British Army progresses with Boxer and Challenger 3 while Ajax’s fate remains uncertain
Representing the biggest single order for a UK armoured vehicle in more than 20 years, the Ajax armoured reconnaissance vehicle programme remains a headache for the British Army. The future of this effort remains uncertain as its IOC date is yet to be defined.
Although the vehicle is intended to play a major role as the digital architecture for the army’s Strike Brigades, the programme has encountered several challenges, with technical issues and delays putting its overall viability in jeopardy.
Shephard approached both the MoD and Ajax’s supplier General Dynamics UK (GDUK) for comment on the status and future of the Ajax programme.
The manufacturer claimed that it would not be providing any update on the effort at this stage, and the MoD had not responded at the time of publication.
However, junior defence minister Alec Shelbrooke stated in a 14 September written parliamentary answer: 'We will not accept a vehicle until it can be used safely for its intended purposes and until long-term solutions to the noise and vibration problems have been found.'
He added that the MoD 'cannot determine a realistic timescale for the introduction of Ajax into operational service'.
The ‘Integrated Review, Defence in a Competitive Age and the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy - Second Report of Session 2022–23’, issued in July by the House of Commons Defence Committee, pointed out that the Ajax programme reflects ‘the inability of the MoD and the army to replace a whole range of armoured vehicles since the Cold War’.
These vehicles will replace the in-service Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) (CRV-T) fleet, which entered service in the early 1970s.
In June 2021, during oral evidence before the Defence Committee, Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence claimed that the British Army requires certain features that the Ajax vehicles are intended to provide, such as the 40mm gun and the digital architecture.
‘The capabilities that they can deliver are really important and needed by an armoured fleet of the army that is well out of date and overmatched by not only our friends and allies, but our adversaries,’ Wallace said.
However, on 5 July, once again providing oral evidence before the Defence Committee, he claimed that the MoD is trying ‘to resolve Ajax, which we know is a troubled programme’.
WFEL completed this month the first Boxer’s drive module hull. (Photo: WFEL)
The initial contract with GDUK for Ajax was placed in 2010. A £3.5 billion ($4.3 billion) manufacturing agreement followed in 2014, and the vehicles were expected to enter service between 2020 and 2025.
The target date was replaced by a formal IOC date of July 2020, which was later rescheduled to June 2021 and missed due to concerns about the vehicle’s excessive levels of noise and vibration.
FOC ‘was supposed to be April 2025, but we think it highly unlikely that even the IOC will be achieved by this date,’ the report of the Defence Committee emphasised.
The first formal safety notice relating to Ajax’s noise and vibration issues from within the MoD was issued in December 2018 by Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) as a result of crew motion sickness reported in trials conducted by GDUK.
Even being aware of these problems, the army and the MoD decided to progress with the Ajax acquisition under the second part of the Integrated Review (IR) — the MoD Command Paper — published in March 2021.
The Defence Committee report pointed out that ‘noise and vibration issues have been widely reported and remain a problem’.
‘More worryingly, Reliability Growth Trials — designed to identify and rectify any deficiencies — have barely begun and will almost certainly discover more problems with the vehicle,’ the document noted.
While the British Army faces the problems with Ajax, it has been advancing with the Boxer and Challenger 3 programmes.
In November 2019, the British MoD ordered 523 production-standard Boxers from ARTEC (consortium of Rheinmetall and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann) under a £2.8 billion contract.
Under the same agreement, the army has exercised an option for 100 more Boxers in April. The vehicles will be manufactured in the UK, with production subcontracted equally between WFEL and Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land (RBSL).
Challenger 2 is the only MBT currently available to the British Army. (Photo: British Army)
WFEL announced on 15 September that it has completed the first fabricated and painted drive module hull with spall liner materials and driver’s bay insulation. This hull is now available to proceed into the second major production phase - assembly and integration.
According to a press release issued by WFEL, further drive module hulls are already in progress at the company’s Boxer facility in Stockport and, following the painting operation, will also be available for assembly before the end of September.
Shephard Defence Insight notes that the first Boxers are planned to enter service with the British Army in 2023.
This initiative is intended to address specific obsolete features of the Challenger 2 in order to extend its service life out to 2035 and equip two modernised heavy brigades (alongside Ajax and Boxer) to ensure lethality and protection.
Introduced in the late 1990s, Challenger 2 is the only MBT currently available to the army. According to Shephard Defence Insight, the service has 227 platforms in its inventory.
The upgraded Challenger 3 will be a network-enabled, digital platform with state-of-the-art lethality, improved survivability and world-class surveillance and target acquisition capabilities.
The LEP is currently in the first phase, which covers the building of six pre-series vehicles. In January, Jankel was awarded a more than £2 million deal to design, develop and manufacture crew seats.
In February, RBSL issued a £90 million subcontract for Thales UK to provide sighting systems under the Challenger 3 MBT upgrade programme.
Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land also selected in March Pearson Engineering to fabricate the turret structures under a circa £25 million supplier contract.
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