The Baltic States Keep Buying Unreliable German Rifles
The G36 still has customers despite a scandal and revelation of overheating problems
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The German army will begin replacing its G36 battle rifles — entirely — in 2019 because of reliability problems. But it hasn’t discouraged the Baltic States from buying them. In fact, Latvia and Lithuania are buying more as a resurgent Russia poses a major security threat.
Recently, the Lithuanian military announced it will buy $14 million worth of G36s updated with new butt-stocks, handguards and sight rails — and attachable 40-millimeter grenade launchers all for delivery in 2017.
“Our decision is based on the test data we have obtained and our allies have shared with us, as well as on our wish to have one type of main rifleman gun in the Lithuanian armed forces,” Defense Minister Jouzas Olekas said.
In March, the Latvian government announced it will continue arming its soldiers with G36s, too.
But the G36, a 5.56-millimeter assault rifle manufactured by Heckler & Koch, is not fully battle-worthy. Lightweight and frail because of shoddy plastic parts, its components can distort when subjected to high temperatures, throwing off the rifle’s accuracy.
If you fire a round from a G36, you won’t have any problems. But when you fire a lot — as soldiers often do in firefights — you will create a lot of pressure and heat. The rifle’s accuracy problems become worse, and can extend to total failure, in hot enough conditions.
It’s even worse environments such as Afghanistan in the summer, where German troops discovered the G36’s notorious penchant for overheating.
During a 2010 Good Friday ambush in Afghanistan, 32 paratroopers came under Taliban attack in the most intense battle involving German troops since World War II. During the fighting, the paratroopers’ rifles overheated and three soldiers died in combat.
The fallout turned into a major scandal for the German government and resulted in the Bundeswehr ditching the guns for good. But the Baltic States may not be inclined to abandon the G36s to hunt for a new rifle so soon after adopting them into service.
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And there’s something of a time crunch here.
Lithuania and Latvia share borders with Russia and the heavily-militarized Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Russian forces could overrun both countries within days if the Kremlin ordered it — a realistic concern after the Russian invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
Aerial intercepts between NATO and Russian fighters over the Baltic Sea are now a frequent occurrence. And the Western alliance has bolstered its military presence by staging large military exercises and rushing thousands of troops into the area.
Yet leaving aside the urgency of needing rifles, there’s still skepticism in the Baltic States that the G36 would hold up in the event of a real war — instead of just training for one.
In 2015, the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, a state-sponsored militia, adopted HK416 and HK417 rifles — similar to the U.S. M-4 carbine — instead of the G36. These are fine rifles, and the German Defense Ministry are also ordering them as interim replacements for the G36s among deployed forces.
Latvia and Lithuania adopted the G36 in 2006 and 2007, respectively, to replace the Swedish-made AK-4. Estonia keeps a small number of G36s for its commandos but relies on the Israeli-made IMI Galil for most of its infantry.
But there’s at least one upside to using the G36. The Baltic region is a cooler — much cooler — environment compared to summer in Afghanistan.
Hence why the new shipment feature new butt-stocks. “Only minor technical problems [with the G36] have been reported,” the Latvian military blog Sargs reported. The main issue is “plastic butt-stock defects after using the assault rifle in cold weather.”