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Another fine mess from the Ministry of Soundbites


AS THE Telegraph reports, the Army’s Ajax vehicle programme is in a spot of bother. Again.

The Ajax family (which are most definitely NOT tanks – but accurate reporting of defence news is a thing of the past) are late and have capability problems. The programme has always been a mess. It was initiated to replace the highly successful CVR(T) range of light armoured vehicles, primarily used for reconnaissance. I was a participant in the trial exercises in 1988 (yup, over 30 years ago). I was also involved in some of the operational analysis in the 1990s.  At no time then did anything even remotely resembling Ajax look like the best answer.

The programme ran into problems almost from the get-go. It had been decided to produce the vehicle (then called Tracer) jointly with the Americans. That in itself was odd, given that the US and UK views on how best to conduct reconnaissance were different. We relied on stealth (small, agile vehicle, avoiding contact). The US favoured using tanks, large scout vehicles and dedicated attack helicopters, prepared (and equipped) to fight to acquire intelligence. (Which is the best approach is a matter of hot debate, although in every simulation or exercise I have been involved in, against peer enemies a reconnaissance force that gets into a firefight stops looking for the enemy, battles to survive and eventually dies as it is outnumbered and outgunned.)

Anyhow, the Tracer programme was cancelled, so the British Army started a whole alphabet soup of concepts: FCLV (Future Command and Liaison Vehicle), MRAV (Multi-Role Armoured Vehicle which, arguably, eventually became Boxer), FRES (Future Rapid Effects System – whatever that means), all of which were flawed and none of which progressed. Then it plumped for Ajax, which was an evolution of an existing Austrian/Spanish collaborative infantry carrier called ASCOD. But Ajax became longer, collected a larger gun (the 40mm CTA, which had been created as part of the original Tracer programme) and concomitantly larger and heavier turret. Now, just as it should be entering service, it’s becoming clear that the design is flawed.

This is not particularly another tale of procurement errors. Rather it is an illustration of the collapse of the MoD into an organisation that delivers soundbites rather than defending the realm. Although the Ajax procurement is flawed the real problem is that the Army had, and still has, no idea what it wants. Or needs.

Of course, the Army is in denial about this – it seems to be believing its own drivel. For example, GeneralSir MarkCarleton-Smith, the head of the Army, insisted a few days ago: ‘We still have the capability to field a modernised, digitised war fighting division which is still the main currency for the US.’ Really? While there are certainly two organisations called ‘divisions’ in the current British Army organisation, they are equipped with tanks in need of upgrade, Warrior infantry fighting vehicles which are to be scrapped, a 60-year-old design of reconnaissance vehicle (to be replaced by the struggling Ajax) and mothballed artillery. Moreover, we have not deployed a full division since the first Gulf War, and the Army then was twice the size with an awful lot more armour. The one thing that the Army does have a surplus of is dismounted infantry, who go to war in the same manner that their forebears did in 1939. Sure, they have more capable weaponry, but they are on their feet – slow and vulnerable.

For all the talk of ‘deep strike’, the creation of a ‘Ranger Brigade’ and (inevitably) ‘artificial intelligence’, the reality is that the British Army is in a mess. Yes, British troops achieve great stuff when deployed, but that is invariably due to the strength of character of our fighting troops and superb leadership at the lower levels (Lieutenant Colonel and below).

At the higher levels the Army has lost the plot, as has the MoD, whose latest triumph is the appointment of Samantha de Forges as head of diversity. She is keen to remove ‘sexist’ rank titles, such as Rifleman and First Sea Lord.

I yearn for the day when this is the MoD’s biggest problem.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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