Britain’s Ajax program involved “systemic and institutional” failures

LONDON — Britain’s Ministry of Defense suffered from “systemic, cultural and institutional problems” in its bid to acquire the Ajax armored reconnaissance vehicle, according to the country’s top arms buyer.

James Cartledge’s comments came hours after the ministry announced that the Household Cavalry Regiment had become the first Army formation to begin field training in Ajax. His statement to Parliament also follows the publication on 15 June of a report on lessons learned from the vehicle acquisition programme.

The independent report, led by lawyer Clive Sheldon, was ordered by Defense Secretary Ben Wallace last year after the Ajax program suffered repeated delays due to technical issues – mainly related to unsafe levels of noise and vibration, which harmed army soldiers who were testing the vehicle.

Delays until recently threatened the future of the vehicle and its five variants built under a £5.5 billion (US$7 billion) firm-fixed-price deal awarded to General Dynamics Land Systems-UK in 2014 to produce 589 platforms.

Ajax was due to become operational in 2020, but that target date is now 2025, with declaration of full operational capability expected between October 2028 and September 2029.

The armored cavalry program is a key component of the Army’s transformational effort, called Future Soldier, under which Ajax variants will be used primarily in reconnaissance and deep strike roles.

In his statement to Parliament, Cartlidge listed some of the program’s shortcomings cited by Sheldon and his team. These included “fragmented relationships and the conflicting priorities of the senior responsible owner [the head program official] role. It also points to a reluctance to raise, and occasionally listen to, genuine problems from older people in a timely, evidence-based way,” noted Cartlidge.

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The procurement minister, who took up the role in April, said the shortages had made “difficult reading” for the Ministry of Defence.

Of Sheldon’s 24 formal recommendations, the government accepted 15 and the other nine in principle, Cartledge said.

The report noted that its recommendations were not intended to achieve a wholesale reshaping of major program delivery. “No one is a silver bullet. Instead, they represent relatively small improvements, which cumulatively will help Treasury avoid similar problems in the future,” the report says.

Sheldon’s report also pointed to friction between the State Department’s defense procurement and support arm and the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, which provides technical advice.

In addition, the report noted, the relationship between Defense Equipment and Support and prime contractor General Dynamics Land Systems-UK “has not been easy” and involved “differences between the parties on many issues”.

Among his recommendations, Sheldon also said that top officials running major programs should remain in their posts for a minimum period of five years.

The review’s particular focus covered how the Department of State shares and elevates issues across departmental and front-line commands, looking at systemic and process-related issues as well as individual action and inaction.

Sheldon said the limited nature of the terms of reference meant he was not asked to consider issues such as whether the right type of vehicles were procured, the nature and cause of technical problems and whether the Department of State or its contractor should take responsibility. for delays and technical problems.

The program was in such a quagmire by the time Sheldon began his review that some were discussing the possibility of misconduct. But Sheldon said he had not blamed individuals because the review had seen no evidence of misconduct.

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“At its highest point, I believe that several errors of judgment were made at various points and that ‘optimism bias’ infected some of the thinking of senior people working on the program. The failures I identified were systemic and institutional,” he said.

Cartlidge pointed out that “crucially” the review did not find that “Ministers or Parliament were misled” by scheme officials.

Meanwhile, Home Calvary Regiment units from the deep reconnaissance strike brigade began field training earlier this week with 44 vehicles, collectively known as Capability Drop 1. Ajax, along with four of the five variants, are participating in the field training.

Credibility development testing continues to stress the vehicle through a series of battlefield missions. Over 6,600 kilometers (4,101 miles) have been driven in the vehicles, with testing continuing over the coming months.

As of this week, General Dynamics has built 143 of the vehicles at sites in Spain and Wales.

Andrew Chuter is the UK correspondent for Defense News.

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