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- The British government admits the Ajax armored reconnaissance vehicle program is “troubled” and is looking into fixing or outright replacing the vehicle.
- The Ajax suffers from excessive noise and vibration that has caused medical problems for more than two dozen troops.
- The U.K. has spent too much money to cancel the program, and even if it did, there’s no realistic replacement.
The U.K. is facing tough choices—none of them particularly good—as it continues to test the problematic new Ajax armored reconnaissance family of vehicles.
The General Dynamics-designed Ajax, the first major vehicle the British Army has acquired in more than 20 years, is key to the Army’s modernization efforts. But it suffers from significant design flaws that allegedly cause troops riding in them to become ill, according to a report. The Ajax is prone to “excessive vibration and noise,” which caused the Army to suspend testing for several months, says the BBC.
The British Army knows it has a big problem on its hands. “It’s a troubled program, and no one’s hiding that,” Ben Wallace, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Defense, told reporters last week. He continued, via Breaking Defense:
“We’ve got to fix it. We’ve got to get to the bottom of the problems with it. My minister of defense procurement has spoken directly to the head of GD. I will speak to her soon. We both, General Dynamics and the Army, have determined they’re going to have to put this right.”
“You know, fundamentally, we paid for a piece of equipment, we expect it to be delivered, and just like any other consumer we have those rights. And if it’s not up to scratch, we’ll take action.”
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In 2014, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense and General Dynamics signed a contract to build 589 armored vehicles of six different types for $7.5 billion. The vehicles all use the same common chassis. Here’s a General Dynamics promotional video highlighting the Ajax:
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The Ajax is the main vehicle, with 245 vehicles on order. Although the Ajax looks like a tank, it isn’t: Its main gun is too small to engage real tanks, and its armor is too thin to absorb heavy blows. The Ajax is meant to operate ahead of enemy forces, seeking out and detecting enemy forces while having enough firepower to destroy other enemy reconnaissance vehicles.
Ajax is fitted with electro optical sensors and acoustic detectors to help locate the enemy. The vehicle is equipped with a 40-millimeter cannon that fires new lightweight case-telescoped ammunition, and a 7.62-millimeter machine gun.
The U.K. also ordered 112 Athena command vehicles, 93 Ares reconnaissance support vehicles, 51 Argus engineering vehicles, 50 Apollo support repair vehicles, and 38 Atlas recovery vehicles.
Unfortunately, the design flaws found in the early production Ajax vehicles are reportedly so bad that the British Army suspended trials last fall out of concerns for the health of soldiers interacting with the vehicles.
The excessive noise and vibration that the Ajax generates when moving has caused some of the troops riding inside to experience tinnitus, swollen joints, and nausea, according to a Sun report. And no, noise-canceling headphones don’t work. In fact, any soldier who has traveled inside one of the vehicles (the Ares variant) must take a hearing test, the Sun says.
The Ajax also can’t back up over obstacles that are 20 centimeters (7.87 inches) high, and the vehicle has suspension problems that prevent the new 40-millimeter gun from firing on the move. Because of these problems and more, the British Army has limited soldiers to spending just 105 minutes inside the vehicle at a time and restricted the vehicle to driving at just 20 miles per hour.
The Ajax is a descendant of the Spanish-Austrian ASCOD armored vehicle, beefed up with additional armor. The BBC reports the additional armor, which ballooned the vehicle’s weight to 38 tons, is the culprit for many of the identified problems.
As the U.K. decides how to handle these headaches, it might not have the full support of General Dynamics, which said media reports about the vehicle’s troubles are “without merit” and it’s “confident in the design,” revealing a fundamental disagreement between buyer and seller.
The U.K. has already sunk a lot of money into the Ajax program and may be unwilling to abandon its investment. Furthermore, there aren’t many vehicles out there that can quickly step in and replace the Ajax. While some vehicles are in a similar class, like the British Army’s new Boxer wheeled infantry fighting vehicle and the Scandinavian CV90, any potential replacement would probably require Ajax’s sensor tech to make it suitable, which would likely delay the program by years.
In a sign of desperation, government officials told the British Defense Committee the Challenger 3 tank could be used to make up for a shortfall in vehicle firepower. This comes as the British Army prepares to yet again slash its tank force, from 227 Challenger tanks to just 148.
How, you ask, would such a meager tank force support the main tank mission while also adding to the firepower of reconnaissance forces? Good question.
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