Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 8 June.

“The Ajax family of vehicles will transform the British Army’s reconnaissance capability. As our first fully digitalised armoured fighting vehicle, Ajax will provide crews with access to vastly improved sensors, and better lethality and protection. Main gate 1 approval was granted in March 2010. Negotiations with the prime contractor to recast the contract were held between December 2018 and May 2019. The forecast initial operating capability, or IOC, was delayed by a year to 30 June 2021—later this month—at 50% confidence, with 90% confidence for September 2021.

Despite the ongoing impact of Covid, we have stuck by that IOC date, but of course, it remains subject to review. By the end of next week, we will have received the requisite number of vehicles to meet IOC. The necessary simulators have been delivered and training courses commenced. These delivered vehicles are all at capability drop 1 standard, designed for the experimentation, training and familiarisation of those crews that are first in line for the vehicles. Capability drop 3, applying the lessons of the demonstration phrase, is designed for operations.

We remain in the demonstration phase and, as with all such phases, issues with the vehicle have emerged that we need to resolve. We were concerned by reports of noise issues in the vehicle. All personnel who may have been exposed to excessive noise have been tested, and training was paused. It now continues with mitigations in place as we pursue resolution. We have also commissioned independent vibration trials from world-class specialists at Millbrook Proving Ground, which should conclude next month.

I assure the House that we will not accept a vehicle that falls short of our requirements, and we are working with General Dynamics, the prime contractor, to achieve IOC. Similarly, we are currently working with General Dynamics to ensure that we have a mutually agreed schedule for reaching full operating capability. That is subject to an independent review, which we have commissioned. This is an important project for the British Army, delivering impressive capabilities and employing thousands of skilled workers across the UK. We look forward to taking it into service.”

Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, this is my first time at the Dispatch Box as Labour’s defence spokesperson, and I look forward to debating these important matters with the Minister.

Ajax was set to be delivered in 2017 but, despite £3.2 billion being paid out, only 14 vehicles have been delivered—light tanks that cannot fire while moving—and personnel have been made so sick that the testing has been paused. The Defence Committee called this

“another example of chronic mismanagement by the Ministry of Defence”.

As the problem cannot be fixed before it has been identified, as we heard in the other place yesterday, when does the Minister expect to know exactly what is causing the problems of noise and vibration? How many personnel have been adversely affected? When will the reversing restrictions placed on Ajax be lifted? Given that the total fixed cost for the whole project is £5.5 billion and that £3.2 billion has already been spent, is the Minister confident that Ajax can and will be delivered to that total? If so, when?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I welcome the noble Lord to the House and his position on the Front Bench. I am pleased to answer the questions that he has posed. First, as he will know, in any complex acquisition, there are risks and challenges that must be mitigated against, and, in the case of Ajax, we face different challenges due to the nature of such capabilities. Delays can be for a range of reasons, including the technical challenges and programmatic issues.

On the matters that the noble Lord raised and those relating to speed restrictions—which have been publicly aired—the rear step and the question of firing on the move, I reassure the House that we are confident that these will be resolved very quickly. Those issues have been due to the restrictions that were deliberately put in place because we are in the demonstration phase of this project. On the question of noise, and vibration in particular, there is more work to be done. Although I cannot give a date on this, it is obviously an urgent matter and tests are under way at the moment to try to resolve it.

Finally, we have full confidence in the delivery of the whole project. As the noble Lord will know, full operating capability is not due until 2025. That is not to say that there is not a lot of work to be done before then, but we have full confidence in the main contractors, General Dynamics and GDUK, which were selected after a rigorous process and have 60 years’ experience of developing these advanced armoured vehicles.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, to his place and apologise that I am not in the Chamber personally today. I will follow on from his questions and the Minister’s initial response. The contractor may have 60 years’ experience of delivering for the MoD, but this is supposed to be a modernisation programme. Will the tanks ever be fit for purpose? Is the Minister confident that mitigation can be put in place to ensure the safety of our service personnel and that, in the longer term, there will not be issues of deafness and other associated physical effects on them? If the project cannot be rectified, will it be stopped, rather than there being another £2.3 billion spent on something that may never be fit for purpose?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I reassure the noble Baroness that we are confident that delivery will take place. As I said earlier, this is a highly complex programme, and we are working through the issues that have arisen. On the injuries that were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, although I do not have the numbers, I say that, as is the norm for the demonstration stage of these highly complex projects, trials necessarily take place. We are confident that these issues will be resolved. I mentioned the vibration issue earlier, which is the most serious one that we need to address, and it is one of the reasons why we have withheld £434 million of payments that would otherwise have been paid until these matters are resolved.

Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Portrait Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton (Con)
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My Lords, I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, to his place. I honestly do not think that Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition could have picked a better defence spokesman, judging from our previous exchanges in the other place. I declare my interest as a serving member of the Army Reserve.

A bit of context is required here. Ajax is not just an updated armoured fighting vehicle; it represents a generational shift in capability that will be able to deliver precision strike at range and, crucially, a network capability that our adversaries simply do not have. Given that there are literally millions of lines of code, I am surprised that there have not been more challenges during the development phase. We have lost out in the past by not updating our armoured fighting vehicles on a regular basis, so can my noble friend the Minister simply reassure me that Ajax is being designed with open architecture so that we can update it on a regular basis?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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My noble friend makes a very good point. Perhaps I can add to what he was saying: this project represents the biggest single order for a UK armoured vehicle for over 20 years. Incidentally, the project supports approximately 4,100 jobs across more than 230 UK suppliers. It is now in its production and support phases, with the Army having taken formal delivery of the first Ares capability drop 1 vehicles in July 2020. However, it is more than that, as my noble friend said. This is a new and larger vehicle. It is modular and, over a predicted 30-year lifespan, it will be capable of being built on. It will be the backbone of the future digitised modern force, with unparalleled protection levels, incorporating hard-won lessons from recent conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps that adds to the complexity of this matter. I reassure the House again that these outstanding issues need to be addressed.

Lord Berkeley Portrait Lord Berkeley (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I also welcome my noble friend Lord Coaker to the Front Bench. His initial question today indicates his enormous expertise.

I am surprised that we have got this far with this new development. We have seen the new report, apparently from the independent Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which says that this vehicle cannot reverse— perhaps we do not need to any more—fire on the move or go more than 20 miles an hour, and that the soldiers are limited to an hour and a half inside it because of the noise. What use is that on a battlefield? Will they put up a white flag and change staff before they continue?

I remind the House that the IPA has said that the delivery of the project “appears to be unachievable”. That is rather different from what the Minister has just told the House, which is that there are no plans to delay and that we will go on with it and, presumably, continue with the order of 580 tanks, which will all be deployed this year. Is it not time that we cancelled the whole thing and saved the Government, the taxpayer and ourselves several billion pounds of taxpayers’ money?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I need to put the noble Lord right on a number of points. First, on the IPA report, I remind the House that this came out as a result of a leak, and a full inspection is going on as to how that leak came out. On the speed restriction, I reassure the noble Lord that Ajax is capable and will be capable of speeds of up to 70 kph, but an initial limitation of 30 kph was introduced as a control measure for newly qualified Household Cavalry Regiment crews. That is in line with what I said earlier about this being the demonstration phase of this enormous project. On the rear step, the vehicle is capable of reversing over a vertical 0.75-metre step. Following some initial issues, this was restricted, again for the same reasons. Similarly, on the noble Lord’s point about firing on the move, the vehicle can and does fire on the move. The MoD has yet to certify the platform to perform this, which is also in line with what I said earlier. I reassure the House again that this major project is on track and will be delivered on time.

Lord Alderdice Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Lord Alderdice) (LD)
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My Lords, all the supplementary questions have been asked. We now come to questions on an Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the House of Commons on Tuesday 8 June on British Council closures. I call the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury.