I wish to provide a further update to Parliament on the Ajax equipment project being delivered as part of the Armoured Cavalry programme.
Ajax is designed to provide ground mounted reconnaissance, allowing the Army to understand the battlefield in all weathers, 24 hours a day. Part of our £41 billion investment in Army equipment and support over the next 10 years, this modernisation is critical to address future threats.
Health and safety
On 15 December, I announced the publication of the report from the MOD’s Director of Health, Safety and Environmental Protection into the health and safety concerns raised by noise and vibration on the Ajax vehicles.
The report made 20 recommendations. Implementation of the recommendations is now under way. Some have already been implemented in full, for example the Army has stood up its noise and vibration working groups (Recommendation 2.2); future trials of armoured vehicles will have real-time measurement of noise and vibration (Recommendations 3 & 11); and we were already taking action to ensure our SROs and project leads stay in post longer (Recommendation 13.1). The remainder are being progressed. We continue to consider the recommendation relating to the overlap of demonstration and manufacture stages (Recommendation 9) to ensure it is implemented in a way that does not hinder our efforts to create a more agile approach to defence acquisition, consistent with the defence and security industrial strategy, and which reflects the industrial processes in different sectors.
Update on personnel
Following the most recent assessment on 17 February 2022, of the 310 people identified as working with Ajax, 13 individuals have had long-term restrictions on noise exposure recommended, potentially requiring a limitation in their military duties. The majority of these had pre-existing hearing issues prior to working on Ajax; some did not. A further five individuals remain under specialist outpatient care for hearing and other ENT issues. In addition, it remains the case that four individuals who worked on Ajax have been discharged on health grounds, in some cases for reasons wholly unrelated to hearing loss.
It remains the case that no individuals have had long-term restrictions or been discharged as a result of vibration. However, assessments continue for both hand-transmitted and whole-body vibration.
Lessons learned review
The health and safety report highlighted shortcomings that need to be addressed. Although the report only addressed the health and safety aspects of Ajax, it pointed to some cultural and systemic issues that have the potential to go beyond health and safety. That is why the Defence Secretary and I have commissioned an independent follow-on lessons learned review and I am pleased to announce that Clive Sheldon QC has agreed to lead the review. I am sharing copies of the terms of reference with the Public Accounts and Defence Select Committees and placing a copy in the Library of the House.
Work continues to resolve the noise and vibration issues. Testing is now under way to verify the effectiveness of modifications proposed by General Dynamics to mitigate the noise and vibration issues to a safe and acceptable level. We will then need to analyse this data in order to understand the practicalities of allowing trials and training to resume.
It remains the case that we cannot yet set a date for the introduction of Ajax into service with the Army. Once a solution to the noise and vibration problems has been identified by GDUK and agreed by the Department, we will need to agree with General Dynamics a realistic schedule to initial operating capability and full operating capability.
In parallel with looking at noise on Ajax vehicles, the MOD has commissioned independent testing of the performance of all headsets used in the full range of in-service armoured fighting vehicles to ensure the specific headsets issued to service personnel offer the best balance between protection and functionality. We are also testing other commercially available headsets for use in our in-service fleet of vehicles. As a precaution, in December 2021, we placed temporary restrictions on the use of headsets across our in-service fleet of armoured vehicles, restrictions we were able to relax later that month as a result of the testing conducted. We continue to be able to fully meet all ongoing, planned and likely operational commitments.
The focus for the MOD and General Dynamics remains on developing and delivering long-term solutions for noise and vibration. We are working closely with General Dynamics and it is showing great commitment to resolving these issues. Until we know what those solutions are, it is not possible to determine a realistic timescale for the introduction of Ajax vehicles into operational service with the Army. We want it to succeed and to deliver what the British Army requires with the utmost urgency. We have a robust firm price contract for the delivery of 589 vehicles at a cost of £5.5 billion. We will not accept a vehicle that is not fit for purpose.
The terms of reference can be viewed online at: http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2022-03-29/HCWS739/