WASHINGTON: When the United Kingdom signed a 2014 deal with General Dynamics for 589 of its Ajax reconnaissance vehicles — with six variants — it was hailed as a new era for Britain’s land forces.
Those positive vibes, however, are now out the window, as a special hearing about the armored reconnaissance vehicle on Tuesday made clear.
Members of the British Defense Committee grilled Jeremy Quin, minister for defense procurement, and Lt. Gen. Ralph Wooddisse, Commander Field Army, asking if the program can be saved and what alternatives there may be for Ajax. No one in the hearing seemed particularly satisfied with the answers they received.
The program, a fixed-price £4.62 billion contract, was rocked last month following the leak of an internal military report which described major issues, including crews reporting joint pains and loss of hearing, as well as the inability to reverse over an obstacle 20cm high. Crew members testing Ajax are restricted both in how they fast they can go and the time they spend in the vehicle.
Per the BBC, the report specifically notes that using Ajax vehicles in their current design would create “a real risk” of morale issues and undermine trust in the vehicle. According to General Dynamics, the company has delivered 25 vehicles so far, with 91 more built and awaiting delivery.
In prepared testimony, GD pushed back on the leaked reports, saying “Recent media accounts have disparaged the performance of Ajax. These accounts are without foundation in fact, and the actual performance data refute them. GDLS-UK is confident in its Ajax design, and continues to complete the full certification process to evidence its capabilities as part of the demonstration activity.”
But while talking to reporters in Washington last week, Ben Wallace, the UK’s Secretary of State for Defense, said bluntly that “it’s a troubled program, and no one’s hiding that.
“We’ve got to fix it. We’ve got to get to the bottom of the problems with it. My minister of defense procurement has spoken directly to the head of GD. I will speak to her soon,” Wallace said. “We both, General Dynamics and the Army, have determined they’re going to have to put this right.” (Wallace was not scheduled to meet with GD CEO Phebe Novakovic during his US trip.)
A former ground forces commander, Wallace said he understood that every new system has “teething problems,” but Ajax’s problems are greater than that. “You know, fundamentally, we paid for a piece of equipment, we expect it to be delivered, and just like any other consumer we have those rights. And if it’s not up to scratch, we’ll take action.”
But what “take action” means is unclear. The MoD has consistently said that it is still committed to the program. Breaking the contract to start over doesn’t seem realistic, given the money already sunk into it and the lack of options.
Understanding options took up a chunk of Tuesday’s hearing. Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the committee, questioned whether it was time to “draw a line” and move on from Ajax entirely. Mark Francois, a Conservative member, expressed frustration multiple times, while noting that “the longer this hearing goes on, the more likely” cancelling the program looks.
Wooddisse suggested that the UK would have to use a combination of aerial drones and “ground mounted reconnaissance” to fill the gap if Ajax were cancelled. He also indicated that the Challenger 3 tank could be used to help make up for a lack of up-gunning that is currently planned for the Ajax system.
Ellwood seemed perplexed by the idea of using heavy vehicles for this mission, and repeatedly raised the idea of adding a turret to the Boxer fighting vehicle instead of continuing with Ajax.
The hearing underlined that there is no easy, clear path forward for a replacement if the UK were to cancel Ajax. Ultimately, Quin indicated that is why they are focused more on fixing, not replacing, the program.
“We are committed to this program. We want it to work,” Quin said. “That is our objective; that is what we’re working to. I don’t want to alarm the 4,000 people working on this. There is a huge amount of work being done to fix these issues… that is our objective, and it has a fantastic capability. We just have to make it work.”
UK Faces Tough Choices To Fix Troubled Ajax Vehicle – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense is written by Aaron Mehta for breakingdefense.com