UK Politicians Not Impressed with Army Ajax Programme

We wrote about the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) Ajax armoured vehicle fiasco almost a year ago.  Now, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), made up of politicians from all parties, has urged MOD to either fix or scrap the scheme by the end of 2022.

The programme has been running for 10 years and has failed to deliver a single usable vehicle. By December 2021, the Department had paid the supplier, General Dynamics, £3.2 billion, although Ministers now say there will be no more payment until problems are resolved. Noise and vibration problems proved to be a health hazard for soldiers during testing, and there were other performance issues too. The initial design had some 1,200 “capability requirements” and both buyer and supplier under-estimated the complexity of what they were trying to build. In their report published recently, the PAC said this.

The Department’s management of the programme was flawed from the outset as the programme was over-specified and the Department (MOD) and General Dynamics did not understand the scale of the technical challenge. We have seen similar failings again and again in the Department’s management of its equipment programmes. The Ajax programme also raises serious concerns about the Department’s processes and culture for testing whether new equipment is safe to use”.

The MOD still appears to have no idea when, if ever, the vehicles will go into service and will not commit to a target date. And assuming this does not end well in term of delivering adequate vehicles, we can expect a serious legal battle – unless the MOD just caves in and pays up, of course. As the PAC report says, “because of programme delays and missed milestones, the Department estimates that it owes General Dynamics £750 million for completed work, but has not paid anything since December 2020, and the parties remain in dispute”.

The PAC comments follow a report from the National Audit Office in March 2022 which went into more detail, and there were several points in that report that I found particularly shocking. For example:

The Army’s policy of regularly rotating posts means that the programme has had a high turnover of senior personnel, with five senior responsible owners (SROs) since November 2011, and four   programme directors and six project managers since September 2013. Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) replaced the programme manager who had negotiated the reset immediately after the contract was updated in May 2019, affecting the programme’s corporate knowledge. It also replaced other senior programme personnel after the new director general was appointed in December 2019”.

That issue is largely within the control of the MOD, and the “revolving doors” staffing policy has been identified before as an issue; yet it still happens. And some senior roles were not even full-time before 2021! Then we have the Ajax Programme Office, responsible for running programme.

“The programme management office, which supports the SRO, has remained small for a programme of this scale and complexity. In 2016, six of the eight posts were vacant …  By April 2019, it had filled these vacancies to manage the contract renegotiation in 2018, but then reduced resources – at a time when the programme was missing milestones. In July 2020, the programme management office had dropped to four posts…”

What madness is this? A huge, critical and failing programme, and you reduce the programme management resources? Why? Would nobody take the jobs because they knew it was a doomed programme? Or did senior people want it to fail? Or did they think that a lack of resources might be a good excuse when the proverbial hit the fan?  Anyway, it is a shame the PAC didn’t pick up on this issue.

The NAO report identifies many other issues, from poor programme governance to specification issues, and really it is a textbook example of how not to run a major equipment procurement programme. It will certainly deserve its own chapter if and when “Bad Buying Part 2” emerges …

We are looking at increasing defence spending in the UK for obvious reasons following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That is fine; but as a taxpayer, I don’t want to see a penny more of my money going to MOD until I see a detailed and convincing plan laying out how the organisation will ensure it doesn’t waste more billions on equipment.  Ajax isn’t the first disaster of this nature; it just happens too often.

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