In a display of international cooperation, Rheinmetall AG of Düsseldorf has begun the delivery of 35mm air defence ammunition for Ukraine’s Gepard anti-aircraft tanks.

This initial shipment, with 40,000 rounds to follow this year, represents a lifeline for Ukraine as it combats kamikaze drones and seeks to secure its airspace. The story behind this ammunition delivery showcases the development of a new production facility in Germany.

Kamikaze drone threat

In a move to bolster Ukraine’s defence capabilities, this move marks the beginning of a concerted effort to support Ukraine’s ongoing struggle to safeguard its airspace and protect its cities from kamikaze drone attacks.

Tristan Sauer, aerospace, defence, and security analyst at GlobalData, provided commentary on the importance of the Gepard anti-aircraft tanks on the Ukrainian battlefield, “Gepard AA systems have proven very beneficial to Ukrainian C-UAS efforts in particular due to the low cost of operating these systems.”

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Germany decided to transfer Gepard anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine in April 2022, followed by the US also deciding to send the Gepard air defence system to strengthen Ukraine’s air defence, announced in May this year.

Tristan Sauer continued, “Due to their age, they lack the precision of more modern air defence systems. However, the better availability of low-cost ammunition has offset this disadvantage by enabling Ukrainian AA crews to more effectively counter the threat posed by low-cost kamikaze drones being used as part of the Russian strategic bombing campaign.”

The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated, as Ukraine’s Gepard tanks have emerged as a linchpin in countering the drone assaults from across the border. With ammunition consumption running high due to continuous operations, delivering 40,000 rounds by year-end is poised to impact the country’s defence efforts.

The story behind this endeavour is one of development and international collaboration. Rheinmetall, traditionally producing medium-calibre ammunition in Switzerland, shifted its focus to Germany, investing in new production capacity for the Gepard systems.

This move was precipitated by an announcement in February 2023 from Boris Pistorius, the German defence minister, signalling Germany’s commitment to produce 300,000 rounds of ammunition for the anti-aircraft tank. Shortly after this announcement was the contract awarded to Rheinmetall to supply Gepard ammunition to Ukraine.

Rheinmetall’s Executive Board Chairman, Armin Papperger, expressed gratitude for the relentless dedication of his team, emphasising, “We want to help the people of Ukraine. Every drone that’s shot down saves lives!”

Ammunition aid for Ukraine

This project’s complexity lay in the fact that earlier tools for producing the original ammunition were no longer available. A novel approach combining reverse engineering and adaptive development was devised to modify existing 35mm ammunition for the Gepard while ensuring compatibility with the tank’s fire control unit.

Despite the age of the Gepard anti-aircraft tank, developed in the 1960s, the verification program culminated in May 2023 with successful ammunition firing tests at Rheinmetall’s proving ground in Unterlüss, Lower Saxony. Simultaneously, an advanced loading, assembly, and packing (LAAP) line was designed, built in Lanciano, Italy, and eventually transferred to Unterlüss.

Ukraine is set to receive 150,000 rounds, including subcaliber APDS-T munitions designed to engage hardened targets and conventional HEI-T high-explosive incendiary ammunition for typical air defence targets like aircraft and guided missiles.