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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Blitz Build: How Germany's Rheinmetall Is Cranking Up 24/7 Production To Arm Ukraine

Marder infantry fighting vehicles, Leopard 2 tanks, thousands and thousands of rounds of ammunition: the armament company Rheinmetall is running flat-out, around-the-clock to supply Ukrainian forces. For the first time, Die Welt was granted access to the production floor at the Rheinmetall factory, which is churning out arms as quickly as it did during the depths of the Cold War.

Employees working on a gun in a plant in Germany.

Employees at Rheinmetall work on a gun for the Leopard 2A4 main battle tank, Lower Saxony, Unterlüß, Germany.

Benedict Fuest

UNTERLÜSS A former Bundeswehr Marder armored personnel carrier is being given a new life in Hangar 391. The carrier and its fellow brothers-in-arms had been taken out of service, abandoned and left to rust and rot, with mould growing on its upholstery. But the retired warrior has to undergo one more mission — Ukraine is in dire need of armored personnel carriers.

That's why armament tank specialists at German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall are taking the carriers apart, piece-by-piece, replacing rubber seals, sanding rusted parts down and replacing optical equipment and gun barrels.

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Inside the vehicle, over-the-counter dehumidifiers are tackling the mould, while the hull receives a fresh coat of dark green paint. Outside Hangar 391, old tank turrets are waiting to be given a new lease on life, with another score of Marder hulls sitting next to a Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled artillery gun, covered in camouflage paint.

Instead of the brown and green camouflage painting employed by the Bundeswehr, yellow bands decorate the hull – a camouflage design used by Ukrainian forces. Thousands of people work in three around-the-clock shifts here at the Rheinmetall site in Unterlüss, Lower Saxony, to guarantee the rearmament of Ukraine.

“Drive and shoot”

Ukraine already received 40 Marder vehicles, 20 of which were taken from Rheinmetall company stock. The armament company has also begun to refit even more of the armored personnel carriers, also from their own inventory, to be used in Ukraine — despite not having received an official government contract to do so. In July, a further 20 refitted personnel carriers are supposed to be loaded onto bright orange flatbed waggons, to begin their journey east.

Ten troop carriers leave the site each month, with the company working at “full throttle,” according to Marius Meyering, sales manager for tactical vehicles.

In this case, beauty is of secondary concern to the customer, Meyering says. "Drive and shoot" — that's all they have to do. Ukrainian forces go straight into battle with these plain-coloured vehicles, seeing as there is no time for labour-intensive camouflage paint to be applied. Rheinmetall is also training Ukrainian tank mechanics in Germany to maintain the vehicles at a garage in Satu Mare, Romania, to provide support close to the theatre of war.

“Full throttle” could serve as the overall motto of Rheinmetall. Their subsidiary company Waffe Munition, which is also situated in the shrublands of Lower Saxony, is the largest ammunitions manufacturer in Germany.

The Rheinmetall Land Systems site produces weapons systems for the Leopard 2 tanks and services the Marder, Leopard and self-propelled howitzers next door. Muffled test firing of the Leopard 2 can be heard from the factory, and production has been increased across the entire site.

Employee working on a gun in a german plant.

A 155-millimeter gun is machined on a lathe at Rheinmetall, Lower Saxony, Unterlüss, Germany.

© Philipp Schulze via ZUMA

Rheinmetall expects double-digit growth within the coming years

No other German supplier has profited from the new conflict that has arisen within Europe as much as this company. Rheinmetall noted an 18% increase in orders in 2022 compared to the previous year, and the company expects double-digit growth over the coming years.

This is not only due to the war in Ukraine, but also rearmament of the Bundeswehr. Old production machinery is being dusted off, new air conditioning installed and product assembly lines refitted within the company's hangars.

“We never completely abandoned most of our Cold War production capacities. We just reduced our shifts. Now, we are increasing these once again,” company spokesperson Oliver Hoffmann says.

“DM 33A2” reads a simple NATO-style stencil applied to several empty wooden crates located outside the unobtrusive “Gebäude 53”(building 53), inside which ammunition production for the Leopard 2 tanks is operating at full speed.

Their 120-mm-barrel uses projectiles made of dense tungsten; dozens of large, matte black arrow-like projectiles are waiting near the production line for their projectile casings to be fastened.

A dark green machine combines the propellant charges in cellulose casings and the tungsten projectiles into ready-to-use ammunition. The NATO code stencilled on empty wooden cases stands for antitank missiles — the tungsten darts contained within are easily able to pierce the armor of a Russian T72 tank.

Towers of guns standing on Rheinmetall's premises, Germany.

Towers of the Leopard 2A4 main battle tank stand on Rheinmetall's premises, Lower Saxony, Unterlüss, Germany.

© Philipp Schulze via ZUMA

Mass production of tank and artillery ammunition

A longhaired factory employee fastens detonators with the aid of an industrial robot, arming the ammunition in the process. The projectiles are then carefully placed into wooden crates and assembled onto palettes, dozens of which are awaiting their collection.

According to a manifest, 3431 units of this specific ammunition are to be assembled. For whom this order is meant is not listed, but Ukraine needs these projectiles for the Western tanks which NATO states have delivered to them over the past months.

Hundreds of 155-mm barrel grenade casings hang from an assembly line belt on the ceiling, resembling so many oversized raindrops, waiting to be polished, painted and filled with explosives, one hangar further on. Shift production is at its maximum capacity of three shifts per day.

In an internal presentation, Rheinmetall declared that “the re-stocking of inventory is the vital question of our time” and will probably prove to be also the vital question for their share prices. The company's planners estimate that Germany will have to recover ammunition worth €40 million by 2031.

The war in Ukraine has demonstrated just how much is needed in the worst case scenario: each day, Ukrainian forces fire about 18,000 155-mm shells. As a result, Rheinmetall has decided to increase its production levels to levels not seen since the1980s, and is planning to manufacture 600,000 shells annually by hiring hundreds of new employees for its site in Lower Saxony.

In addition to that, Rheinmetall is planning to take over Spanish ammunitions manufacturer Expal-Systems, for €1.2 billion, to be able to produce enough grenades. Old defense manufacturing technologies are still ready to produce brand-new weapons.

The war in Ukraine has awoken a slumbering giant.

In Hangar 74, designated for weapons assembly, a huge, perfectly serviced lathe turns a gleaming barrel of the type 155-L60 – a newly developed type of barrel that will enable artillery shells to be fired up to 80 kilometres.

Right next door, Rheinmetall is finishing its construction of a new assembly line for 35-mm ammunition, used by the “Gepard” self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. Until now, production of the shells was situated in Switzerland, but the Swiss do not want to grant export permission any longer.

As a result, experts at Rheinmetall developed a completely new production line within just a few months, and the first of the newly and locally produced ammunition will leave the assembly belt as early as next month. Things have to move fast now.

It seems that, here in Unterlüss at least, nothing is left of the once palpable hesitancy of the German people, so clearly felt during the early months of the war.

The company´s message seems clear: armament production in Germany may have long been in a peaceful slumber, but its old capabilities are still here and can be woken up and put to work more easily than critics thought. The war in Ukraine has awoken a slumbering giant.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Wagner Group 2.0: Why Russia's Mercenary System Is Here To Stay

Many had predicted that the death last month of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin meant the demise of the mercenary outfit. Yet signs in recent days say the private military outfit is active again in Ukraine, a reminder of the Kremlin's interest in continuing a private fighting formula that has worked all around the world.

Photograph of a Wagner soldier in the city of Artyomovsk, holding a rifle.

Ukraine, Donetsk Region - March 24, 2023: A Wagner Group soldier guards an area in the city of Artyomovsk (Bakhmut).

Cameron Manley


“Let’s not forget that there is no Wagner Group anymore,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had declared. “Such an organization, in our eyes, does not exist.”

The August 25 statement from came less than two days after the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the infamous Russian mercenary outfit, as questions swirled about Wagner's fate after its crucial role in the war in Ukraine and other Russian military missions around the world.

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How could an independent military outfit survive after its charismatic founder's death? It seemed highly unlikely that President Vladimir Putin would allow the survival of a group after had launched a short-lived coup attempt in late June that most outside observers believe led to Prigozhin's private airplane being shot down by Russian forces on August 23.

"Wagner is over,” said the Kremlin critic and Russian political commentator Maksim Katz. “The group can’t keep going. There’s the possibility that they could continue in parts or with Defense Ministry contracts, but the group only worked with an unofficial agreement between Putin and Prigozhin.”

Yet barely a month later, and there are already multiple signs that the Wagner phoenix is rising from the ashes.

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