timing schedule up, note that it was only in late July that the Minister of Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin told the House of Commons that an independent expert was being sort to evaluate the Ajax Infantry Fighting Vehicle programme.
So, for a while yet the Ajax issue will likely remain in limbo. And even if the notion of some kind of rapid plan ‘B’ emerging might sound appealing to some, do bear in mind that part of the wider problem in regard of armoured fighting vehicles is that for too long the Army didn’t know what it was it wanted and as far as I am aware, leaving the ‘’Integrated Review ‘ aside, no formal Army designated strategy. Battered and much thinned down. One questions not only whether the Army has sufficient internal capability left and qualified people in order to create a cohesive and well-argued long-term strategy for armoured fighting vehicles but also whether the MOD does!
I dislike speculating but if the conclusion on Ajax does turn out to be one that the vehicle has too many deep-seated problems to resolve with no guarantee of success then it would surely make sense to look at a range of both stop-gap solutions. Land Systems is certainly not my specialist area within defence but it seems to me that one potential alternative would be to reverse the much-criticised plan to withdraw ‘Warrior’ armoured fighting vehicles and to rekindle the excellent plan that was Warrior CSP upgrade before that had been cancelled within the Integrated Review process last year. I would also add that the potential of purchasing the very tried and trusted CV-90 capability should be seriously examined.
Meanwhile the Ajax blame game continues and there can be little doubt that General Dynamics who were awarded the Ajax contract in 2014 are not coming out of this very serious issue well. In July both MOD and GD UK gave evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee but, following this, the general consensus appears to be that although many sensible questions where asked, very few meaningful answers ensued.
Press reports this morning suggesting that even though, due to safety concerns in relation to vibration and noise, Army testing of Ajax was halted a year ago, GD UK was still able to book a £75m profit on Ajax IFV last year which hardly helps. Neither does the knowledge that subsequently came to light of just how much of the capability is being built in Spain for onward assembly, complete with problems, into GD’s purpose-built plant in Wales.
I will mention no names here, but the number of ‘notable’ former three-star military personnel, former top business leaders and high ranking senior civil servants plus others who have at some point over the past twenty years found themselves as members of the board of GD UK or indeed, even that of General Dynamics Corporation in the US, parent company to GD UK, is extremely interesting to observe. Some had joined GD well before the fixed price contract for Ajax IFV was signed in 2014 between the company and the MOD. Other joined subsequently no doubt but in that case, it begs the question why is it that they have been unable to put the Ajax IFV project into a better light? Indeed, why I wonder is it that very few of these members of the ‘great and good’ have as yet been interviewed by HCDC – and that goes for former Defence Materiel chiefs as well.
I have no wish to damn the Ajax programme any more than has already been done. I may have always questioned the choice of company and that most of the product was being machined in Spain, but if by some great miracle something could be done to improve its fortunes than I would join in the praise. But sadly, the most important thing that has seemingly been lost in all this is not just the money that the MOD has poured down the drain it is that the Army is no further forward in its much-needed equipment modernisation programme. Worse perhaps is that Ajax IFV has already lost the confidence of the would-be user – our soldiers.
One well known defence journalist/analyst is on record as having called the Ajax IFV programme as being the worst since Nimrod, words that I am sure many will find it hard to disagree. Well, I can think of one or two more ‘horror’ programmes but I will not mention them today.
Criticised by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority as being a contract for focussing on “Schedule and Milestone payments” over that of quality, still under investigation by the MOD and now back in the hands of the National Audit Office, the future for Ajax IFV hardly looks bright but for all that, best not to write anything off yet!
CHW (London – 11th October 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785