Military Cooperation An Alliance without Guns

Germany and France frequently profess a desire to coordinate military policies but they are not cooperating over a large-scale purchase of new assault rifles.
Paris and Berlin are not on the same page in defense matters.

Just two weeks ago, all seemed rosy in the world of European defense. German tank manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and its French counterpart Nexter had just sealed their new merger, to the delight of defense ministers in both countries.

Germany's junior defense minister, Markus Grübel, said the merger was a perfect example of how to create a stress-free balance of power between the two companies.

Now, defense politicians in Paris and Berlin want to replicate what the two companies did. They have long promised more cooperation between their armed forces but in reality this has meant little more than the occasional joint procurement project, such as the new drones that Germany and France want to develop together with Italy.

However, this desire for cooperation will also be tested in the coming months when it comes to the issue of the new standard assault rifles that the German and French armies want. The German military currently uses Heckler and Koch’s G36, but recent tests have shown it loses precision at high temperatures: a problem for soldiers operating in Afghanistan or Iraq.

According to media reports, there are currently only five companies in the running for the French tender, for just over 90,000 assault rifles worth between €300 to €400 million.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a member of the Christian Democrats who has been regarded as a possible successor to Chancellor Merkel, will decide this fall if it should be replaced, either with another model, or an updated version of the same rifle.

France had also just put out a tender for a new assault weapon to replace the Famas weapons it currently uses.

Ms. von der Leyen’s officials tentatively approached the French defense ministry to ask about possible cooperation, only to be rebuffed.

In a letter seen by Handelsblatt, Ms. von der Leyen outlined details of the failed approach to Thomas Hitschler, a lawmaker with the Social Democrats, the CDU's junior coalition partners.

“The possibility of a cooperation was designated ‘no longer conceivable’ on the working level by the French defense procurement office Direction générale de l’armement (DGA) with reference to the current stage of the project’s progress,” she wrote to Mr. Hitschler, who is a member of the parliamentary defense committee.

She added that France was not prepared to disclose “details about the requirements for their new assault weapons.”

The SPD still want the government to find ways of working with France.

According to media reports, there are currently only five companies in the running for the French tender, which is for just over 90,000 assault rifles worth between €300 to €400 million. The companies include FN from Belgium, Beretta from Italy, the Swiss Arms AG, a Croatian manufacturer, and Heckler & Koch, the producer of the G36. French companies are not bidding as none of them could deliver the number of rifles needed.

A one-year test phase started this summer, and a decision is supposed to be made on the weapons by the end of 2016 at the latest.

Germany for its part is expected to find an interim solution by the end of the summer. But the defense ministry says the requirements for the new rifles have not yet been completely formulated.

Sources in the CDU report that in the short term about 7,000 G36 rifles with thicker barrels could be ordered for the soldiers stationed abroad: many believe the thinner barrels of the current version are responsible for the problems that arise in hot weather, but defense ministry investigators are still studying possible causes.

The SPD is also pushing to have the new weapon be suitable for as many operations as possible. In her letter to Mr. Hitschler, Ms. von der Leyen remains non-committal, stating that such possibilities “are currently being discussed in the armed forces.”


Thomas Hanke is a Handelsblatt correspondent and commentator in Paris. Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt's foreign policy correspondent in Berlin.  To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]