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Ajax Armoured Cavalry Programme

Volume 814: debated on Monday 13 September 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 9 September.

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement on Ajax. I was pleased to update the House through a Written Ministerial Statement on Monday, but given the ongoing and entirely understandable interest of the House in this long-running and important programme, I am pleased to be given the opportunity to make a Statement and to respond to honourable Members’ questions in this House.

On Monday, I informed the House that following the careful deliberations of the safety panel, comprising of duty holders from the Ministry of Defence, General Dynamics, Millbrook and independent advisers, a route had been established for independent testing to be safely resumed at Millbrook Proving Ground. Trials were expected to resume imminently. I am pleased to confirm that trials have now resumed. The independent trials at Millbrook are essential to provide the evidence to support fundamental root-cause analysis, and to enable the safe resumption of wider trials and training activity. While we naturally want to see the outcome of the independent analysis as swiftly as possible, it is necessary for the teams to be given the space and time to conduct those important trials. Clearly, the pause in trials will mean that the results we are looking forward to analysing will not be available this month as we had initially hoped. However, once the results are secured and analysed, I will be pleased to update the House.

The focus for the MoD and General Dynamics remains on identifying the root causes of the noise and vibration issues to develop long-term solutions to ensure that Ajax meets the Army’s need. I have made it clear that no declaration of initial operating capability will be made until solutions have been determined for the long-term resolution of the noise and vibration concerns. Work continues on both, with General Dynamics heavily committed to delivering a safe resolution. We have a robust, firm price contract with General Dynamics under which it is required to provide the vehicles as set out in the contract for the agreed price of £5.5 billion.

Since the last Urgent Question, I met Phebe Novakovic, the global chair and chief executive officer of General Dynamics, in London on 1 July, who emphasised in person the determination of GD to resolve these issues, a sense of purpose we are very much seeing at working level. Even prior to the Millbrook data being received, design modifications are being examined to reduce the impact of vibration. As I referenced in my last appearance on this issue, noise within the vehicle has two components, electrical and mechanical. Design modification to reduce the risk of noise through the communication system is in development and is currently being tested. These design approaches may represent part of the overall solution, but considerable work needs to be undertaken before any such assurances can be given.

Honourable Members raised concerns around specific limitations on use which have been issued on Ajax. As is often the case with defence procurement processes, there have been a number of LOUs placed on Ajax vehicles during the early phase of use, and they will come and go during the course of trials and testing. However, as I confirmed on Monday, the specific LOUs restricting speed and the maximum height for reversing over steps have now been removed, preparatory to wider trails and testing being able to be undertaken in due course.

This House has been quite rightly concerned about the welfare of our service personnel. Extensive work has been undertaken through the summer on the health and safety aspects of the noise and vibration concerns. A report into those concerns is being undertaken independently of the Ajax delivery team by the MoD’s director of health and safety. It is important that Defence is transparent on these issues and that not only the recommendations but the background to those recommendations is shared with the House. I have therefore decided to publish the report when it is finalised, as I said on Monday.

The report has not yet been concluded, but it is apparent that vibration concerns were raised before Ajax trials commenced at the armoured trials and development unit in November 2019. While noise and vibration are always issues of focus in the development of armoured vehicles, in December 2018 a specific army safety notice introduced restrictions on use in relation to vibration on this vehicle and identified that, in the longer term, a design upgrade was needed to reduce vibration.

Key themes likely to emerge from the health and safety report will include the importance of having a culture that gives safety equal status alongside cost and schedule. The overlapping of demonstration and manufacturing phases added complexity in this instance, as well as technical risk and safety risk, to the programme. Another theme is the value of having strong risk governance for complex projects that promotes access to expert technical advice on safety issues. Independent certification and assurance of land environmental capability should be adopted and modelled on best practice elsewhere in Defence. Following the report’s conclusion, we will consider what further investigations are required to see if poor decision-making, failures in leadership or systemic organisational issues contributed to the current situation, not simply in relation to health and safety but more broadly as necessary.

Following the appearance of the Surgeon-General alongside me at the Defence Committee hearing on Ajax, I would like to update the House regarding our service personnel. Initially, 121 personnel were identified as requiring urgent hearing assessments as a result of recent noise exposure on Ajax. Subsequently, the MoD broadened the scope of those who should be tested. A further 189 individuals have been identified. Of the combined 310 personnel, 304 have been contacted successfully; the remaining six are UK service personnel who have recently left service and are in the process of being traced. Two hundred and forty-eight personnel, including 113 from the original cohort of 121, have now been assessed.

The Army continues to identify and monitor the hearing of all personnel exposed to noise on Ajax, with additional testing being put in place where required. The Army is also in the process of identifying any health effects in those potentially exposed to vibration. Veterans who have been exposed to noise or vibration on this project will be supported throughout and will have access to the same assessments as those still serving. I will update the House on the number of personnel affected by noise and vibration in due course, including if any trends become apparent once the data has been analysed. I know this House will, as I am, be absolutely determined that we provide the appropriate testing and care to our service personnel and veterans.

I have previously described Ajax as a troubled programme. It is. But that does not mean that the problems are irresolvable. Ajax, a fully digitalised system, represents a step change in the capabilities of the British Army and, while we will never accept a vehicle that does not meet our testing requirements, we remain committed to working with General Dynamics to understand and, we trust, resolve the outstanding issues. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, Ajax is now a programme on an end-of-life watch. Clearly things have gone from bad to worse, with the Public Accounts Committee pursuing an inquiry, the National Audit Office accepting the need for an urgent investigation, and the Government’s own Major Projects Authority saying that delivery appears to be unachievable. Now the Government themselves in their own Statement say that it is not possible to determine a realistic timetable for the introduction of Ajax vehicles into operational service. Some £3.5 billion of money has been spent so far, for the delivery of just 14 Ajax vehicles.

My first question to the Minister is: what is actually going on? Can the Minister now guarantee that the problems of noise, instability, inability to fire if moving—among others—will be fixed, and tell us what the timescale is, or is it just trials, trials, and more trials followed by evaluation with no end? If all of this goes wrong, who picks up the bill—the taxpayer or General Dynamics? With noise and vibration issues still not resolved, despite the Government being warned in 2018, the number of personnel needing assessment has doubled to 310. Can the Minister tell us how many of the 248 Army personnel tested so far needed medical treatment, and for what? Will the Minister commit to the health and safety director’s report being published this year?

With the chair of the Defence Select Committee himself recently describing in the other place the Ajax procurement plan as a “dog’s dinner,” can the Minister tell us what alternatives to Ajax are being looked at, since Warrior is being scrapped and replaced with Boxer, which has no turret? Is it the CV-90, or an upgraded Warrior, or a Boxer with a turret? It must have a gun, as the Minister will know, to protect dismounted troops on the battlefield. What is it going to be?

The reality is stark, with jobs at risk in South Wales as the Government will know, troop numbers being cut—the decision partly based on the delivery of all Ajax vehicles—but 575 out of the 589 have yet to be delivered. And yet the £5.5 billion ceiling, which the Government tell us is an absolute maximum, is fast approaching. The £3.5 billion was spent for 14, with 575 outstanding, but not a significant amount of the budget is left.

In closing, I ask the Minister: the Government’s plan A for our armoured fighting vehicles looks like failing, so where is the plan B, and when will we get it?

My Lords, the Minister in the other place said

“I have previously described Ajax as a troubled programme.” —[Official Report, Commons, 9/9/21; col. 487.]

I could not have put that better myself.

One of the changes since Covid is that Ministers are no longer required to read out Statements from the other place, which might be a great relief to the Minister concerned, but perhaps means that noble Lords do not always hear the detail which is enshrined in the Statements we are debating.

The devil very much is in the detail here. As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, has pointed out, a few details need to be explored in some depth. So far, £3.5 billion has been spent, and the Minister has said that the upper limit is still £5.5 billion. Defence procurement has long been a troubled area, with projects going overtime and overbudget. The Minister in the other place has said very clearly that this project will not go overbudget; it is very clearly going to go overtime. Can the Minister tell us whether she believes that the project is actually achievable at all?

The Minister in the other place said that the problems are not “irresolvable”, but how do we know? The problems are apparently electrical and mechanical. Do we know if there is a solution to them and, if so, what that solution might be? Has General Dynamics been given any timeline for resolving these problems, or is it just being left for it to come back at some vague date in the future to tell us there are going to be yet more trials? What assessment have the Government made of the gaps in our own capabilities if the Ajax programme is not delivered in a timely fashion—indeed, if it will not be delivered at all?

Beyond that, we have already heard that 310 people are deemed to be in need of urgent assessment. Is that the total number of people who have been involved in the trials, or are there more people? Do we have any sense of the duty of care we should be thinking about when we consider who we are asking to be part of these trials, particularly given that some of the concerns about noise appear to have arisen before the trials started? If the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, were here, he would probably jump up later to explain that, actually, during trials you have teething problems. That is fine, but in this case we knew there were problems before the trials started. Can the Minister give us some indication of when the Government knew of the problems? What action are the Government planning to take to ensure that the 310, or however many people have so far been involved in trials, are not put further at risk? This procurement project seems at the moment to be a failing project, and that is clearly to the great detriment of this country.

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for their questions. To put this in context, the Chamber will understand that Ajax is a complex, fully digitised land vehicle project delivering transformational change to the Army’s armoured vehicle fleet. It is providing a step change in capability to the British Army and is a core part of our future soldier vision. But, yes, the noble Lord and the noble Baroness are absolutely correct: this has not been straightforward. I am not going to stand at this Dispatch Box and pretend otherwise, but I shall try to deal with the points that have been raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, alluded to the problems and asked, effectively: where are we going and what are we doing? As he is aware, a safety panel has been appointed. It was established to oversee Ajax and, following its approval, trials have now restarted at the independent Millbrook Proving Ground. To reassure the Chamber, the panel consists of expert representatives drawn from the Defence Equipment & Support organisation, General Dynamics itself, Millbrook Proving Ground, an independent safety and environmental auditor and the MoD’s director for health and safety. I have to make clear that the panel must be left to do its work. I know that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness were anxious to draw me on a time but, quite simply, whatever the panel needs to do at the proving ground with Millbrook to test what is causing the noise and vibration, it must be left to do. I cannot be drawn further on that.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness also asked about personnel. Three hundred and ten personnel have been identified as requiring hearing assessments. Of these, 304 have been contacted successfully and the remaining six are UK service personnel who recently left service. I may be able to provide an update on the figure, and I undertake to write to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness about that. So far, 248 people have been assessed and, naturally, the noble Lord and the noble Baroness wanted to ascertain what is happening to them. I wish to reassure them both that we will update the House on the number of personnel affected by noise and vibration in due course, including if any trends become apparent once the data has been analysed, but we are absolutely clear about our support for those who have been affected, and that support will provide whatever is necessary to address any issues which they are experiencing.

I think it was the noble Lord who asked about the review publication date. I am unable to give him a precise date for that, for reasons that he will understand, but I can reassure him that the review is very extensive. He is probably aware of what it is looking at: the whole history of this difficult period for the MoD. It wants to do that objectively and analytically, so that it can come back with a meaningful report, and it is looking at a number of issues.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked me about the timeline and when we knew that there was a problem. I would ask her to be patient about all these issues because I do not want to pre-empt the health and safety review. It is doing excellent work and is well ahead with that. We have undertaken to publish the reports of the health and safety department within the MoD when we have that information, and we shall do that.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about the contract itself. As I think they will both be aware, it is what we call a firm price contract. That means that the price of £5.2 billion is to buy and support 589 Ajax vehicles in six variants. As of June 2021, we have spent £3,167,000. I reiterate that the focus of the MoD and General Dynamics is on resolving the problems. That is what we are focused on doing; no one is denying that issues arose with noise and vibration, but excellent engineering minds are now being directed to these matters. We await the outcome of the safety panel’s tests and trials to inform further on what is happening.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked whether we can achieve progress. We are certainly all focused on doing that; we want to resolve these issues. I said earlier that Ajax is a complex but very important part of our future capability. It will be an asset for the military and make a singular difference to our capability. We want that to succeed and to be able to take delivery of these vehicles. But again, to reassure the Chamber, I wish to make it crystal clear that we will not take delivery of anything not fit for purpose.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about capability gaps. Again, I wish to reassure her that we do not anticipate any compromise on capability. A range of capabilities can be flexed to meet the required operational scenario as we know it now, and there will be a range of choices available to meet defence needs. I think the final thing that she asked was: when did problems emerge, and when were matters referred to the health and safety review? That is all within the broad umbrella of everything that the health and safety review is looking at. As I say, in due course we will publish the outcome of its inquiry. We hope that will better inform the Chamber and provide fuller information on exactly what the history of this matter is.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked whether we have a plan for the future. It is rather a reprise to say to him that because the focus is on sorting this and getting it fixed, that is a plan for the future and we know that there is a sense of urgency and purpose. All those deployed to address this challenge are working hard to resolve the difficulties.

My Lords, is it not the case that the UK used to have an excellent establishment for designing and developing armoured fighting vehicles, namely the fighting vehicles research and development establishment at Chertsey? It designed vehicles such as the Centurion, Chieftain and Challenger; it probably had a hand in the Warrior. Is it not the case that the party opposite closed down the FVRDE, which would never have made such a mess of a procurement project?

I know that my noble friend has presented me with a large ball and a very big tennis racket, but I am perhaps going to be slightly cautious on how I return the serve. We all understand that the part of the department to which he refers has an admirable record of design. At the same time, we are in an age where technical complexity, technical challenge and innovation are all fast-moving and swift. I was describing earlier just what a sophisticated vehicle this is, and just to underpin that, we are in an age when we are looking at a variety of capabilities across the spectrum, and one of the questions posed has been: should we retain heavy armour? The Government are in no doubt that we should, because, for example, UAVs cannot take or hold ground, and neither can they dislodge or defeat an adversary that has occupied terrain and is prepared to defend it. That is the role of armoured forces, and that is the role of the armoured cavalry. We constantly have to be vigilant about how best to innovate, and I guess that no one has a monopoly of wisdom when it comes to that.

My Lords, I am speaking as a former military man. Why is this vehicle so important to our defence capability?

We are facing the approaching era of robotics. That is the age in which we are living. It is a complicated age, as I was just describing. This vehicle is not only relevant: it is absolutely necessary because it is modular; it includes growth potential to be future-proofed by design; it offers a superb opportunity to exploit emerging robotics, autonomous vehicles and other such human-machine teaming innovation. It is therefore very relevant and will make a very important addition to our capability.

My Lords, such a vehicle forms part of a necessary spectrum of deterrence. We cannot leave it all to drones. The question I have, however, is why did it take the Government so long to identify the problems with this project? It reminds me of the Nimrod programme which finally was resolved by breaking up the aircraft, which probably—almost certainly—would not have achieved a certificate of airworthiness. The Government—all Governments; perhaps it is unfair to single this one out—seem to have quite an extraordinary difficulty with projects of this kind. It is time that we put that right. Might I offer a classical allusion to the Minister? Ajax was a hero in the Trojan War, but he eventually fell on his own sword and killed himself. Is it not time for the Ajax project to undergo the same fate?

The noble Lord makes a characteristically interesting and amusing allusion. I would not agree with his assessment. As I have been illustrating, Ajax, as part of our armed cavalry programme, has a very important role to play.

I have been asked to correct something. I was reading from my briefing when I responded to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and I said that as of June 2021, £3.167 million had been paid. I was reading from the briefing. I am informed that that figure should be £3.167 billion, so I apologise for that and I am happy to take this opportunity to correct the record.

My Lords, perhaps I may have another bite of the cherry. My noble friend said that there was growth potential in Ajax, but is it not the case that Ajax was developed from the ASCOD programme, and the Ajax vehicle is far heavier than the ASCOD vehicle, which replaced a vehicle that weighed only 10 tonnes.

I am slightly out of my depth in trying to talk about the relative size of the vehicles. I know that concern has been expressed that this is too large a vehicle for what we call a recce vehicle and how we expect to be stealthy in a vehicle of that size. Ajax offers a step change in reconnaissance capability. Its sensors allow the crew to see and hear from much greater distance. That is why it has an important and significant role to play.

My Lords, in the absence of any further questions, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 9.19 pm.

Sitting suspended.