The Ministry of Defence faces a big challenge to deliver its troubled Ajax armoured vehicle programme, the National Audit Office has warned.
The department signed a £5.5bn contract with General Dynamics Land Systems UK in 2014 for the design, manufacture and initial in-service support of 589 Ajax armoured vehicles.
Failures by the department and GDLS-UK have led to delays and unresolved safety problems which “may prove insurmountable”, the NAO said in a report on the much-delayed programme.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said the MoD and GDLS-UK’s approach to delivering the £5.5bn scheme was “flawed from the start”.
“They did not fully understand the scale or complexity of the Ajax programme and a series of failures have led to delays and unresolved safety issues that will have a significant impact on the Army’s ability to use the vehicles,” Davies said.
“We have seen similar problems on other defence programmes, and the department must demonstrate that it understands the fundamental improvement required in its management of major programmes.”
The MoD initially planned to have the Ajax armed vehicles in service by 2017 but this was pushed back to 2020 and then to 2021, with all three deadlines missed. Now, the MoD says it does not know when the vehicles will be ready-to-use, and the NAO has questioned if the programme can be delivered in full. As of December 2021, the department had paid GDLS-UK £3.2bn, but only received 26 vehicles.
The vehicles have reportedly caused damage to soldiers’ hearing during trials. The MoD announced in December that it is planning to appoint a senior legal figure to investigate what has gone wrong.
The NAO said the MoD knew of noise and vibration issues before soldiers reported injuries but was not aware of the severity of potential problems. The department and GDLS-UK have not yet been able to agree on the causes of the safety issues nor how they will be resolved.
In an interview with CSW in this month’s magazine, Defence Equipment and Support chief exec Simon Bollom said the noise and vibration issues were not escalated quickly enough.
“I very much regret that this may have been the cause of injury to soldiers. That absolutely is not where we should be in a trials programme. We’re absolutely determined to fix it. The actual vehicle itself is a phenomenal piece of kit. It is two steps beyond the capability that is currently out there, which is nearly 40 years of age. We’ve got to get this into the hands of the army, but clearly it’s got to be safe to operate.”
As well as the safety issues, the NAO said are other technical issues which still need to be addressed as well as wider problems which could prevent Ajax from achieving its full capability.
It is not yet clear whether the issues are resolvable, the public spending watchdog said.
The NAO said the department has not managed the programme effectively, failing to establish effective governance arrangements and sufficient resources, and set an over-optimistic schedule.
The MoD has now recognised the need for revised governance arrangements and appropriate resources, the watchdog added.
Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, urged the MoD and GDLS-UK to “find a way out of the deadlock…and rescue the programme”.
“The NAO report reads like a checklist for major project failure where almost everything that can go wrong, did go wrong,” she told PA.
The delays could have a big impact on the army, with plans to deliver a network of digital capabilities by 2030, centred around Ajax, Boxer and Challenger 3 armed fighting vehicles. The army will have to keep ageing vehicles in service for longer, which are expensive to maintain.
The NAO has recommended that the MoD agree on a credible delivery plan with GDLS-UK, and ensure there is a clear process for reporting, considering and implementing safety recommendations.
An MOD spokesperson said: “As we have made clear, Ajax is a troubled programme, and we will not accept a vehicle that is not fit for purpose. As the NAO recognises, we are working with General Dynamics to resolve the noise and vibration issues with a view to Ajax being successfully delivered to the army.
“We continue to meet our obligations to NATO and will mitigate any capability gap through a range of alternative reconnaissance capabilities.”