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The Bundeswehr has known about the problem for years: most of the ammunition still used today for the 120mm mortars in the army dates from the 1980s and early 1990s. The propellant and base charges are outdated, there is a risk of malfunction. That was probably the cause of an incident on Friday, May 25, at the Wildflecken military training area.

During practice shooting with explosive ammunition, the propellant charge of a cartridge did not ignite at all, as can be seen from a video distributed on the Internet. Only the ignition charge for the actual propellant charge - also known as the basic charge - ignited and led to an extremely short shot: the grenade plopped out of the barrel in slow motion and fell on the back of the loader standing in front of the mortar. Fortunately for the surrounding soldiers, the correctly working fuse did not trigger the grenade - 50 meters from the point of detonation of a 120mm shell is considered a lethal zone.

The Federal Armed Forces Procurement Office BAAINBw confirmed that during a practice shooting at the Wildflecken military training area in the 22nd calendar week there were “abnormalities with the 120mm DM61 mortar cartridge – an explosive cartridge with a proximity fuse –” but gave no details. As insiders report, a large number of cartridges exploded too early in the air during the same shooting. Air detonations of this kind indicate that the cartridge fuses were not working reliably.

Whether the malfunction when firing the cartridge is actually due to the overlapping of the propellant cannot be said with certainty at the moment. According to BAAINBw, the incident is still under investigation. "There are still no reliable findings," writes the authority. However, experts consider it very likely that the propellant charge was the cause of the failure.

Apparently, the Bundeswehr has also been taking certain precautionary measures for some time to reduce the risks associated with the ammunition. Insiders report that for several years now the old 120mm cartridges can no longer be used to overshoot one's own troops. The use of the propellant charges is also regulated accordingly: Neither the full nor the lowest number of propellant charges may be used. After the incident in Wildflecken, the affected ammunition (DM 61) was completely banned until further notice. As it is said, there is danger to life and limb.

According to the BAAINBw, two generations of ammunition are used in the Bundeswehr. The ammunition of the old type was therefore manufactured between 1988 and 1991 and is used for training purposes. The new ammunition was procured between 2008 and 2010 and is available for use. The incident that has now occurred concerns the old ammunition. As ES&T has learned, only small quantities of recent ammunition are said to have been purchased.

Sluggish procurement

According to our information, a project to replace the propellant and base charge for the old type of stored ammunition has been running for almost half a decade - so far without any discernible results. In December of last year, suppliers interested in modernizing ammunition were once again invited to participate in the competition. As a rule, this step, which takes place before the actual tender, is completed in a few weeks. However, the interested parties are currently still waiting for feedback from the BAAINBw, as they say.

blankD.This is the second attempt at tendering. According to well-informed circles, the first attempt was made in 2016. At that time, three manufacturers were said to have been shortlisted. A German-Israeli consortium was said to be awarded the contract. However, at least one of the two competitors complained about this, according to industry circles. The BAAINBw apparently did not reject the complaint, but instead withdrew the tender and restarted the process last year.

As can be heard from the office, a conversion of the old ammunition is planned for the start of the measures this year. "Depending on the results of the investigation into the current incident", however, this measure may have to be reassessed.

In principle, experts consider replacing the propellant charges to be sensible and significantly cheaper than procuring new ammunition. It only has to be ensured that the same performance data of the ammunition are achieved after the exchange of the basic charge and propellant charge in order to avoid further expensive adjustments to the fire control. Due to the current delays, however, it is becoming increasingly questionable whether the converted ammunition can still arrive in 2020 - as originally planned - in order to be available in time for use within the VJTF.

In addition to the short shot itself, another aspect is interesting. As can be seen in the video, the affected soldiers are wearing field caps instead of helmets. Due to an EU regulation, soldiers must wear double hearing protection when firing mortars, apparently for reasons of noise protection. This is not possible in connection with the standard combat helmet or the jumper helmet of the Bundeswehr. According to well-informed circles, the central procurement of a suitable helmet was neglected. That is why the soldiers have had to make do with a cap for several years.

An example from the Netherlands shows the damage even small mortars can cause. In 2016, two Dutch soldiers were killed and a third seriously injured while operating a 60mm mortar during a practice round in Mali. As an investigative commission later found out, the grenades had become unstable due to design weaknesses and were not sufficiently cooled despite the high temperatures. As a result of the investigative report, Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and Dutch Armed Forces Chief Tom Middendorp resigned from their posts.

Author: Lars Hoffmann