Murphy's Law: Germany Perfects Incompetence


July 3, 2020: The German Defense Ministry is having a procurement crisis of their own making and has been forced by increasingly embarrassing revelations to amend specifications for a new infantry rifle. These specifications were drawn up by bureaucrats more concerned about avoiding some vague future embarrassment while ignoring some current realities. This mess could have been avoided it the procurement bureaucrats involved had consulted a small-arms expert or one of their own special operations troops, to double-check the new spec. At that point, they would have been told the weapon the specification described was physically impossible, at least with current technology.

The 2017 German spec for a new rifle, to replace the G36, called for a weapon weighing no more than 3.6 kg (7.9 pounds). That was OK, but then the spec included bullet performance, like speed, range and penetration, that could not be achieved by an assault rifle weighing 3.6 kg. What the 2017 spec called for was a rifle weighing as much (or as little) as most current 5.56mm rifles but firing a bullet with the range and penetration of the larger 7.62mm round that had been largely replaced by 5.56mm weapons. The spec was a little vague on exactly what caliber the new weapons was supposed to handle and many weapons suppliers reading that dismissed it as some ill-informed bureaucratic rhetoric that no one would take seriously. The procurement officials did take their error seriously as they failed to accept proposed weapons like the HK416 which were long used by German army and navy special operations troops. France had recently selected the HK416 as its new infantry rifle and many other NATO nations used or were adopting the HK416. Unlike the G36, which was accepted without the military considering extended use in a hot climate, the HK416 had already shown itself effective in a wide range of climates and operating conditions.

The HK416 is not a wonder weapon, just a competently designed one that has proved its effectiveness in combat in a wide range of climates and situations. There were several other rifles in the competition that were a suitable G36 replacement. But it was the decision to fail the HK416 that jumped out. Scrutinizing the procurement spec, it was eventually discovered that someone (we may never know who) had the spec call for a new weapon that could handle a more powerful bullet than any 5.56mm weapon was designed to handle. The spec was OK if it was calling for a rifle that could handle a 7.62mm round and some 5.56mm rifle designs will accommodate that by switching in a different receiver/barrel component, a substitution feature that many modern weapons are designed to handle. But the 7.62mm receiver/barrel component is heavier than the one used for a 5.56mm round. Basic physics, which the new rifle spec did not talk about changing, is at the heart of the current G36 replacement crises.

It is not clear if the German procurement bureaucrats are going to just fix the problem or try to talk their way out of it and delay the acquisition effort still more. This problem has been lurching towards a solution for over a decade. The G36 heat problem was confirmed, in Afghanistan, back in 2008. The procurement bureaucracy did not confirm and act on that by issuing a new assault rifle specification until 2017, even though by 2015 it was widely understood why the G36 had failed in the heat and why other weapons, like the HK416, had not. The 2017 spec called for a new rifle to be selected and orders placed by early 2019. With this latest problem that has been revised to late 2020. Maybe. Many details of the new assault rifle spec were not disclosed so it is uncertain what other surprises might manifest themselves from among the unpublished fine print.

A 2015 German Army study concluded that the G36 was unreliable during sustained combat, especially in hot weather. Most G36 users were NATO soldiers who only used their G36s for training in their home country. That means a nation in Europe where sustained periods of extremely hot weather are rare. Most NATO soldiers had been satisfied with G36s. That was largely because the heat problems were never noticed because the troops typically used the G36 for training, as in single or short burst fire, and often in cooler European weather.

In early 2015 the German Amy issued a report that admitted, after years of user complaints and several rounds of testing, that there were major accuracy and reliability problems with its G36 assault rifle, and all were heat-related. The G36 is a 3.3 kg (7.3 pound), 999mm (39 inch) long (758mm with stock folded) 5.56mm assault rifle. Effective range is 800 meters and it can use a 30 or 100 round magazine and was designed to be an improvement on the M16 design from the 1960s. On paper, the G36 was a success but in combat, it was not. This was particularly true in Afghanistan. While the G36 entered service in 1995 it didn’t get exposed to heavy combat use until 2008 and that’s when the complaints from the troops began.

The main problem was that the G36 suffers accuracy and reliability problems when the barrel gets very hot. This tends to happen when the rifle fires a lot of rounds in a short period, and is worse in areas where the outdoor temperatures are very hot to begin with. This was a common situation in Afghanistan. In 2014, despite formal investigations and test results that backed up the complaints of the troops, the German government ordered one last round of tests and a temporary halt in purchases of G36s. The results of those tests confirmed earlier results and the G36 was said to have no future in the German military. That admitted the problem but did not solve it. That took a lot longer than anyone expected.

Although German troops went to Afghanistan in 2002, they were deliberately kept away from combat for several years. But by 2008 German troops were regularly fighting the Taliban and experiencing extended firefights during the warm weather. At that point the troops encountered the previously unknown G36 flaws. There were incidents where hours of combat caused several very obvious difficulties. One of the more obvious problems was the polymer (plastic) parts of the rifle getting a bit soft when the metal parts got very hot due to heavy use in a short period of time. The barrel and receiver could move a tiny bit under those conditions and that threw off accuracy to a small degree that became especially noticeable only at longer (over 200 meters) ranges. It was later discovered that the manufacturer had not been using the right type of plastic for the rifle and the cheaper substitute was more prone to failure in high-heat conditions. Military equipment failing because the manufacturer substituted inferior (and usually cheaper) components is nothing new. Unfortunately, double-checking for that is time-consuming and expensive. When a budget crisis comes along, such quality-control expenses are often among the first cuts. Germany had been reducing its defense budget since the early 1990s and the G36 problem was another result of those cuts. The G36 fiasco was not unique but part of a larger pattern that has, at times, grounded most of the German air force, left the German Navy with only a few operational warships and the army with only a few operational tanks. Most of those disasters were simply the result of years of spending too little on maintenance. The G36 mess was special because if could have been avoided if the procurement officials had monitored the quality of what they were buying. The latest G36 mess indicates personnel problems in the procurement bureaucracy because no one caught this basic flaw in the spec or the G36 replacement.

By 2012 it was also discovered that there were no practical (workable and affordable) solutions. At first, the German government insisted the problem had to do with bad ammunition. The ammo manufacturers denied that and were able to make a convincing case. Meanwhile, the complaints from the troops, confirmed by many witnesses and cell phone photos, of the heat-related problems and total failure of the rifle in some cases kept showing up in the media. German politicians and procurement officials initially responded by trying to make all this go away. The government officials did not want to admit they made a major mistake in putting the G36 into service. They also don’t want the major expense of replacing the G36 with a better design.

The G36 was initially very popular as the standard German infantry assault rifle. By 1997 it was widely used and troops appreciated the fact that it used a short-stroke piston system. The M16s uses a gas-tube system, which results in carbon being blown back into the chamber. That leads to carbon build-up, which results in jams as rounds getting stuck in the chamber, and the weapon is unable to fire. The short-stroke system also does not expose parts of the rifle to extremely hot gases, which wears out components more quickly. As a result, rifles using the short-stroke system, rather than the gas-tube, are more reliable, easier to maintain and last longer. That was the good news. The bad news stayed hidden for a decade.

The G-36 assault rifle had been created in the early 1990s as the successor of the outdated G3 rifle which was incompatible with the current NATO standards. The new G36 5.56mm assault rifle was adopted by the Bundeswehr in 1995 and achieved some export success. The rifle is made mostly from reinforced composites. Thanks to this it is very light. The lightest version weighs only 2.8 kilograms and the heaviest variant is only 3.6 kilograms. The bit of information may have been what caused the G36 replacement spec to go off the rails. We will probably never know.


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