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Ajax Programme

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 8 June 2021

(Urgent question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on what progress has been made with the Ajax armoured vehicles programme.

The Ajax family of vehicles will transform the British Army’s reconnaissance capability. As our first fully digitalised armoured fighting vehicle, Ajax will provide crews with access to vastly improved sensors, and better lethality and protection. Maingate 1 approval was granted in March 2010. Negotiations with the prime contractor to recast the contract were held between December 2018 and May 2019. The forecast initial operating capability, or IOC, was delayed by a year to 30 June 2021—later this month—at 50% confidence, with 90% confidence for September 2021.

Despite the ongoing impact of covid, we have stuck by that IOC date, but of course, it remains subject to review. By the end of next week, we will have received the requisite number of vehicles to meet IOC. The necessary simulators have been delivered and training courses commenced. These delivered vehicles are all at capability drop 1 standard, designed for the experimentation, training and familiarisation of those crews that are first in line for the vehicles. Capability drop 3, applying the lessons of the demonstration phrase, is designed for operations.

We remain in the demonstration phase, and as with all such phases, issues with the vehicle have emerged that we need to resolve. We were concerned by reports of noise issues in the vehicle. All personnel who may have been exposed to excessive noise have been tested, and training was paused. It now continues with mitigations in place as we pursue resolution. We have also commissioned independent vibration trials from world-class specialists at Millbrook Proving Ground, which should conclude next month.

I assure the House that we will not accept a vehicle that falls short of our requirements, and we are working with General Dynamics, the prime contractor, to achieve IOC. Similarly, we are currently working with General Dynamics to ensure that we have a mutually agreed schedule for reaching full operating capability. That is subject to an independent review, which we have commissioned. This is an important project for the British Army, delivering impressive capabilities and employing thousands of skills workers across the UK. We look forward to taking it into service.

That was a statement of astonishing complacency. We have seen £3.5 billion paid out, four years late, and just 14 vehicles delivered, light tanks that cannot fire while moving, and vehicle crews made so sick that the testing has been paused. If this is defence procurement that the Minister is content is broadly on track, how badly has it got to go wrong before he will admit that the contract is flawed? This project has been flagged red by the Government’s own Major Projects Authority. The Defence Committee calls it

“another example of chronic mismanagement by the Ministry of Defence and its shaky procurement apparatus.”

Yet the Defence Secretary is failing to get to grips with the failures in this system and failing our frontline troops as a result. He is breaking a promise he made to them in this House when he said:

“When it comes to equipment, the first thing is to ensure that we give our men and women the best to keep them alive and safe on a battlefield.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2020; Vol. 685, c. 556.]

He has been in post for two years now. Since then, the black hole in the defence budget has ballooned by £4 billion up to £17 billion. Ministers are failing British forces and failing British taxpayers.

Have the Ajax problems of noise and vibration now all been fully fixed? How many personnel are under medical treatment following the Ajax testing, and what are the conditions they are being treated for? Can the Ajax now in fact fire while moving? Where will the gun turret be manufactured? What is the full updated cost of the Ajax programme? When will all these vehicles be delivered in full?

This is the largest single procurement contract outside nuclear, and it requires independent scrutiny, so will the Minister invite the National Audit Office to do an urgent special audit?

The Minister says that this is an important project for the British Army. He is right. The defence Command Paper makes it clear that the rapid further cut in Army numbers is directly linked to more advanced battlefield technology based on the Ajax. So will Ministers now halt the plans to cut Army numbers and focus instead on fixing this failing procurement system?

I had imagined that whatever my response, the right hon. Gentleman would accuse me of being complacent. That is the expectation I had and I was not disappointed. We are not in any way complacent about our nation’s defence and security. That is why we are investing another £24 billion in our defence and in our security over the next four years. We are absolutely on top of and getting to grips with our equipment programme and what will stem from it.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues. I can assure him that I am absolutely focused on this project achieving its IOC. I will not hide from him, as I have not from the House, that we have two primary concerns: noise and vibration. On noise, we have mitigations currently in place to enable a certain element of training, albeit reduced training. We are looking at two headsets that hopefully, within the next few weeks, will be approved for use, further extending what we can do in terms of training. But that does not get us to the root cause of the noise. We need to get to the root cause of the noise issues within this vehicle, be they mechanical or indeed electronic; this is, after all, the first digitalised platform of its kind anywhere. We need to resolve those issues.

We are concerned about vibration. I have to say that over many thousands of miles of testing GD has not had the same experience of vibration, but I absolutely trust the reports that have come to me from our service personnel. We are determined to get to the bottom of this. That is why we are using Millbrook, a world-class proving ground, to check exactly what noise comes back on vibration. It may come back with a good answer, but we await that answer. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman —I understand his concerns—that we will not take anything into IOC until we are satisfied that we are getting the kit that we require.

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman on a host of other issues that he raised. I do not deny that we have serious issues that we need to resolve, but there are a number of points where there is a difference between what is certified and what the vehicle is capable of. I can reassure him that the vehicle is capable of going well ahead of 30 km per hour, but with newly trained crews, a certification has been placed restricting speed, and I would expect that to be lifted during the course of next month. There has been a restriction in terms of going up over a reverse step. This is a vehicle that is capable of reversing over a 75 cm object. A restriction has been placed, and I expect that to be lifted shortly too. This is a vehicle that is capable of firing on the move. That is not something that we have certified it to do as yet. We are working through the demonstration phase, but we will continue to advance that demonstration phase. There will be issues; there always are in demonstration phases.

We do have issues to resolve, but as I say, the key ones are noise and vibration, both of which we are very focused on. I hope that we will be able to get resolution on all these issues, but it is what we are working with, with General Dynamics. It is a firm price contract, so £5.5 billion is the maximum that is payable, including VAT. Currently, we are at just under £3.2 billion spent. There is a heavy incentivisation on our suppliers to ensure that they get this over the line. We are working very closely with them at the very top level of their organisation. The joint programme office was delayed by covid, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware. There were significant covid issues in Merthyr, and they did brilliantly through them. We have a joint programme office on the ground, and a combination of top-down and bottom-up will, I hope, enable us to make ongoing progress.

In terms of the reporting, as the right hon. Gentleman may be aware, an Infrastructure and Projects Authority report has been requested by the senior responsible owner, which was helpful. These things are helpful. It is helpful that SROs and their teams can speak honestly to the IPA and get proper independent assessments. That was conducted back in March, and it has certainly helped. I look forward to making further progress and reporting back on that to interested parties as we resolve the issues that are outstanding.

I reiterate that this is a first-class vehicle. It is the first of its kind. It has an important job to do. It is currently employing around 4,100 people across the length and breadth of the UK. I visited Merthyr, and I am proud of what they are doing there. We will, and we must, get this right and get it delivered.

For some time, I have been warning the House about the growing, complex threats that our nation faces. Over the next decade, the world will become more unstable and more dangerous. That is why I have argued for an increase of the defence budget to 3%, to meet the integrated review obligations, but it makes the job harder of convincing the Treasury, Parliament and the taxpayer when we see so many errors, delays, cost overruns and redesigns.

The Ajax’s predecessor, the Scimitar, weighed just 8 tonnes, yet Ajax weighs 43 tonnes—almost too heavy to fit in or be carried by many of our RAF aircraft. As the Defence Committee’s report underlines, there seems little operational logic to the Army’s land combat operational capabilities. We are reducing our main battle tank fleet. We are retiring all our armoured fighting vehicles completely and replacing the Warrior with the Boxer, which does not have a turret. I know that the Minister is committed to revisiting all this, and it is a massive headache, but with global threats on the increase, does he acknowledge that we must do better?

There is always room to do better—I totally acknowledge that, and I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his comments. It may not be 3%, but a £24 billion increase is certainly good news for defence and something that was necessary. I can assure him that we are focusing on spending that well and in the interests of our armed forces.

The Ajax is going to be a real game changer on the battlefield. It is larger—it is some 40 tonnes—and Scimitar was a different capability, but my right hon. Friend would be the first to say that things have moved on. There is the range of sensors and the four dimensions that Ajax can produce, allowing it to stand off from the enemy. It is a significant sea change. It has that extra lethality compared with what went before and the extra protection that our troops deserve. This is a vehicle that has an incredibly useful role to play on the battlefield and as part of our operational advantage. The emphasis on our suppliers is to get it right.

There is in the UK no shortage of MOD procurement debacles to draw on, such as the £4 billion Nimrod MRA4 scrapped before service or the Mk 3 Chinooks—half a billion pounds of aircraft that could not fly low or in bad weather—but this multibillion-pound Ajax failure sets a new low. The UK Government have presided over a procurement project that would see soldiers arriving late for operations in vehicles only capable of a pedestrian 20 mph, with a human endurance range of no further than 30 miles, and then unable to fight duty due to sensory impairment and pain caused by these £3.5 billion boneshakers. Can the Minister confirm that the sight system manufactured by Thales in Scotland is working perfectly and is unconnected with this broader failure? Where was the intelligent client at the heart of this project, and where was the learning from previous procurement fiascos? Is the Minister accepting personal responsibility for this debacle, and if so, how does he plan to atone?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his wide range of questions. I think he ought to be slightly careful in damning all defence procurement. He mentions Nimrod, but I am sure he is very proud to see Poseidon arrive in Lossie, and indeed the E-7 in due course. I hope he is proud of the work being done on the Type 26 and Type 31 on Rosyth and the Clyde, and the huge amount of work that is going through Scottish industry at the moment, including Boxer. Again, Thales is employed on that, and I am sure will do a good job. I have had no complaints, he will be pleased to hear, about the sighting systems that are made, as he rightly says, by Thales—in Glasgow, I believe, but certainly in Scotland. We are going through the demonstration phase, and as an intelligent client, the MOD is required to check everything we are receiving. I reiterate that we will not take something into service and accept IOC until we are ready to do so, and we are holding our suppliers to account.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that we are fully committed to the Ajax programme, with its assembly in Wales and huge investment in the Union, and also its operational deployment in 2023-24?

Yes, we are absolutely committed to Ajax. We have come a long way with this project. It was originally approved by Ministers of a different colour back in March 2010, and in saying that I acknowledge that it has been a long time coming. However, we are on the cusp of getting this right and getting it sorted. There are issues that need to be resolved—I recognise that—but we will resolve those issues and we will bring it into service.

As the Minister has said, in March 2010 the then Government opted for Ajax in contrast to the suggested BAE CV90. This weapon is in operation with seven armies, two of which are members of NATO. It can make 70 kph and it weighs considerably less than Ajax. Is it not possible, in all honesty, that a mistake was made when we opted for Ajax as opposed to the BAE suggestion, which would after all have been manufactured in Newcastle?

I would not dream of answering for the Ministers in the last Administration back in 2010, but I would say a couple of points in mitigation. First, on a tiny point of detail, this vehicle is intended to be able to go at 70 kph, and the temporary limitations are temporary for training purposes. On the broader question, again it is a long time ago, but my understanding is that they are fundamentally different platforms. The Ajax we look forward to taking into service is the first of its nature to have the digitalisation of the platform, with the enhanced lethality and enhanced protection. We stand by the decision that the MOD made, and we are very close to getting to IOC, albeit that we have two significant issues to resolve.

Can the Minister update us on how UK suppliers are involved in the Ajax project, and does he agree with me that projects such as this provide the opportunity to support British jobs in steel, textiles and other types of heavy industry, while protecting our troops on operations?

I am absolutely delighted to. There are some 230 companies, all in all, as part of the supply chain. A lot of them had a tough time during covid; I mentioned Merthyr, where General Dynamics is based, in particular. I am very grateful for the work that has continued on the project throughout. I had the opportunity to visit one of the track manufacturers up in north-west Durham, and there are many others around the UK; the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) referred to Thales in Glasgow, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) rightly referred to components of the electronics from Wales, so there are companies around the UK that benefit. We need to learn lessons from Ajax, but we also need to recognise that there are so many great skills and fine companies across the UK that we need to ensure are properly embedded into the land industrial strategy that we will publish in due course.

Defence equipment is traditionally procured to do damage to our adversary, but I understand that the Ajax vehicle has been giving soldiers a risk of tinnitus and swollen joints if they were driven at speeds above 20 mph. In addition, it is unable to fire while moving. The Minister has just described it as a first-class piece of equipment; the men and women of our Army had better hope that he never procures something that he considers substandard.

In his answers so far, the Minister has told us that he is aware of the problems, but he has not given us any real sense of where the solution is or when it will be coming. Can he tell us any more about when we expect the Ajax to be fully operational? What progress has actually been made, as well as identifying the problems that we are all aware of?

The hon. Gentleman asks serious questions. I just reiterate that there is a difference between what a vehicle can do and what it is certified to do. With things like fire or manoeuvre and the speed limitation, we should not read into them that the vehicle is incapable either of firing on the move or of going above 20 mph. That is not the case; it is simply that that is not what it is certified to do at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman also highlights, perfectly reasonably, the issues that I touched on about noise and vibration. On noise, there are mitigations in place at the moment, and there are further mitigations in terms of the headsets. When we introduced Ajax, the problems occurred in using the standard British Army headset for use in armoured vehicles; the concern that we came across in testing the inner ear was that that was not adequate for the task.

There are two issues that we are therefore looking at: the headset and the noise of the vehicle itself. The noise can have two components; it can be mechanical, but it can also be the electronic noise generated by the aircraft that is communicating with the headsets. I wish that I could tell the hon. Gentleman that a week on Tuesday it will all be resolved. I cannot, but I can tell him that there are issues that we are seriously working through with the suppliers to ensure that we get there.

With vibration, General Dynamics has not had the same experience that we have had, apparently: over many thousands of miles of driving, it has not seen the same issues. That is why we are going to Millbrook, which will have sensors all over the vehicles to test where the vibration is happening and whether we can isolate it. It may be resolvable quickly; it may not be. I can commit only to telling the hon. Gentleman that we will do the work and that I will ensure that people are aware of how it progresses.

It is encouraging that General Dynamics has been able to make a vehicle work satisfactorily in the United States, so will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will not be rushed into bringing this already much delayed vehicle into service until these problems are solved to the satisfaction of the people in the armed forces who will have to fight in it?

I am so glad that my right hon. Friend asks that question, because it requires a very simple answer: absolutely. Unfortunately, as he rightly says, there has been a long pattern of delays with the project, but we are not going to take into service something that does not meet our requirements. It is a firm price contract; we need to have it right, and take it into service when it is right to do that. We are not going to obfuscate in order to do so.

There are reports in the media citing the leaked Government report on the procurement of Ajax tanks and stating that

“the problems were known to the army as early as 2017, but they”—

the MOD—

“didn’t admit them due to embarrassment.”

Does the Minister agree that it would be far more embarrassing, and a failure in the duty of care to our defence personnel, if the Ajax programme went ahead without finding the root cause or mitigating these serious defects?

I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to find the root cause of the defects—that is absolutely right—or at least, we have to first identify that there are defects and then make certain that we have resolved them. I think that would be a fairer way to put it, and that is what a lot of the testing is doing right now. On when these problems first occurred, I do not think awareness of them came from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority report. I have been aware from social media sources of a suggestion that the Army was aware back in 2017. That has not been my experience, having looked into it. The concerns over vibration are a far more recent occurrence.

As the Minister is well aware and has articulated well today, this Ajax programme is a critical capability for the British Army. When originally the contract was let, we did not have in this country an assembly line capable of manufacturing land capability at scale, particularly armoured capability. The introduction of this capacity through General Dynamics into south Wales is a very important part of the defence industrial strategy, which he has referenced. It is valuable for the whole House to remind itself that we are not talking in a vacuum here; this is a capability that the Government in the coalition days ensured was built in this country.

We were looking at a design that relied upon economies of scale to bring a state-of-the-art turret, which was going to be jointly deployed on Warrior, with a cannon jointly developed with France, again with state-of-the-art capability and lethality. Can my hon. Friend reassure the House that the cancellation of the Warrior programme will not impact on the ability to deliver turrets and cannons into the Ajax programme and will not add further delay or cost increase?

My right hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience, and I thank him for what he says about the production line. I do not know whether he ever had the chance to visit Merthyr. He probably did.

He did, as I have done recently. It is an impressive factory with impressive personnel doing a good job. We just need to make certain that the whole thing fits together and works, and that is what we are committed to do.

To reassure my right hon. Friend on the Warrior, I have seen no evidence that the cancellation of the Warrior capability sustainment programme should have an adverse effect on the turrets for Ajax. Indeed, I believe I am right in saying that 58 of those have already been manufactured.

May I also confirm that the Merthyr factory is an impressive capability? The defence and security industrial strategy gives Ajax as an example of regional levelling up, so can the Minister confirm where the turrets for Ajax will be built?

My understanding is that those turrets have been built by Lockheed Martin and are being constructed in Ampthill in Bedfordshire. That is my understanding, but I will double-check. If it is any different, I will write to the hon. Gentleman and leave a copy of my letter in the Library of the House of Commons. It is my understanding that that is happening at Ampthill.

Does the Minister agree that the Ajax situation undermines global Britain’s forward presence objectives as envisaged in the integrated review, such as the ability of the Royal Dragoon Guards based in Warminster to project reconnaissance combat teams, which they were being re-roled for? If it turns out that the vibration issue—[Inaudible.]

I am very sorry that we have lost my right hon. Friend. It gives me scope to interpret his question. I think he was asking about our capability to equip our recce troops. What we can do is a needed step change. The vehicles we are currently using were brought into service in the 1970s. We need that digitised framework. We need those sensors. We need the four dimensional capability. The programme will significantly help our armed forces, and we will be able to deliver it at speed.

The Minister is a decent person, but this is extremely worrying news. The idea that we have a vehicle that can go almost as fast as a bicycle, but cannot actually fire its weapon on the move, while also posing such a risk to our troops is very worrying. The defence analyst, Francis Tusa, has described this as the Army’s Nimrod MRA4. Is he right, and what does that say about our defence procurement capability or, should I say, incapability?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his nice remarks. He is also a very decent person, but I fear that he was not listening fully to my earlier responses regarding speed and fire on manoeuvre, which are capabilities that Ajax will be able to deploy. We are still in demonstration phases, so we do not get the full finished article; it is the capability 3 drop that provides us with the vehicle that will be used on operations.

The hon. Gentleman is worried. I, too, am concerned that we have issues. I would much rather have come to this place and said, “All’s well; 30 June 2021—we’re looking good.” The fact that we have tests on vibrations, which will not be fully reported on until the end of July, speaks all one needs to know about that particular date. We have been pushing and pushing, and it is still possible that we will get a very easy answer. I fear that it may take longer, but we will continue to work to resolve these issues. However, we are spending £5.5 billion on a fixed-price contract. A lot can go wrong in a contract. A lot needs to be worked on with the suppliers, and in terms of the demonstration phase, that is what we are going to do.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the MOD has been found not to have undertaken the proper due diligence with respect to its hardware. There are serious questions about not only this hardware, given the reports of potential injuries to personnel, but the process through which it was selected, developed and commissioned. Given tenders such as the Nimrod MRA4 and others like it, the British Government have billions of pounds lying in the balance. Will they therefore commit to reviewing how they handle such tenders?

We constantly look at how we can best procure. Through the defence and security industrial strategy, we are looking at trying to improve significantly the processes that we undergo, including by having far more active contact with companies, particularly onshore UK companies, in order that we are able to work with them, and more agility in the nature of the contracts that we undertake. There is a process in place to ensure that we procure as best we possibly can, although, as I say, it is a £5.5 billion contract doing something that has not been done previously globally, and it is important that we recognise that issues can emerge. The critical point is to spot those issues and then make certain that they are resolved.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to investing in our armoured fighting vehicles. It is vital that we never have a repeat of a situation where our armed forces personnel are put in harm’s way without appropriate protections. However, it is clear that there have been issues with the Ajax programme, so can the Minister assure the House that all steps will be taken to learn the lessons of this and improve our defence procurement?

Yes, we can learn from all procurements. We learn something from everything that is done. I wish this was a totally smooth process. It has not been—from the recast in 2014, to the recast in 2019, the delay to IOC and the fact that here we are, at this point, with two significant issues that I still need to get to grips with and resolve. We will have points to learn from, but I gently say to the House that a demonstration phase is a demonstration phase. We need to learn through a demonstration phase and then apply what we have learned.

The Minister seemed slightly hurt that the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), described him as complacent, and then he went on to confirm that description. He talked about vibration. He took the manufacturer’s word for it, even though the users found something different. Talk about shades of “dieselgate”. He said that the noise can be mechanical, but somehow, he does not seem to have got to the bottom of where it is coming from. He said that Ajax is capable of firing on the move, but somehow, it does not seem to be able to do so at the moment. Do the troops on the frontline not deserve something better, and does he not need to get a grip?

The right hon. Gentleman made a number of points. On the vibration, if I took the word of the supplier, we would have met IOC and we would not have issues. I take the word of our crews who have been training on the vehicle; that is why we have taken it so seriously, why we have commissioned the reports that we have commissioned and why the vehicles are currently at Millbrook being put through their paces. I absolutely reassure the House that we will not take the programme into IOC until we are confident that we have achieved what we need to achieve at this stage of the vehicle’s development. I absolutely stand by that.

The right hon. Gentleman also made points about firing on the move and the speed restrictions; there is a difference between the certification of rolling process, certification during a demonstration and future phases, and what the vehicle is capable of.

On the back of Army modernisation and the £24 billion investment in the integrated review, there is a significant opportunity to grow land exports. Will my hon. Friend confirm to me and the House what export opportunities he expects to arise from the Ajax programme?

I would very much like to see this vehicle as an export opportunity, and I believe it can be. The noise that has been quite rightly and legitimately raised in respect of the issues in the demonstration phase is understandable, but it probably will not help the vehicle’s export potential immediately. I hope that, during the demonstration phase, we can resolve what we need to resolve, and I would love to see a situation in which I can confirm to the House that all is well, that we have hit IOC and that we are going to proceed to FOC. Incidentally, someone asked about FOC earlier but I did not come back to them: we are doing work with Tony Meggs from the IPA to make certain that we get an agreed FOC. I should have said that earlier, but it is now on the record. I hope to get that sorted and then proceed to export what will be a transformational vehicle in service with the British Army to our allies and friends around the world, meaning more jobs for this country.

In addition to issues with the Ajax programme, the Government are still struggling to get on top of the massive black hole in their equipment plan, with the most recent report from the National Audit Office having found that it “remains unaffordable” for “the fourth successive year”. That is another warning from the NAO that has not been properly heeded by this Government, and the plan is up to £13 billion overdrawn. What plans does the Secretary of State have to plug the huge financial black hole?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, the report to which she referred was published prior to the injection of the additional £24 billion earlier this year. As a result of that, we will be publishing an equipment plan that will add up. I recognise that that will be for the first time in many years, and under successive Governments, but we will have a plan of which we can all be proud.

As a proud member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I am delighted with the £24 billion investment in our armed forces that was set out in the integrated review. As my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) just said, that investment also presents a great opportunity to grow exports. So can the Minister confirm what progress he may have made with colleagues in the Department for International Trade and what opportunities he may expect will arise in respect of armoured fighting vehicles?

That is a positive point on which to end these exchanges—if, indeed, this is the end Mr Speaker. It is absolutely right that we should look at the land industrial strategy to see what we can secure for this country. In terms of armoured fighting vehicles, we have not only Ajax but Boxer, and there is additional work on our Challenger 3 main battle tank. We have a lot of capabilities in the land domain, as we have in respect of exporting ships of various descriptions and the fantastic work that we continue to do on Typhoon and the development of our future combat air system. There is huge potential for us not only to defend our country and keep us secure but to offer huge prosperity benefits to all the people of the UK.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.