The Ministry of Defence and a former armed forces minister have rebuffed claims that one of the government's most troubled programmes is "on track" to meet a new schedule.
Ajax, one of the government’s most troubled programmes is, “far from on track”, Mark Francois has said, in response to claims from the company contracted to deliver the armoured vehicles.
The Ministry of Defence signed a £5bn contract with General Dynamics Land Systems UK (GDUK) in 2014 to deliver 589 Ajax armoured vehicles. Initially, the aim was to start bringing the vehicles into service in 2017 but delays and unresolved safety problems have left the viability of the programme in question.
As of this summer – a year after the revised June 2021 deadline – just 26 vehicles had been delivered, to be used only for training purposes. There are unresolved problems with the vehicles, including excessive noise and vibration, and injuries have been reported among army personnel who have trialled them.
After the Public Accounts Committee warned in June that GDUK and the MoD “must fix or fail” the programme by the end of the year, the outsourcer said the two parties had agreed a new schedule.
"GDUK and the MoD have worked together to develop a joint, integrated schedule for the delivery of the rest of the programme, and we are on track to this new schedule. The schedule has been extensively and independently reviewed,” the company said in a letter to PAC on 22 September.
But an MoD spokesperson told CSW on 27 October that a revised scheduled was being explored but had not yet been agreed.
“The MoD remains focused on working with General Dynamics to resolve the issues within the Ajax programme in line with the contract,” the department said.
“Given the delays, we have explored a revised schedule with General Dynamics that will be finalised once a suitable technical solution, which we are trialling, has been agreed. We will not accept a vehicle until it can be used safely for its intended purposes.”
Francois, a former minister in the MoD and a current member of both PAC and the Defence Select Committee, rejected GDUK’s claims.
“The program is far from on track, because Ajax was meant to enter service several years ago so it's already years late,” he said. “This is a deeply troubled programme.”
“This programme has been running for a decade and despite spending nearly £4bn of British taxpayers money, we still don't have a usable combat vehicle that has entered frontline service.”
Both GDUK and the MoD have held trials to test the safety of the vehicles. The army’s trials team began reporting injuries from July 2020 onwards, having raised concerns about vibration since late 2019.
Some soldiers trialling the vehicles have developed serious medical issues, including hearing problems, which in some cases have required them to have steroid injections, Francois said. Others have had to leave the armed forces on medical grounds.
‘The MoD can no longer kick this can down the road’
The MoD said in August that it “expects to decide the way ahead on the programme by the end of 2022”, in response to PAC's findings and after a separate National Audit Office report warning that Ajax's difficulties "may prove insurmountable".
Francois said most people he has spoken to who are involved with the programme “seem to think this is all now coming to a head one way or another”.
“After 12 years and £4bn of British taxpayers money, the MoD can no longer kick this can down the road,” he warned.
“They either have to come up with a comprehensive plan to bring Ajax into service or admit defeat and scrap it. What they cannot do is to continue to fudge, not least because some of the vehicles [the army is using] while we're waiting for Ajax are now almost 50 years old.”
Asked why GDUK had suggested a new schedule was “on track”, Francois said: “General Dynamics have a commercial interest in trying to get this thing to work. And it would be deeply embarrassing for them if it were cancelled.”
Francois also suggested it would also be “very embarrassing” for “a number of senior personnel” in the MoD if Ajax is scrapped.
Ajax ‘good example’ of defence procurement struggles
Francois said Ajax – which he described as ”too bureaucratic, takes far too long, and is very bad at dealing with programs that get into difficulty” – is “a good example” of what is wrong with defence procurement in the UK.
“I would say the entire system of defence procurement in the United Kingdom, which PAC has previously described as broken, now needs to be totally reviewed,” he said.
Francois said there are procurement challenges across government, "but there are specific problems relating to defence and Ajax is a very good example of what they are".
In November 2021, PAC said the MoD’s system for buying military equipment was “broken” and wasting billions of pounds.
An MoD spokesperson said: “We are continuously seeking to improve our procurement system so that we can deliver capability to the front line."
They added the Ajax Lessons Learned Review, which was announced in May, will "ensure we deliver major programmes more effectively in future".
Inquiry will examine leadership, culture and governance
Led by Clive Sheldon QC, the lessons-learned review aims to identify lessons and make recommendations to help the MoD deliver major programmes more effectively in future.
It will consider how the department's leadership, culture and governance can be improved “to ensure timely and appropriate elevation of problems to the right levels within the department”, including ministers' involvement, according to the inquiry’s terms of reference.
It will also consider systemic and process issues as well as “individual action and inaction”.
“This should include looking at whether individuals are aware of how to elevate problems – informally and formally – and whether senior personnel are given appropriate training on acting upon the information received,” the terms of reference state.
The NAO report in March pointed out how the army’s trials team began reporting injuries from July 2020 onwards, having raised concerns about vibration since late 2019.
But excessive noise and vibration levels – and potential injuries – were not reported to the officer responsible for safety and the senior officer responsible for the programme until September 2020, according to the NAO.
Evidence given during the review will not be used in disciplinary proceedings unless there is evidence of gross misconduct.
An MoD spokesperson told CSW on 3 November: “We recognise that the Ajax programme has encountered problems, and we are clear that we will not accept a vehicle until it can be used safely for its intended purposes.
“We have made progress on the programme and are now analysing the results of user validation trials that resumed last month. Provided the results meet our requirements, the intention is to progress to reliability growth trials.”
Asked to respond, GDUK declined to comment.