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UK Ajax viability in question

26th July 2021 - 11:55 GMT | by Tim Fish in Auckland

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The ARES platform during an earlier five-month manned live firing test capability demonstration in September 2017 (GDUK)

As more information emerges about the problems with the Ajax armoured reconnaissance vehicle, doubts at the official, military and political level are increasing about whether it can be delivered.

The saga surrounding the UK’s Ajax armoured reconnaissance vehicle continues as further details emerge about the difficulties in the acquisition programme.

During a meeting of the UK parliamentary Defence Select Committee on 20 July, defence procurement minister Jeremy Quin stated that he does not believe that the revised IOC date for the vehicle would be achieved in September.

Quin also said he does not believe that FOC for the 589 vehicles would follow in 2025 as planned. Speaking in Parliament last week, he remarked that he is not 100% sure if the programme can be saved, adding that the MoD is making contingency plans should Ajax not arrive on time, or at all.

Lt Gen Ralph Wooddisse, Commander Field Army, told the Committee that the British Army is ‘contingency planning against not being able to use Ajax in the middle of the decade – or 2023, which I think is when we first want to use it… we have a way of mitigating that gap using other vehicles.’

The cancellation of the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) upgrade programme in the Integrated Review left a capability gap in the role to protect the new Boxer armoured personnel carrier (APC) in the field. It was expected that the Ajax turreted variant could fill this role as it is equipped with the same cased telescoped ammunition 40mm cannon that was to be provided by Warrior.

He explained that if Ajax were cancelled, options for protecting Boxer would include Challenger 3 main battle tanks, AH-64 Apaches and long-range precision munitions. For the replacement of Ajax’s main reconnaissance role, Wooddisse added that the British Army ‘would have to use a combination of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and ground-mounted reconnaissance… Jackal or another Ajax equivalent'.

The Ajax programme did not achieve its IOC at the end of June. A recent Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA) report stated that the MoD had 90% confidence that IOC would be achieved by the September date, but that is now unlikely.

Meanwhile, the MoD is financing a study at Millbrook to verify and validate data on the issues with the excessive vibration and noise in the Ajax vehicles, with a report due in September. Prime contractor General Dynamics UK (GDUK) is paying for a study by Mara to identify mitigations and confirm improvements required.

The Ajax turreted variant showcased at DSEI in 2017. (Photo: GDUK)

So far, GDUK has built 116 vehicles with 25 delivered to the Army for IOC — 12 of those with turrets. It has also delivered training systems at Army sites at Bovington, Upavon and Tidworth. A total of 270 vehicle hulls have been manufactured and 60 turrets.

However, the issues with excessing noise and vibrations that emerged since November 2020 mean that the programme is essentially halted while GDUK, the British Army and the MoD try to find a fix. Soldiers involved in Army testing reported injuries after operating the vehicles.

The noise issues are relating to the amount of ambient sound created by the vehicle when moving that the internal radio communication systems transmit into soldiers’ ears via the Bowman headsets. This can be fixed with new headsets.

The vibration problems come from the engine, transmission and running gear when the vehicle is moving. This caused Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome in some operators and it also means that the vehicle electronics suffer damage more quickly. 

Additionally, the turret’s gyro stabiliser is affected so the gun cannot fire accurately on the move. It is not clear how this problem can be resolved.

Commenting on Ajax on 22 July, Dr Jack Watling, research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), stated that GDUK has had ‘difficulties with quality control in the fabrication of the vehicle hulls'.

He said that this inconsistency in production means that it is much harder to identify whether the vibration problems are design-related or reflect a failure to build to specification.

With £3.2 billion out of the total £5.5 billion budget for Ajax already spent, the British Army has a tough decision to make about whether it should cut its losses or try to rectify the problems.

Ajax was intended to be a core component of the British Army’s planned Strike Brigades before they were scrapped in the IR. The new Army structure will be based around new Brigade Combat Teams and Watling questioned whether Ajax is able to deliver the necessary C4ISR capability.

He argued: 'If grouped within the Heavy Brigade Combat Teams alongside Challenger 3, Ajax cannot deliver infantry to the objective and cannot perform the divisional reconnaissance function. Alternatively, if made part of the Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team, Ajax will struggle to be sustained operating independently.'

Watling suggested that reconnaissance can ‘be done differently’ and can increasingly be coordinated using stand-off radar on aviation platforms such as the Watchkeeper UAS, Wildcat helicopter and other small UAS.

However, a manned armoured combat reconnaissance vehicle is essential for an armoured force and how it conducts its manoeuvres and engages with the enemy. So if Ajax is lost and not replaced with a similar platform, the Army would be faced with a serious challenge to how it intends to operate heavy armour in the future.

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