September 18, 2015: Strategy Page
In mid-2015 Lithuania temporarily suspended purchases of German G36 assault rifles because a recent German Army study concluded that the G36 was unreliable during sustained combat, especially in hot weather. Lithuania has been using the G36 since 2005 and their current G36 contract is worth about $14 million. Lithuanian 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 (typical single or short burst fire) and often in cold 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. 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 admits the problem but does not solve it.
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 problems. One of the more obvious culprits 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.
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 in was widely used and troops appreciated the fact that it used a short-stroke piston system. The M16s uses gas-tube system, which results in carbon being blown back into the chamber. That leads to carbon build up, which results in jams (rounds getting stuck in the chamber, and the weapon 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 to the outdated G3 rifle which was incompatible with the current NATO standards. The new 5.56mm assault rifle has been adopted by the Bundeswehr in the 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.