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Puma fighting vehicle to return to key NATO mission in first half of 2023 - Berlin

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany expects to field Puma infantry fighting vehicles for a key NATO mission in the first half of 2023, its chief of defence said on Friday, after Berlin had to withdraw the Puma from the alliance's quick reaction force due to problems in a drill.

"As soon as we have sufficient vehicles repaired and operational for one company, we will use it for the VJTF," Eberhard Zorn said, referring to NATO's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).

Germany this year leads the alliance's quick reaction unit that constitutes NATO's first line of response and reinforcement in case of a conflict or heightened tensions with Russia.

"I very strongly expect this (to see the Puma ready for the VJTF) in the first half of the year," Zorn added.

In December, Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said Germany would not purchase any more Pumas until they had proven themselves reliable, after several were put out of service during a military drill.

The Puma is an armed, armoured vehicle that carries troops into battle.

Shares in Rheinmetall AG, which manufactures the armoured vehicles together with Krauss-Maffei Wegmann GmbH & Co (KMW), went down 7% after the minister's announcement.

For the VJTF, Germany replaced the Puma temporarily with decades-old Marder infantry fighting vehicles - which the more advanced Puma is meant to succeed in future.

Germany has vowed to boost defence spending and modernise its military in the wake of the Ukraine war.

(Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Miranda Murray, editing by Rachel More)