In Greek mythology, Ajax was a great, heroic warrior. Millennia later, the British Army’s state-of-the-art namesake is being readied for the battlefield. But the Ajax tank hasn’t been forged to wage war. Instead, this armoured fighting vehicle has been purpose-built for stealth. “Ajax is a reconnaissance vehicle with firing capabilities,” explains Scott Milne, chief engineer at General Dynamics UK, the defence company behind the vehicle. “It possesses the ability to fight for its information.”
Developed as part of a £4.5bn programme, 589 vehicles will be delivered to the British Army in six variants, with the first batch set to be battle-ready before the end of 2020. From microphones that can accurately locate enemy vehicles, to a laser-warning system that can automatically deploy smoke, Ajax is loaded with technology designed to give it an advantage when in action. “If a sniper’s laser is detected, the crew are alerted to its bearing,” says Milne. “If it’s from the rear, the system will ask the user if they want to move the turret towards the threat, and then deploy the smokes once in range. That can all happen automatically.”
Designing a vehicle that’s resilient enough to withstand mine blasts – while remaining quiet and stealthy – poses its challenges. “You have to deliver a level of survivability, while also catering for human factors to make sure you can fit the smallest woman to the largest male,” Milne adds. “It’s incorporating extremes.” Those extremes include Ajax being fully operational in temperatures from -46 to +49 degrees Celsius, with constant visibility thanks to its thermal imagery technology. Surveillance provided by eight cameras continuously builds up a fully digital, 360-degree view of the surroundings, which can then be shared across the battlefield.
Although the emphasis is on stealth, Ajax is capable of tremendous firepower, too: with a 40mm stabilised automatic cannon and a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun. Its armour is easily modified: 12 tonnes can be removed manually in eight hours. The shape of the hull can deflect the effects of a mine blast, keeping those inside safe.
The vehicle’s primary sight can be automatically locked onto a moving target – without the gunner needing to use manually-controlled crosshairs. Milne says that the technology helps ease the cognitive load on a crew. “Whereas it would normally be up to the user to maintain target, the automatic video tracker will command the sight and turret – therefore, the weapon – automatically. Once you’ve trained the sight where the image is, it’ll lock on and aim onto that target. The whole process is streamlined, helping to reduce thinking and reaction times.” And, in a war zone, that can be the difference between life and death.
Whereas the Army’s current Scimitar tanks – first deployed in 1972 – have to occasionally be called in for servicing, Ajax boasts unique “open” electronic architecture. With elements supplied by F1 racing team Williams, it ensures that any future upgrades can be made without a fundamental redesign – akin to an iPhone software update. It’s one of the reasons that General Dynamics claims Ajax to be significantly more reliable than its sixties-designed predecessor. “If you wanted to plug in the latest sighting system, the hardware will support the upgrade,” adds Milne.
It extends to augmented reality, too. “Ajax’s laser-warning system, acoustic sensors and advanced sighting system provide a detailed, digitised picture of the battlefield,” explains Milne. “With augmentation, you could potentially take the location of a threat, and then overlay it on a video image with data tags.” It sounds similar to a video game arrow, guiding you to a faraway target – and it could become a reality very soon. “It’s technically very straightforward,” adds Milne. “You could scan around and points of interest could be brought to life.”
Warfare is forever changing. And, in the technological arms race, Ajax has been safeguarded against potential cyber threats. Alongside General Dynamic’s ongoing development of unmanned ground vehicles, Milne says that Ajax will also be able to interface with drones. “UAVs will be better in certain circumstances, depending on the operation and terrain,“ he explains. “Images provided could then be shared across the battlefield network.”
Everything has been made with the future in mind. “The general rule will be towards more autonomous type vehicles and unmanned turrets,” says Milne. And as for the present? “Military vehicles keeping pace with commercial technological advancements – that’s what Ajax provides.”
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