LONDON — What started as a misfiring armored vehicle program has grown into a full-blown investigation of British Army safety and procurement culture, with the Ministry of Defence planning to appoint a senior legal figure to consider issues highlighted by failings in the Ajax project.
Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin revealed his intention to appoint a lawyer or judge to undertake the review in a Dec. 15 update to Parliament. Quin was speaking to lawmakers about progress in resolving significant vibration and noise problems discovered during Army trials ahead of Ajax vehicles being formally handed over by the builder, General Dynamics Land Systems UK.
The review announcement came as Quin listed a catalog of failure by the Army, the Defence Equipment and Support procurement agency, and others to adequately react to the problems exposing soldiers to harm while they conducted acceptance trials.
“We are commissioning a senior legal figure to look more deeply at Ajax, and not just health and safety — to examine the cultural and process flaws that it has highlighted. We will leave no stone unturned to learn these lessons,” Quin said.
Quin did not point a finger of blame at those who may have been at fault for serious shortcomings, but he did say he will do so if misconduct is found.
“If the review uncovers evidence of gross misconduct, those concerned will be held to account, but the primary purpose though is to ensure that we address significant cultural failings,” the procurement minister said.
It is rare that senior legal figures are brought in to investigate problems related to equipment and associated cultural issues. The most high-profile case in recent times was the appointment of Charles Haddon-Cave by then-Defence Secretary Des Browne to investigate circumstances surrounding the crash of a Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft in Afghanistan in 2006.
Fourteen crew died in the crash, and the report from Haddon-Cave led to the creation of the Military Aviation Authority and a fundamental change in Royal Air Force safety practices.
Nobody has lost their life — or anything close to that — as a result of the Ajax vibration and noise problems, but a number of soldiers involved in the British Army trials suffered health problems, principally damage to hearing.
The Ajax program to deliver a tracked reconnaissance vehicle armed with a 40mm cannon is a key part of the Army’s plan to restructure some of its forces into strike brigades. But the contract to build 589 vehicles across six variants of the Ajax, at a cost of no more than £5.5 billion (U.S. $7.4 billion), has been dogged with delays.
The deal was signed as far back as 2010, with the vehicle it was planned to replace, the CRV(T), beginning to go out of service starting 2014. That out-of-service date is, some would say optimistically, now set at 2023.
Now what happens to the Ajax?
Quin’s announcement of the legal-led investigation into culture and procurement was part of a wider statement to lawmakers outlining progress on Ajax. The procurement minister said he still didn’t have 100% confidence the program will go ahead or when full operating capability would be achieved.
Quin reiterated previous statements about the MoD having a “robust firm price” with General Dynamics to deliver the vehicles, noting that the government wouldn’t accept anything falling short of the full specifications.
Howard Wheeldon, a consultant at Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, said questions relating to the future of Ajax remained unanswered.
“Despite what has been clearly exposed in the procurement minister’s statement, a lot more water will need to pass under the bridge before we can know the final outcome: cost, blame, who pays, and indeed when and if Ajax will ever enter service with the Army,” he said. “To suggest that a decision will occur early next year is, in my view, fanciful to say the least.”
Quin’s assertions about “the robustness of the contract signed with ... General Dynamics are noted, but that is not confirmation that it will be General Dynamics that pays to put faults right,” Wheeldon added. “For all that, it has to be said that there is an air of optimism, and that inside the MoD there appears ample faith that the various issues that have impacted on the Ajax program can be addressed.”
General Dynamics has been trialing design modifications to address the vibration problems, and Quin said the MoD expects to receive analysis in the new year. If appropriate, the MoD will then test the modifications itself, he added.
Simultaneously, the procurement minister also published a report from the MoD’s director of health, safety and environmental protection about health and safety concerns raised by noise and vibration on the Ajax.
With unusual candor, Quin admitted the report “makes for very difficult reading.”
“It lays bare a deep malaise which is cultural and results in systemic failures across our organizations,” he said. “The review finds serious failings in the processes followed. The result was that personnel worked on a vehicle that had the potential to cause harm.”
He also said the review points to the fact that failure was complex and systemic.
“A culture exists of not treating safety as equally important as cost and time in the acquisition process; and from a cultural perspective, the Army did not believe it was potentially causing harm to people, especially from vibration, as it was tacitly expected that soldiers can and should endure such issues,” he said.
The Ajax variant delivered by General Dynamics UK — the Ares armored personnel carrier — had levels of noise and vibration higher than expected in tracked vehicles and above the statutory limit.
“Health and safety is always of paramount importance,” the company said in a statement. “We take it extremely seriously. We remain committed to delivering Ajax into the British Army to provide the transformational capability they deserve.”
The key points of the review listed by Quin were:
- An MoD safety notice in December 2018 that said design upgrades were required to reduce vibration. This was not acted upon.
- MoD safety cases and safety management used General Dynamics UK calculations that were not independently assured, despite experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory advising that the calculations should not be relied upon.
- A report from the Defence Safety Authority in May 2020 identifying some of these issues and titled “Serious Safety Concerns on Ajax” that was retracted and not pursued, either by the authority or by the project team with the Defence Equipment & Support agency.
- Multiple warnings from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and from the Armoured Trials and Development Unit that were running the trials were not addressed, even when the unit’s commanding officer questioned the approach as having the potential to expose soldiers to a known hazard.
Overall, the report makes 20 recommendations. The MoD has accepted all of those relating specifically to armored vehicle procurements, the regulation of safety for land equipment and the broader approach to safety in defense.