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Ajax Vehicles

Volume 826: debated on Monday 12 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards the delivery of ordered Ajax vehicles.

My Lords, the recent user-validation trials to assess the effectiveness of the modifications proposed by General Dynamics to address the noise and vibration concerns over Ajax are complete, so the department can now safely move to the next stage of testing: reliability growth trials. These are designed to test both the reliability of the vehicle and its installed systems to ensure a final-build standard that meets the department’s demanding standards for this new platform.

I thank the Minister for making a phenomenal effort to be here to answer the Question. Notwithstanding her Answer, 589 Ajax vehicles were supposed to be delivered in 2017, at a total cost of £5.5 billion. Only 26 have been delivered so far and none is operational, at a cost of £3.5 billion and counting. Potentially 300 military personnel have been harmed by excessive noise and vibration. Can the Minister tell the House when all these vehicles will be delivered to the front line and at what cost? Do the Government still have full confidence in the programme or are they examining alternatives?

I thank the noble Lord for his kind comments; I felt as though I was in perpetual transit until I walked through the front door of this building.

This has been a rocky road, as I have acknowledged before. To be honest, I think that where we have got to now represents a seismic leap forward; that is, the successful conclusion of user-validation trials. This is an important vehicle. As the noble Lord is aware, it will be transformative for our British Army. It will offer technological advancement—something that Challenger 2 and Warrior do not currently possess. The noble Lord is quite correct: we were very concerned about the health and safety issues that were arising, hence the pause in the trials and the instruction to the MoD director of health and safety, Mr David King, to carry out a review. I can confirm that we have implemented now a number of the recommendations that Mr King made. We are very clear that, while this is an important addition and an important vehicle for the Army, we will not accept anything that is not fit for purpose. We remain in close contact with General Dynamics and I think we can now see a way forward.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving member of the Army Reserve. There is no doubt that it has been a rocky road, and perhaps we should expect that, if we are to maintain a sovereign land industrial capability. But who is to blame? The answer is successive Governments. We have allowed our land industrial base to atrophy. Moving forward, will we learn that lesson? Can my noble friend perhaps say a few words on that? In the same way that we have maintained a maritime industrial base with a continuity of skills, continuing to build ships, will we now learn that lesson in the land domain? How will the recently published Land Industrial Strategy ensure that we do?

My noble friend makes an important point. I am not going to stand here with a finger pointing blame at individual Governments. There has been a collective, cumulative process, as my noble friend describes. As far as the Army is concerned, I hope that the Land Industrial Strategy—which we published in May this year and which sets out the intent, ways of working and actions by which the Army, wider Ministry of Defence and industry will collaborate to maximise the value from investment in Army modernisation and transformation—will ensure that the Army is equipped for the future and receives the capabilities that it requires in a way that drives opportunity for UK industry and the economy but also benefits the Army.

My Lords, a lessons-learned study was announced in May this year on what went wrong with the Ajax project. Can the Minister tell us what progress is being made with that study, when it is likely to be finished and whether it will be published in full or, at least, mostly in part? Can she also tell us whether the Procurement Bill, currently finishing its passage through this House, contains clauses that make it substantially less likely that another problem like this would arise?

I think the noble Lord refers to the King report—the report from the director of health and safety in the MoD. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, we have implemented a number of these recommendations. In particular, we have stood up the noise and vibration working groups; that is an important development. Future trials of armoured vehicles will have real-time measurement of noise and vibration; that is very important. A dedicated cell has been established to support safety-risk governors for senior responsible owners with complex projects. They carry a huge responsibility and they need that support. On the wider issue mentioned, the Procurement Bill addresses particular issues of procurement but, at the end of the day, how procurement is done effectively in monitoring governance assessment is very much a matter of good regime within the MoD. We now have in place practices, procedures and processes to try to ensure that we are approaching these complex contracts in the best way that we can.

My Lords, could the Minister say more about the damage to and loss of hearing mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and what steps are being taken to ameliorate that or recompense those who have suffered?

When the problem emerged during trials, immediate action was taken: support was given, medical help was provided and monitoring continues. I do not have up-to-date information, but I will make inquiries and write to the noble and gallant Lord about that. Recently, it was made clear during the user-validation trials that no one was to feel under obligation to continue if they had concerns about health and safety, and they were free to speak up. As far as I am aware, the trials were able to proceed without interruption.

My Lords, the sunk-cost fallacy is a powerful distorter of human behaviour in institutions as well as among individuals. When we look back at, say, the procurement history of the Eurofighter, we see that there was never a moment when it would not have been better to cancel it, every time it came up for review. Now, with Ajax, we are looking at a vehicle that is too heavy, that cannot fire while moving, and that, as we have heard, impacts on human health because of the motion and the noise. Will my noble friend the Minister look at tweaking procurement so that we can stop throwing good money after bad—perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, suggests, in the coming legislation?

As I indicated, Ajax is a very important development. It is a highly protected and versatile platform. It is able to move, fight, command and be repaired anywhere on the battlefield. It is future-proofed, with an advanced sensor suite and open digital technology to face evolving threats. That is taking us into a technological age for the Army that we do not currently have with any of our equipment. That is why we are very keen to procure this vehicle. But as I said earlier, we will not take anything that is not fit for purpose.

My Lords, the Ajax programme, no matter how much one dresses it up, has been a complete and utter disaster. It has been a real shambles. But my question relates to future procurement. With the Ukrainians, we have seen technology—AI and such things—very rapidly changing how they fight. For example, the time to bring in counterbattery fire has been brought down by about 90%. Are we taking notice of these issues and working out new methods of procurement? We have to change things so rapidly because of the way modern warfare is changing.

I very often find cause to disagree with the noble Lord, but, on this occasion, I accept his proposition that the conflict in Ukraine has informed us. It is the most recent example of global conflict that we have encountered in modern times, and it has been extremely educational and informative for the MoD. As to how that reaches out into procurement, it has highlighted where issues can arise in relation to procurement, particularly at short notice and in securing procurement at pace, and we are learning these lessons. But, as I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, a lot of how we procure has to do with a civilised and intelligent relationship between the MoD and industry. I am pleased to say we have that, and we have had a great deal of co-operation from industry.

My Lords, I welcome what the noble Baroness has said about procurement—and of course the Procurement Bill now goes to the other place for consideration there in January—but will we learn significant lessons from what has happened with Ajax? Does she recall that, in June of this year, the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons said:

“The Department has once again made fundamental mistakes in its planning and management of a major equipment programme.”

The chair of the committee, Meg Hillier, went on to say that this has been deeply flawed from the start. Will the Minister at least undertake, as we proceed, to give the House updates on the progress of Ajax so that we know when it will be put into use and whether the safety issues that my noble and gallant friend raised earlier have been overcome?

I am pretty sure that, in the other place and here, the Government’s feet will be held to the fire. We expect Ministers to come to the Dispatch Box and explain what the progress is and where we are in the process. In relation to procurement as a whole, there have been some very good examples of procurement. The MoD has made big changes on the back of NAO reports, many of which were critical, but we absolutely accepted some of the recommendations. We have made major changes: for example, we have implemented steps to more accurately estimate project costs, including improving risk forecasts through the use of reference-class forecasts, risk-costing pilots and the analysis of systematic strategical operational problems. We have also made reforms to how we deal with the senior responsible owner, so that there is much more continuity in the contracts. A lot of big changes have happened. I point to two recent procurements, the Type 31 and the Poseidon aircraft, as very good examples of really successful, positive procurement.