Germany's Mighty Gepard - Dual 35 mm Autocannons - Tank Historia

Germany’s Mighty Gepard – Dual 35 mm Autocannons

The Gepard is everyone’s favourite self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. This double-barrelled beast was designed by the Germans in the 1960s and is still in use by a number of countries around the world.

The Gepard (German for Cheetah) was built on the hull of the equally legendary Leopard 1. This coupling created one of the most formidable self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAGs) ever made.

It carries its own radar system and two 35 mm Oerlikon autocannons that are effective out to a range of 5,500 meters. But the Gepard is not only useful against targets in the air. Its devastating twin-guns can be lowered and used against ground targets if necessary.

Gepard on display at The Tank Museum.
The Gepard is a incredibly powerful machine that has developed a large fan base for its firepower and uniqueness. Image by Alan Wilson CC BY-SA 2.0

It even carries a small stock of armor-piercing (AP) rounds in case it is greeted by an enemy armored vehicles.

From the 1970s to the 2000s the Gepard served as a crucial piece of the German Army’s (Bundeswehr) air defenses. Since 2010 Germany has either sold off their Gepards or placed them into storage.

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Air Defense

In the mid to late 1960s Germany seeked to replace its aging fleet of M42 Duster SPAAGs. These were American vehicles built through much of the 1950s. Armed with two 40 mm Bofors anti-aicraft guns they certainly packed a punch, but lacked range, had a relatively slow rate of fire and struggled against faster aircraft.

Germany wanted something more capable so two projects were started that aimed to produce a modern SPAAG.

One of these was the odd-looking “Matador” and the other was the 5PFZ. The 5PFZ was identified as the superior of the two and in 1969 a test batch of four was ordered. At this time the Germans were undecided on whether the vehicle should be armed with 30 mm or 35 mm cannons.

An M42 Duster self propelled anti-aircraft gun.
A German M42 Duster. Image by Unterillertaler CC BY-SA 3.0

Eventually they settled on 35 mm guns.

The 5PFZ would become the mighty Gepard.

The Dutch ordered some of these early vehicles, and would eventually come to own 95. In 1973 the German government signed a contract with the company Krauss-Maffei to produce well over 400 Gepards.

As it was a sophisticated machine, a Gepard cost around three times as much as a Leopard 1.

The Gepard

The Gepard is based on the hull of a Leopard 1. The Gepard’s hull is mostly the same as the standard Leopard main battle tank (MBT), but is slightly longer. Inside is the same 830 hp MTU V10 diesel engine as in the Leopard too, although six 24 volt batteries were added in the engine bay.

The Gepard also carried a 3.8 litre Daimler-Benz diesel auxiliary engine near the front left of the hull. In a normal Leopard this location contained an ammunition rack. The exhaust for this engine can be seen running down the left side of the Gepard’s hull.

Gepard exercises.
Romanian Land Forces soldiers from Iron Cheetahs move a Gepard to a new battle position during Rifle Forge at Bemowo Piskie Training Area, Poland.

The auxiliary engine drove 5 generators that powered different parts of the large turret. It also enabled the vehicle’s mission-related systems to function without the 37.4 litre main engine running.

Weighing around 53 tons the Gepard retains the Leopard’s much-admired mobility, with a top speed of 40 mph (65 km/h). Its armor is rather lacking though, with only enough to protect against shrapnel and small arms fire.

It has a crew of three: the commander, driver and gunner.

Inside Gepard turret.
The commander and gunners station inside the center of the turret. Image by High Contrast CC BY 3.0 de.

But the main feature of the Gepard is its impressive double-barrelled turret.

Autocannons

The turret contains two crew, two guns and and two radars. The commander and gunner sit side by side in the front and center of the turret.

A 35 mm Oerlikon KDA autocannon is mounted on each side of the turret, with both being able to pivot up and down. At maximum elevation the guns can point upwards at nearly 90 degrees, which, along with the turret’s 360 degrees of rotation, allow the Gepard to cover an entire half-sphere around the vehicle.

Each weapon has a fire rate of 550 rounds per minute, together putting out a devastating 1,100 35 mm rounds per minute. Only 340 rounds are carried per gun, giving the Gepard 37 seconds of continuous fire before running out of ammunition.

Gepard firing.
A Gepard spews fire and spent shells as it opens up its dual 35 mm guns. Image by Bundeswehr-Fotos CC BY 2.0.

At 90 calibers long these guns are extremely deadly against both aircraft and ground targets. Its FAPDS rounds have a muzzle velocity of 1,440 m/s (4,700 ft/s) and a range of 5,500 meters. A muzzle velocity sensor is present at the end of each barrel and feeds data into the fire control system to maintain optimum performance.

They fire the potent 35×228 mm standard NATO round in a range of types, such as HEI (High-Explosive Incendiary), FAPDS (Frangible Armor-Piercing Discarding-Sabot) and SAPHEI (Semi Armor-Piercing High-Explosive Incendiary). Usually Gepards are loaded with around 320 anti-aircraft rounds and 20 armor piercing rounds per gun.

The rounds are fed into the cannons as a linked belt, with both the shells and links being ejected from the guns outside the vehicle upon firing.

Gepard 35 mm muzzle brake.
Gepard 35 mm KDA autocannon muzzle brake. Note the muzzle velocity sensor wire on the right. Hans-Hermann Bühling CC BY-SA 3.0

Target Tracking

The guns do the talking, but the Gepard’s sophisticated search-and-tracking systems are the brains of the operation.

Two radars are installed on the turret: a large S-band search radar at the rear, and a smaller Ku-band tracking radar at the front.

The concave search radar has a range of 9.5 miles (15 km) and rotates 60 times a minute scanning the skies for targets. When not in use this radar can be retracted. Dutch vehicles are equipped with a “T” shape Phillips radar.

Gepard in The Tank Museum's arena.
Dutch Gepards can be identified by their “T” shaped search radars on the upper rear of the turret. Image by Alan Wilson CC BY-SA 2.0.

When the Gepard’s search radar has detected a target known to be hostile the tracking radar on the front of the turret takes over.

A fire control system (some are analog, some are digital) uses data from the radar and crew to automatically compensate for conditions such as distance and lead.

The Gepard’s excellent radar capabilities have been used by other combat teams not directly related to the SPAAGs.

Gepard front radar.
The Gepard’s front tracking radar. Image by Hans-Hermann Bühling CC BY-SA 3.0.

At sending a hail of anti-aircraft fire into the air, the Gepard is matched by few other vehicles. From its first entry into service with Germany in the 1970s, the it has been used by Belgium, Romania, Brazil, the Netherlands and Jordan.

The Bundeswehr retired the vehicle in 2010, with the type being replaced by the tiny Wiesel 2 Ozelot Leichtes Flugabwehrsystem. This version is armed with four Stinger missiles for anti-air use.

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Many are still in storage with Germany, who has recently announced that they will send 50 to Ukraine to assist in the ongoing conflict.