As I sat down at Rheinmetall Canada’s well-appointed office overlooking the peace tower spiking high into the morning sun, Duncan Hills, Rheinmetall’s Director for Government Relations and Industrial Benefits, pressed into a chair across the boardroom table and motioned towards the looming PowerPoint stationed opposite the wall-to-wall windows.
Although the defence industry is a collective clearinghouse for dry and detail-heavy presentations, the Rheinmetall story is a lot more interesting than bullet-point factoids and import/export strategies, and Duncan seems perfectly at home soldiering on without reading prompts.
Rheinmetall is one of the biggest medium-sized defence companies in the world, which is sort of a good place to be, because although they employ nearly 10,000 people worldwide, and rake in more than $2.5 billion (CAN) in sales, the fact that they can place a single company representative in a room unattended with a journalist — without relying on a well-rehearsed stack of media lines — is the personal touch that many mega-defence corps have long neglected.
The German company’s entrance into Canada, as Oerlikon Aerospace in 1986, debuted around the same time the government’s Industrial Regional Benefits (IRB) program kicked off. Their headquarters, based in the small, scenic city of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, originally began rolling out the Air Defence Anti-Tank System (ADATS), an experience Rheinmetall explains on their website as “a defining period during the company’s evolution.”
In 1999, Oerlikon Aerospace Inc. was acquired by Rheinmetall AG, and they immediately set to work diversifying their organization into a multi-faceted defence company capable of supplying four main combat systems; vehicle integration, weapon systems, air defence and electronic systems for armed forces customers around the world. This has led to a number of interesting contracts for the 250 employees at Rheinmetall’s Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu plant, including the repair and overhaul of the Leopard 2A4 training tanks, the 40mm close area suppression system, the armoured recovery vehicle project and the MASS (Multi Ammunition Softkill System) for the Halifax-class Shield Replacement.
In the Canadian government tradition of stretching procurement dollars by purchasing “previously enjoyed” military equipment, the expansive interior space of Rheinmetall’s Quebec-based workshop has been taken up by a clank of Cold War-era Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks now finishing up a multi-year contract for repair and overhaul. Forty-two of these beauties, purchased from the Netherlands in variable condition, are being stripped down to their bare hulls, sandblasted, and then fully “Canadianized” before seeing service as trainers for the Army. Interestingly enough, it won’t be the first time they’ve met, however, as Rheinmetall CEO Andreas Knackstedt explains: “Of the approximately 2,125 Leopard 2A4 tanks produced, Rheinmetall built 997, which is almost half the total amount.” He goes on to say that the Richelieu plant was the benefactor in a large amount of investment to “optimize and modernize vehicle production and system integration” in advance of winning the main battle tank modernization project.
And then there’s the prosaically named 40mm close area suppression system (CASW), Rheinmetall’s digitized grenade launcher; adorned with a moniker that does absolutely nothing to extol the virtues of a weapon that the company brands as “the most technologically advanced solution to combat ground targets.”
What that really means is the CASW is capable of hitting more targets with less training, day or night, because it more or less operates you instead of the other way around. To clarify, once your target is identified, the CASW will tell you where to aim in order to produce a hit, regardless of whether you can actually see it or not. How many rounds you choose to fire is up to you, but that could get pricey, as a full minute with a heavy finger on the trigger will have hurled 340 grenades at enemies up to 1.5 kilometres away.
The CASW is made from components such as the Heckler and Koch grenade machine gun, BAE thermal imager and a Vinghog-Vingmate fire control computer, and doesn’t come down the procurement pipeline as a descendant of some aging and outmoded weaponry; rather, Rheinmetall’s creation is the first of its kind for the Canadian Army — a piece of technology that will undoubtedly give our soldiers a huge advantage in combat with enemies on the ground.
Rheinmetall Canada’s President and CEO Andreas Knackstedt believes that their team approach to the CASW represents “a proven capability to form alliances in order to provide a system/solution,” a statement that also rings true with the MASS system they’ve been contracted to install on the Royal Canadian Navy’s 12 Halifax-class frigates.
The Rheinmetall team has sourced approximately 80 per cent of the material for the Multi Ammunition Softkill System from Canadian suppliers, easily surpassing the IRB offset requirements. Looking at the angular, boxy frame of the MASS doesn’t produce any sense of awe or wonderment, nor does it raise eyebrows when watching it swivel around and around on a testing video — but the theory behind how the MASS works, and for those trying to figure out what a “softkill system” actually means, is actually pretty intriguing.
The MASS is designed to act as a decoy when advanced guided missiles and other projectiles suddenly come whistling towards your warship. While you stand on deck, dumbstruck with the thought of your impending doom, the MASS’s angular body autonomously springs to life, sending out a multitude of special rounds designed to detonate away from the ship, confusing the sensors aboard the incoming missiles and steering them away from their intended target. It’s the type of technology that ensures Canadian warships aren’t “sitting ducks” when engaged in a combat scenario, allowing them to focus on eliminating the origin of the threat, as opposed to using up onboard resources in a purely reactionary sense.
For the Canadian Army in Afghanistan, Rheinmetall Canada supplied the Persistent Surveillance on Aerostat, or PSA, system to provide wide-area observation, detection, identification, and monitoring of threats against its forward operating bases. For those unfamiliar with the technology, think of it as a stabilized all-seeing eye suspended from a giant balloon, tethered up to 300 metres above the ground, operating day or night, in all weather, identifying targets up to 20 kilometres away. Of course, gathering valuable intelligence isn’t much good when it can’t be easily shared. Reports from the PSA can be quickly generated with video or snapshots, coordinates, and threat contacts which can be rapidly forwarded to commanders for immediate action, a huge advantage over the days of paper handwritten reports and radio calls.
The success of the PSA with the Army ultimately factored into their decision to contract Rheinmetall to upgrade a similar system, known as the Persistent Surveillance on Towers, in order to offer an integrated approach to protecting military and civilian infrastructure. Through the use of both technologies as one “Persistent Surveillance System” or PSS, the Army was able to maximize the benefits of Rheinmetall’s innovative software and hardware solutions. Rheinmetall Canada is now marketing the PSS solution worldwide for military and commercial applications.
So what’s next for Rheinmetall Canada, the defence company that’s now passing the quarter-century mark on Canadian soil? More work, thanks to Textron and Rheinmetall’s winning entry in the Tactical Armoured Patrol Vehicle (TAPV) Program. Rheinmetall will be supplying integrated logistic services, in-service support and the integration of remote weapon stations onboard 500 vehicles (with an option for 100 more) expected to serve the Canadian Army for the next 25 years.