(CN) — Slowly, cautiously and proudly, Germany is rebuilding its armed forces and beginning to flex its military muscles – a development long desired by the United States, NATO and hawks in Europe, but regarded with unease by those who dread seeing Berlin's return to militarism.
In a first timid show of global prowess last August, Germany's air force – the Luftwaffe – launched six Eurofighter jets from the Neuburg an der Donau airfield in Bavaria to join Western military exercises in Australia meant to deter China's rising power.
The fighter jets, accompanied by seven massive transport planes that provided in-air refueling, made it to Singapore in just over 20 hours with a stop in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, to change pilots.
In Australia, 250 German soldiers took part in the drills and one of the transport planes continued on its way across the Pacific Ocean to circumnavigate the globe – a first for Germany's post-war air force – on its return to Germany after stops in Tahiti and Bolivia.
Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, declared it an unprecedented mission to the Indo-Pacific and a major success.
It was a small, but significant, step for Germany, a nation haunted by its Nazi past but also embarrassed by the poor state of its armed forces, a favorite punchline on late-night comedy shows.
The TV shows have plenty of material to work with.
Last December, 18 of Germany's ultra-modern Puma infantry fighting vehicles broke down due to electronic problems and other defects. Soldiers in one tank had to abandon it after its wiring caught fire, media reported. In recent years, much of its fleet of Eurofighter jets, transport planes and submarines were found unprepared for combat.
And then there's the broomstick incident. In 2015, German soldiers used black-painted broomsticks because they lacked machine guns during a NATO exercise. That took place a year after the Ukraine crisis exploded following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has crushed Germany's post-Cold War illusions about a future of peace in Europe and forced the country to begin making its once-formidable military strong again.
At least, its leaders are talking a lot about doing this.
After the outbreak of the catastrophic war in Ukraine in February 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged an infusion of 100 billion euros (about $108 billion) into the military and a major increase of annual military spending.
Since then, he's had himself photographed sitting on German tanks; pushed to create a transnational European air defense system; and touted Europe's need to defend itself against Russia's autocracy to prevent a new Iron Curtain from dividing Europe.
He also approved training Ukrainian soldiers in Germany and sent German-made weapons, including Leopard 2 combat tanks and howitzers, to Ukraine, thereby breaking a German taboo against shipping arms into a war zone.
Germany has in the past sent weapons to conflict zones, but not one where two sovereign nations were fighting each other. In 2015, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel authorized German weapons to be sent to the Kurds in the fight against ISIS and last year Germany lifted an arms ban to Saudi Arabia in its war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“We aren’t taking Russia’s attack on peace in Europe lying down,” Scholz said last August in a major speech at the Charles University in Prague. “We will not stand idly by and watch women, men and children being killed or free countries being rubbed off the map and disappearing behind walls or iron curtains. We don’t want to go back to the 19th or 20th century with their wars of occupation and totalitarian excesses.”
But the amount of work and investment needed to get the Bundeswehr into fighting shape may take years.