Ajax, a family of vehicles from General Dynamics United Kingdom (GDUK), has been developed to replace the UK’s ageing fleet of Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked), or CVR(T) vehicles. Initial Operating Capability (IOC) is expected in 2020, marking the first time that the UK has induced a vehicle designed for high-intensity peer conflict since the Challenger 2 main battle tank entered service in 1998.
In 1989 the British Army started a program known as Future Family of Light Armoured Vehicles (FFLAV) which looked to replace the British Army’s CVR(T) and the FV430 family of armoured personal carriers (APCs), amongst others. Fairly soon into the project, it was decided to split the program into the Tactical Reconnaissance Armoured Combat Equipment (TRACER) and Multi-Role Armoured Vehicle (MRAV) programs.
MRAV combined the requirements of the British, German, and French armies to look at a common wheeled base vehicle with different systems and modules depending on the user. France withdrew from the program in 1999 to create its own VBCI program of similar vehicles. The Netherlands then joined the project in 2001 to meet its own requirements. Shortly after in 2002 the vehicle the program had spawned was named Boxer.
The development of an independent reconnaissance vehicle family can be traced back to 1998 when the Anglo-American Armoured Scout and Reconnaissance Vehicle (ASRV) program was looking at creating a reconnaissance vehicle that would have been air-transportable by both nations C-130 Hercules fleets. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed on 7th July 1998 which merged the early development of the American FSCS (Future Scout and Cavalry System) and British TRACER programs into the ASRV.
The system that had been put forward for FSCS consisted a three-man vehicle with a mast-mounted sensor suite as well as the ability to deploy miniature unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), almost in a mothership-type role. The vehicle also envisioned an unmanned turret featuring a 40mm cannon for self-defence.
TRACER had been looking at variants of existing vehicles, with GKN Defence putting forward a design known as Recce Warrior, based on the existing Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), as well as a vehicle that was based on a highly modified Challenger 2 MBT. France and Germany both requested to be allowed to become observers on the TRACER program however neither nations had a requirement forthcoming. By the end of 1998, the Ministry of Defence had spent some £7.3 million on TRACER and yet a prototype vehicle was still a long way off.
Requirements for ASRV, other than air-transportability included the ability to operate for 72 hours without resupply out to a range of 400 miles, an off-road speed of 60 miles per hour, a reduced signature compared to previous vehicles, and, most importantly, the capability to detect targets at ranges exceeding 10 kilometres. Although these were the requirements for the expected joint base vehicle, national variants were expected. An example can be found in that the British Army expected the vehicles to be armed with a long-range Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM).
In 2001 both nations made the decision to end cooperation on ASRV, with TRACER ending in 2002. The FSCS program was then rolled into the US Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) program in 2003 with the TRACER program becoming part of the UK’s similar Future Rapid Effects System (FRES). Although the TRACER program was coming to an end, two prototype vehicles were demonstrated to the MoD in the summer of 2002.
With all three programs having looked at both wheeled and tracked options, it was decided that a tracked recce vehicle would be optimal. The two demonstrators were produced by the consortiums that had been working on the program. SIKA International which included BAE, Lockheed Martin, Vickers, and General Dynamics, was joined by LANCER which involved United Defence, Raytheon, Alvis, and Marconi.
Both demonstrators shared a 40mm Cased Telescopic Ammunition cannon from CTA International. Telescoped ammunition is where the projectile is enveloped by the propellant in the casing. This reduces the size of the rounds compared to conventional ammunition and also lowers the risk of damage to the rounds. The MoD also stated that the vehicle would be armed with either the American Hellfire missile or the British Brimstone, itself a development of the Hellfire airframe.
In 2002 the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) was also beginning to enter the fray, being mentioned early on in the 2002 Strategic Defence Review (SDR). Originally envisaged as a simple base vehicle, General Michael Walker described it as “A big armoured box, stick an engine in it, a set of tracks or wheels, and upgrade it as and when we need.” The time it would take to enter service and associated costs were clearly in the minds of the Generals, with Richard Dannett stating, “We were not aiming for a highly technical solution, merely something that could meet most of our requirements in a timely fashion.”
By mid-July of 2003, the UK had formally withdrawn from the MRAV projected and had decided to proceed purely with the FRES program. Up to this point the Treasury had spent £57 million on the MRAV project and £131 million on the TRACER program, an awful lot of money considering neither program produced a vehicle that was ready to be put into production.
Officially established on 4th May 2004, the FRES system was first tasked with looking at the FRES Utility Vehicle requirement, essentially a vehicle along the lines of VBCI or Boxer, with the later Specialist Vehicle following on. An assessment period was expected to last two years, however, it wasn’t until 7th June 2007 when the MoD announced it had selected three different vehicles to be assessed for the program. These were the aforementioned Boxer and VBCI, alongside the Piranha V built by GDUK based on the family of vehicles developed by fellow General Dynamics subsidiary MOWAG.
Quickly it was made clear on the 14th that the MoD had no intention of procuring any of the vehicles “off-the-shelf” but rather was looking at what platform would be best suited for development, thus reducing initial base design costs. It was also expected that either BAE Systems or GDUK would act as an integrator, tasked with ensuring that the vehicles met British requirements and were properly supported throughout their service lives. However, this integrator role was eventually scrapped.
It was expected at the time that a decision would be quickly made by November of 2007 however it was delayed until an announcement in May 2008. General Dynamics was announced as the preferred bidder for the requirement to develop the UV. Any jubilance was however short-lived as no production contracted was forthcoming, believed by some to be due to budget cuts and General Dynamics officially had their preferred bidder status withdrawn in December 2008.
Throughout this period the FRES SV program was looming in the background. The MoD, seemingly ignoring the wishes of the army, decided that a high-end vehicle should be purchased. This effectively blindsided the army who had wished for a “good enough” solution. As has been repeatedly shown, the Italian proverb “perfect is the enemy of good enough” is bang on the money.
It soon became clear that BAE Systems would be offering a variant of its CV90, developed by its Swedish Hägglund subsidiary. This was to be placed up against the General Dynamics ASCOD (Austrian Spanish Cooperative Development), originally developed jointly by the firms Spanish and Austrian subsidiaries. Both vehicle families on offer shared a large number of systems, including but not limited to the CT40 cannon, BOWMAN radio system, and the Generic Vehicle Architecture, designed to make vehicular upgrades easier and cheaper in the future.
In December 2008 the National Audit Office (NAO) released a report into the FRES program. It noted that at this point the costs had risen from £206 million to £319 million due to UV and SV now being a single program. The report, known as the Major Projects Report described how the program had grown to now include sixteen different roles across five families of vehicles. These families, the Utility, Reconnaissance, Medium Armour, Manoeuvre Support, and Basic Capability Utility were all put forward however, even though previously selected, the Utility variant was not forthcoming.
Then in March 2009, it was announced that the Specialist Vehicles (all those excluding the utility variants) would be procured as part of a singular program. These would be built on what was called the Common Base Platform (CBP) as part of five blocks. These blocks were known as Recce Blocks 1, 2, and 3, the Medium Armour vehicles and the manoeuvre support vehicles which at this point was just a fancy name for armoured bridge layers.
By this point it was becoming clear that both GDUK and BAE Systems were offering vehicles that could both meet the requirements being set forth by the MoD, with ASCOD offering the most growth potential due to it having a larger payload capacity than the CV90 family. CV90 had one particular advantage, the turreted variants were to share a turret with Warrior CSP (Capability Sustainment Program), therefore allowing reduced lifecycle and procurement costs when compared to two separate turrets. Although Lockheed Martin UK was eventually selected for both the ASCOD and Warrior turrets, they, whilst similar are not exactly the same turrets.
It had been thought until 2010 that the vehicles could have been produced at either BAE’s facility in Sweden or General Dynamic’s Spanish production line with final fitting out being carried out in the UK. This was however seen as unacceptable due to the lack of British workers being involved if this went ahead and therefore General Dynamics signed a deal with the Defence Support Group that stated, if selected, the ASCOD SV family was to be produced in Donnington, a site near Telford which would later become the “Defence Fulfilment Centre.”
Both designs looked in with a shout of winning and BAE announced that they would be spending in the region of £4.5 million on an SV and Warrior turret test rig. BAE had been seen by many to be in a leading position to take the contract, with them being a British company and all. However, in March 2010, General Dynamics made an announcement that they had been selected as the preferred bidder for the Scout SV deal. A very carefully worded statement came out regarding “how British” the vehicle actually was. It was stated “70% of the supply chain would be UK based and 80% by value would be completed in the UK.”
The following videos were released by GDUK in July 2010 in order to show off what was being procured by the MoD:
It was at this point, in late 2010 that disaster hit. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review announced sweeping cuts across the armed forces. The FRES program survived these cuts but the units using them would be cut and have to rely on organic support rather than the originally envisaged “Joint Theatre Enabling Command.”
This was followed in July 2011 by a briefing paper called “Defence Basing Review: Headline Decisions.” The number of armoured infantry brigades would be cut from three to two with them being rerolled as what have been called “Strike Brigades.” Each of these was expected to consist of two FRES Scout regiments totalling around sixty vehicles alongside, initially, two battalions of Mastiff vehicles which would be replaced by what is called the “Mechanized Infantry Vehicle,” essentially what had been the Utility Vehicle component of the FRES program.
2012 saw the completion of the Preliminary Design Review for the Common Base Platform and this was followed by new renders showing the Block 1 vehicles. It was then revealed in April that, with only a few prototypes and initial design work completed the project had cost £207 million. This was followed in June by yet more up to date renders of the Block 1 vehicles.
It was also reported in June that BAE and the MoD were in discussions regarding the reopening of the CVR(T) hull production line due to vehicles becoming too worn out following service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continued delays to the FRES program. CVR(T) Mk.2 vehicles did indeed enter service as upgrades of the existing fleet. A Scimitar Mk.2 consisted of the Scimitar turret that had been mated to the Spartan armoured personnel carrier hull. These vehicles would have been issued to units needing light armour for rapid deployment. Indeed, these vehicles were hurried into service in Afghanistan for convoy escort duties. These vehicles were later replaced in Afghanistan by the Panther Command and Liaison vehicles.
Reflecting on the competitive part of the FRES program gives some interesting thoughts. First of all is the most obvious, time. For a program that had its origins in the 1990s, the program had failed to either give us the originally hoped for cheap, basic base platform that the army had hoped for or indeed any vehicle entering service with the British Army. Considering the fact that they’d spent hundreds of millions of pounds on development and were still some way out from a vehicle entering service is frankly terrifying. A vehicle that could have been put to good use in Afghanistan had instead been kicking around the drawing boards awaiting MoD approval. Time wasn’t something that had been well spent, but then again this is the MoD so nothing new going on.
We also need to look at the cost of the program. The army had wanted a cheap box to add capabilities to as they became available and had ended up with a snowballed program that delivered a vehicle explicitly designed for high-end warfighting. Not exactly what one would call value for money.
In an effort to exploit the slow development of a rather large vehicle BAE released concept images of their so-called CV21. This was essentially a modern CVR(T), expanding on the development work BAE had done during the CVR(T) Mk.2 program. Not only would this have been an almost 1-1 replacement of the CVR(T) vehicles, it was also as heavily armed as the SV contenders while also being fully amphibious.
In the same period, the Army was working on what was called Army 2020, since replaced with Army 2020 Refine. This was the predicted structure of the future British Army based around high-intensity conflict. In July 2012 the MoD released Transforming the British Army which gave us a first look at what they thought the future force structure would be. A regiment of Scout vehicles would be placed alongside a Challenger 2 MBT regiment, two Warrior battalions, a heavy infantry battalion with Mastiff (to be replaced by UV), all alongside integrated combat and command support elements. This was followed up in the same month by a mockup which of Scout which consisted of the basic ASCOD chassis fitted with the new Scout turret.
Later in 2012, the SV Mobility Test Rig showed off its growth potential by successfully towing a 92t train. The 30t vehicle pulled a 28t ULAN (ASCOD in Austrian service), an 18t light tank, and a truck weighing 16t including load. This growth potential is exactly what the original program had been asking for, the capability to keep adding to the vehicle as technology progressed and required weights increased.
2013 saw Warrior CSP completing its initial design review and whilst much of the technology is related to FRES we’ll be coming onto that in a later article. At this point, it was expected that the first Strike Brigades would be available for deployment in 2018, with Full Operational Capability following in 2020. In Jul we also got updated plans regarding the British Army’s reorganization, and, as many predicted, Scout survived the changes.
The Specialist Vehicle Mobile Test Rig, what is in essence, an early prototype of the Protected Mobility Reconnaissance Support variant was exhibited at DSEI in London during early September 2013. With a crew of three and four dismounts, it had exactly the same capacity as the CVR(T) vehicles it is slated to replace, albeit with a much larger and heavier vehicle. The media seemed to jump on this and began to criticize the program for its weight growth. It is worth mentioning that whilst a CVR(T) replacement in many ways the program wasn’t meant as a like for like replacement. The program was aiming to replace the vehicles in service but also work towards a different model. It was never expected that Scout would replace CVR(T) in roles such as paradropped armoured support.
Early 2014’s most important news was that although being procured as a single-batch of vehicles, the turreted SV variants would be fitted out in two different groups. The Major Combat Operations (MCO) fit will be as they delivered them from the factory while the Peace Support Operations (PSO) fit will feature extra armour, a remote weapons station, and electronic countermeasures. This was followed with more announcements regarding the Warrior CSP, with it becoming more clear that Ajax and Warrior would in future feature very similar turrets.
June saw the release of the government’s Major Project Portfolio and whilst wide-ranging it had some interesting things to say regarding the Mounted Close Combat Capability Change program. It was explained that Ajax was the core of Armoured Cavalry 2025, with the vehicle being expected to be in service until at least 2050. Also included were plans regarding extending the life of Warrior until at least the 2040s and Challenger 2’s Life Extension Program which aims to keep the vehicles relevant until at least 2035. This was followed up in July by the announcement that “assembly, integration and testing beyond the initial 100 vehicles will be conducted by General Dynamics Land Systems UK Ltd, in South Wales.”
This was an obvious win for British industry, with the program directly supporting 550 jobs with General Dynamics in South Wales and around 2,800 in the wider British supply chain. Then in September at DSEI the first turreted prototype was revealed alongside the family’s new name, Ajax.
2016 saw the vehicle conducting transport trials with the RAF’s Atlas and C-17 aircraft, essential to the viability of the program considering the importance of deployment using air assets. It is important to acknowledge here that these trials took place with the Ares PMRS variant and not the turreted Ajax. It was also important to note that in December it was announced that the future “Strike Brigades” would feature a regiment of Ajax vehicles in the reconnaissance role and another in the medium armour role. Whilst not explicitly stated, it is clear that the proposed Block 3 vehicles, encompassing a variant including a 120mm tank gun would be extremely important for providing these brigades with a high level of firepower.
The King’s Royal Hussars were announced as the first unit planned to receive Ajax vehicles in January 2017, with a planned in-service date of 2019. A question was asked in the House of Lords the same year regarding the weight of the vehicles. This was promoted by concern over the continued weight growth of the vehicle and was however countered by Earl Lowe, Minister for Defence, who stated that family could be deployed around the world by multiple means, including Atlas and C-17. Trials to prove the vehicles for amphibious assaults also took place, with March seeing the vehicle proves its ability to be loaded and unloaded from landing craft on the beach, including after a short traversal of water to the landing craft.
2018 was a rather slow year focusing mainly on maturing the Ajax family and then 2019 did not, as expected, see the first units equipped with Ajax declaring IOC. This is expected to be announced this year (2020) and as is clear from the above is a long time coming. CVR(T) is becoming extremely long in the tooth and the sooner it can be replaced the better.
At this point, with the money that has been spent on Ajax many may question what alternatives there were to spending this sort of money. What has been purchased is essentially a development of a ‘90s platform with British specific equipment replacing a large number of existing systems. Had the vehicle entered service a decade ago the British Army would have had a top of the line capability through this era. Indeed, had this happened we’d already be looking at potential upgrades to keep the fleet relevant and/or the next step, be that continued development of the existing platform or moving towards a future system.
When you look at the options that were available, namely development of the existing CVR(T) family and the US’s Bradley family it becomes clear to see that a lot of money has been spent without a major step-change in capability. Of course, had either of these two options been pursed we’d now be looking at a program in the development stage to replace them.
What I have termed CVR(T), essentially a family of vehicles based on the Stormer chassis, would have provided a larger system than the existing CVR(T) family. Indeed, the options for growth using the Stormer chassis, basically the CVR(T) family with an extra roadwheel, would have been enough that we could well have seen cavalry scout vehicles, a light armoured reconnaissance armoured personnel carrier, and a light tank, amongst others.
On the other hand, had Bradleys been procured then the British Army would have had the benefit of commonality with the Americans. Working in its favour was also the fact that it was already a mature system that had been combat-proven during Operation Desert Storm and specifically the Battle of 73 Easting. The vehicles also could have been produced in the UK if procured after 2005, with BAE Systems having purchased United Defense for £2.1bn. It is worth mentioning that a development of Ajax, called Griffin III by General Dynamics has been offered to replace the Bradley family so indeed it would only ever have been an interim capability
However, if either of these options had been taken it is clear to see that the UK would now be developing or beginning procurement of a new system to replace them. The advantage with the ASCOD platform is that it was already in service with other nations and was a relatively mature platform, as was CV90. By developing an existing platform to fit British requirements it was thought that the UK would get a highly bespoke vehicle without the extreme development costs of a completely new platform. Of course, this never happened and the UK was stranded with high development costs for the development of an existing platform.
Indeed, it is clear that ASCOD has shown that it has the growth potential to continue to be developed as and when new capabilities are developed and required. This is an extremely positive from the program however it still doesn’t come close to what the Army originally asked for, a box to add capabilities to. Even though ASCOD has this growth room it doesn’t seem to be used efficiently, or at least not up to the present. With the amount of weight that the platform has to grow to be so high, the questions must be asked as to why we aren’t getting more variants of the platform.
With the CVR(T) vehicles being replaced by the Ajax family, we need to ask why there aren’t more Ajax variants designed to suit these roles. The capability lost with the retiring of Strike and its Swingfire anti-tank guided missiles needs replacing, with the man-portable Javelin missiles being carried on some vehicles in an attempt to make up for this shortfall. An overwatch variant of Ajax, with missiles such as Brimstone, needs to be looked at considering the threat still posed by older generation main battle tanks against relatively lightly armoured vehicles. This proposed missile platform, coupled with the proposed direct fire variant would give the capability for lighter armoured deployment in place of main battle tanks, whilst still maintaining the majority of the capability. While talked about for Block 2 procurement it does seem like these capabilities will be ignored as money gets switched to other projects.
General Dynamics has already proposed multiple tank-like vehicles based on both the Ajax family specifically or the wider ASCOD family. The US Army has been offered the Griffin II light tank concept which has looked like an ASCOD hull with an M1 Abrams turret and extra armour and vehicles such as this are attractive propositions considering the family’s existing place within British supply chains.
It is becoming increasingly likely that procurement may be ended after the first block of vehicles, this, however, will be a complete travesty if allowed to happen. With the UK recently announcing its procurement of Boxer, in essence filling the Utility Vehicle requirement, it could be seen as likely that capabilities originally destined for the Scout family may be added to Boxer instead. If this happens the Army runs the risk of having very capable wheeled armour but with the consequence of letting tracked, and therefore more mobile, capabilities slide by. While not covered here I will be following this up with an article regarding which capabilities are most needed for Boxer.
The Ajax family must at least see the block 2 vehicles procured to become a successful program. Without these vehicles the whole program risks becoming yet another utter failure from the MoD. With it not being what the Army asked for originally the cost spent on the project is phenomenal. If as I hope more vehicles are procured, the development costs will be more evenly spread out across different variants and therefore will work out as better value for money.
If this does, however, fail to happen the program will go down in history as a complete waste of money. Ajax’s cost of £3.5bn (excluding that previously spent on development) for 589 vehicles, or essentially £6m per vehicle is exorbitant. Without a follow-on order with less spent per vehicle, this price will be seen as extreme by most. When compared to CV90 vehicles purchased on the export market being over a £2m less per vehicle it becomes even more clear that the UK has spent an awful lot of money without delivering a huge uplift in capability compared to other products.
Buying baseline vehicles developed for another nation was however never going to happen. The UK’s needs (or at least those covered in Block 1) are indeed being met by Ajax and whether or not foreign vehicles would have been just as able to meet those requirements is indeed questionable. If Block 1 is indeed followed by the other vehicles as originally intended then the UK will indeed be in a good position regarding medium armour going forward. This will also, however, need to be followed up with the marketing of the vehicle for export.
The family also has not proved to be a complete replacement for CVR(T). The lack of an armoured vehicle to equip airmobile forces is a serious oversight and 16 Air Assault Brigade need some sort of organic armoured support being integrated into the brigade. Indeed, a vehicle along the lines of the German Weisel family would be ideal to fit this role, especially considering the fact that it is both transportable by helicopter and transportable in multiple on tactical airlifters.
An aerial shot of the General Dynamics facility in Merthry, South Wales. Clearly seen are the factory and on-site test track. (Photo General Dynamics)Considering the amount of difference between the baseline ASCOD family and Ajax, it is clear that they could well suit different export customers. Nations wanting Ajax spec vehicles should be able to buy them from the production line in Wales with customers for the baseline ASCOD family continuing to buy from General Dynamics’ production line in Spain. Pursing this model for export would allow for the vehicles continued development being part-funded by foreign buyers, allowing continued addition of capabilities as and when they become available and/or required.
If the Ajax family can continue to grow as it indeed can then the UK will be well on its way to an extremely capable family of medium armour going forward. Considering that the family is expected to serve for at least 30 years the UK needs to continue to grow the vehicles and their derivatives, not only to sell more vehicles but also to ensure that the average British soldier has the best possible equipment in whatever conflict they may find themselves.
A massive shoutout must go to Think Defence who’s brilliant reads regarding the history of the program can be found here. This served as a brilliant source for the facts included in the article as well as providing thoughts that have been expanded upon above. Also, this brilliant website maintained the Federation of American Scientists provided much of the information regarding the earlier FSCS, TRACER, and ASRV programs.