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Heckler & Koch

Heckler & Koch has, quite legally, flooded the world with small arms since its foundation in the small, secluded Black Forest town of Oberndorf in affluent Baden-Württemberg in 1949. Local legend says that Edmund Heckler, an engineer at Mauser — which supplied thousands of rifles to Hitler's armies from a factory in Oberndorf — founded the company after hiding Mauser machinery from Allied forces tasked with demilitarizing Germany.

In 1991 Heckler & Koch was purchased by Royal Ordnance, a wholly owned subsidiary of British Aerospace (now BAe Systems). Restructuring activities led Heckler & Koch's return to its "core business". In 2002, Heckler & Koch is acquired by Andreas Heeschen and Keith Halsey. With its new owners, Heckler & Koch pursues a strategic reorientation: the product portfolio was diversified, distribution was internationalised, and the head office and production location of Oberndorf was boosted.

Heckler & Koch was founded by Edmund Heckler, Theodor Koch and Alex Seidel in 1949. At the outset, the company produces replacement parts for household appliances and bicycles. As one of only a few German firms, Heckler & Koch was already permitted to manufacture weapons and replacement parts for the police, German federal border police and the allied occupation troops during the armaments ban enforced by the Allies. After the end of the armaments ban, as well as the decision in favor of German rearmament and the accompanying establishment of the Bundeswehr in 1955, Heckler & Koch is transformed into a purely armament business. In 1959, Heckler & Koch was awarded a Bundeswehr supply contract for the G3 infantry rifle. It becomes the standard rifle of the Bundeswehr. Since then, Heckler & Koch has been a key element of the security infrastructure of Germany and the West.

Of all the guns that H&K made over the years, one rifle provides the best example of the company's impact on world conflicts: The G3 rifle, first manufactured in 1959 as the Bundeswehr soldier's standard weapon, is one of the most ubiquitous assault rifles in the world — some say second only to the Kalashnikov AK47. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have been killed by G3s in the world's conflicts since their initial production. Because a well-maintained rifle can function for decades, the G3 has inevitably made its way into the hands of virtually every terrorist organization or extremist militia on every continent.

In the much less restrictive early days of German arms sales, successive West German governments approved the sale of G3s to 80 countries. But that wasn't how the gun truly became a worldwide hit: Between 1961 and 1981, Bonn also allowed H&K to sell licenses to manufacture G3s to 15 countries. This meant that Germany was effectively exporting gun franchises directly to places that would, sooner or later, become conflict zones.

The countries that received G3 licenses over those two decades included Iran, Mexico, Myanmar (then known as Burma), Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — all countries either involved in major wars, internal armed conflicts or proxy wars through militias like Hezbollah. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to ascertain exactly how many G3s are still in circulation, though it is likely to be at least 7 to 10 million.

That story was repeated with the weapon that became the G3's successor in the German military — the G36: first manufactured in 1997 and capable of even greater power and accuracy than the G3. By the time the G36 began to be sold around the world, German export controls had become much stricter, and licenses were only granted to Spain and Saudi Arabia. Mexico was also in talks to get a license, but those broke down when Mexico introduced its own FX-05 Xiuhcoatl weapon in 2006, which many noted was suspiciously similar to the G36, and which is the subject of another investigation into whether H&K secretly sold expertise to help Mexico.

Still, in its relatively brief 20-year history — and despite Germany's stricter controls — the G36 has found its way into the hands of state and non-state belligerents around the world, including Egypt, Moammar Gadhafi's Libyan army, Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, and the Saudi Arabian army and police force.

The Bundeswehr is in the market for a new assault rifle, and all of Germany's major gun-makers had now thrown their bids in the ring. Both Sig Sauer and Rheinmetall (the latter in collaboration with Steyr Mannlicher) both announced plans to offer a gun, and now Heckler & Koch followed suit. "Of course, we will take part in the bidding process - assault rifles are our core business," Heckler & Koch CEO Norbert Scheuch told the DPA news agency. "We are very well positioned for the upcoming competition," the CEO said, after presenting the new HK433 assault rifle in Las Vegas as an alternative.

But Scheuch's statements came with a tang of bitterness, as the reason that there is a competition in the first place was a dispute between the Oberndorf firm and the German Defense Ministry, which ended H&K's contract to supply the German military with its G36 assault rifle after tests suggested the rifle overheated and lost accuracy from intense use in hot weather. Nevertheless, the German government has since made peace with H&K, not least after a state court ruled in 2016 that the G36 had no flaws that violated the firm's contract. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen insisted late in 2016 that the G36, the Bundeswehr's standard gun since 1997, would be phased out and that a replacement would be phased in from 2020.

Otfried Nassauer, founder and director of the Berlin Information Center for Transatlantic Security (BITS), one of the three German bidders is most likely to win - and H&K certainly has a good chance with its new HK433. "It was always more robust than the G36 - but it is also more expensive," he told DW. "It looks like this rifle is more than a HK416F [the assault rifle H&K sold to the French military last year] with further modernizations. Some features from the G36 have gone into it, plus a few new elements. ... The rifleman can change the ammunition caliber without a problem."

Not only that, given that H&K specializes in assault rifles and has enjoyed a position as the Bundeswehr's main gun supplier since the 1960s, it is arguably in the best lobbying position in Berlin's corridors of power. "But the entry of Rheinmetall has created a more dangerous competitor than Sig Sauer," said Nassauer. "Rheinmetall is a big company with a big political lobby. It's the biggest German arms supplier." H&K needs the contract more than others - the arms manufacturer is known to be in considerable debt (several hundred million euros), and had to receive a 60-million-euro ($65-million) cash injection in 2015. "They really need the contract," said Nassauer.

Six former employees, including two former executives, of German gunmaker Heckler & Koch went on trial in Stuttgart on 15 May 2018 over the illegal sale of thousands of G36 assault rifles to Mexico between 2006 and 2009 — a deal that violated both Germany's War Weapons Control Act and the Foreign Trade Act. The deal's bloody consequences were demonstrated most obviously on September 26, 2014, when a bus full of Mexican teaching students was attacked in Iguala, Guerrero, by police. Six were shot dead, 40 were injured, and another 43 simply "disappeared," as thousands of others have in Mexico's ongoing drug war. It is believed that corrupt police officers turned the demonstrators over to a local mafia, the Guerreros Unidos, who murdered them and burnt the bodies.

By 2015, German and Mexican journalists and activists had proved beyond doubt that H&K guns were used during the attack. That revelation came out of a documentary aired by German public broadcaster ARD, which proved that the guns were being used in parts of Mexico that German law had forbidden, that Mexican government officials had no intention to sticking to this proviso, or were not even aware of it, and that H&K helped train police officers in the forbidden regions.

The many years of protests and the media attention that the illegal Mexico G36 deal dragged with it, had a noticeable impact on Heckler & Koch: On May 11, just days before the trial was due to begin, the company released a fairly momentous statement confirming a policy change first reported last year: "Our products will from now on only be delivered to states that as 'green countries' fulfill clear and justifiable criteria," it read. "This includes states that belong to EU or NATO or have concluded association agreements with NATO, and additionally fulfill further conditions." That means H&K's own ethical standards are effectively stricter than those of the German government.

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Page last modified: 15-05-2018 11:40:05 ZULU