Rheinmetall’s Armin Papperger has emerged as a major player in the weapons business, and one of its most outspoken figures

By Alistair MacDonald

June 11, 2024

The Wall Street Journal


Armin Papperger has said his global arms giant plans to risk Russian attack and set up a factory in Ukraine capable of churning out 400 new tanks a year.  Such bold declarations have become a hallmark of the 61-year-old Bavarian, who has emerged as a major player in the weapons business and an outspoken figure in a typically reserved industry.

A keen hunter with a wave of white hair, Papperger has helped transform Rheinmetall from an obscure German engineering group into a global defense giant.

Demand for Rheinmetall’s military vehicles and artillery shells has soared since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, giving the company an order book worth some 40 billion euros, triple what it was at the end of 2021. Its stock is up more than 400% since the start of the war, outperforming every other major Western defense company.

Rheinmetall says hundreds of vehicles and millions of rounds of ammunition made by the company have been sent to Ukraine. This week it opened its first repair and maintenance center in the country, aimed at fixing German-made equipment closer to the battlefield.

Under Papperger, Rheinmetall has also pushed into in-demand weapons, such as rocket artillery, and entered the lucrative U.S. market. So far it has secured one key contract with the U.S. military, and is in contention for a second, larger deal—a relative rarity for a foreign business.

But the higher profile has led to some criticism, particularly in a home country that retains a strong postwar pacifist streak. Antimilitary protesters have descended on Rheinmetall’s factories and recorded raps attacking the company, while Papperger was directly targeted in May when arsonists burned down a garden shed at one of his houses.

Papperger’s frequent pronouncements have also irked some peers and politicians. “Mr. Papperger is making a lot of announcements, he is very loud,” said Sebastian Schäfer, a German lawmaker who sits on a parliamentary committee that oversees a 100 billion euro defense fund. “Instead of making big announcements, Rheinmetall should deliver.”  More than a year after talking up the idea of a tank factory in Ukraine, work on that facility—and several others Papperger has talked about building—has yet to begin. The company is “nowhere near” setting up a tank factory in Ukraine, Schäfer said.

Schäfer added that Papperger had told him last year that the repair center—opened this week—would be ready by the winter. Meanwhile, a lot of German-donated equipment had to be repaired outside of Ukraine, he said.

Rheinmetall’s local partner in Ukraine, state-owned Ukroboronprom, said financing hasn’t yet been raised for any production sites.  Rheinmetall declined to make Papperger available for this article but a spokesman said the company had “proven that we are walking our talk,” pointing to projects with the German military and the supplies sent to Ukraine.

The spokesman added that Papperger has always said Rheinmetall would first provide service and maintenance in Ukraine, with the production of vehicles “promised for a later phase” and the production of tanks “to follow in a final step.”

A man of the moment

Born in Bavaria, the affluent southern German province, Papperger studied engineering in Duisburg, a scruffy northern industrial city, before joining Rheinmetall in 1990 in a quality-management role. He worked his way up to become CEO in 2013.  While direct, Papperger is also said to be charming. He occasionally takes clients and colleagues hunting for deer and boar in a forest at the company’s test center in northern Germany. Invitations are coveted, and visitors are entertained in a reception where stag heads line the walls.

Since war began in Ukraine, Papperger has become a man of the moment, with ambitions to match. Rheinmetall has announced plans to expand or build at least eight factories in seven countries, and Papperger has met four different national leaders in recent months, including Germany’s twice. He met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last year, swapping his usual suit and silk scarf for jeans and a hoodie.  Some of Papperger’s assertions have led to friction with peers.  He angered fellow defense manufacturer KNDS when he said last year that the new Panther tank was entirely Rheinmetall’s creation. KNDS said the chassis of the Panther is based on the Leopard tank, which the two companies make together. Papperger’s comments led to a lawsuit, though the two parties settled before it got to court. Since then, Rheinmetall has said the Panther is entirely its own. KNDS didn’t respond to a request for comment.  Rheinmetall’s moves to expand overseas have also drawn scrutiny. Spain’s competition authority in May said the company had “concealed information” and “provided incomplete and misleading” data related to its 2022 acquisition of Expal, a Spanish ammunition maker.  Rheinmetall, which was fined 12 million euros, said it was examining the findings.

‘He can be very bullish’

Papperger is willing to take risks, such as investing substantial sums in research and development, as opposed to waiting for government support as peers often do, said Sash Tusa, an analyst at Agency Partners LLP.   For example, he developed the Panther and stockpiled the chemicals used in explosives at least a year before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which led to a surge in demand for artillery shells, Tusa said.  Papperger has said that as soon as he saw images of Russian troops assembling on Ukraine’s border, he prepared his employees for war.  “I listened to my gut feeling,” he told a German newspaper.

The purchase of Spain’s Expal, shortly after the start of the Ukraine war, was also timely. Since the deal, the price of 155mm artillery shells has quadrupled, making ammunition one of the

industry’s most lucrative products. When giving financial targets, Papperger often gives optimistic forecasts, analysts say.   “He can be very bullish,” Tusa said.

Rheinmetall is increasingly focusing on the U.S., where European companies have typically struggled to make headway. Last year it won a contract for a fleet of military trucks, and now it is one of two final bidders, alongside General Dynamics, competing to replace the Bradley fighting vehicle. Investors have taken note. Rheinmetall’s stock has risen about 450% since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, outperforming U.S. peers such as Lockheed Martin, up around 20%, and General Dynamics, up about 40%. BAE Systems, Europe’s largest defense company, has gained roughly 130%.  In a region where arms companies typically keep a low profile, “Rheinmetall was invisible” before Papperger, said Nicholas Drummond, a defense consultant.  “Defense needs to make a noise because rearmament has become urgent, and he is the face of that,” Drummond said.


Georgi Kantchev and Chelsey Dulaney contributed to this article.

Alistair MacDonald is a senior reporter for The Wall Street Journal in London, where he covers European defense companies and Ukraine, in particular stories related to arms supply, corruption and the war’s effects on the global food chain. Alistair also takes an interest in the intellectual and developmental disabilities community, writing about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine on people with autism, Down syndrome and other conditions. Alistair has won several awards, including six Sabews and an OPC. He has held a variety of jobs at the Journal, including markets editor for EMEA, senior Canada correspondent, and U.K. politics and general news reporter in London. Alistair has also worked at Reuters and outlets in his native North East of England.