Richard North, 10/09/2021  

In the Commons yesterday, Jeremy Quin, the somewhat harassed Minister for Defence Procurement, led a debate on the Army's new Ajax armoured vehicle, delayed as a result of a series of technical problems.

The debate followed a written ministerial statement, published on Monday in which the minister admitted that it was "not possible to determine a realistic timescale for the introduction of Ajax vehicles into operational service with the Army".

The government has undertaken to buy 589 vehicles of this family, for which it has undertaken to pay it £3.5 billion. But, so severe and difficult to resolve have been the problems – relating to noise and vibration – that Labour's John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, declared that the minister's statement put Ajax "on an end-of-life watch".

On the face of it, therefore, we have yet another of those MoD procurement blunders which have dogged the armed forces for so many decades (or even centuries) that the origin of the first is lost in the mists of time. And once again, it would appear that the Army is being deprived of essential fighting capabilities as a result of MoD blunders.

This notwithstanding, I have been reluctant to write about this programme, as the problems are a lot more complex than simple procurement or even technical failures. The real question – which, of course, wasn't addressed in yesterday's debate – is whether we need the Ajax programme at all.

This is a question that can be addressed at two levels. The first is whether the vehicles' capabilities could not have been provided by the cheaper alternative of a series of Warrior upgrades, rather than buying a new and (for the British Army) an untried platform.

Certainly, the technical problems currently being experienced would have been avoided if the Warrior option had been chosen, but that skirts the more important question as to whether the Army actually needs the capabilities offered by the programme, packaged in an expensive armoured platform.

The discussion here goes way back, and I wrote specifically on what was to become the Ajax programme when, David Cameron's administration placed the order with manufacturer General Dynamics in September 2014 – making for a gestation period longer than the Second World War.

But, in fact, the genesis of the programme pre-dates Cameron's intervention by a considerable period. But, for the purpose of simplicity – in what is a very complicated story – the timeline begins in 1996.

It was then that we saw launched the joint US/UK Tactical Reconnaissance Armoured Combat Equipment Requirement (TRACER) programme, a light, tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicle, with an in-service date of 2007. The UK purchases were intended to replace the CV(R)T Scimitar light tank, which had its roll-out in 1969.

However, in 2001, with demonstrator vehicles already having been produced the British government pulled out of the project, having already spent £131 million – for no benefit. It then put its money into a consortium with Germany and Holland to produce the Multi Role Armoured Vehicle (MRAV), a version of which would fulfil the reconnaissance requirement.

This was to become the Boxer, but in 2003, the UK also pulled out of this project, with a loss of (at least) £48 million, again with nothing to show for its money. It has now opted back into the project with an order currently standing at 523 vehicles, replacing the Warrior MICV but with no reconnaissance variant ordered.

By then the Scorpion was becoming distinctly aged and with no replacement in sight, the MoD embarked on an "Extension of Life" programmes at a further cost of £75 million. Meanwhile, as a potential replacement, it linked into the Future Command and Liaison Vehicle programme, ordering 401 Italian-made "Panther" vehicles in November 2003, at a cost of £166 million – a sum which, incidentally, did not include radios or any of the other equipment needed.

Many problems were reported with the vehicle, forcing the MoD to admit that it would not to deployed either to Iraq or Afghanistan – where it would be too dangerous to use. The Army thus became the proud owner of 400 brand new but otherwise unusable vehicles, most of which have spent their lives lying idle in stores somewhere in the UK.

With other armoured vehicle procurement failures, going back to the 80s, it is estimated that the Army has wasted around £1 billion in seeking replacements for its medium-weight armoured fleet, without procuring a single operational vehicle.

When it comes to the Ajax fleet, therefore, if this programme fails, it will be in good company. But, given the intended role, it could even be a blessing if it did. The reconnaissance vehicle itself is not a stand-alone piece of equipment but part of the "digitised battlefield" which earlier acquired the label Future Rapid Effects System, and a price tag of £14 billion.

The underlying concept of FRES was to provide an integrated range of lightly armoured, air-portable vehicles, where heavy armour would be dispensed with in favour of high-tech electronic surveillance and digitised, networked communications.

This science-fiction vision of modern warfare would provide real time intelligent and enhanced "situational awareness" enabling potential threats to be detected before they came within striking range, which would then be destroyed by a galaxy of high-tech stand-off weapons, drones and air-delivered precision munitions.

From the very start, the concept was flawed, not least because the original weight limit, set at 22 tons, to allow rapid deployment by C-130s, has grown exponentially. The Ajax stands at 38 tonnes, with a growth potential to 42 tonnes, requiring either an A400M or a C-17.

But any idea of air portability was always a delusion. The RAF simply does not operate a large enough fleet to deliver a usable battle formation, before it must devote its lift capability to re-supply.

The bigger problem, though, is that in the last two of the Army's major deployments it was confronting irregular, guerrilla forces in long-standing insurgencies. No amount of high-tech gimmickry or "situational awareness" can deal with insurgents who can mount hit-and-run raids in civilian dress, drop their weapons and merge into the crowds.

On the other hand, despite the weight and armour of the Ajax, its protection against IEDs is poor. Even with the up-armoured Warriors, which are of similar design, were extremely vulnerable in Afghanistan. And yet, the very next deployment – as far as we know – could end up fighting insurgents again.

Thus, as I wrote in 2014, while the Army doesn't have the first idea of what sort of battles it is going to have to fight in the future, it is selecting kit for the wars it would like to fight, rather than the ones to which it may be committed.

The greater lacuna, I added, is that Ajax is a military machine devoted to collecting real-time information to aid the conduct of a conventional engagement. It is designed to pave the way for fast-moving armoured formations to fight a type of battle that we are most unlikely to encounter.

Yet, as borne out by recent events, what the Army most lacks is a strategic intelligence capability which enables it to understand the complex situations into which it is deployed. It then needs an ongoing capability to analyse the information it does get, in order to fit it into a coherent tactical framework.

Here, I noted, it is very much the experience of those on the ground that there is no shortage of information – per se. Rather, the information very often does not get to the people who need it, analytical capabilities are poor, and the distribution of the finished "intelligence" product is overly restrictive. On top of that, so often, strategic decision-making is poor.

In other words, even if the Ajax programme does manage to deliver, it will not enhance the fighting capability of the Army. All that will happen is that it will acquire some information-gathering machines, to inject more data into a creaking system that is unable to handle what it already gets. Most of what it does gets will be unusable anyway, because it will be the wrong sort of information for the wrong sort of war.

One could, therefore, venture a view that the best thing that could possibly happen is for the Ajax programme to fail. Fortunately, the contract is structured so that we only pay on delivery and, if the vehicle fails to perform, the taxpayer would be saved the cost of another costly failure.

If the Army is again deployed in force, for another long-term commitment, it will have over 500 lumbering Boxers to play with. That should be an improvement on the Snatch Land Rovers with which the Army was equipped initially for Iraq and Afghanistan.

And that equipment should give us the time to buy what we really need through the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) system, a system which delivered Mastiff protected patrol vehicles within six months of them being ordered.

Generally, when we know what it is that we need to buy, the procurement system can perform well and quickly. And, as it stands, we do not need to buy the Ajax.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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