The path to commissioning of the Army’s ‘Ajax’ tracked armoured fighting vehicle procurement programme, one that following the 2014 MOD award to General Dynamics to construct 589 vehicles has not only become a huge embarrassment to the MOD, may yet turn out to be one of the worst defence capability procurement disasters since the 1980’s.
However, that the MOD, through DE&S, and the manufacturer are working hard in the hope of sorting the many problems that Ajax has experienced through the testing process is equally commendable and this alone means that no one is yet in a position to write this huge procurement process off yet.
That there are issues along with doubts that include the potential rebuilding of user confidence can hardly be denied but when it was brought to my attention yesterday that a tabloid newspaper had reported that ‘defence chiefs’ have suggested that Ajax may never be deployed into service my blood began to boil.
You may well think that I am plucking at straws writing on something published in a Mirror Group newspaper. Indeed, your first thoughts on this may well be along the lines of – even if ‘defence chiefs’ had suggested this, they may well not be wrong! My sole issue on this report is the absolute misuse of the term ‘defence chiefs’.
Despite all the many and varied problems suffered on the Ajax programme the point is that no current serving defence chief would dare to suggest that Ajax would never be deployed for the simple reasons that if identified problems can be resolved and so long as the MOD remains behind saving the procurement programme, there remains the possibility that Ajax will at some future point enter service – be this as currently planned or most likely in my view, in a downgraded form.
Secondly, I would suggest that if a so-called defence chiefs had suggested the possibility that Ajax would never be deployed into service (a rather strange term to use in any event) they would very quickly be brought to heel and required to account for what could only be an unauthorised conversation with a member of the press and whoever it was could well end up being sacked! But of course, the so-called defence chiefs referred to in the newspaper are no longer defence chiefs are they as both retired from the military very many years ago.
I would of course like to see comments made by serving defence chiefs in respect of defence procurement programmes and capability requirements but such is the system within the MOD that anything they wish to say publicly must first be vetted. Hence, apart from towing the MOD/Government line, defence chiefs most usually stick to their briefs and do not allow themselves to preach personal views.
It is also rare that previous defence chiefs speak out although the former First Sea Lord and later Labour Government Minster, Lord West of Spithead and former Head of the British Army, Lord Dannatt have regularly spoken out and challenged government. Most former defence chiefs keep their views to themselves and even if they write their memoirs, as an increasing number do these days, they are most usually circumspect when it comes to informing readers of challenges and battles fought with their service chief colleagues, CDS and Secretary of State Defence. Most often, adopting such a policy is surely right but just occasionally, one might argue that when several years have passed since retirement, the public may have a right to know. What the public may not need though are obsessive opinions on current defence matters from long ago retired former senior military officers that are constantly biased toward the specific service – army, Royal Navy or Roya Air Force – that they were once in.
True, I have myself written several times previously on the Army’s long overdue and hugely costly fully digitalised multi-role armoured fighting vehicle Ajax and which, when originally conceived, was part of a much larger Army procurement plan known as FRES (Future Rapid Effects System) that envisaged a much larger range of land systems vehicles being procured. Originally known as Scout before the name was changed to Ajax for reasons I know not why, Ajax remained as almost the only survivor of the original FRES plan following the cuts announced in the SDSR 2010 defence and security review.
With a history of development stretching back fifteen or more years, 589 vehicles being ordered from General Dynamics by the MOD at a cost of £5.5bn in a deal signed back in 2014, while the MOD recently announced that a level of progress has been made in ironing out some of the many problems experienced during the testing programme, if Ajax ever does enter service with the Army it will undoubtedly be a level of reduced capability than had been originally intended.
But for all that and all the many problems that have beset this unfortunate procurement, for the Mirror to suggest that ‘defence chiefs’ admit that Ajax may never be deployed for service is a story dragged out of thin air. Two so-called ‘defence chiefs’ were quoted in the article – Colonel Phil Ingram, a long ago retired Army Officer whose views as a now defence commentator and journalist are regularly aired on Twitter and Alan West – Lord West of Spithead, a former First Sea Lord who retired from the Royal Navy in 2006 and who was subsequently a Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Home Office with responsibility for Security during the last Labour administration.
Whilst serving as the First Sea Lord, Lord West may well have achieved the most senior position within the Royal Navy until standing down at the end of his appointed term in 2006, but I would respectively remind that it is now in excess of sixteen years since the former ISL held a formal senior position of responsibility within the UK defence arena.
I know very little about Philip Ingram other than that he formally specialised in the area of security and intelligence, is now a regular speaker on matters related to Terrorism, Cyber Security, Information and Disinformation and that he delivers informed content through his own media company ‘Grey Hare Media’.
My point in regard of both is that, whether by inuendo or any other methods, for any newspaper to imply or indeed, to refer to either of these fine gentlemen as ‘defence chiefs’ is both misleading and blatantly wrong.
Comments Made By The Duke of Sussex
I would rather have made no comment at all in respect of the circus surrounding the Duke of Sussex’s book but on reflection that would be a cop out.
The first thing that I would say is that we should all be extremely thankful that Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth had not been forced to witness the quite appalling views and opinions made by a member of her own family. I am however glad that those who the Duke of Sussex has so blatantly sought to damage have stood firm and avoided making any comments that would of inevitability, fuel the flames.
It may be hard to perfectly judge at this point but my own view is that the personal level of attack on his brother and other members of the Royal Family, both the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have now lost the bulk of British public support. They chose to light a fuse and it is one that has seriously backfired.
I may be wrong and the Duke may well keep up the attack when and if he returns to the US, but my view is that we are now witnessing the final stages of an end game of a jealous individual and one who, through no fault of his own, was not the first born.
Of far more importance to me is that the Duke of Sussex has, through his unsubstantiated claim to have killed 25 members of the Taliban during his second tour of Helmand whilst serving as a British Army Apache attack helicopter co-pilot and gunner, done himself considerable personal damage by making such remarks, one’s that most others that have served have long considered to be a taboo. His public comments on this for whatever reason he chose to make them show a complete lack of judgement and respect for his Army colleagues and are ill-considered from a personal security point of view – indeed, such remarks could well haunt him in the years to come. He may well of course have considered that by making such remarks the UK Government will provide him with a level of increased security. I doubt that they will and my point in respect of how the public views he and his Duchess now may well prove that point.
The Duke of Sussex has not only undermined himself and members of the Royal Family and the British nation as a whole but has also undermined those that he served with in Afghanistan. He has, as far as I am concerned, lost any remaining respect that I might have had for him when he served and his blatant attempt to damage his brother, his father and many others in the Royal Family together with the very visible lack of respect shown for his former Army colleagues will surely serve him badly in the years to come.
You may think many things but there are some that you never say. The Duke of Sussex appears to have broken many unwritten rules In attempting to justify himself and find a place in which to secure his future. And if that is so then my view is that he has miserably failed.
CHW (London – 9th January 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785