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Faulty rifle puts minister in crosshairs

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Faulty rifle puts minister in crosshairs
Defence minister Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: DPA
09:12 CEST+02:00
Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen is struggling to maintain her credibility as critics have blamed her for lobbying and cover-ups within the ministry over the army's faulty G36 rifles.

Media reports on Thursday revealed that weapons manufacturer Heckler & Koch lobbied the federal Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD) to try and prevent negative reports about the G36 rifle from reaching the public. The Bundeswehr (German Army) has used the G36 rifle since 1996.

When the president of MAD Ulrich Birkenheier refused, the Bundeswehr intervened on behalf of the arms manufacturer.

In December 2013, the head of the army's arms department personally wrote to Birkenheier to remind him of Heckler & Koch's request.

A scandal has been brewing around the weapon for months after von der Leyen admitted in March that the rifle loses accuracy at high temperatures.

In April von der Leyen announced that the G36 had “no future” in the Bundeswehr.

In the meantime the media have been reporting that the Bundeswehr covered up information, based on internal reports that showed the weapons had shortcomings.

For the Green Party, this latest revelation was the straw that broke the camel's back, and it has caused them to attack the defence minister herself.

“That was the point at which the G36 affair became a real scandal,” said the party's defence spokesperson Agnieszka Brugger. “I can't understand why Mrs. von der Leyen didn't act."

Pressure on von der Leyen

It is said in Germany that a politician who manages to survive her time as defence minister has proven herself as a potential chancellor.

Von der Leyen is widely believed to have this ambition. But the G36 affair is damaging her reputation as an open and honest politician.

The latest revelations surround events that took place before von der Leyen came into office.

Nonetheless, in March 2014 a report landed on von der Leyen's desk entitled “Genesis of the G36,” which contained a paragraph with the headline “Engagement of the Military Intelligence” outlining how at the end of 2013, first Heckler & Koch and then two ex-employees of the Bundeswehr tried to influence MAD on the issue of the G36.

Their demand was that MAD should do something about the media reports casting aspersions on the accuracy of the rifle.

Up until now there is no proof that von der Leyen personally read the report. Nevertheless at least one civil servant in her department did read it, posing questions about whether the minister - who has spoken publicly about her intention to clean up the arms sector - really has her ministry under control.

Von der Leyen claims to have only learned about the army's lobbying for Heckler & Koch ten days ago, after a civil servant brought the report from storage at the ministry in Bonn.

The same civil servant had been given the duty of collecting documents on behalf of the parliamentary defence committee.

The committee wants to learn who within the ministry had spoken out in favour of the rifle at a time when their own investigations had led them to the conclusion that the weapon was faulty.

The department head who lobbied MAD on behalf of Heckler & Koch has in the meantime been relieved of his post – not due to his letter from December 2013, but because von der Leyen had lost trust over an unrelated issue.

In order to avoid further damage to her reputation, von der Leyen has done what comes most naturally to her. She has gone on the offensive, saying that it is in her own interest that the most intimate details of the affair are cleared up. At the same time, she has indicated that further structural and personnel changes will take place in the ministry.

Whether a parliamentary enquiry into the G36 affair will now take place is dependent on the Linke (Left) Party. While they remain receptive to the idea, they have indicated that they will wait and see whether former defence minister Thomas de Maizière - another politician currently plagued by scandals - speaks in front of the defence committee and if so what exactly he says.

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