Flakpanzer Gepard: Relic or Drone Killer?

The popularity of unmanned systems on the battlefields of Ukraine has inspired the renaissance of the German self-propelled anti-aircraft gun (SPAAG), Flakpanzer Gepard. A relic of the Cold War, the anti-aircraft capabilities of the Gepard have largely been surpassed by modern missile technologies. In Ukraine however, further behind the lines, the 1960s German SPAAG has carved out a new niche, excelling in combating the technological cutting edge of Russia’s arsenal.

“Today, Gepard is the best in this regard [shooting down UAVs]– in terms of cost-effectiveness. … we need more of them, both Gepard systems and their analogues.” Ukrainian’s Air Force spokesman, Yurii Ihnat, speaking about the Flakpanzer Gepard in Ukraine [source]

Schematics and Specifications of the German Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft gun Flakpanzer Gepard (SPAAG). Graphic: Grey Dynamics

1.0 Development History

1.1 Early Development

In the early 1960s, the Bundeswehr called for the development of a new gun based anti-aircraft in order to replace the ageing American M42 Duster. The 1950s-era dual 40mm anti-aircraft gun design had fallen out of favour during the Vietnam War years, lacking the guidance systems of emerging anti-aircraft technology. [Source]

The design specifications were:

  • A mobile self-propelled anti-aircraft vehicle capable of keeping pace with armoured units
  • Dual anti-aircraft guns with radar-assisted detection and aiming
An Image of the M42 Duster, a relic of the Korean War.
A relic of the Korean War the American M42 Duster lacked the guidance systems to compete with 1960s air threats. Image source [source]

In 1963, during the early stages of development, designers envisaged that the new German SPAAG would utilise the still-in-development Marder IFV chassis. However, the requirement for a modern search and tracking radar proved to be too heavy for the Marder’s suspension. [source]

By 1965, German designers decided that the proven Leopard 1 MBT chassis would be more suitable to support the new turret. The Leopard hull provided not only greater power and mobility but also greater survivability for the crew, protecting them from artillery spray. [Source]

1.2 Specification of the Flakpanzer Gepard

Chassis (with Gepard turret) [source]

  • Number of Crew – 3
  • Length – 7.68 metres
  • Width – 3.71 metres
  • Height – 3.29 metres
  • Weight – 47.5 tonnes
  • Armour – 40mm of steel

Mobility [Source]

  • Engine – 830HP Multi Fuel V-10 Diesel
  • Range – 373 miles (600 km)
  • Max Road Speed – 40 mph (65 km)

Two competing Leopard-based SPAAG had emerged by 1969: Rheinmetall’s “Matador” and Oerlikon’s (less catchy) “5PFZ-A ”. Following indecision over the adoption of 30mm or 35mm auto-cannons, in 1970 the “5PFZ-A” was favoured. The 5PFZ-A baptised the Flugabwehrkanonenpanzer Geapard, was to be equipped with two of Oerlikon’s own 35mm. [Source]

Schematics and Specifications of the German Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun Flakpanzer Gepard (SPAAG). Graphic: Grey Dynamics

The specification of the Gepards weapon and radar systems:

Dual 35x228mm Oerlikon-KDA autocannon [Source]

  • Barrel Length – 3.15 metres
  • Rate of Fire – 1,100 rounds per minute (550 rounds per gun)
  • Ammunition – 320 HE rounds and 20 rounds of FAPDS for ground targets
  • Effective Range – 3.5km (air targets) to 4.5km (ground targets)

Siemens Radar set-up (Germany) [Source]

  • S-Band Search Radar (rear of turret)
  • Ku-Band Doppler Search Radar (front of the turret)

The Dutch Gepard can be distinguished by its Phillips radar setup which is a ‘bar’ shape unlike the German ‘trough’ shaped Siemens system. [Source]

Phillips Radar set-up (Netherlands) [source]

  • X-Band Doppler Search Radar (rear of the turret)
  • X-Band Monopulse Tracking Radar (front of the turret)

In 1973, the Bundeswehr ordered 420 Flakpanzer Gepard. The Netherlands would also purchase 95, fitting them with their own radars developed by Phillips. The Flakpanzer Gepard officially entered service in 1976. In total, 527 units were produced by German manufacturers. 

List of Flakpanzer Gepard Operators, German (G) and Dutch (D) stock:

  • Brazil (G)
  • Belgium (G) (retired 2006)
  • Chile (G) (retired 2011)
  • West Germany/Germany (G) (retired 2010)
  • Jordan (D)
  • Netherlands (D) (retired 2006)
  • Romania (G)
  • Ukraine (G)
An image of a Dutch Flakpanzer Gepard  also known as the "Cheetah"
Dutch Flakpanzer Gepard (“Cheetah”) in trials, 1976. The Dutch Variant is equipped with the distinctive ‘bar’ shaped Phillips radar system.

1.3 Variants of the Flakpanzer Gepard

Gepard 1A2 [source]:

  • Upgraded Fire Control System
  • Stabilised Thermal Sight
  • Video Auto-Tracker

Gepard CA2 [source]:

  • Dutch variant also called “Cheetah”
  • Phillips radar systems

PRTL-35mm GWI [source]:

  • Dutch upgrade variant
  • Upgraded Radars and Radios

2.0 Out with the guns, in with the missiles?

2.1 Surface-to-Air Missile Supremacy

During the development of the Gepard, the anti-aircraft gun was in a period of doctrinal flux.

As of the 1960s, the role of gun based anti-aircraft weaponry was becoming increasingly narrow. With Third Generation Jet fighters travelling faster than Mach 2, Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) were the more advanced and reliable option. [Source]

US and Soviet anti-aircraft development programmes became heavily focused on SAMs, representing the technological edge of anti-aircraft weaponry and a key deterrent in the Cold War arms race. [Source]

2.2 Never underestimate the anti-aircraft gun

The 1973 Yom Kippur War however demonstrated that gun-based anti-aircraft guns were underestimated and far from obsolete. Contemporary missile systems proved to be woefully inadequate at responding to close-range low-flying attack helicopters at short notice.

The Soviet short-range SAM anti-air system, 93KK Osa, took approximately 30 seconds to become operationally effective against threats with no prior warning. Meanwhile, the then-experimental Soviet gun-based anti-aircraft system, the 2K22 Tunguska, was operational within 8-10 seconds. [Source]

An image of the American MIM-3 Nike Ajax Surface to Air Missile.
The MIM-3 American Nike Ajax entered service in 1954 as the world’s first operational Surface to Air Missile. Image source [source]

The 1973 Yom Kippur War demonstrated that gun-based anti-aircraft guns had previously been underestimated and were far from obsolete. Contemporary missile systems proved to be woefully inadequate at responding to close-range low-flying attack helicopters at short notice.

The Soviet short-range SAM anti-air system, 93KK Osa, took approximately 30 seconds to become operationally effective against threats with no prior warning. Meanwhile, the then-experimental Soviet gun-based anti-aircraft system, the 2K22 Tunguska, was operational within 8-10 seconds. [Source]

An image of a Soviet 2K22 Tunguska on parade in Moscow. The 2K22 SPAAG has rivaled the German and now Ukrainian Gepard.
The Soviet 2K22 Tunguska began development in 1970. The introduction of the 93KK Osa in the mid-1970s slowed the development of the Tunguska and the Soviet SPAAG would not enter service until 1982. Image Source [Source].

Upon finally entering service in 1976, the Flakpanzer Gepard was a sophisticated state-of-the-art weapon system, capable of filling the doctrinal gap exposed during the 1973 war. The Gepard would not act alone but as part of an anti-aircraft network, complimenting medium and long-range SAMs by chewing up aircraft daring to fly at low altitudes to avoid radar detection. [Source]

However, developments in anti-tank guided missiles and over-horizon attack weapons during the 1980s would once again bring into question the role of gun-based anti-air systems that required a direct line of sight. [Source]

3.0 Operational History

By the 2010s, the Flakpanzer Gepard had mostly fallen out of favour in the Bundeswehr without ever seeing combat action. Steadily being replaced by the Wiesel 2 Ozelot, a SAM-mounted tankette, Germany’s Gepards were sold and donated to a host of militaries, both within NATO and worldwide. [Source] Notably, Germany sold 15 Gepards to Qatar in 2018 to improve their air defence when they hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup in the same year. [Source]

3.1 Ukraine

In early 2022, Germany was initially very reluctant to provide Ukraine with ‘lethal aid’, mocked for offering up 5,000 helmets over desperately needed weapons and ammunition. [Source

In April 2023, Germany adopted a more active defence policy and pledged 52 Flakpanzer Gepards. The German government also pledged 166,000 rounds of ammunition as well as spare parts for the donated Gepards. Equipment for the Gepard was from Bundeswehr’s Cold War stocks as well as industry-limited stocks. [Source]

“Against helicopters, some types of subsonic missiles and warplanes performing a low pass maneuver, i.e flying at a low altitude,” Oleksandr Kovalenko explains the Gepards role in Ukraine, August 2022. [source]

Despite the belief that the Gepard would bolster Ukraine’s defence against Russian helicopters and aircraft, the German SPAAG really came into its own during Russia’s winter 2022 missile and drone strikes on energy infrastructure.

The internal computer on board Flakpanzer Gepard 1a2 allow the weapon system to receive data from nearby radars, increasing the detection range of the SPAAG.

“Considering that it is quite a modern modification, it can be integrated into our general air defense system … so that it could receive targeting from more powerful radar stations. This way, while a missile is still coming, the Gepard is already waiting for it, preparing,” said Gepard expert Oleksii Bobovnikov. [source]

3.2 The Drone Hunter

Travelling at less than Mach one, Russian cruise missiles and loitering munitions are well within the capabilities of the Gepard. For example, the Kh-101 and Shahed-136, which have been used extensively in strikes against civilian infrastructure, travel at Mach 0.6-0.78 and 115 mph respectively. [Source]

Gepard is also Ukraine’s most cost-effective anti-missile system. For reference, Rheinmetall recently signed a £72 million contract to provide Ukraine with 150,000 rounds of Gepard ammunition, roughly £480 per round. [Source]

Ukrainian Gepard shoots down a Russian cruise missile.

This has allowed Gepard to take some of the strain off of Ukraine’s more capable anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems PATRIOT and S-300, which cost an estimated £3.16 million and £1.58 million per missile respectively. [Source], [source]

The Gepard has carved itself out a reputation as a highly reliable and economical counter to Russia’s Iranian-designed Shahed-136 loitering munitions. The cost of Shahed-136/131 UAVs is estimated to range from £150,000 for Iranian exports to £38,000 for Russian production models. [Source]

An image of a Shahed 136 destroyed and lying on the floor. Likely shot down by Ukrainian Anti-Aircraft weapons. Ukraine.
The Iranian-designed Shahed-136 are easy targets for Ukrainian Gepards.

The primary drawback of the Gepard in Ukraine is that there are relatively few, numbering 52 as of March 2024, with Germany pledging to buy back an additional 15 from Qatar and the US looking to buy another 30 from various nations. [Source] Unlike West Germany which sought to operate over 400 Gepards alongside SAM systems, Ukraine lacks the numbers to provide sufficient air coverage and volume of fire across its 600-mile front with Russia.

3.3 Cheaper alternatives?

Whilst the Flakpanzer Gepard has rediscovered its doctrinal niche, the weapon system is likely to be a stop-gap technology as anti-drone technology is being rapidly developed in response to the Russo-Ukraine War. 
For example, an August 2023 US aid package contained, VAMPIRE, a palletised anti-aircraft system capable of destroying loitering munitions. Designed by L3 Harris, the VAMPIRE can be attached to a flatbed truck, making it highly flexible. Equipped with a 70mm rocket, priced at $27,000 per unit, the VAMPIRE is far more portable and easily maintainable than traditional anti-aircraft systems.

In January 2024, the UK armed forces successfully demonstrated the viability of laser-based anti-drone technology. The British Ministry of Defence reported that the DragonFire system had “the precision required … to [hit] a £1 coin from a kilometre away.”. Whilst unable to combat faster-moving air targets, laser technology presents an even more cost-effective future for anti-small and medium drone weaponry; needing only a reliable power source. [Source]

4.0 Conclusion

Despite the renaissance of the Gepard, Germany is firmly focused on the next generation of SPAAG. In 2021, Germany officially replaced the Gepard with the Skyranger 30, a short-range air defence turret mounted on the Boxer armoured fighting vehicle chassis. [Source] The advanced German SPAAG, equipped with a single 30mm cannon and air defence missiles, is a significant upgrade on the Gepard:

Specifications of the Skyranger 30 Turret [Source]:

  • Gun – 30mm Oerlikon cannon 
  • Ammunition – Advanced Hit Efficiency and Destruction (AHEAD) airburst rounds
  • C-RAM – Is capable of destroying incoming rockets, missiles and mortar rounds
  • Missiles – Optional integrated Short Range Air Defence (SHORAD) missiles
  • Radar – Ku or X Band (Max. 20km range)
  • Fire Control System – Automatic target detection and fire on the move
An image of the new German Self Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun the Skyranger 30 on display in 2021.
The Skyranger 30 turret is mounted on the boxer hull.

No longer a first-rate SPAAG, the Gepard’s future is likely outside of NATO. Whilst a capable anti-drone weapon system, the Gepard is limited against modern conventional threats and relatively expensive to maintain. It is unlikely the future of anti-aircraft technology will turn its back on the autocannon, however. But recent trends do suggest cost-efficiency is now a forefront concern with development now focused on laser and electronic warfare alternatives.

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