CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Over the next five weeks, a small force of Japanese soldiers is getting down and dirty with U.S. Marines, learning from them what it means to fight from the sea.
Japan’s eye is on the calendar. In two years, it expects to stand up the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, its first amphibious unit, and it needs a credible force to bolster its national defense capabilities.
About 300 soldiers from Japan’s Western Army Infantry Regiment arrived at Camp Pendleton last week for the annual training exercise— Iron Fist 2016. They are training alongside 500 Marines, mostly members of the Camp Pendleton-based 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, in scenarios that will take them from the large amphibious training base to desert training at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., and offshore San Clemente Island.
In recent years, and through annual Iron Fist exercise, Japan’s military has been developing its own tactics, techniques and procedures in amphibious operations, guided by U.S. Marines and their naval counterparts. This year, unlike last year’s exercise, Japanese soldiers will get to sea: They will embark USS Somerset (LPD-25) to get familiar with sea operations and learn to plan and practice amphibious raids and assaults that will take place at San Clemente Island and Camp Pendleton.
The Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers just might be part of a new unit of 3,000 troops that by 2018 will provide Japan with an expeditionary force it can send to respond to national emergencies or hold or retake a far-flung island—without necessarily trailing U.S. forces. Japan wants a force that can rapidly deploy to emergency situations—like what it encountered after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami—and also secure Japan’s interests with the defense of its far-reaching islands under threat of China’s growing naval reach and influence in the region. It also could go to the defense of a partner nation under a recent reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution.
“By 2018, we are going to establish an amphibious brigade, and we are planning to make sure they improve on their skill sets,” said Col. Yoshiyuki Goto, the regimental commander, speaking through a translator. “The things we are focusing on [include] the ship-to-shore landing, but after the landing, being able to conduct [missions] and maneuver properly. That is what we want to improve by going to Twentynine Palms.”
This year’s exercise kicked off with a ceremony on 22 January. A contingent of Japanese soldiers and U.S. Marines, along with their color guards, stood at attention on the parade deck flanked by a pair of amphibious assault vehicles, 155mm howitzer cannons and Humvee. The Japanese soldiers settled into barracks at Camp Margarita, the home garrison for the 1st Marine Division.
Iron Fist, I MEF’s largest bilateral exercises held in Southern California, has been conducted annually since 2006 with a focus of improving the Western Army Infantry Regiment’s ability to plan, communicate and coordinate with a larger combined force in conducting amphibious operations, considered among the most complex military missions.
Harry H. Hornouchi, Japan’s consulate-general in Los Angeles, traveled to Camp Pendleton for the opening ceremony. The U.S.-Japan military relationship is an important part of the bilateral security alliance, he said. Beyond the paper agreement is the need to bolster interoperability and build mutual trust between both nation’s militaries, which exercises such as “Iron Fist” are designed to do.
“We don’t have the amphibious ability” to train forces, Hornouchi said after the ceremony. “For more than 10 years, we have been learning from the Marine Corps to have that ability for island defense.”
“We have to protect the defense of those islands. That is very important,” he said, adding the close work and interactions with the Marines is helping develop and refine that amphibious capability.
Japan plans to equip its amphibious brigade with Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs), and the soldiers will get hands-on experience here operating and handling the vehicles in shipboard and littoral environments. The light-infantry force soldiers arrived with their small boats, small arms, machine guns and mortars, which the regimental commander expects they will put to good use during live-fire training in the desert.
Goto said “there are many limitations on the . . . types of training we are doing in Japan. Japan’s government is weighing expanding military training ranges and facilities at home, “but for now, the training here is very fruitful.”
“I am telling my troops that this is a very rare opportunity, so we want to take as much as possible from the Marines and take it back to our home country,” he said. At Twentynine Palms, “we will conduct live fire and tactical-level firing training.”
That will happen in restricted airspace at the desert base, something that Goto said will be an invaluable experience for his troops. “This type of training is not very possible in Japan,” he said. “By doing this, we will get very good training, and we will also be able to recognize our shortfall and what we will need to bring to the table in order to make ourselves a better regiment.”
The exercise will be memorable in other ways, too: Most of Goto’s soldiers have never been on board a ship and will get to experience life at sea for the first time.
Col. Clay Tipton, the 11th MEU commander, said “In the short span of a decade, this exercise allows our two services to come together and practice amphibious operations at a platoon, company and battalion level.” Marines and soldiers will practice marksmanship, amphibious reconnaissance and close-air support, among other skills. The pairing with Marines is very fitting. “Our roots are naval in nature. It’s what the 11th MEU does on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
The focus is on building individual and collective unit skill sets, Tipton said. Just working through the language barriers “will improve any unit that works with a host nation or partner military.”
After “lane training”—focused on individual and small-unit skills—the Marines and Japanese soldiers will travel to Twentynine Palms for live-fire and maneuver training. Then they will board ships, including Somerset, for amphibious training. “It’s a building-block approach, and it’s pretty complex,” Tipton said.
The move to create a credible amphibious force hinges on getting soldiers—sea soldiers, or “marines” in a sense—on board naval craft, something not typical routinely done among Japan’s self-defense forces. Recent training has seen an increasing cooperation among Japan’s military branches, notably the maritime or naval joining with the ground or army self-defense forces, as it plans for a more integrated joint force. For example, Japanese soldiers boarded three Japanese naval ships off Camp Pendleton in early September for amphibious-operations training during the joint multilateral exercise Dawn Blitz, which included forces from New Zealand and Mexico.