At DSEI in London in September, the British Army displayed the troubled Ajax armoured fighting vehicle. Designed to be a major “game changer” for the Army in terms of 24-hour all-weather persistent surveillance and reconnaissance in an all-digital platform, the armoured vehicle programme was one of the most troubled in recent UK procurement history.
After excessive noise and vibration problems, which caused injuries to crew members were identified, trials were eventually halted and payments to the main contractor, General Dynamics Land Systems-UK withheld until problems with the vehicle were resolved.
A “workable solution” has since been found to Ajax’s noise and vibration problems, and in June this year, the Field Army resumed training on Ajax, which features a suite of cutting-edge sensors, enhanced 40 mm cannon, modular armour, and improved cross-country range and mobility.
But while the worse may be behind the troubled £5.52 billion programme, Ajax is now scheduled to enter service in 2025, eight years later than originally planned, and Clive Sheldon KC’s Report of the Armoured Cavalry Programme – Ajax Lessons Learned Review, makes for some uncomfortable reading.
While all concerned – the Army, Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S), the Ministry of Defence, and General Dynamics Land Systems-UK (GDLS-UK) — are no doubt keen to move on, we reflect on some of the key findings of the Sheldon Review, which is an essential “case study” in things that can go wrong with programmes of this scale and complexity.
Unlike the Haddon-Cave QC report into wider issues surrounding the loss of the Nimrod XV230 over Afghanistan in 2006, which came to a view on where the blame lay, Sheldon’s Review concluded that the Ajax programme’s failures could not be laid at the feet of any one individual or group of individuals.
However, it highlighted “numerous missed opportunities,” and problems with scheduling, technical and safety issues, which were not elevated in a timely and appropriate manner. “Reporting was at times lacking, or unclear, or overly optimistic,” the review states, which meant senior personnel and Ministers were surprised to discover in late 2020 and early 2021 that the programme was at much greater risk than they had appreciated.
The Sheldon Review also highlighted structural, cultural and leadership issues, which led to the failure to appreciate, escalate, and resolve problems with the vehicle much sooner. Dfferent entities — Dstl, DE&S and the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) for Ajax — appeared to be working at cross-purposes with one another. At times, Sheldon says the relationship between different entities was ‘fractious,’ and involved the guarding of territory.
“This was seen most clearly in the relationship between DE&S and Dstl. Although Dstl’s subject-matter experts were well regarded, the technical and safety concerns they raised were often not resolved to their satisfaction. It was also seen in the relationship between DE&S and the SRO. There was evidence that DE&S “misappreciated” the fundamental importance of the SRO position, and significant concerns and issues were discussed and decided within the DE&S chain of command without input from the SRO.”
The SRO on Ajax had to split their time between the Armoured Cavalry Programme and several other roles; and therefore, had limited ability to influence, let alone control, the equipment project, says the Sheldon Review.
Brigadier (Ret’d) Ben Barry OBE, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) says a desire to get stuff done is well entrenched within British military culture, but clearly, the way the Ajax programme was managed could have been considerably improved. “The SROs for Ajax were diverted by doing other jobs,” he says.
According to the Sheldon Review, DE&S discouraged Dstl from sharing their concerns on a range of technical issues directly with the Capability Safety team. Dstl, which provided expert technical advice on various aspects of the Ajax vehicles, reportedly tracked 136 ‘concerns’, only four of which were related to noise and vibration.
In a commentary, The British Army’s Greek Tragedy, published in July 2021, Dr Jack Watling of RUSI, says a subsequent investigation following the loss of hearing by crews trialling the platforms concluded that the noise issue with Ajax arose from the integration of the Bowman headsets for the crew radios, which were picking up engine noise, amplifying it as the vehicle accelerated, and putting the sound directly into the crews’ ears.
Noise and vibration concerns with Ajax first surfaced in late spring or summer 2020. But neither the SRO, DLE and Chief of Materiel (Land) who were aware in general terms of the problems, nor the Army’s Director Capability (“DCap”) “understood that noise or vibration posed a significant risk to the programme over and above other safety hazards identified, or that crews may potentially have been harmed in trials because of noise and vibration, until autumn 2020,” says the Sheldon Review. It was only in autumn 2020, that DCap became aware that crews had reportedly been injured by noise and vibration in the ATDU trials. The Minister for Defence Procurement was only informed on 13 November 2020.
With respect to the emerging concerns around noise and vibration, Sheldon writes: “Not only was there a failure to escalate those concerns properly, but it took a considerable amount of time before anyone looked at the matter strategically and asked what was really going on.”
Trials at ATDU recommenced in March 2021 under a new Safety Advice Letter. In April 2021 the Commanding Officer ATDU became increasingly concerned about the safety of crews following further reports of injuries. In June 2021 he sent DCap a draft brief stating that he was no longer content to hold the risk for the safety of trials involving extended periods of driving; this was the first time that the risk was formally elevated through the Duty Holding chain. On 25 June 2021, in response to a report by Millbrook Proving Ground on their further vibration testing, the SRO again halted trials.
In addition to noise and vibration problems, other issues were identified, including problems with the hulls for Ajax. “Quality control is understood to be especially poor throughout the first 100 hulls manufactured in Spain, but the issue has not been entirely eliminated in subsequent batches,” Dr Watling wrote. “Problems have included sections being inconsistent lengths, the sides of the hull not being parallel, and substandard welding.”
GDLUK repaired hulls that were manufactured to an unsatisfactory quality. But Barry says it seems a bit strange that a world-leading armoured vehicle company like GDLS, delivered vehicles that didn't perform properly. “Now, if you talk to General Dynamics, they will say on the noise and vibration, they met the requirement, but the army noise-cancelling didn't perform as well as it should have done,” he says. “But it's difficult to go through the [Sheldon] report without feeling that there is a whole load of Ajax armoured vehicles that were delivered that failed to meet the requirement.” GDLS-UK did not respond to requests for comment about the findings of the Sheldon Review.
Compared with Ajax, Barry says the introduction of other Army vehicles into service — Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked), Warrior, the FV101 Scorpion, and Scimitar — went remarkably well. “Those vehicles went on to be adopted by a lot of other armies, and lots of them were sold for export,” he says. “That shows that British industry has produced armoured vehicles that have been effortlessly introduced into service by the British Army. So, a key question is, what was the problem with Ajax?”
A March 2022 National Audit Office report on Ajax, concluded that the MoD’s and GDLS-UK’s approach was flawed from the outset as they did not fully understand the scale or complexity of the programme. Although Ajax’s design is based on an existing platform (ASCOD), the NAO said the Department’s requirements, in effect, made it a bespoke technology, with around 1,200 capability requirements.
“However, the Department and GDLS-UK did not fully understand some components’ specifications or how they would be integrated onto the Ajax vehicle,” nor did they understand the scale of work or technical challenge, resulting in insufficient contingency in the programme schedule. Despite negotiating a contract reset, which resolved some technical issues with Ajax, the NAO said the reset added complexity with multiple build standards and vehicles from early capability drops having to be upgraded.
A House of Commons Defence Committee report on the British Army’s armoured vehicle capability published in 2021, which heard evidence from GDLS-UK, suggested that delays to the delivery of the first batch of Ajax vehicles in May 2020 were due to challenges with the integration of the 40 mm weapon system mandated by the MoD. Barry says the same weapon system is used by the French Army on its Jaguar armoured reconnaissance and combat vehicle. “As far as I know, the gun is working perfectly well on the Jaguar,” he says.
In his review, Sheldon refers to “an optimism bias towards Ajax,” and people working in “silos” which inhibited sharing, understanding and escalation of information. The review identified a need for greater information sharing, trust, and collaboration between MoD entities and made 24 formal recommendations, which include:
· DE&S and Dstl fostering “a more collaborative approach”
· Greater collaborative working and direct communication between Dstl and the Frontline Command Customer on equipment projects
· “Full, frank and timely disclosure” to the SRO of all relevant information that is relevant to the Defence Line of Development
· All personnel working in a programme should escalate safety concerns where there are ‘seeds of doubt’ about a matter, even if not fully evidenced
· Individuals involved in programmes should routinely be challenged, and challenge themselves, on “optimism bias.”
In a statement to parliament in June this year, the Minister for Defence Procurement, James Cartlidge, said that it had accepted the findings of the Sheldon report, and most of its 24 formal recommendations, with 15 accepted and nine Accepted in Principle.
While many of the behaviours highlighted in the Sheldon report are far from ideal, Cartlidge said in many cases they had already been recognised and acted on, specifically on the Armoured Cavalry Programme, as well as across the department. “Where work is not already underway to implement a recommendation, we commit to making the necessary changes at pace,” he said.
Since the Sheldon Review was published in May, work has taken place to improve openness, communication, and collaboration between SROs, Dstl and DE&S delivery teams. Lessons are also being learned on how to work best with industrial partners.
Dstl is actively involved in assuring resolutions to noise and vibration and with wider technical assurance of the delivery of the Ajax platforms. The SRO is copied in on all regular reports that Dstl delivers to the DE&S delivery team.
The number of SROs for Army programmes has increased with the SRO for the Armoured Cavalry Programme devoting all their time now to working on delivering Ajax. A new Programmes Directorate led by a Major General has also been set up to improve governance and transparency not only in terms of monitoring each programme’s progress, but providing greater insight into risks, challenges, and complexities, so support can be provided when needed.
SROs will be given access to the data DE&S delivery teams use to manage a project including risks, schedule performance and cost performance. Work is also underway to implement a strengthened and consistent acquisition and safety policy approach on SRO accountability, and safety structures are being put in place to ensure that pace is not put ahead of safety. “Always proceed with a sense of urgency but applying a dose of cold, hard pragmatism in assessing technical complexity underpinned by a robust and resourced schedule,” the outgoing CEO of DE&S Sir Simon Bollom observed in an article for Desider. “Binding all this together is trust and collaboration with our customers and defence suppliers.”
Earlier this year, the MoD resumed payments to GDLS-UK for the delivery of all 589 Ajax vehicles. Cartlidge says the programme remains within its originally approved budget. Forty-four vehicles at Capability Drop 1 have been delivered to the British Army, while Capability Drop 3 vehicles are manufactured in South Wales.
Reliability Growth Trials resumed earlier this year at Bovington Camp where soldiers are currently training on Ajax. However, the Warrior IFV will remain in Armoured Cavalry units until new concepts and capabilities are introduced into service throughout the decade.