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Land Warfare

Ajax risk to British Army (Analysis)

8th June 2021 - 08:56 GMT | by Tim Fish in Auckland

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The Ajax family of vehicles is designed to deliver an essential combat capability to the British Army's future brigade combat teams. (Photo: GDUK)

The leak of parts of a UK government Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) report on the British Army’s Ajax reconnaissance armoured vehicle programme has raised questions about the ability to deliver the family of platforms and what it means for the Army’s future force structure.

Some conclusions from the report released on Twitter by defence analyst Francis Tusa on 2 June indicate that the UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority has graded the Ajax project with a red rating. 

This means that it believes the project to be undeliverable in its current form and needs to be re-baselined.

Because of problems with the vehicles, the report states that the project will not deliver the required number of platforms to meet planned operational deployments in 2023-24 and for Ajax to achieve full operational capability (FOC) in 2025.

Whilst this storm was brewing, Jeremy Quin MP, minister for defence procurement at the UK MoD, spoke the following day at the RUSI Land Warfare conference. He admitted that there were ‘issues that needed to be addressed’ in the current demonstration phase but tried to assure delegates that these were being dealt with.

IOC for the Ajax programme is due at the end of June, so there is a race against time for the MoD, contractor General Dynamics UK (GDUK) and the British Army to resolve any problems with the vehicle.

The IPA report highlighted that the maturity of the first ‘Capability Drop 1’ set of vehicles could not be agreed upon. It added that there were problems with vibration in the vehicles that meant soldiers could not use them for sustained periods of time beyond 90min or at speeds above 20mph.

‘These restrictions and limitations are delaying both verification and validation and reliability growth trials and will mean the Household Cavalry Regiment cannot conduct effective collective training on the platform,’ the IPA stated.

However, without seeing the full report, its conclusions, and when it was published, it is difficult to tell the extent of the problems and the current state of the remediation efforts.

The armoured reconnaissance role remains a vital component of any armoured force. The power of the Ajax vehicle is in its sensor package, electronic architecture and connection to the network. (Photo: GDUK)

A spokesperson from GDUK told Shephard that it is continuing work to complete the remaining demonstration phase activities and that recent trials have ‘confirmed many of the required capabilities’ across the Ajax family of vehicles ‘including operations across the full range of speed and reverse step obstacle climb’.

The spokesperson added: ‘A small number of remaining issues are being reviewed and closed out’ ahead of the IOC. 

This could mean that some progress has been made after the information was gathered for the IPA report.

Meanwhile, an MoD spokesperson told Shephard: ‘The MoD can confirm some training on the Ajax family of vehicles was paused as a precautionary measure. This is a normal measure for the demonstration phase of projects. An investigation, incorporating trials, is being carried out jointly with the manufacturer.’

So, according to those in charge, everything is normal and there is "nothing to see here". Yet the frenetic activity being undertaken suggests otherwise.

'I wouldn't rule out the programme being cancelled if basically the new armoured vehicle is undeliverable.’Ben Barry, senior land fellow, IISS

A defence source told Shephard: ‘The Army, General Dynamics and the MoD is now engaged in an intensive round of assessments and rectification work to resolve any outstanding issues.’

The Ajax programme was first contracted in 2010 and 2014. To date, £3.47 billion ($4.91 billion) of the £5.5 billion budget has been spent with just 14 non-turreted Ares-variant vehicles delivered so far and 12 Ajax turreted variants undergoing testing.

The base chassis for Ajax is the ASCOD design from General Dynamics European Land Systems, which is manufactured in Spain and sent to its GDUK subsidiary for final assembly, integration and testing. ASCOD is already in service in the Spanish and Austrian armies without any problems. Therefore, issues that have emerged are likely related to the turret and gun conversion work done in the UK.

Ben Barry, senior land fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Shephard that there are reports of problems with the new 40mm gun. 

‘This is interesting. Some of the reports suggest that it is a problem with the gun and turret it is housed in. And that may be the case if they are unable to fire the gun properly, for example being able to fire it on the move – something that the existing CVR(T) [Scimitar reconnaissance vehicle] can’t really do at all,’ he said.

However, he added that the French Army is procuring the same gun for its Jaguar wheeled reconnaissance vehicle without any issues, ‘so I don’t think it is a problem with the gun per se, it is a problem with the interface between the turret and the gun’.

He continued: ‘If you were to ask for a frank conversation with the army, they'd say they're very worried about it. And of course, it's doing nothing for the morale of the soldiers and officers in the regiments that are patiently awaiting the replacement of their obsolete Scimitar armoured vehicles.’

The British Army's CVR(T) Scimitar armoured scout vehicle is obsolete and would not operate effectively against a near-peer military force. (Photo: UK MoD)

Scimitars were introduced into British Army service in the 1970s, so they are now obsolete and becoming more expensive to maintain. Ajax and its failed predecessor vehicle programmes were designed as a replacement because, compared to modern reconnaissance vehicles, Scimitar is only lightly protected, there is little capacity in the platform for additional modern electronic systems, the turret is mechanically hand-driven, and its 30mm gun cannot fire programmable ammunition.

Therefore the possibility that Ajax could fail presents a significant problem for the army. Its recent Future Soldier booklet highlights the central role that the Ajax family of vehicles will have in its new Brigade Combat Team structure, especially considering that the tracked Warrior IFV upgrade programme was cancelled in the Integrated Review Defence Command Paper.

A manned armoured combat reconnaissance vehicle is essential for an armoured force and how it conducts its manoeuvres and engages with the enemy. Barry said that finding the enemy is a ‘classic function of combat, it’s an enduring function’, adding that most comparable modern armies have manned reconnaissance at battalion, brigade and divisional level.

‘Nobody ever says this is easy. But there does come a moment with an equipment programme, where if it's seriously failing, you're throwing good money away. And I wouldn't rule out the programme being cancelled if basically the new armoured vehicle is undeliverable,’ he added.

The MoD spokesperson said it is committed to the Ajax programme ‘which will form a key component in the army’s modernised war-fighting division’.

‘If you were to ask for a frank conversation with the army, they'd say they're very worried about it.'Ben Barry, senior land fellow, IISS

However, much depends on when the British Army transitions to its new structure and therefore when it will need the Ajax vehicles. The March 2021 Command Paper did not specify any deadlines apart from its Joint Force 2030 ambition.

Barry said that the army is working on the detailed planning for this, but it will take some time. ‘There are organisations that there are battalions and regiments that have to be moved their battalions and regiments whose roles change. And there are implications for example, for barracks and training,’ he said, ‘but there will be an imperative on the army to get on with it, because they want to realise the financial savings.’

Ultimately, there is no shortage of alternative scout/reconnaissance vehicles that could be purchased as a replacement if Ajax fails. But should the MoD be forced into this position, it would be hugely expensive and would again depend on the ability of industry to deliver an alternative platform on time to fit into the new formations ready for deployment. 

The Ajax family of vehicles is designed to provide other specialist capabilities alongside the armoured reconnaissance vehicle. (Photo: GDUK)

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