Since the late 1990s, the Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifle has been the standard rifle for the German Bundeswehr. The soldiers have confidence in this weapon. In their view, the rifle has proven itself, even in foreign missions, for example in Afghanistan. However, more than four years ago, the G36 made negative headlines. Tests had shown that the weapon loses accuracy when overheated. Under pressure from negative press coverage and without waiting for investigative reports from other working groups and commissions, the then Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced the retirement of the rifle. Ultimately, it turned out that the Bundeswehr soldiers had no problems with the rifle during battle and thus were not endangered. Regardless, the troops should get a new assault rifle; the bureaucratic process for the successor model has already started. However, it is already clear that the soldiers may have to wait longer for the new weapon than intended because there was criticism in the call for tenders.
The tendering process for a new Bundeswehr standard rifle has been going since the end of April 2017. The current model G36 should be replaced quickly because of the reputed technical weaknesses, such as the loss of accuracy at higher temperatures.
Doubts about the reliability of the weapon escalated four years ago to the so-called “G36 scandal”. The Ministry of Defense and the G36’s manufacturer Heckler & Koch entered into a bitter feud. It involved the question of whether with the G36 the company had delivered a weapon that did not meet the troops’ requirements. The Ministry even sued Heckler & Koch for damages, but lost the trial. Regardless, the G36 was no longer considered to be an up-to-date weapon, which was suitable for all scenarios for the Bundeswehr from the Baltic States, to Africa to Afghanistan.
Now 120,000 assault rifles are to be procured for 245 million euros. However, there is also a conflict about the G36’s successor. In October 2018, it became public that all submitted assault rifles failed to pass the test done by the Bundeswehr. Heckler & Koch, which has also applied for the contract, massively criticized the criteria stated in the tender in a letter to the Ministry of Defense published in May 2019. The completely unrealistic demands on the upcoming assault rifle would lead to the procurement of a weapon that does not meet the needs of the troops. The required maximum weight of 3.6 kg plays a major roll. Daniel Soudry, Certified Public Prosecutor for Defense Procurement:
This is where the accusation of Heckler & Koch comes in. It is said that either all the requirements are fulfilled and the weight is exceeded or the weight requirement is met and the usage requirements for the weapon are not fulfilled. In other words a kind of “squaring of the circle”. And that would be such a classic case, if that is true, that the procurement law says something is demanded here that is not really achievable by bidders. And something like that can then definitely be assailed under procurement law.
The tender makes no specifications for the caliber of the new assault rifle. In addition to the usual NATO standard caliber 5.56 mm, the larger caliber 7.62 mm is therefore also permissible. According to Heckler & Koch, this heavier caliber would be the only sensible choice for the upcoming weapon. Only with the 7.62 mm caliber could the Bundeswehr’s requirements regarding precision and penetrating power be met. The problem is, however, that the new weapon must not weigh more than 3.6 kilograms. Apparently, according to the weapon manufacturer this weight requirement can only be fulfilled with the smaller 5.56 mm caliber. According to Heckler & Koch, the letter to the Ministry of Defense is not a letter of rebuke. Such would instigate a lawsuit. But why then the intervention?
In view of the tender for the successor to the G36 rifle, we have fulfilled our obligation as a specialist company to advise our customers competently and comprehensively in the selection of the new assault rifle to be procured. The aim of this explicit technical information is that a superior standard weapon can be procured for the soldiers to successfully carry out their mission for all realistic deployment scenarios. — Florian Bokermann, Director Public Affairs & Government Relations at the defense company Heckler & Koch.
So the weapons maker is smarter than the experts in the Bundeswehr? Not necessarily. Heckler & Koch’s letter apparently aims to persuade the Ministry of Defense to adapt the tender to the company’s vision. Obviously, the two models with which Heckler & Koch has applied for this large order – the models HK433 and HK416 – do not meet the requirements established by the Bundeswehr. Both weapons are 5.56 mm caliber. Heckler & Koch apparently demands that the weight limit of 3.6 kg for the new assault rifle be loosened. Because then the company could then be competitive with its HK417 model. This gun has the 7.62 mm caliber and is the heavy version of the HK 416, with which Heckler & Koch participated in the tender, but failed.
One thing is clear: companies naturally have an interest in selling a product that they have already developed and for which their production is already designed for. Heckler & Koch would have to invest a lot of money in advance for retrofits and new developments, without knowing if they will get the job at the end. Especially since the company, according to its annual report, is being squeezed by high debt burden (H&K AG, “Quarterly Report: Results for the Year Ended December 31, 2018“).
A change in the tender is not in sight. Instead, the responsible procurement office considers improvement of the submitted assault rifles feasible and waits for them. A spokesman for the procurement office commented: “The demands to replace the G36 are challenging but achievable. We are confident that the competition will produce a suitable weapon.” However, the journalist and expert on handguns, Lars Winkelsdorf, sees things differently. He takes the same view as Heckler & Koch:
So I have a lot of documents; and in fact, the Bundeswehr is calling for a “can do everything” gismo. On the one hand, we have demands for effect, for extensive precision. On the other hand, the weapon should be as light as possible. And here are numerous physical factors that are already mutually exclusive.
In a first test phase, all submitted weapons for the G36 successor had actually failed, including the HK416 from Heckler & Koch. What is irritating, however, is that France’s army is currently procuring the Bundeswehr’s failed HK416 as their new standard rifle. Locations and scenarios for the Germans and French have become increasingly similar for quite some time – both are in operations from Afghanistan to Africa to the Baltic States. Moreover, France’s concept of an intervention army is geared much more to combat missions than that of the Bundeswehr. It is surprising that a weapon that satisfies the French failed miserably for the Bundeswehr. On request, the Bundeswehr procurement office only says: “The demands of the French armed forces on their new assault rifle are significantly different from those of the Bundeswehr”.
A product selected by France could also become relevant in the German procurement procedure. With this selection, the information on the French specifications and results of the product trials would be very helpful. — Quote from the Federal Ministry of Defense in 2015.
Meanwhile, a second series of tests of G36 replacement candidates is being conducted, which have been completed completed in late summer. To this end, bidding companies should have submitted improved models. Heckler & Koch has apparently not done that, but appears to be using their previous models and is banking on a change to the assault rifle criteria. The other publicly known competitor – Haenel – did not want to comment (however, Haenel told Remigiusz Wilk that the offered the second generation MK 556 assault rifle).
For Winkelsdorf, the specifications of the Bundeswehr tender are not only technically unattainable, the weapons expert also considers the entire conception of the G36 successor to be completely unsuccessful:
They are looking for a rifle to serve as a tool for all infantry tasks in the Bundeswehr. And it would actually make more sense if the Bundeswehr would provide their soldiers with a common platform. Here, at the level of the ministry itself, a clear catalog would first have had to be developed as to which weapon systems are needed at all for future operations and above all for which units.
That would mean that instead of pushing for as many requests from the troops on the upcoming assault rifle in one model, the Bundeswehr should define a rifle platform from the respective individual interests. From this, meaningful model variants for the respective end users, such as paratroopers or naval infantry, could be developed and procured. Once again from Winkelsdorf:
An example would be the American M16 weapon family, where there are many different versions. From the short version for special forces to precision rifles. But also on the Russian side we see that Kalashnikov manufactures numerous special versions for tank crews, for infantrymen, and even a light machine gun.
But the Bundeswehr wants to continue to procure a new extremely powerful standard rifle for all soldiers. The impression remains, as with many Bundeswehr armaments projects, once again a gold plated solution is being sought. This would be in stark contrast to the defense ministry’s claim to be more pragmatic in procurement, in order to facilitate the influx of weapon systems. Whether the Bundeswehr’s requirements for the new assault rifle can be met remains to be seen. It is perfectly clear now: the procurement of the G36 replacement will drag on.
Update from October 12th, 2019
According to the current schedule, the procurement decision for the new Bundeswehr assault rifle system is expected in the second quarter of 2020 — this means a delay of more than one year. The results of the second test phase are not disclosed. Even if the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support of the Bundeswehr has not informed the public as to whether one of the later-filed assault rifles has successfully passed the demanding tests. However, the fact that a decision has been made on the procurement of the rifles allows the conclusion to be drawn that at least one of the rifles has fulfilled all the requirements. (Source: Jean-Phillipp Weisswang and Waldemar Geiger, “System Sturmgewehr Bundeswehr: Entscheidung 2020 erwartet“, ES&T – Europäische Sicherheit & Technik, 12.10.2019).