Gunpowder, an arms race, and an unrelenting capacity to innovate: Rheinmetall Canada’s storied past points to a bright future for the company, even as government defence spending shrinks.
By Jason McNaught
The lineage of a defence company often resembles a family tree, clipped and pruned according to the economic highs and lows of the times, branching its way through the industry under one name, then another, or an awkward combination of both. But as large and as diverse as organizations become, they can usually be traced back to a single individual with an idea or opportunity, and a dogged determination to see it through.
Rheinmetall’s success in the defence industry provides a good example. One hundred and twenty five years ago, in 1889, an engineer from the small German state of Thuringia was presented with an immense challenge.
The invention of smokeless powder in 1884 by French chemist Paul Vieille caused quite a stir at the time, not only because it dramatically improved the operation and effectiveness of guns at the time, but also because it essentially rendered all other large bore black powder guns immediately obsolete. An arms race ensued, and Germany was intent on keeping up, developing a new bolt-action rifle, the Gewehr 88.
Along with new rifles came exceedingly large orders for new munitions capable of being fired out of the Gewehr 88’s long, black steel barrel. When the German Ministry of War awarded steel and mining company Hörder Bergwerks und Hüttenverein a contract for supplying just that, it quickly became apparent they lacked the capacity to fulfil such an order.
An Engineer from Thuringia
Enter Heinrich Ehrhardt, the man who found himself tasked with heading up an entirely new company — Rheinische Metallwaaren- und Maschinenfabrik Actiengesellschaft — founded exclusively to provide the Ministry of War with the new munitions they required for the Gewehr 88.
The task was monumental, to say the least. But by 1891, Ehrhardt was not only supplying munitions, he was developing patents, including one that resulted in a process for creating seamless tubes … an innovation easily overlooked today, but certainly not in the 19th century. By 1894, after rapid expansion and the acquisition of a small drop forge and the creation of Metallwerk Ehrhardt & Heye near Dusseldorf, “Rheinmetall” was officially listed on the Berlin stock exchange.
During Ehrhardt’s time, Rheinmetall went on to accomplish many things, including the development of the first field-worthy recoiling cannon, an outstanding engineering achievement during the time period.
More than a century later, Rheinmetall is a multinational company with a defence division that spans the globe. Here in Canada, Rheinmetall continues in the same spirit of innovation that Ehrhardt sparked more than a century ago, with a diverse range of products that meet the continually evolving needs of our soldiers.
As vice president of Rheinmetall Canada, Alain Tremblay explains that the steady pace of technological development is a good thing for soldiers, but only if managed properly.
Weight is a critical issue. Infantry are already burdened by packs and equipment that add an additional 40–90 pounds to their existing frames; in a combat scenario, overburdening a soldier can turn into a serious handicap, decreasing mobility and increasing risks to their health through exhaustion or injury.
But herein lies the problem: as more and more technology is developed with the intent of increasing the overall effectiveness of the infantry, a soldier either has to learn to deal with the excess weight, or needs to shed an existing piece of equipment to make the load effectively bearable. And then, to complicate matters further, there is the problem of batteries. How many are needed to run a certain piece of equipment? How long will the soldier be out in the field? How many spares need to be carried and what’s their added weight?
When developing soldier systems, these types of questions can easily become overwhelming, but Rheinmetall overcomes this by knowing exactly what they are working towards: “A well-protected soldier [who is] equipped with robust weapons, a clear view of the tactical situation and reliable means of communication.”
Distilling the needs of the soldier into what is most important on the battlefield has resulted in an easy-to-operate modular combat system that improves “survivability, C4I [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence] capabilities, sustainability, mobility and lethality” while delivering enhanced performance and reduced weight, says Tremblay.
The Canadian Armed Forces is not a large force compared to some of its allies, but punches above its weight when it comes to fielding new and innovative equipment. Staying ahead of the curve, Tremblay argues, is achieved by identifying new trends, selecting the ones that have the greatest probability of reaching the market, and then investing in them through R&D.
One area of technology Rheinmetall is currently developing is autonomous robots, which may complement the company’s existing line of soldier systems and is now in a strategic partnership with Clearpath Robotics, a Kitchener, Ontario-based company with a vision to “automate the world’s dullest, dirtiest, and deadliest jobs.”
Says Tremblay: “We are experimenting with controlling robots in a very intuitive fashion, using our existing soldier systems technology with no additional hardware.” Clearpath robots, such as their Husky model, have the ability to operate alone or be programmed to autonomously work at tasks — such as navigation and mapping — in a group. The Rheinmetall/Clearpath system is currently on a six-month trial with the U.S. Department of Defense.
Although autonomous robots may one day serve alongside our soldiers on the battlefield of the future, Rheinmetall’s Satellite-on-the-Move (SOTM) communication system is an example of a project that’s much closer to providing the Canadian Armed Forces with unparalleled long-range voice and data connectivity between deployed command vehicles, arms advisors (such as the armour corps, engineers, etc.), high priority sensor vehicles, tactical headquarters or command posts. “We had the capability in Afghanistan,” Tremblay explains, “but in a static way. Now we will be able to do it on the move.”
Acquired under the Canadian government’s Land Command Support System Life Extension (LCSS LE) program, the requirements for the SOTM system contained specific capabilities that had yet to be developed. “The Canadian requirements for long-range surveillance mounted on vehicles is unique in the world. We didn’t think they would ever go there,” says Tremblay.
Part of the system is comprised of a telescopic mast designed to carry a payload and operate at a height of six metres while travelling at a speed of 40km/hr. When not in use, or under fire, the system retracts into the vehicle on which it is deployed. “Today, you could have a LAV III with one of these systems gathering data from the top of its mast, and that could be immediately uploaded to Joint Operations Command in Ottawa,” says Tremblay.
The Canadian Army will equip 66 LAV IIIs with the SOTM system. An unknown number of Tactical Armoured Patrol Vehicles (TAPV) will also be configured as recce vehicles.
The TAPV, produced by Textron Systems, is another example of an innovative product designed exclusively for the Canadian Army and set to replace the RG-31 and Coyote reconnaissance vehicles. “The TAPV,” states Tremblay, “is a vehicle that doesn’t exist anywhere else.” He calls the vehicle a Commando Select “on steroids.” Rheinmetall is performing multiple integration functions and final assembly on the vehicles, the first of which hit the production floor this summer. In total, more than 500 TAPVs will be delivered to the Canadian Army, with an option for 100 more.
A legacy of innovation
Rheinmetall’s past is marked with over a century of milestones, thanks to a legacy of innovation that began with Heinrich Ehrhardt in 1899. Today, Rheinmetall Canada continues that legacy, building on its success in the development, integration, and production of platform-independent systems.