UK’s troubled new armoured vehicle puts army overhaul at risk

Persistent delays to the UK’s £5.5bn Ajax armoured vehicle programme risk undermining a planned restructuring of the army, leaving British soldiers to rely on ageing equipment for longer, according to a damning report by the parliamentary spending watchdog.

A National Audit Office report published on Friday found that despite spending more than £3bn already, the Ministry of Defence still did not know when the vehicles would be delivered. It added that the MoD had “no confidence” that the April 2025 target for full operating capability was achievable. 

The audit also found that the MoD knew of noise and vibration problems as early as 2014 although it adds that officials were not aware of their severity. A government-commissioned assessment of Ajax published last year said the department issued its first formal safety notice about the problems four years later.

The main contractor, General Dynamics of the US, signed a contract for a family of 589 vehicles more than a decade ago. Deliveries should have started in 2017 but so far only 26 have been handed over, and none have entered service. Instead, trials of the vehicles have been halted twice because of the problems, which have led to some of their crews suffering hearing damage.

The report is the latest indictment of a programme which was meant to replace a family of armoured vehicles designed in the 1960s and originally scheduled for retirement in 2014. 

Ajax was meant to give the army a weapon for an era of high-tech warfare with a top speed of 70km per hour, a powerful 40mm cannon and a design to help it evade detection by the enemy.

The delays would have “important operational and financial impacts for the army,” the NAO found. The plans rely on delivering a network of digital capabilities by 2030, centred around Ajax, another new armoured vehicle called Boxer and upgraded Challenger main battle tank.

But instead, the watchdog said the army had accepted it would “not deploy Ajax as early as planned, relying instead on the ageing Warrior armoured infantry fighting vehicle and Challenger 2 main battle tank”.

Last year, as part of sweeping defence cuts the government announced it would axe the entire Warrior fleet by 2025 and would cut a third of the Challenger 2 tanks. The remaining 148 tanks would be upgraded.

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons defence select committee, said the report did “not bode well for the future” of the programme. “The British army’s land mobility warfare has not been thought through. If Ajax is eventually scrapped then our dismounted infantry units will be without any serious protection.”

Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, said: “The army is forced to continue using increasingly old and obsolete equipment which, aside from adding cost, reduces our capability at a time when dangers are only increasing”. 

Francis Tusa, editor of Defence Analysis, said that despite an estimated £40bn having been spent on new equipment for the army since 2013, the force still “looks identical to what it did in 2010”. 

The report said the MoD remained in dispute with General Dynamics over “unresolved contractual, safety and technical issues”. General Dynamics said: “We remain committed to working with the MoD to deliver Ajax to British army personnel.”

The MoD said it was working with the contractor to resolve the issues: “As we have made clear, Ajax is a troubled programme, and we will not accept a vehicle that is not fit for purpose.”

It added: “We continue to meet our obligations to Nato and will mitigate any capability gap through a range of alternative reconnaissance capabilities.”