A mobile hospital for Ukraine

27. October 2023

In September 2022, Rheinmetall received the order to deliver a mobile field hospital to Ukraine. A routine job, in theory. In practice, however, this was new terrain for all involved, because a Ukrainian team came straight from the front lines to Germany for training.

ROLE 1 Field hospitals that predominantly remain on the vehicles and can be built and torn down within six hours. They can be transported quite far into the front and are used mainly for the rapid stabilisation of injured personnel for forward transport to a stationary treatment facility. Rheinmetall will also be delivering two field hospitals of this category to Ukraine around the end of 2023/start of 2024.

ROLE 2 These hospitals consist mostly of containers and tents that are transported by truck but built on the ground. They are usually some distance behind the front line, with assembly and tear down requiring three days each. The Friedrichshafen project, which has an order volume of EUR 10 million, belongs to this category.

ROLE 3 These hospitals offer the most flexibility for treatment and come very close to permanent clinics. In some cases, Role 3 hospitals are installed on hospital ships. Ultimately, however, hospital standards are always categorised based on the depth of diagnosis and treatment possible.

Friedrichshafen Exhibition Grounds. On this late summer day, the trade fair season is taking a few weeks off – so the exhibition grounds, usually buzzing with thousands of visitors, appears deserted at first glance. But not so in Hall B2. Here, swiftly assembled, stands a full mobile field hospital on an area of 60 x 60 metres, designed and manufactured by Rheinmetall Mobile Systeme, which is based in nearby Meckenbeuren. It’s bustling with activity, soldiers are in the hall and have a lot to do. They are wearing Ukrainian uniforms.

Deployment imminent

Alexander Lutz, 51, is head of sales at Rheinmetall in Meckenbeuren and has overseen around 20 mobile hospitals through to delivery before. A business graduate, Lutz has been with the company since 2005, which is well before the local company was acquired by Rheinmetall (see box). With his expertise, he could easily pass for an engineer or a medical technician. He’s been on the Ukraine project right from the start: “This specific case has meant nine months of intensive work for our team.” In September 2022, Rheinmetall received the order to deliver the mobile field hospital from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence. It was clear that the hospital will be deployed immediately after it is delivered.

It’s an impressive sight. There’s everything that even a permanent hospital can offer: 32 inpatient beds, eight of which ICU beds, an operating theatre, computer tomography, a laboratory, sterilisation and medicine storage facilities. Plus there are tents for administration, pre-op, a waiting room and accommodation for personnel. Not to mention supply containers for sanitary facilities, transportation, fresh and industrial water, medical gases and the power supply. The water pipes are heated so that they don’t freeze below zero – Rheinmetall’s experts have really thought it through to the smallest detail. Alexander Lutz says: “We are bringing medicine to the people.”

The red cross is a target

But two other things set the Rheinmetall hospital apart from a hospital as we know it: The decontamination tent, in case of contact with CBRN substances (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) and the triage room. In Germany as well, there was a great deal of talk about triage – selecting patients based on the severity of their illness or injuries – during the coronavirus pandemic. But on the Ukrainian front, where this hospital is needed, the term has a very different meaning. Also, the reason why the red cross emblems have been dispensed with here, instead of being placed on medical equipment as large as possible as usual, seems especially insidious. For the Russians, a red cross makes for a very desirable target, say the Ukrainians. How bitter.

The agreed location for delivery entailed further planning stages. The otherwise standard procedure of delivering directly to the customer, including on-site training by a Rheinmetall team, was not an option. Instead, the exhibition hall was rented in Friedrichshafen and a team from Ukraine was flown to Germany for training. For the Managing Director of Rheinmetall Mobile Systeme GmbH, Hauke Bindzus, 35, this was the best solution: “The covered and enclosed space also allowed us to guarantee security, which is paramount on an operation such as this.” Some of the ten soldiers were deployed directly on the front lines and were only recently informed of their departure to attend training in Germany.

On-site discussion: The Ukrainians familiarise themselves with the mobile hospital’s state-of-the-art medical technology.

As the project manager, Marcel Freivogel, 32, was the main point of contact for the Ukrainians at Rheinmetall. “It was a particular challenge,” says the medtech engineer and trained paramedic. “Until they arrived, we didn’t even know what level of training the Ukrainian team had or what condition they would be in.” But this concern proved unfounded. Half of the soldiers had already had technical training, the other half medical. Interpreters helped to overcome the language barriers. “We were more than positively surprised – by the knowledge that they already had and above all by their motivation,” says Freivogel. The Ukrainian team was put up in a hotel for their 14-day trip. And the Ukrainian guests were taken care over after the work was done as well – a point of pride!

A Ukrainian soldier receives training from a Rheinmetall employee in the mobile field hospital. The cooperation between the two teams was friendly and highly professional.

Experts from the manufacturing companies are also on hand for the briefing.

Rheinmetall Mobile Systems GmbH

Location: Meckenbeuren

Managing Director: Hauke H. Bindzus

Prior to being acquired by Rheinmetall in 2021, Rheinmetall Mobile Systeme GmbH was owned by a private majority shareholder and, until July 2023, was still operating under the name Zeppelin Mobile Systeme GmbH, which reveals its prior ownership by the Zeppelin Group.

At Rheinmetall, the company was acquired by Rheinmetall Project Solutions GmbH, which bundles Rheinmetall’s resources and capabilities for services for armed and security forces.

The company predominantly operates in two areas: Mobile medical care facilities and customised mobility solutions, which can be deployed as mobile communications systems (radar systems, ground control stations for drones/UAVs or command posts) and as supply systems for infrastructure requirements such as power, kitchens and sanitation.

Everything has to go in the containers

Work setting up the hospital began in Friedrichshafen. That was the “easier” part. “Taking it down is more complicated,” says Alexander Lutz. After all, everything had to be packed away dry and neat, especially so that it would all fit back in the containers. The mobile hospital for Ukraine, in 20 containers in all, will be transported by ten trucks with trailers.

The tents are inflatable, some of the containers, also known as shelters, are equipped with expandable technology, which means that they look like normal containers when being transported, but the sides can be moved back when setting up, to make more room in the operating theatre or in the laboratory, for instance. Every individual part of the hospital has been thought through in terms of function and transport capability. The beds have to be foldable and stackable. Some of our room dimensions are limited. For example, our operating theatre has a height of just 2.20 metres. I have to plan the equipment based on that,” states Alexander Lutz. A majority of this equipment comes from partners such as Siemens Healthineers or other well-known medical technology manufacturers.

Alexander Lutz, head of sales at Rheinmetall Mobile Systeme GmbH, has planned and prepared for this project with his team for months.

All the equipment, even the highly sensitive yet extremely heavy CT scanner, has to be transported without being damaged. The hospital is designed to withstand transportation by air, land and sea as well as disassembled into a relatively small transport volume. “Any mobile workspace in the field is delivered by Rheinmetall Mobile Systeme,” says Hauke Bindzus. “Anyone can buy the individual parts involved,” he continues, “but configuring them into an overall turnkey system that makes sense is our speciality.”

Mobile field hospitals, like the one for Ukraine, consist of a variety of components from different manufacturers. Managing Director Hauke H. Bindzus sees configuring these into an overall system that makes sense as Rheinmetall Mobile Systeme’s speciality.

A valuable connection was made here

And this must be what makes the Rheinmetall team extraordinarily good – even the Ukrainian soldiers agree. The selection of equipment is enormous. And as a medic, I can say that everything here has been very well thought out.” These words of praise come from Artem Kovalenko (name changed). An anaesthesiologist with the rank of captain, he is the highest-ranking soldier in the Ukrainian delegation. He previously worked in a field hospital close to Zaporizhzhia. He would rather not talk about the war itself. He prefers to talk about Rheinmetall’s teamwork and hospitality: “We have felt welcome from the first moment. And we have learned to appreciate German thoroughness and organisation very much.” He adds: “Yes, we’re coming from very different circumstances. This has been a unique experience for me and I have learned a great deal. But that’s precisely why I now wish to return to my homeland.”

The convoy with the mobile hospital has long since arrived at its destination. Ukraine’s military leadership alone knows exactly where it will be deployed. And the soldiers have returned home as well. The thought that these fond guests have left a safe Germany to return to the East Ukrainian front has left Hauke Bindzus, Alexander Lutz, Marcel Freivogel and the whole Rheinmetall team with a lump in their throats. Yet they also know that they have done their part so that many people there will now receive the best medical care possible.

For security reasons, the names and pictures of Ukrainian military personnel are obscured.

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