Soldiers with General Dynamics

£5.5bn light tank ‘on end-of-life watch’ before even entering service

Image credit: DSTL

Speaking in the Commons, a defence minister has prompted concern about the £5.5bn Ajax light tank project, which has been troubled by personnel injuries sustained in use, caused by excessive noise and vibration problems.

Jeremy Quin, the minister for defence procurement, told MPs he hopes that a long-term solution can be found for the Ajax light tank programme. He said that the project is “incredibly important” for the British Army and thousands of workers. The project is estimated to involve 4,100 employees in 230 companies, including contractor General Dynamics.

Last month, the government admitted that the light armoured vehicle project is “troubled” and may have to be abandoned, despite wishing to make it a success. Quin told MPs on the Defence Select Committee that the military is working on contingency plans in case the tank cannot be used. Trials have been paused after some personnel complained of vibration injuries and others suffered hearing loss, which was followed by steroid injections in an attempt to reverse damage. 310 personnel required urgent hearing assessments.

Responding to questions this week, Quin said he “cannot 100 per cent promise” a resolution will be found and emphasised the government will not accept a vehicle which fails to meet testing requirements. He acknowledged that he had described the programme as troubled, but said that this does not mean the problems are irresolvable.

“We’re committed to working with General Dynamics to achieve a resolution of these issues,” said Quin. “I’ve said before I cannot 100 per cent promise to this House that we will find a resolution to these issues but we are determined to work through with General Dynamics.

“I would beg MPs to be mindful of those people who will be concerned about their jobs and livelihoods, particularly if we can – as I sincerely hope and trust – find a long-term resolution to these issues, which we are determined, working with General Dynamics, to do.”

He added that vehicle trials have resumed. Engineers will be trying to find the source of the troubling vibrations and assessing whether the vehicle can be saved with some design modifications. He did not give a date on reaching full operating capacity, saying that they cannot yet accept initial operating capability until there is a resolution on the noise and vibration issues.

The opposition said Quin’s comments “put Ajax on an end-of-life-watch”.

Shadow defence secretary John Healey said: “This is a programme that has cost £3bn to date, delivered just 14 vehicles and is set to be completed a decade late. The minister’s statement now puts Ajax on an end-of-life watch. Ajax is the biggest procurement failure since the Nimrod and this has happened entirely on this government’s watch. Ministers are failing British forces and they’re failing the British taxpayers.”

Debate descended into some shouting, with members of both side expressing anger and frustration at the issue. Conservative former defence minister Mark Francois said the Ajax programme shows the Ministry of Defence’s procurement process is “completely broken”.

“Not one major MoD procurement programme is successfully on track. This is over £100bn of British taxpayers’ money. The procurement system of Abbey Wood is a shambles and presiding over this steaming heap of institutional incompetence is the minister,” said Francois.

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