Minister vows to plough on with Army's disastrous £5.5bn Ajax tank
Ministers pledge to plough on with trials of Britain’s disastrous new £5.5BILLION Ajax tanks even though they make crews sick, are too heavy and can’t fire on the move
- Defence minister Alec Shelbrooke says trials for the Ajax light tank will resume
- Work to build 589 armoured vehicles has been in limbo for years after setbacks
- Loud vibrations left troops testing the prototype machines with hearing damage
- Four soldiers were forced to quit the Army after suffering severe hearing loss
Defence chiefs have vowed to plough on with a disastrous £5.5billion project to build hundreds of new light tanks for the Army which have been plagued by problems.
The Government has already pumped about £4billion into the Ajax armoured vehicle programme – without a single of the 589-strong fleet having been delivered.
Ajax ground to halt last year after a series of humiliating faults which meant the 40-tonne tanks vibrated so violently they left hundreds of soldiers needing urgent hearing tests.
Speculation the costly defence project was on the event horizon of being scrapped had intensified this week, amid the political chaos in Westminster.
But on Thursday, defence procurement minister Alec Shelbrooke broke the silence and insisted trials of the Ajax had finally resumed amid months of limbo.
The MoD has resumed trials of its new Ajax fleet of armoured vehicles following months of limbo amid concerns over safety
Ajax is the British Army’s new light tank but it has vibrated so loudly it has left four soldiers with hearing damage so severe they have been forced to leave the Army
MP Alec Shelbrooke, defence procurement minister, insisted that safety of soldiers remained his top priority
In a written note to MPs, Mr Shelbrooke said the Government would plough on following eight days of tests earlier this month.
‘My first concern is the safety of our personnel, which has been at the forefront of the work that has been ongoing over the summer,’ he added.
But news of the Ajax trials coming back concerned former Armed Forces Minister Mark Francois, who previously branded the scheme ‘a disastrous example of everything that is wrong with the MoD’s broken procurement system’.
It followed news four soldiers had been forced to quit the Army after suffering such severe hearing loss they could no longer continue serving in the military.
Speaking on Thursday, Mr Francois – who is part of the Commons’ influential Defence Committee – said: ‘The MoD has finally restarted the safety trails on Ajax, even after a number of personnel who have trialled it previously have apparently left the Armed Forces, on health grounds.
‘These new trials must therefore be rigorous and scrupulously objective – there can be absolutely no question of putting at risk the safety of future crews, just to save the careers of some generals and procurement bureaucrats, who are clearly desperate to keep the programme alive, at all costs.’
Ben Wallace, left, the Defence Secretary had been due to make Thursday’s comment on the ill-fated Ajax project amid swirling rumours the £5.5billion scheme would be axed. It comes as ex-armed forces minister Mark Francois, right, said it was time for the MoD to ‘put up or shut up’
Built in Wales by American firm General Dynamics, Ajax was meant to enter service in 2017, joining the Household Cavalry.
But its deadline has been pushed back time and time again with its current date now set for 2025 – although defence sources have questioned if this is possible.
In a scathing report earlier this year, the National Audit Office (NAO) warned the multi-billion-pound project had been ‘flawed from the start’, and that the MoD failed to understand just how complex and challenging the programme would be.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: ‘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.’
The project has been in trouble for years, when heavy vibrations were during ‘rehearsal’ mission at the end of 2019 leading to ‘concern’ among military chiefs.
The violent shaking became so intense that in March 2020 some troops reported feeling ill and were later commanded to ‘cease trials’ if experiencing ‘vibration-related symptoms’, a report by the MoD said.
Ajax’s problems deepened months later in August when the first soldier reported hearing loss from the deafening noise in the armoured vehicle.
By December 2021, a government inquiry found that at least 310 personnel had suffered some degree of hearing damage.
Most of the soldiers – 238 – returned to military service with ‘no health impact’. But four personnel suffered such severe hearing loss that it ended their military careers.
Defence specialist Edward Arnold, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said Ajax should have been cancelled instead of ‘reinforcing failure’.
Ajax, left, pictured next to the British Army’s other armoured fighting vehicle, the Boxer
‘The Ajax saga has moved from a technical problem to a cultural one at the heart of the MoD,’ he added.
‘For an organisation that prides itself on planning and decision-making, there still appears to be an inability for individuals to show leadership, moral courage and accountability and make a definitive call on the future of the Ajax programme.’
Made up of five hi-tech variants, the armoured vehicle was meant to offer unparalleled protection to its crew and deliver a lethal punch with its 40mm cannon.
It’s understood that 26 vehicles have reportedly received by the military, none of which are in service.
Ajax expert Robert Clark, director of defence and security at the think-tank Civitas, feared development on the military machines would ‘continue to move at a snail’s pace’.
He added: ‘General Dynamic have the MoD bent over a contractual barrel that they cannot escape from.’
Previously, soldiers evaluating the weapons system found it has problems clearing eight-inch high obstacles – and some troops testing suffered hearing damage due to loud vibration noise
The comments come after the head of Britain’s military hinted the MoD could move away from creating its own bespoke pieces of military kit and shop for it on the open market instead in a bid to cut delays and reduce costs.
Giving a speech in London on Wednesday evening, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, Chief of Defence Staff, said the MoD could move towards buying new military kit that’s already tried-and-tested, instead of developing tech from the ground up.
‘We may need to temper our tendency for bespoke procurements and constant commercial competition when we could simply go shopping instead,’ he said. ‘Why not choose what is available on the market today especially if it means we can get the capability sooner?’
The MoD said it recognised Ajax was ‘a troubled programme and we are clear that we will not accept a vehicle until it can be used safely for its intended purposes’.
‘We continue to work with General Dynamics to resolve the noise and vibration problems on Ajax while protecting taxpayers’ interests,’ a spokesperson said.
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