The British Army’s troubled Ajax AFV programme, which has been plagued by excessive noise and vibration issues, is back on track, according to UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
Following a visit on 22 February 2023 to Bovington Camp in Dorset, where he met Ukrainian troops training on Challenger 2 main battle tanks but was also shown an Ajax vehicle being out through its paces, Wallace said of the programme, “We think the remedies are in place, we are now going through the normal trials. … I am confident we have turned the corner on this troubled programme.”
Wallace added that the aim now was for Ajax vehicles to be active in military units soon after the test programme is completed in about 16 months. However, questions remain among military analysts as to what extent Ajax’s noise and vibration issues have been mitigated as opposed to actually solved amid concerns that the programme is ‘doomed to succeed’ at any cost.
Asked by ESD to outline what measures have been taken to solve the Ajax’s noise and vibration issues, manufacturer General Dynamics UK (GDUK) declined to comment on 27 February. However, it has been widely reported in the UK media and military-focused blogs that the improvements include new ear defenders for the crew that incorporate hearing pieces for better communication, along with remounted seating with better cushioning and improved joysticks and controls. Assuming this reporting is accurate, the concern among observers is that the vehicle’s underlying problems have not been directly addressed and will inevitably lead to more problems down the road. Excessive vibration, for example, is likely to reduce the mean time between failures of onboard systems, reducing serviceability and increasing maintenance costs.
After selecting GDUK’s vehicle solution, which was based on a developed version of GD’s ASCOD platform, in 2010 over a rival bid from BAE Systems based on the CV90 infantry fighting vehicle, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) ordered 589 Ajax vehicles from GDUK in September 2014 under a fixed-price GBP 5.522 Bn contract. The 589 Ajax AFVs are divided into what became seven variants: 245 turreted reconnaissance, surveillance and joint fire control vehicles (with these three types known as Ajax variants); 93 Ares armoured personnel carrier variants; 112 Athena command-and-control variants; 34 Ares formation reconnaissance overwatch variants; 51 Argus engineer reconnaissance variants; 38 Atlas armoured recovery vehicles; and 50 Apollo repair vehicles.
However, in June 2021 it emerged that issues with excessive vibration and noise had led to trials of Ajax variants being halted from November 2020 to March 2021.
A statement by the UK National Audit Office in March 2022 referred to 136 issues with the Ajax programme and noted that the UK MoD’s original capability requirements for Ajax were highly specified, “making Ajax more complex than other armoured vehicles”. Although many of the issues identified with Ajax could be put down to the usual developmental challenges encountered with producing a new AFV – and the numerous additional requirements from the UK MoD have not helped the situation – the noise and vibration issues have persisted.
On 3 June 2022 a report published by the UK House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the Ajax programme had “gone badly wrong, with no deployable vehicle delivered to date”.
Noting that the MoD “initially expected to bring Ajax into service in 2017 but subsequently missed a revised target of June 2021”, the PAC pointed out that by December 2021 the MoD “had paid General Dynamics GBP 3.2 Bn but received only 26 Ajax vehicles, none of which it can use. The programme remains in turmoil because the Department still does not know whether the noise and vibration problems – which since July 2020 it has known may have injured soldiers – are fixable.”
Despite the recent optimism expressed by the UK defence secretary, it still remains doubtful whether the noise and vibration issues in Ajax have, indeed, been fixed.