A flagship project for changing times
14. February 2024
15. August 2023 - from Oliver Hoffmann
In Ukraine’s fight to defend itself, the Gepard antiaircraft tank has proved to be an extremely effective defensive weapon. Consumption of ammunition has been correspondingly high. To address this acute supply bottleneck, Rheinmetall embarked on a multinational effort to set up a new production line at its Unterlüss plant, completing it in a matter of months.
The freshly applied layer of antistatic floor coating in the empty production hall shines like a sheet of ice. Everything is ready for the new assembly line, which will soon be arriving from Italy. “The infrastructure is in place, now it’s time to get rolling. In Ukraine, they’re desperately awaiting the arrival of our product”, says Manfred M., 62, head of production at the Weapon and Ammunition business unit in Unterlüss.
The expectations on M. and his team could hardly be higher: in just a few weeks, the 35mm ammunition for the Gepard antiaircraft tank, which has proved so valuable in Ukraine’s defensive struggle, should start rolling off the assembly line in the new production facility. [Update September 2023: In the meantime, production is running at full speed and deliveries are taking place as planned. A first batch has already been delivered to Ukraine at the end of August 2023]. Several million euros have been invested in the facility. The time pressure is immense, for Rheinmetall has given the customer its word – and the customer is the German government. After only a few weeks in office, Germany’s new defence minister, Boris Pistorius, visited Rheinmetall’s Unterlüss plant to see for himself the current state of play. M. and his people are literally fighting against the clock – but they have the backing of an extensive network of Rheinmetall colleagues from all over the Group both at home and abroad.
EFFICIENT AIR DEFENCE
The experts agree: the Gepard with its 35mm twin cannons is a decisive factor in Ukraine’s fight to defend itself. The German government has supplied the country with around forty of these antiaircraft tanks. “Air defence rather than fighter planes saved Ukraine”, confirms British military expert Justin Bronk. In its struggle for national survival in the face of numerically superior Russian forces, Ukraine’s air defence assets let it keep control of its air space. In effect, Russia can barely use its air force in areas where the Gepard is likely to be present. The Gepard antiaircraft tank has also proved to be a very efficient means of countering Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones. But because they are almost permanently in action, the consumption of ammunition is correspondingly high: the two Oerlikon KDA automatic cannons can spit out up to twenty rounds in a single burst of fire. With ammunition still in short supply, the Ukrainians generally confine themselves to five-round salvos. (Ho)
HAVING PRODUCTION CAPACITY IN GERMANY IS INDISPENSABLE
Flashback to Brussels on 14 February 2023: “We will resume without delay our own production of Gepard ammunition at Rheinmetall”, announced Boris Pistorius at a meeting of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group. He emphasized the crucial importance of ammunition in the drive to support Ukraine. Only a few days earlier, Pistorius had signed a contract with Rheinmetall for the speedy delivery of 300,000 rounds of ammunition for the Gepard antiaircraft tank.
In its quest to find a fresh supply of ammunition, the German government left no stone unturned, including internationally – all to no avail. Bundeswehr stocks had fallen to zero following the German military’s decision to permanently disband its Army air defence component in 2012, by which time the Gepard systems had all been taken out of service. As it turns out, the Gepards proved to be especially effective in combatting attack drones in Ukraine.
Brazil declined to make existing stocks of ammunition available for political reasons. Switzerland considered itself unable to help on account of its constitution. Moreover, because it was originally produced in Switzerland, other nations were also prohibited from transferring their ammunition to Ukraine. To get around the Swiss constitutional ban, it would be necessary to create an independent production capacity in Germany. Rheinmetall soon presented the Bundeswehr’s procurement agency with a possible solution – resulting in a firm order a short time later.
A MASSIVE AMOUNT OF MOTIVATION AND PRAGMATISM
At Unterlüss, Constantin Sch., 44, is aware of the responsibility: “The men and women who work here know they’re doing the right thing. The motivation is tremendous. Responsible for operational business at Rheinmetall’s Weapon and Ammunition business unit, Sch. is happy to see the project proceeding at a rapid clip: “The pace of the project surprised us too. There was no time to go through all the usual steps involved in a programme like this. Speed was of the essence here, together with assuring adequate functionality and adherence to safety standards. This only worked because we operate in a very cooperative, interdisciplinary way – with Rheinmetall’s civil and military wings pitching in and colleagues from Italy and Switzerland working with us here in Germany.”
Over to a clearly impressed Peter S., 63, managing director of RWM Schweiz AG in Zurich: “It’s unbelievable. We’ve accomplished in weeks what would once have taken months or even years. Basically, it’s the craziest project I’ve ever seen – but also one of the most important.” This only worked because of streamlined decision-making and plenty of pragmatism, coupled with maximum determination, motivation and stamina. “We’re making ammunition in Germany for a war in Europe. I never could have imagined that we’d have to do this again after the end of the Cold War”, says S., who served as a tank battalion commander in the Bundeswehr in Kosovo.
MODERN AMMUNITION TECHNOLOGY FOR A VINTAGE SYSTEM
“As I see it, nobody could have solved this problem as fast as Rheinmetall. For one thing, we’re familiar with Gepard’s Oerlikon-made main armament. On top of that, we have the necessary expertise to make the medium-caliber ammunition it fires”, declares S. Moreover, ever since its takeover of the former Oerlikon Contraves AG of Zurich, the Group has been at the technological forefront of gun-based air defence solutions.
The challenge: “The Gepard is so old that nobody today knows the fire control unit of the antiaircraft tank in detail”, reports Christian F., 44, in overall charge of the Gepard ammunition project. “There’s hardly any documentation left, and we only have a rough idea of what actually goes on inside the fire control unit.” Yet this electronic component explains the still impressive accuracy of the 35mm twin cannon system.
Delving into the details of this unique project, F. notes that “Replicating the old ammunition was out of the question, especially since the old tools were lacking. Due to the time constraints, we opted for a mix of reverse engineering and reconfiguration that’s probably never been attempted before. In short, we took existing 35mm ammunition used in the main armament of an infantry fighting vehicle and adapted it for use in the Gepard.” A special challenge here: “The fire control unit in the Gepard has to be able to reliably recognize the ammunition. To achieve this, the team first had to decipher and understand the Gepard’s blackbox electronics so that they could adapt the ammunition to it. According to F., being able to draw on the knowledge of colleagues at Rheinmetall Air Defence was a huge help: “They immediately assured us of their full cooperation, furnishing us with active and pragmatic support.
A BROAD TECHNOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE BASE IS AN UNBEATABLE STRENGTH
Manfred M. in Unterlüss shares this view. “That’s our unbeatable strength at Rheinmetall – we’re a system house with a very broad knowledge base in the Group.” During comprehensive live-fire trials at the Unterlüss proving ground, the status of the system’s functionality has been repeatedly tested. The final step: successful conclusion of the verification programme with ammunition fired from the Gepard antiaircraft tank in May 2023.
As Peter S. makes clear, “Our people are totally committed to this project, knowing full well that Ukraine urgently needs this ammunition – and the sooner, the better.” In a technical tour de force, Rheinmetall engineers and technicians have succeeded in wedding a venerable weapon system with modern ammunition. “I marvel at the ambition and the way they’ve poured their knowledge into this project. Where others failed, we at Rheinmetall succeeded in the space of three months, bringing the process of reconfiguration to a successful conclusion”, sums up S.
PLANT ENGINEERING EXPERTISE ON FILE
It wasn’t just in the development domain that Rheinmetall had to find pragmatic ways of speeding the first deliveries of ammunition to Ukraine. The expansion of production capacity also required special ingenuity. As Manfred M. in Unterlüss explains, “The concept for the production facility comes from our colleagues at Pierburg, that is, from the civilian side of Rheinmetall. They have the necessary plant engineering knowledge, with blueprints for the production facility we needed practically stored in a drawer.” In the words of Constantin Sch., “Our Pierburg colleagues have done a truly incredible job!”
Next, over to Holger D., 54, Director Equipment Building at Pierburg in Neuss: “Thanks to our experience, we’re able to produce solutions very quickly. We’ve already built similar facilities in Camden, Arkansas for American Rheinmetall Munitions and in Varpalota, Hungary. In Neuss, we came up with the concept for the LAP line in Unterlüss that our colleagues at Pierburg Pump Technology in Italy built in Lanciano. From there, it was transported to Unterlüss and put into operation. We work hand in hand, reaching across borders.” LAP stands for loading, assembly and packing, the process in which the casings are filled with propellant and the various components are assembled to form the cartridge, and then packaged. The powder for the propelling charge comes from Nitrochemie, another member of the Group.
Peter S. leaves no room for doubt here: “It was the perfect interplay of everyone involved in the project that made it possible to complete it in so short a time.” Indeed, close cooperation runs like a red thread throughout the entire production process. “By expanding the supply chain, we were able to reduce the Swiss share of value added as far as possible, shifting it to Germany.”
As his colleague Christian F. explains, “Ukraine will be getting 150,000 rounds each of two types of ammunition.” The first is a subcaliber munition with heavy metal penetrators designed for engaging hardened targets. In parallel, preparations are underway to produce conventional high-explosive incendiary tracer (HEI-T) rounds, which are designed for an air defence role, i.e., for use against aerial targets like aircraft and guided missiles. Manufacturing the latter is a more complex process, however, requiring sufficient amounts of explosives and fuses. Therefore, the high-explosive incendiary tracer ammunition will be delivered in a second stage.
But that’s no problem, insists Peter S.: “In the scenarios Ukraine finds itself operating in, the type of ammunition is practically a secondary concern – the main thing is having any ammunition at all. Even practice rounds can bring down dangerous Shahed drones.”
WHEN EVERY DAY COUNTS
Meanwhile, Manfred M. and his team in the Südheide are gearing up for the start of production. “We’re training our personnel to perform new tasks. Once the new plant and equipment are delivered and commissioned, we’ll carry out a small production run to test how it functions before ramping up to full-scale production. The first shipments should go out this summer.” Together with Constantin Sch., he looks forward to the day when the first truckload of Gepard ammunition leaves the factory in Unterlüss. “We’re certainly going to celebrate”, says M. “Supporting the people of Ukraine means a lot to the folks who work here.” In all, 40,000 cartridges are due to be shipped before the end of 2023.
For F., the project manager, the Gepard project has been especially important. “We’re used to working on our projects under extreme time pressure and with tremendous responsibility. It’s our lifeblood, our passion – tight schedules are part of it. But this time it’s different: time really is of the essence here. Our products can save people’s lives in Ukraine. Every day counts. Knowing this gives us a huge energy boost.”
The symbolic significance is impossible to miss: The only way to thwart Russian aggression is for the West to work together with Ukraine in a major combined effort. Once the first shipment of Gepard ammunition is on its way to Ukraine, it will be a success shared by many: a success for Rheinmetall colleagues in Zurich, Studen and Altdorf in Switzerland; in Neuss and Unterlüss in Germany; and in Lanciano in Italy – and a vital contribution to the defence of Ukraine.
For reasons of corporate security, all names have been made unrecognizable.
rounds per minute
(550 rounds per barrel)
35mm x 228
Types: Conventional high explosive incendiary-tracer (HEI-T) ammunition for engaging aerial targets; subcaliber ammunition for ground targets
projectile velocity for subcaliber ammunition and 1,050 m/s projectile velocity for high explosive incendiary ammunition
GEPARD: ORIGINS AND IMPACT
Text: Dr. Moritz Vischer
An armoured mobile air defence system, the Gepard unites sensor and weapon systems on a single platform. With its two 35mm x 228 KDA automatic cannon and well-endowed magazine, it guarantees high shoot-down performance and operational effectiveness. In all three phases of air defence – monitoring, tracking and engagement – the Gepard operates autonomously. The trick here is achieving the right balance of system errors and optimization of the transition between phases – it’s either that or settle for rare coincidental hits. The Gepard succeeds brilliantly here. Outstanding system engineering, ingenious layout of the components and high redundancy enable a combination of operating modes. Thus, despite external interference factors or partial failures, it retains maximum operational effectiveness. For example, as early as 1970, it featured a main and auxiliary computer as well as three possibilities for measuring the distance and angle of the target. A carefully designed operator interface for the vehicle commander and gunner in the turret are among the system’s forward-looking technical features. Besides high mobility and a long operating range, the Gepard can operate around the clock without logistical support and keep up with fast-moving frontline formations. In military use, however, it proved to be expensive and tedious to maintain. Many spare parts are no longer even available today.
A brief history of the Gepard
More than fifty years after its initial development and introduction, the Gepard anticraft tank’s first combat mission took place – in Ukraine. The fact that it is so successful today is no coincidence. During the system’s design, development and test phases in the 1960s and ’70s, no effort was spared.
In the mid-1960s, Contraves AG and Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon-Bührle AG (both of which now form part of Rheinmetall Air Defence) joined forces with Siemens-Albis AG to develop an air defence system at their own risk.
Based on experience with the 35mm x 228 field air defence (Twin Gun) paired with Superfledermaus fire control units (forerunner of the Skyguard) and earlier studies for mobile antiaircraft systems (the four-gun 20mm tank antiaircraft quad), a first prototype of the Gepard was presented by 1968.
Although a parallel project to develop an antiaircraft tank with a 30mm Hispano Suiza HS-831 cannon (Matador 30) was already underway in West Germany, the 35mm solution from the Oerlikon-Bührle group ultimately won the day.
After successful conclusion of system development led by Contraves, preparations for series production were followed by manufacture of a pre-series of 17 vehicles, which were delivered starting in 1974.
Krauss-Maffei AG, now KNDS, served as the general contractor for series production. By the early 1980s, over 550 of the vehicles in different variants were produced for the armed forces of West Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.