11 Apr 22. With German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in London last Friday for talks in regard of providing more assistance for Ukraine the timing of the seemingly separate MOD announcement that the UK is to order an additional 100 Boxer wheeled armoured vehicle to a total of 623 was both timely and welcome.
More particularly, in the wake of the disaster that is the separate Ajax tracked armoured vehicle programme acquisition the importance of providing the Army with ‘something’ that it can move troops to where they are required quickly and in relative safety is all the more significant.
National Audit Office (NAO) reports into specific defence equipment projects are relatively rare but in this case an inquiry was fully justified. And for a NAO report to suggest that the Ajax vehicle programme problems “are so deep-rooted that they may never be resolved” cannot and should not be ignored. The NAO said that the £5.5bn Ajax armoured fighting vehicle programme was “flawed from the start” and that the MOD failed to understand the scale and complexity of what it was undertaking in the Ajax build.
To that I would have to add specific criticisms I had made when the formal Ajax build contract award to General Dynamics was announced in 2014 in relation to MOD protestations that Ajax would be built here in Britain securing. What they didn’t tell you was that virtually no component parts for Ajax would be manufactured in the UK and that the pretty well everything would come from Spain and then be glued together (assembled) in a refitted former Linde Forklift Truck factory in South Wales.
Even if by some miracle some of the many Ajax issues could be sorted it is very unlikely that what is supposed to eb a much-needed capability would enter service with the army before the early 2030’s. Originally known as ‘Scout’ for the UK MOD procurement, Ajax was supposed to be an upgraded General Dynamics UK development of the ASCOD armoured fighting vehicle built for the Spanish and Austrian Armies.
In its report published in March the NAO confirmed that £3.167bn of what is a firm fixed-price contract of £5.522 bn had already been paid to General Dynamics. The report highlighted the following points:
Progress on the programme, at December 2021
143 assembled Ajax vehicles at various capability drop standards. Factory acceptance testing has been completed on these. In total, General Dynamics has built 324 of the 589 hulls.
21 training systems General Dynamics has delivered, along with training courses and logistic support 7 years 9 months overlap between the design and manufacture stages, compared with 3 years 4 months that was expected in 2014
1 year the delay to the programme schedule set in 2019, with production 61 vehicles behind target.
Future challenges in delivering the programme 27 limitations of use on Ajax vehicles in September 2021, of which 22 related to safety and 11 were critical to achieving initial operating capability
Late 2022 the Department’s estimate of when it will be able to understand and resolve the noise and vibration issues on the Ajax programme
Not yet known the revised target date for achieving initial operating capability
More than £10 billion the Department’s initial estimate of the whole life cost of the Ajax programme – including the contract cost – although it is still developing its understanding of future support costs.
Meanwhile, Defence Headquarters continues to pontificate the importance stressed in the Integrated Review process on digitised platforms of which Ajax is, or should I better say, was supposed to be the first fully digitised platform based on new technologically advanced sensors and communication systems which would transform the Army’s surveillance and reconnaissance capability. If and when it does perchance get to the stage of being fully commissioned into service, unlikely in my view, heaven only knows how many years the Army will need to learn how to use Ajax!
Another issue that gets rather less comment in relation to the Ajax procurement process is whether the end user – the Army – will have sufficient confidence and trust that whatever the MOD and GD manages to cobble together in order to restore Ajax credibility will not endanger their health – the latter point being particularly in relation to well voiced hearing issues from some of those that have been testing the vehicle until that process was stopped.
The NAO report on Ajax deserves to be fully read by all those engaged in UK defence procurement. It is a damming indictment of failure and how not to conduct a procurement process.
Back to Boxer – a programme that because it was born of integrity and honesty and well thought through – is deserving of huge success that I am sure it will be
As a joint UK– Germany project, Boxer production will take place in factories in Telford, Stockport and Munich. The programme is anticipated to support 1,000 UK jobs – twice the number suggested for Ajax.
Friday’s announcement that the Army will now receive an extra 100 Boxer armoured fighting vehicles taking the total to be procured to 623 is very welcome although it does not do anything to resolve the ongoing issue that the Army also needs tracked vehicles to replace Warrior and other tracked armoured fighting vehicle capability that the MOD plans to scrap as soon as it can.
Boxer which is already in service in Germany, Netherlands, Australia and Lithuania is and will be the most modern digitalised armoured vehicle in UK Army service and that is able to transport troops and personnel to wherever required on a battlefield and one that can also be very quickly reconfigured in order to fulfil a variety of different roles.
The UK and Germany have worked closely together on the Boxer programme for the British Army, with the Boxer build in the UK benefitting from German expertise, data and collaboration.
Boxer production for the UK Army is already underway with the first 117 units under construction in Germany and the remaining 506 to be built at the existing highly invested defence vehicle facilities in Telford through Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land (RBSL), and Stockport through WFEL, with supply chain sub-contracts across the UK, including in Glasgow.
For the record, the UK Government announced in 2018 that it would re-join the Boxer programme with OCCAR (Organisation Conjointe de Coopération en matière d’Armement) and the initial batch of 523 Boxer vehicles was placed in 2019. Although it had withdrawn from the programme, prior to this and re-joining the UK played a not insubstantial role in the original design, development and testing of the Boxer armoured fighting vehicle development programme which started in 1998.
Unlike Ajax, Boxer has already been proven in service and thankfully, although a further development of the programme that takes it much further than the first generation of vehicles currently in service with the German Army, Boxer will I am sure be considered as a very successful procurement and one that the Army urgently requires.
As to Ajax – my view is unchanged – the best way forward for the MOD is to go back to the drawing board and acquire armoured fighting vehicle capability that the Army and the nation can aspire to and that provides tracked armoured fighting vehicle capability that the British Army so very urgently needs.
CHW (London – 11th April 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785