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NATO air exercise involving Japan begins amid Russian war in Ukraine

A large-scale air exercise by NATO members started Monday in Germany with Japan joining as an observer as the organization seeks to demonstrate solidarity amid Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine.

Dubbed "the largest deployment exercise of air forces in NATO's history" by the German Air Force, the Air Defender 23 exercise in European airspace through June 23 brings together up to 10,000 personnel and 250 airplanes from 23 NATO members, as well as Sweden and Japan.

The United States alone is dispatching about 2,000 air and ground crew and 100 aircraft, including state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighter jets, while Japan's Air Self-Defense Force is sending a transport aircraft, according to the German force.

The 31-member NATO and Tokyo have been strengthening their partnership in the Indo-Pacific, where Beijing's maritime assertiveness has been growing, as they see the security situations in the region interlinked with that in Europe.

NATO views Japan as a partner nation, along with South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, in an attempt to keep in check an assertive China, as well as its intensifying military collaboration with Russia.

By taking part in the exercise, Japan aims to gain more defense cooperation from European countries, according to a Defense Ministry source.

Under the scenario that a NATO member is under an armed attack, the multinational training exercise aims to enhance the alliance's collective defense efforts based on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

The exercise had been planned before Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but German Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, chief of the German Air Force, said that showing NATO's defense capabilities now will be an important "signal," in a veiled warning against Russia.

The war in Ukraine pushed Sweden and Finland to reconsider their decades-long military neutrality and both applied to join NATO in May last year.

Finland, a neighbor of Russia, became the 31st member in April after unanimous approval, while Sweden's bid is currently on hold due to reservations from Turkey and Hungary.