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A defence minister has cast fresh doubt on a “troubled” £5.5 billion light tank programme beset by noise and vibration problems that caused injuries to personnel.
Jeremy Quin told MPs he hopes a long-term solution can be found for the Ajax vehicle programme, which he described as “incredibly important” for both the British Army and thousands of workers – including at contractor General Dynamics (GD).
But he acknowledged he “cannot 100% promise” a resolution will be found and insisted the Government will “never accept” a vehicle that does not meet its testing requirements.
Labour said Mr Quin’s comments “put Ajax on an end-of-life watch”.
Responding to an urgent question, Mr Quin told the Commons: “We’re committed to working with General Dynamics to achieve a resolution of these issues.
“I’ve said before I cannot 100% promise to this House that we will find a resolution to these issues, but we are determined to work through with GD.”
Mr Quin confirmed vehicle trials have resumed and it is hoped they can work out where the vibrations are originating from in the vehicle and whether design modifications will work.
The trials had been paused because of safety concerns that left some personnel complaining of vibration injuries while others have suffered hearing loss – in some cases requiring steroid treatment in an attempt to reverse the damage.
MPs heard 310 personnel have been identified as requiring urgent hearing assessments, with efforts ongoing to trace six yet to be contacted.
Mr Quin also said: “I would beg MPs to be mindful of those people who will be concerned about their jobs and livelihoods, particularly if we can – as I sincerely hope and trust – find a long-term resolution to these issues, which we are determined, working with General Dynamics, to do.”
He earlier noted: “I have previously described Ajax as a troubled programme. It is. But that does not mean that the problems are irresolvable.”
Mr Quin added: “While we will never accept a vehicle that does not meet our testing requirements, we remain committed to working with General Dynamics to understand and, we trust, resolve the outstanding issues.”
Answering questions from Labour, Mr Quin said: “I cannot give a date on reaching FOC (full operating capacity) when I’ve said what I’ve said on IOC (initial operating capacity) which I mean and I will stick by, which is we will not accept an initial operating capability until we have a clear resolution to the issues on noise and vibration.”
He added: “We need a vehicle that works and which is fit for purpose and that is what we’re determined to deliver.”
Shadow defence secretary John Healey said: “This is a programme that has cost £3.5 billion to date, delivered just 14 vehicles and is set to be completed a decade late. The minister’s statement now puts Ajax on an end-of-life watch.”
He added: “Ajax is the biggest procurement failure since the Nimrod and this has happened entirely on this Government’s watch. Ministers are failing British forces and they’re failing the British taxpayers.”
The Labour MP asked the Government to “halt” cuts to Army numbers, at least until they have “sorted out and fixed” the light tank programme, given it is linked to “more advanced technology based on the Ajax”.
Conservative former defence minister Mark Francois said the Ajax programme shows the Ministry of Defence’s procurement is “completely broken”.
He went on: “Ajax is red, unlikely ever to be achieved. How many were green? Successfully on track of the 36? None, zero, zilch, nothing.
“Not one major MoD procurement programme is successfully on track. This is over £100 billion of British taxpayers’ money. The procurement system of Abbey Wood is a shambles and presiding over this steaming heap of institutional incompetence is the minister.”
When asked by Conservative former defence minister Tobias Ellwood for a deadline, Mr Quin said: “It will be all too easy to set an artificial deadline when I can tell this House that we know all the answers. I can’t do that.
“That wouldn’t be transparent to this place; I do not know how long it will take for those trials to be concluded and how long it will take to analyse the results.”
The minister was then interrupted by Mr Ellwood shouting: “Set a deadline.”