The Ministry of Defence has agreed a new “robust, realistic and achievable” schedule for the delayed, much-criticised Ajax armoured vehicle programme.
But the schedule will see the first vehicles come into service eight years late and the contract for all 589 vehicles completed three-to-four years late.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace said: "Having worked closely with General Dynamics to address the issues, I am pleased to say that we are making progress and are now on course to see the delivery of a suite of hundreds of battle-ready vehicles for the British army."
Alex Chalk, minister for defence procurement, said the department will now restart payments to supplier General Dynamics Land Systems UK (GDUK) as the programme has returned “to a firm footing”, in a ministerial statement delivered to the House of Commons this week.
The first vehicles will come into the operation in 2025, with full operating capability to be achieved between October 2028 and September 2029, under the revised schedule.
The MoD signed a £5bn contract with GDUK in 2014, which planned to deliver 589 Ajax armoured vehicles by 2017 but delays and unresolved noise and vibration safety issues meant the viability of the programme has been in question.
The Public Accounts Committee called for the department to either fix or scrap the programme by the end of 2022. A few months after this deadline, the department has confirmed its plan.
The original contract aimed to have some vehicles in operation by 2017 and to achieve full operating capability by April 2025. The latter deadline has been delayed several times and the new schedule means it has now been pushed back by eight years.
Chalk said delivery milestones have also been revised so that "initial operating capability" will mean there is a trained and deployable Ajax squadron. This is scheduled to be achieved between July and December 2025.
Full operating capability will now be met when the army has trained and converted forces to the Ajax platform to deliver armoured cavalry capability to the Deep Reconnaissance Strike Brigade and its two armoured brigade combat teams. This is now to be achieved between October 2028 and September 2029.
Chalk said GDUK’s ability to deliver against this new schedule has been “extensively scrutinised and assured within the department and externally”.
A recent review by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority concluded the programme’s successful delivery is feasible, re-grading the Ajax programme from red to amber, Chalk added.
Last September, GDUK claimed it had already agreed a new schedule for the delivery of the programme, which it was “on track” to meet. However, an MoD spokesperson told CSW in October that a revised scheduled was being explored but had not yet been agreed.
The MoD said a revised schedule would not be finalised until a technical solution was found for the noise and vibration issues, which have reportedly left armed personnel who trialled the vehicles injured. Public Accounts Committee member Mark Francois said at the time that the programme was "far from on track" given the years of delays.
The noise and vibration issues have now been overcome, according to Chalk, with design modifications enabling the vehicles to pass user validations trials, and allowing reliability growth trials to begin on 31 January.
Reliability growth trials stress test the durability of the vehicle’s platform and components through a series of battlefield missions that represent years of activity on the platform.
The trials are progressing well and no fundamental design issues have arisen to date, Chalk said.
Due to the safety concerns, the department has withheld payment for work completed so far and has not made any payments since December 2020.
But Chalk said the department will resume payments this month, due to the recent “satisfactory progress”.
It will initially pay out £480m – approximately half of what has been held back since December 2020.
“Restarting payments to General Dynamics reflects the fact that the programme continues to return to a firm footing and supports the delivery of the schedule to deliver operational capability,” Chalk said.
Future payments will be made as the new schedule and its milestones are met, and will be conditional on GDUK delivering compliant and deployable Ajax vehicles which pass the remaining trials, he added.
The MoD launched an Ajax Lessons Learned Review in May to ensure it delivers major programmes more effectively in future.
Chalk said the Ajax programme "turning a corner" does not remove the need for the department to learn lessons from it, and that it would "not shy away from taking action to change the culture and processes across defence as necessary".
"We look forward to receiving the finalised report from Clive Sheldon KC on the Ajax Lessons Learned Review and publishing it as soon as practicable," the minister added.