The G36 in 5.56x45 mm NATO by the globally renowned manufacturer Heckler & Koch from Oberndorf am Neckar in the Swabian region of Germany was introduced in 1997. Based on its official specifications, it was designed for a 20-year service life, which at least the early rifles from the very first batch will have reached in 2017.
Now, however, the decision by the Minister of Defence means that in future, there will not even be a modified or improved version of the HK G36 in the service of the German Armed Forces.
Longstanding partners: the German Armed Forces and Heckler & Koch
Heckler & Koch has been ‘the’ court purveyor to the German Armed Forces since the Federal Republic of Germany came into being. Let’s not forget that the Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifle in the calibre 7.62x51 mm NATO – an automatic weapon with roller-locked short recoil mechanism and a fixed barrel – was commissioned by the military as far back as 1959.
The onset of the Warsaw Pact’s disintegration at the end of the 1980s, when the decades-long bogeyman vanished into thin air, also cut deep into the German armaments industry. The futuristic Heckler & Koch G11 for caseless ammunition in the micro-calibre 4.73x33 mm was originally earmarked to replace the G3 in the calibre 7.62x51 NATO, but without the wolves at the gates – and in view of the dwindling defence expenditure – it ended up languishing in collections of military artefacts for interested academics to study.
In 1992, Germany decided to introduce a new assault rifle, designed to shoot 5.56x45 calibre rounds, which had been the NATO certified standard since 1986.
The trend towards smaller low impulse calibres was clearly emerging, as NATO partners in Europe like Great Britain with its Enfield SA 80, France with the FAMAS or Belgian with FNC, and also the United States with the M-16, had already followed suit.
Budget constraints dictated one of the technical specifications: to identify a suitable design that was already developed.
Two rifles, the Austrian Steyr AUG and the German Heckler & Koch HK50, made the shortlist, and were sent to the Bundeswehr Technical Centre 91 in Meppen for extensive testing.
Previously, the radical redistribution of global power, which had sounded the death knell to the major G11 project, had driven HK almost to the wall, and the company ended up being swallowed by the British corporation Royal Ordnance.
So the HK 50 offered a very welcome opportunity for HK to get back on its feet. The company abandoned its idea of a recoil-operated rifle with semi-rigid, roller-delayed blowback and stamped steel housing, turning instead to an indirect gas-operated weapon with short stroke gas piston system and rotary bolt in a steel-reinforced polymer chassis.
The dawning day of the new service rifle in 5.56x45 then followed on 8 May 1995 when the General-in-Chief of the German Army Weapons Agency authorised the introduction of the assault rifle, thus ennobling the HK50 in its new guise as the G36, its internal serial number in the Bundeswehr. The highly symbolic handover then followed on 3 December 1997 when Rüdiger Petereit, Director of the Federal Office of Defense Technology and Procurement (BWB), presented a G36 to Major General Reiner Fell, Chief of the Army Support Command, describing the occasion as the start of a “special period in the history of weaponry”.
An unravelling relationship: exactly what kind of weapon did the German Armed Forces order?
Despite all the media hullabaloo and the discussions about the G36 Heckler & Koch, it is always worth bearing in mind that this assault rifle was introduced at a time in which 9/11, the global war on terror, and German soldiers fighting abroad in the desert terrain of Afghanistan and Iraq, were quite simply inconceivable, and that the rifle continues to provide outstanding value for money.
Heckler & Koch delivered what the specifications had demanded during a comparatively peaceful period. Moreover, 55 countries now use the Heckler & Koch assault rifle, among them 35 NATO states belonging to NATO or allied with the North Atlantic Alliance. It does not appear that these customers have raised any complaints so far, which means that the entire ‘assault rifle scandal’ is nothing other than a purely German matter.
But it is indisputable that negative reports in the media became more frequent from around 2012, featuring claims that once hot, the G36 tends to become so inaccurate that effective deployment against enemy forces is more or less impossible. These claims led to debates and hefty disputes between the German Ministry of Defence (in this case the Federal Office of Defense Technology and Procurement) and the manufacturers from the Black Forest. The assertion that in the extreme conditions of foreign missions, the assault rifle can become so inaccurate that it loses its proof of performance, dealt a stinging blow to the reputable manufacturer’s image as an engineering wizard.
To recap briefly: in March 2012, the German Armed Forces introduced a “Shooting Cycle under Conditions Approximate to Mission Deployment” (EBZ) as a standard operating procedure that described firing the entire daily ration of 150 cartridges in 20 minutes.
The manufacturer took this EBZ to conduct in-house tests on 10 different G36 models manufactured between 1996 and 2008, which led to the publication of the 134-page inquiry report "G36 assault rifle – An analysis of the dispersion and accuracy behaviour of the weapon when running hot after sustained firing".
Naturally, like with any other weapon, the laws of physics mean that hot weapons will produce a larger shot pattern, and the G36 is no different.
But it is equally true that – unlike in the biased media reports – this extent of enlarged shot patterns and loss of accuracy tends to be the exception rather than the rule, although the ammunition used is, of course, an additional contributing factor (the MEN DM 11 double core ammunition was also caught up in the criticism).
And so the inevitable happened: the Federal Office of Defense Technology and Procurement lodged warranty claims based on the substantial deficiencies and overheating issues associated with the service rifle. This led to further tests conducted by independent institutes, and in April 2015 Ursula von der Leyen voiced her opinion for the first time that the G36 would have to be replaced immediately.
A home-made German assault rifle scandal?
It is interesting to note in this context that the introductory paragraph to the most recent, conclusive inquiry report by the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support (BAAINBw) partially exonerates the G36. Unfortunately we have so far been unable to review the complete report, although merely the foreword by Brigadier General Erich Könen, Head of the Land Combat Department at BAAINBw, provoked a political firestorm.
Rumours were rife on 13 May 2015 that opposition politicians were accusing the Ministry of Defence of manipulating the final report ahead of its presentation to German parliament by burying the foreword.
The Green Party defence expert, Tobias Lindner, called on von der Leyen to submit the foreword to the Defence Committee immediately.
"The Minister must explain why she has provided parliament with incomplete information". The powers that be felt compelled to post the controversial foreword online, accessible to anyone interested enough to read. And indeed, the foreword contains a passage that appears to cast doubt on the decision to decommission the G36. Here is a quote from the section in question:
“It is important to clarify in order to understand the report that the purpose of the inquiry was not to carry out an assessment of other functional properties of the G36 assault rifle relating to its weight, reliability or functionality.
The combat situation ‘ambush’ was selected as, taking a cross-section of its underlying tactical principles, it appears best suited as a ‘demanding combat situation’ to analyse the effects we have been asked to investigate.
These situations are encountered and executed in all degrees of intensity and competency. Ambushes constitute combat situations in which combat troops and auxiliary forces may become embroiled at any time. In these cases, soldiers find themselves forced to cope with high-intensity combat.
The Armed Forces will be called upon in the review process to assess the probability of their occurrence. The result of this inquiry provides the Armed Forces with insight into how the G36 performs in an extremely demanding technical area, hence enabling them to draw conclusions for training and mission service within the framework of their operational and provisioning responsibilities. The G36 Select Committee believes that the G36 remains a reliably functional and operable weapon. The inquiry report does not contain any indication that the G36 rifle constitutes a risk to shooters, and no such risk exists at any time during deployment of the weapon".
An interesting interim solution – also by Heckler & Koch
Now, 600 units of the G27P assault rifle, based on the HK 417 in 7.62x51 mm, and 600 MH4 IdZ (Infantryman of the Future) light machine guns in 5.56x45 mm by Heckler & Koch, will be purchased to cover immediate needs.
This enraged the opposition parties such as Bündnis 90/Green Party and The Left, who spun yarns about cronyism and ‘turning poachers into gamekeepers’. This is all the more surprising as the procurement, which will start in November of this year and will be complete by the end of 2016, is certainly a clever move if one considers the current structure and logistics within the German Armed Forces.
After all, soldiers serving on the ground in crisis regions will be able to use both of these weapon types immediately without time-consuming test series’ or other issues relating to their mission deployment.
Promising candidates to succeed the HK G36
Ursula von der Leyen has been at pains to emphasise that a new assault rifle – scheduled to start service from 2019 – will be selected within the framework of an open, transparent invitation to tender.
Here, it is worth noting as an aside that Turkey became the first NATO member state to introduce the MPT76 in 7.62x51 mm NATO, which expresses its confidence in the trusty old G3 cartridge and the meatier punch it delivers.
Indeed, the new Turkish assault rifle bears a striking resemblance to an HK 417 in the same calibre.
If we assume that the German Armed Forces is unlikely to initiate a general switch in calibre from 5.56x45 to 7.62x51 mm NATO, the question remains as to which new 5.56 assault rifle will be procured as a replacement for the roughly 167,000 HK G36 weapons that the Bundeswehr currently uses? It appears almost out of the question that the assault rifles momentarily servicing the NATO alliance partners will represent viable alternatives.
France is also on the lookout for a replacement to its veteran bullpup rifle FAMAS, and has indeed already initiated a tender procedure for an assault rifle.
The Enfield SA80 from Great Britain, also in bullpup design, was contracted out for modernisation and modification in a Heckler & Koch factory.
Like their somewhat rickety counterpart from the United States, the M16A4/M4A1, both of these European weapon systems show weaknesses and are likely to rank below the HK G36 in terms of handling and functional reliability. Therefore, they are hardly viable alternatives either.
If the plan is to pick a candidate from the world of compact assault rifles in bullpup design, there would be more compelling arguments to give the nod to the Austrian Steyr AUG A3, which will soon celebrate 40 years of hard military service and was already, on a different occasion, shortlisted by the German Armed Forces, or the more recent, Israeli IWI Tavor TAR21.
But there are plenty of fish in the sea, so even conventionally built, modern assault rifles with magazines positioned in front of the trigger may be interesting options.
This would include the following makes (in alphabetical order, with no claim to completeness): Beretta ARX 160, Remington Defense/Bushmaster ACR, Caracal 816S (better known in Germany in its semiautomatic civilian version Haenel CR223), CZ 805 BREN A1, FN SCAR, SIG MCX or Steyr STM 556.
It goes without saying that this group must not overlook the HK416 A5 (alias G38), which American and German elite units have already used successfully, and which is currently one of the hot contenders to replace the M4 in the American Armed Forces.
There are still no clear indications as to how the decision on a successor to the HK G36 will swing, but we do hope that this article and the background knowledge it contains have brought our readers up to speed and have provided a greater appreciation of what is likely to feature in press coverage and political debate as this issue develops.
We will keep you up to date with this story as it unfolds.