Delivering the Ajax programme will be a significant challenge for the Ministry of Defence because of failures that have led to delays and unresolved safety issues, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
The MoD has a £5.522 billion contract with General Dynamics Land Systems UK (GDLS-UK) for the design, manufacture and initial in-service support of 589 Ajax armoured vehicles.1 At December 2021, the Department had paid GDLS-UK £3.167 billion. At this point, GDLS-UK had designed the vehicles, built 324 hulls, and assembled and completed factory acceptance testing of 143 vehicles. The Department had received 26 Ajax vehicles, as well as associated training systems and support.
The Ajax programme has encountered significant problems and the MoD does not know when it will be delivered. The Department’s initial planning assumption was that the vehicles would be in service in 2017. It subsequently set an initial operating capability (IOC) date of July 2020, which it then pushed back to June 2021, but missed. Concerns about excessive noise and vibration levels remain unresolved, and the MoD has not yet set a new IOC target date. It has no confidence that the April 2025 target for full operating capability (FOC) is achievable.
The delays will have important operational impacts for the Army. The Army’s plans rely on delivering a network of digital capabilities by 2030, centred around Ajax, Boxer and Challenger 3 armoured fighting vehicles. However, the delays to the Ajax programme mean it is not clear how the Army will achieve its planned restructuring by 2025.
The MoD transferred financial risks to GDLS-UK by agreeing a firm-priced contract to deliver the Ajax vehicles, but this may not protect it from further expenditure. Ajax will be delivered late, leaving the Army to operate with ageing armoured vehicles, which are expensive to maintain.
The MoD’s original requirements for Ajax were highly specified, and its management of design changes has led to disputes and delays. Around 1,200 capability requirements were set, making Ajax more complex than other armoured vehicles. The MoD and GDLS-UK did not fully understand some of the requirements, which led to many changes to the design specification. This caused disputes, and the time taken to agree design changes contributed to programme delays.
The MoD and GDLS-UK did not understand the scale of work or technical challenge, which meant that sufficient contingency was not built into the programme schedule. Milestones were missed because it took longer than GDLS-UK expected to undertake design work, complete testing, resolve defects and manage supply chain disputes. GDLS-UK told the NAO that this was because the MoD’s standards were not fully defined and subject to change. However, the Department repeatedly found GDLS-UK’s safety documentation insufficient.
The MoD has not managed the programme effectively. It did not establish effective governance arrangements or the necessary resources to manage the programme. There were multiple lines of reporting and complex assurance arrangements; insufficient senior management time; a high turnover of senior staff; an under-resourced programme management team; and an ineffective programme board. The MoD and GDLS-UK reset the contract in 2018, but this did not resolve the programme’s underlying problems.
The MoD knew of noise and vibration issues before soldiers reported injuries but was not aware of the severity of potential problems. Reporting of issues identified in trials was limited and slow, meaning that safety concerns were not shared or escalated by the Army or Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S). The Army’s trials team began reporting injuries from July 2020, but one month later the Army and DE&S signed off safety documentation that said, with some limitations on use, the vehicles were safe to commence training.
The MoD is taking steps to resolve the noise and vibration issues, but they continue to represent a significant risk to the programme. The Department and GDLS-UK continue to disagree on the safety of the vehicles and whether the levels of noise and vibration breached contractual requirements. It is likely to take until late 2022 to agree on solutions, increasing schedule and cost pressures.
It is not yet clear whether the programme’s issues are resolvable. It is a year behind the revised 2021 schedule, trials involving Army crews have been stopped, and safety issues remain unresolved. GDLS-UK has continued production without receiving any payment in 2021, with the MoD having paid GDLS-UK £1.1 billion less than scheduled at December 2021. The programme team is exploring how to recover the programme but will not agree a revised target date for IOC until noise and vibration issues are resolved. The Department will need to consider carefully whether the programme can deliver the intended capabilities but does not expect to be in a position to do so until late 2022.
The MoD also faces significant challenges in delivering supporting programmes that will allow it to use Ajax as intended. This includes new communication systems, training facilities and infrastructure projects to store the vehicles. In particular, the MoD is planning to enhance Ajax’s digital capability through the delivery of the Morpheus programme. However, this programme has had significant cost increases and is running at least three years late.
The NAO recommends that the MoD should agree a credible delivery plan to IOC and FOC with GDLS-UK, including considering what contingency is needed to resolve existing issues and manage unknown risks. The MoD should also ensure there is a clear process for reporting, considering and implementing safety recommendations.
“The Ministry of Defence and GDLS-UK’s approach was flawed from the start. They did not fully understand the scale or complexity of the Ajax programme and a series of failures have led to delays and unresolved safety issues that will have a significant impact on the Army’s ability to use the vehicles. We have seen similar problems on other defence programmes, and the Department must demonstrate that it understands the fundamental improvement required in its management of major programmes.”Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO
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Notes for editors
- Ajax is an armoured fighting vehicle which should provide the Army with its first fully digitised platform. It will be based on new technologically advanced sensors and communication systems which would transform the Army’s surveillance and reconnaissance capability. The vehicles form an integral part of the Ministry of Defence’s vision for digital integration across land, air and sea domains, allowing real-time information sharing and connectivity with other capabilities, such as Lightning II jets.
- Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
About the NAO The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and reports on the value for money of how public money has been spent. In 2020, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £926 million.