LONDON - One of Britain’s key land programs will find itself before the Parliamentary defence committee July 20 with leaders set to quiz top officials from the Ministry of Defence and contractor General Dynamics UK on the causes behind the troubled Ajax armored reconnaissance vehicle program.
Delivery of an operational Ajax family of vehicles is a British Army priority as it seeks to transform the way it equips for a future digital battlefield.
But, the tracked vehicle, an advanced version of General Dynamics Land Systems Ascod platform, has been beset with delivery and technical problems that have drawn criticism from government bodies such as the Infrastructure & Projects Authority and have attracted widespread media reporting.
Last week General Dynamics laid out its side of the story in written evidence delivered to the committee. It acknowledged ongoing vibration and noise issues still need fixing but the company said other technical issues have been repaired and claimed much of the media reporting disparaging the vehicle being “without foundation in fact.”
Referring to the noise and vibration problems, the evidence said “GDLS–UK is working closely with the MoD to fully investigate these reports and identify and address potential causes.”
“This includes working jointly with the MoD and Millbrook [test and validation company], which are undertaking independent vibration trials, in support of a rigorous root cause analysis process,” the written evidence read.
The vehicles’ tactical commanders hand controllers are one of the areas identified as causing a vibration problem. As far as is known, the vibration and noise issues remain unresolved.
For the second time, training on the vehicles has been stopped for health and safety reasons. An MoD spokesperson told Defense News vehicle training remains “paused.”
British defence secretary Ben Wallace joined the criticism of the program last week during a trip to the United States. Wallace told reporters in Washington July 13 that discussion with General Dynamics on fixing the issues on Ajax had gone to the highest levels of the U.S. defense giant.
British procurement minister Jeremy Quin has already spoken to General Dynamics CEO Phebe Novakovic and Wallace said he too planned to discuss the issue with the defense giants boss. As of July 15 that telephone call had not been made, with the MoD spokesperson saying it would be arranged when Wallace returned.
General Dynamics in the United States referred questions to the MoD.
The defence secretary said the problems had to be sorted out by the company and the British Army.
“It’s a troubled program, no one’s hiding that ... And we’ve got to fix it. We’ve got to get to the bottom of the problems with it. We, both General Dynamics and the army, have determined they’re going to have to put this right,” he said. “It is a firm contract; the price is a firm price. We’ve already withheld significant amounts of money ... It has to be fixed,” he said.
“Fundamentally, we paid for piece of equipment, we expect it to be delivered. And just like any other consumer, we have those rights, and it’s not up to scratch,” Wallace said.
The British Army selected General Dynamics to develop the battlefield reconnaissance vehicle in 2010 and awarded a contract to build 589 vehicles across six variants in 2014. In total the cost of the program to the MoD stands at £4.62 billion ($6.29 USD).
In its evidence General Dynamics said that as of the start of this month payments had totaled £2.65 billion ($3.6 billion USD).
The defence committee said it opted to hold the one-day session to explore progress on the program in the light of recent reports about the vehicle’s mobility, speed, firing on the move, survivability and noise and vibration problems encountered during testing. Options for acquiring an alternative vehicle are also on the committee agenda.
General Dynamics said in its evidence that there was not a rival as mature as Ajax available. Even if there was, the British are unlikely to have the funds to ditch Ajax and re-enter the procurement field.
It only recently axed the Lockheed Martin UK Warrior infantry fighting vehicle update program, in part due to funding issues.
Quin leads the MoD team giving evidence to the committee. Carew Wilks, vice president and general manager, General Dynamics Land Systems–UK heads up the contractor team.
Perhaps uniquely for a major equipment investigation the MoD’s Surgeon General Major General Timothy Hodgetts is also giving evidence – presumably to address health and safety issues around the noise and vibration problems.
The written evidence from General Dynamics also offered an update on the latest production figures and delivery timetable for the Ajax family, which is assembled and tested in south Wales. The company said Covid had significantly slowed production and it forecasts “the final completion of vehicle deliveries in 2025.”
“As of July 1 production and deliveries has seen the build of 271 armored hulls and 60 turrets. All six variants are in full production and 116 vehicles have been fully built and are delivered, or in the handover process,” the General Dynamics document said. “All the 25 vehicles to meet IOC fleet have already been delivered and been accepted by the British Army, including 12 Ajax variants equipped with the 40mm cannon, which were successfully live fired by the British Army as part of the acceptance process.”
Valerie Insinna contributed to this story.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.