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Armoured Cavalry Programme: Ajax

Volume 700: debated on Monday 6 September 2021

I wish to provide a further update to Parliament on the Ajax equipment project being delivered as part of the armoured cavalry programme.

Health and safety

Extensive work has been undertaken on the health and safety aspects of the noise and vibration concerns raised on Ajax. The report is being undertaken independently of the Ajax delivery team by the Ministry of Defence’s director of health and safety.

While the report has not yet been concluded it is apparent that vibration concerns were raised before Ajax trials commenced at the armoured trials and development unit in November 2019. In December 2018, an army safety notice introduced restrictions on use in relation to vibration and identified that, in the longer term, a design upgrade was needed to reduce vibration.

I will publish the health and safety report once it is finalised, which will contain a full timeline in relation to health and safety issues. Key themes likely to emerge from the 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, technical risk and safety risk into the programme.

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 environment 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.

Update on 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 to all those who had been exposed to noise on Ajax. To date, a further 189 individuals have been identified who should be offered an assessment, giving a total number of 310 personnel. Of these 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.

The health of our service personnel is our top priority. Some 248 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 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.

Technical issues

At present all dynamic testing and training on MOD’s Ajax vehicles remains paused. A safety assurance panel for Ajax, comprising duty holders from MOD, General Dynamics, Millbrook and independent advisers, has been established to assure that independent testing can recommence safely at Millbrook proving ground. Subject to the panel’s final endorsement and General Dynamics’ own safety approvals, Millbrook trials are expected to resume imminently, initially deploying General Dynamics crew in MOD-owned vehicles, with real time monitoring of vibration and in-ear noise.

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. 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 Ajax meets the Army’s need.

I have made 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.

Over the summer, work has been conducted to examine design modifications to reduce the impact of vibration. A design modification to reduce the risk of noise through the communication system is in development and is currently being tested. These may represent part of the overall solution but considerable work needs to be undertaken before any such assurances can be given.

Until a suitable suite of design modifications has been identified, tested and demonstrated, it is not possible to determine a realistic timescale for the introduction of Ajax vehicles into operational service with the Army. We will not accept a vehicle that is not fit for purpose.

As is often the case with defence procurement process, there have been a number of limitations of use (“LOUs”) placed on Ajax vehicles during the early phase of use. LOUs restricting speed and the maximum height for reversing over steps have now been removed and work continues on removing other LOUs.

Ajax is an important capability for the Army and we are committed to working with General Dynamics for its delivery. We have a robust, firm price contract with General Dynamics under which they are required to provide the vehicles as set out in the contract for the agreed price of £5.5 billion.

To assist in the delivery of Ajax we have identified the need for a full-time, dedicated senior responsible owner who will preferably be able to see the project through to completion, or indeed advise if the project is incapable of being delivered. A shortlist of candidates is currently under consideration. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority is also providing MOD with expert support to establish a recovery plan for the programme.