NATO’s massive Trident Juncture exercise is providing an opportunity for the alliance’s member states and European partners to demonstrate their ability to operate together and share best practices on a scale not seen since the end of the Cold War. It’s also highlighting the unique capabilities certain countries have to offer, such as Germany’s tiny helicopter-portable Wiesel ‘tankette.’
On Oct. 27, 2018, just days after the drills formally began in and around Norway, U.S. Marines from the 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) paired up with German troops and their Wiesels to familiarize themselves with each other’s capabilities. Then on Nov. 1, 2018, CH-53E Super Stallions from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron Three Six Six (HMH-366) airlifted a battalion of Germany’s troops, along with some of the small tracked armored vehicles, during another specific drill within the larger exercise. Before Trident Juncture had even officially started, U.S. Army CH-47F Chinooks from the 12th Aviation Brigade teamed up with German light mechanized units to prepare for the drills.
“Everything is more difficult in the cold, whether it’s waking up in the morning or even something as simple as going from your tent to the shower,” U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant Kyle Davis, who is overseeing American operations at Orland Airfield at Brekstad, Norway, said in an interview the service published on Nov. 2, 2018. “I think [Lieutenant General Mark Brilakis, the commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command] said it best, ‘If you can do anything below zero you can do anything anywhere.’”
In Norway’s frigid climate, especially outside of areas with established road networks, mobility on the ground can be especially challenging. It can be difficult in general to move traditional unarmored or unarmored vehicles rapidly into remote, rugged environments.
The U.S. Marines and Army do both have vehicles intended specifically for operations in snowy and extreme cold weather conditions, but there are only a small number of them and they’re aging and increasingly hard to maintain. Both services are in the process of looking for a replacement.
So, it’s perhaps not surprising that the German Wiesel, or Weasel in English, has had a chance to provide American Marines and Army infantry with mobility and light fire support during parts of the drills that have taken them to Norway’s rural backcountry. The German Army, or Heer, first began development of the vehicle in the 1970s to give added firepower to its airborne units.
Legendary car company Porsche initially led the project and, due to foreign interest in the vehicle, continued work even after the Heer abandoned its plans for the vehicle in 1975. The German Army ultimately returned to the Wiesel and bought its first batch in 1985, becoming the only country to adopt the type.
Rheinmetall took over series production and built more than 340 examples before the line went cold in 1993. In 2001, the Heer purchased nearly 180 lengthened Wiesel 2s.
Porsche and Rheinmetall tried to keep things as simple and lightweight as possible, using a standard four-cylinder diesel car engine from Volkswagen. The Wiesels can reach a top speed of over 40 miles per hour and travel around 120 miles on one tank of gas, which is relatively impressive when you consider their diminutive size.
To say that the German vehicles are light is an understatement. There are more than a dozen variants in total and the heaviest of them weighs less than five tons. For comparison, the latest examples of up-armored Humvee weigh around six tons. The U.S. military’s new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) is even heavier.
The Wiesel is also narrower than either of those vehicles. This means you can cram two of the standard variant inside a CH-53 series helicopter and at least one into a CH-47. Heavy helicopters can carry more slung below their fuselages, too. Even small cargo planes such as the C-160 Transall can carry more than one of the miniature armored vehicles.
The Wiesels offer a significant amount of capability for their size. The most common version is a reconnaissance vehicle with a 20mm automatic cannon and a 7.62mm machine gun, more firepower than many American light armored vehicles. Another type packs a TOW anti-tank missile launcher.
The Leichtes Flugabwehr System, or Light Air Defense System includes a command post Wiesel 2 variant and another one of the vehicles with a small radar. This last component of the system is known as Ozelot, or Ocelot, and features a launcher containing four FIM-92 Stinger heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. This is a level of small, mobile, but still somewhat protected short-range air defense capability that few nations have.
There’s another group of variants that form a mobile mortar section, including a vehicle with computerized 120mm mortar. There are also more capable command post versions for unit headquarters, along with ambulances and engineering support types, including at least one prototype with a ground penetrating radar to spot improvised explosive devices. There were also plans for a version with a recoilless 30mm automatic cannon and an unmanned ground combat vehicle variant, but those haven’t gone into production.
That’s not to say that the vehicles don’t have disadvantages. Their light weight comes at the cost of armor protection and the Wiesels only shield their occupants against shrapnel, rifle, and light machine gun fire at most. They are also vulnerable to mines and roadside bombs.
But they definitely offer more mobility than walking and more firepower than dismounted troops can easily bring to bear on their own. They’re no more vulnerable than the specialized light vehicles the U.S. military has procured to allow light and special operations forces to quickly drive on and off helicopters and their tracks offer a big mobility advantage in certain environments. Their small size does mean they present less of a target and can more readily conceal themselves, too.
For Marine ANGLICO units, charged with operating near to the front lines to call in air strikes and fire support and coordinate with other U.S. and allied forces, having the extra mobility and local protection would be a definite benefit. The ability to rapidly deploy the small armored vehicles into remote areas could provide distinct benefits during raids and other short-duration operations.
It’s a unique capability the often cash-strapped German military seems keen to preserve, too. In June 2017, German contractor Flensburger Fahzeugbau Gesellschaft won a competition to produce upgrade packages for the original Wiesel vehicles.
These kits will include new, lightweight armor and composite rubber tracks to replace the existing steel ones, along with a host of other product improvements. The goal was to have the first three updated prototypes ready by October 2018, but we don’t know if they got delivered on schedule. The German Army is also looking to replace its aging CH-53G helicopters, with Sikorsky's CH-53K King Stallion and Boeing's CH-47F being the major contenders, which could improve its ability to employ the upgraded Wiesels.
The hope is definitely that these and other modernization efforts the German military desperately needs will continue as planned. After the Cold War, the country led its armed forces atrophy and has struggled in recent years to reverse that trend.
After a relatively minor boost in the defense budget for the 2019 fiscal year, Germany is now on track to add more than $6.5 billion in military spending in the following fiscal cycle. The German government wants to spend in 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense by 2024. NATO has set a standing two percent GDP defense spending target for all of its members, few of which have reached it already.
With any luck, if nothing else, we’ll be seeing German troops driving their modernized tankettes out of the back of helicopters for years to come.
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