Main Image Credit The Ajax prototype on display near Merthyr Tydfil, Wales in March 2016. Courtesy of Andrew Linnett/Defence Imagery/OGL v3.0
The British Army has spent £3.2 billion on its Ajax family of vehicles, but as major problems beset the programme and its role in the force remains poorly defined, the Army faces a stark choice between doubling down or moving on.
Speaking at RUSI’s Land Warfare Conference on 2 June, Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin stated that the British Army’s Ajax vehicles were ‘bringing a step change in versatility and agility’ and that while ‘there are issues that need to be addressed, they are being addressed, in partnership with industry’. The Ministry of Defence was adamant that Initial Operating Capability would be declared at the end of the month.
Within weeks all trials on the vehicle had been halted after crews reported injuries due to excessive noise and vibration. The programme is now in crisis, with ministers briefing that they had not been informed about the problems by senior officers and Mr Quin telling the House of Commons Defence Committee that ‘we cannot be 100% certain that’ the salvation of the programme ‘can be achieved’. The two fundamental questions are whether the vehicle can be fixed, and whether it is worth saving. With the Army in the midst of working out how it will fight following the Integrated Review, the consequences of the decision to proceed with or cancel Ajax will be far-reaching.
Can Ajax be Saved?
The two greatest problems afflicting Ajax are noise and vibration. Ajax has long been recognised as a noisy vehicle. However, tests on the sound produced by the vehicle demonstrated that it was within useable limits. Subsequent investigation following loss of hearing by crews trialling the platforms has concluded that the issue arises from the integration of the Bowman headsets for the crew radios, which were picking up engine noise, amplifying it as the vehicle accelerated, and putting the sound directly into the crews’ ears. This raises serious questions about how tests on British Army vehicles are carried out, but is also fundamentally resolvable through the procurement of new headsets.
The vibration issues are more problematic. In testing it has been reported that excessive vibration is preventing the main armament from stabilising on the move, damaging the electronic systems that make Ajax a step-change in capability and leading to a high rate of component failure, with the idler and rear road wheels sheering off with concerning regularity. Crews meanwhile have suffered from symptoms that could indicate a risk of prolonged use of the platform leading to Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome. These problems must be overcome before the vehicle can be viable as a fighting platform.
Senior personnel within General Dynamics Land Systems UK (GDLUK), the prime manufacturer of Ajax, as well as British Army personnel responsible for trialling the vehicles, noted that GDLUK has had significant difficulties with quality control in the fabrication of the vehicle hulls. The company has so far produced 270 hulls from an overall contract to deliver 598 vehicles. Quality control is understood to be especially poor throughout the first 100 hulls manufactured in Spain, but the issue has not been entirely eliminated in subsequent batches. Problems have included sections being inconsistent lengths, the sides of the hull not being parallel, and substandard welding. Fittings and furnishings have not had their attachment points drilled using jigs, resulting in the spacing of holes being uneven. GDLUK has expended significant efforts in trying to repair hulls that have been manufactured to an unsatisfactory quality.
The significance of the shortcomings in quality control is that the vibration issues are not manifesting themselves in the vehicles in a uniform manner. Some hulls produce disproportionately poor performance. This inconsistency means that it is exceedingly difficult for those investigating the faults to determine how much of the vibration arises from a problem with the fundamental design of the platform, as opposed to failures to build the platform to specification. Before the House of Commons Defence Committee, Carew Wilks, Vice President and General Manager of GDLUK, noted that vibration concerns have been a ‘feature of the design since 2010’. But additional quality control shortcomings make identifying and ironing out these problems exceedingly difficult.
The lack of a reliable diagnosis is paralysing because it obscures the data necessary to determine whether the issue is resolvable, and at what cost. If the defective hulls are scrapped and new ones made with tighter quality control, underlying issues could remain. Changes to the fundamental design will necessarily be complex, time-consuming and expensive, while the contract offers little recourse for the taxpayer if GDLUK fails to resolve the problem by 2025.
GDLUK insists that the fundamental design is sound and denies that quality control is a risk to the programme. It is worth noting, however, that GDLUK does not describe the resolution as the elimination of the vibration issues, but speaks instead of ‘mitigation’ by using rubber inserts and other techniques to reduce the impact on crews. GDLUK states that based on its own tests, vibration at a component level is within legal requirements. This is bolstered by the fact that the British Army does not have standardised tests to measure vibration. Cancellation of Ajax may therefore result in significant litigation over this point. A careful parsing of GDLUK’s language suggests that so long as crews are not being physically injured by the operation of the platform, it believes that its product meets the required standard, even if that standard presents serious problems to the battlefield functionality of the platform. Given concerns as to GDLUK’s ability to build platforms to a consistent standard, however, promises of future deliveries meeting specifications are being received with some scepticism. Overall, the Ministry of Defence is committed within the contract to pay £5.5 billion for Ajax if it continues with the programme.
Should Ajax be Saved?
Given the prospect of significant and as yet unquantifiable costs for fixing the vehicle, it must also be asked how important Ajax is for the British Army. The Ajax family of vehicles were procured to fill two capability gaps: a reconnaissance vehicle to replace the Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) family, and a carrier for the Army’s much-vaunted digital backbone. In the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, Ajax was billed as a divisional reconnaissance asset that would assist ‘Strike’ brigades with firepower in screening the Armoured Infantry brigades at the heart of the UK’s ‘Warfighting Division’. Although Ajax’s size, weight and signature made it an unlikely reconnaissance vehicle, it did boast an impressive array of sensors and was doctrinally a viable component of the divisional fighting system.
The digital backbone of the force has wider implications beyond Ajax. The British Army has been struggling to bridge the gap between its legacy vehicle fleet and platforms able to collect, fuse and transmit the vast volume of data on the battlefield without the need for a massive headquarters footprint that would not be survivable in a warfighting scenario. Often described as a ‘computer on tracks’, Ajax was supposed to bridge the gap between mechanised and informatised warfare.
Following the Integrated Review, it is evident that both of these requirements remain, but it is less clear that Ajax is the best way of meeting them. The removal of armoured infantry as a capability within the British Army following the determination to retire Warrior without a replacement Infantry fighting vehicle, as well as the further reduction in heavy armour, means that the enablers to support heavy platforms like Ajax will be scarce and concentrated. 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. Ajax’s inability to peer-to-peer recover also makes it a poor independent unit, while its weight, complexity and size make it hard to deploy with lighter forces, despite the British Army seeking to operate further afield with greater frequency.
At a time when reconnaissance can increasingly be co-ordinated using stand-off radar mounted on Watchkeeper and Wildcat, and subsequently investigated by lighter, lower-signature vehicles and un-crewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), Ajax appears distinctly out of place. Retaining the platform risks the UK’s fighting concepts being constrained by the vehicle and its limitations, rather than having the capability that best meets the need.
That reconnaissance can be done differently is important given the opportunity cost that doubling down on Ajax entails. Although the Integrated Review made much of new technologies for the Army, hard cash remains tied to existing large equipment programmes. Pushing sufficient money into Ajax to make it work would further constrain the resources available to deliver transformative capability. If, on the other hand, the Army could invest the money and personnel that would otherwise be devoted to Ajax in rolling out electronic warfare, multi-sensor arrays and UAVs to the Boxer and Jackal fleets, it would significantly expand its reconnaissance capability. Investment into firepower on Boxer, for instance – including anti-tank guided missiles – would make the force considerably more lethal.
The work done on the digital backbone will be harder to recover, although it is notable that progress on Morpheus – which provides the bearer network to move the data gathered and fused by Ajax – has been slow. It would be necessary to transfer many of the functions currently expected of Ajax to specialist modules on Boxer. Although the Army could learn from the gains made in developing Ajax, not all of the intellectual property would be transferable. It would also inevitably delay what the Army has identified as fundamental to its future.
Whether the Army can pursue alternative means of reconnaissance and digitisation to Ajax is dependent upon the Treasury allowing the Ministry of Defence to reallocate the more than £2.3 billion currently unspent as part of the Ajax programme. Perhaps one of the strongest motives for soldiering on in spite of mounting problems was the fear that the money would simply be cut if challenges emerged ahead of the Integrated Review. In this context, there is the fear that the Army would not be trusted to pursue a new programme. However, if Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin is serious that the Integrated Review means ‘changing our processes’ through the Land Industrial Strategy, this would be an opportunity to prove it.
Time to Decide
The Army faces a stark choice. The fundamental question coming from ministers is whether the Army wants Ajax. If it answers in the affirmative, it is committed; if it demurs, there will be a major gap in the Army’s capability until an alternative is found. Normally, the Army would answer this question by assessing the relevance of the vehicle to its concept of fighting. However, the Army had not expected to lose Warrior during the Integrated Review, and now finds itself without a coherent warfighting doctrine. In this context, there is real concern that the decision on Ajax will pre-empt and pre-determine how the Army must structure to fight. The alternative to Ajax is viable, but only if the Army can be clear and concise in setting out what is required.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jack Watling
Research Fellow, Land Warfare