The British Army’s long-running Ajax programme is gradually nearing completion, with more than half of the tank turrets having now been manufactured.
“We are just over 50% through Ajax production, but we have got about another two years of production left,” Steve Wallace, head of production operations at Lockheed Martin UK’s facility in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, told Army Technology.
While Lockheed’s production is reportedly on schedule, the Ajax programme has been hit with difficulties. Rising costs and repeated delays led to parliamentary calls for Ajax to be axed, although the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has reaffirmed its commitment to the programme.
On-site figures show that Lockheed Martin’s Ampthill site has produced 141 turrets since 2018 when the contract for 245 turrets began. This includes 32 turrets last year and 32 so far in 2023.
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What is Ajax and when will it be deployed?
First commissioned by the MoD in September 2014, the Ajax programme is the biggest single order for a UK armoured vehicle in more than two decades.
Ajax was initially projected to cost $4.3bn (£3.54bn) and be completed by 2024. More recent estimations by the MoD and House of Commons say the programme will cost $5.5bn of taxpayer money and be fully operable by 2029.
General Dynamics Land Systems UK is the prime contractor, overseeing the assembly of the 589 total Ajax vehicles at its Merthyr Tydfil site in South Wales. General Dynamics told Army Technology that it has delivered 143 vehicles, with 44 already deployed by the British Army.
Each vehicle is 7.62m in length, 3.35m in width and 3m high. They travel at a maximum speed of 70kph. The MoD has touted Ajax’s all-weather operability, cutting-edge sensors and 40mm stabilised cannon as competitive military advantages.
Lockheed Martin UK is one of Ajax’s subcontractors, responsible for manufacturing 245 pivoting gun turrets as part of a $1bn agreement. General Dynamics says it has received 141 turrets to date – 62% of total production.
The current manufacturing cycle for each turret is 600 hours, which Lockheed aims to cut down to 500 hours, according to Stuart Devonshire, head of manufacturing at the Ampthill site.
A sequence of setbacks
On 20 March, Minister of Defence Procurement Alex Chalk said he “openly acknowledged the problems” the Ajax programme faces.
Chalk also announced that the MoD had resumed payments to General Dynamics, following a suspension in payments in 2021 when various design flaws emerged.
A leaked document revealed that the Ajax tanks posed safety risks to British soldiers if driven above 32kph, while excessive vibration and noise meant soldiers testing the vehicles were left with swollen joints and tinnitus.
Chalk’s update on Ajax’s continuation was met with heavy scrutiny.
A report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on 31 March gave a full timeline of the programme’s setbacks. General Dynamics told the Committee that delays were partly caused by challenges integrating the cannon into the turret, the report said, and the MoD had selected a “technically unproven and immature 40mm cannon”.
The cannon’s integration with the turret is managed through a separate contract between General Dynamics UK and Lockheed Martin UK. Devonshire clarified that development of the turret component had matured and Lockheed’s Ampthill facility is back on schedule.
“The programme has been running for 12 years but has not delivered a single deployable vehicle to the Army,” the PAC previously told the UK House of Commons.
“Enough is enough – the MoD must fix or fail this programme before more risk to our national security and more billions of taxpayers’ money wasted,” the PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said. “These repeated failures are putting strain on older capabilities which are overdue for replacement and are directly threatening the safety of our service people and their ability to protect the nation and meet Nato commitments.”
The UK MoD declined to comment on the status of Ajax production. Most signals indicate the MoD is fully committed to the programme, as the British Army restarted training on Ajax vehicles in June.