MV-22 Ospreys bring Japanese soldiers ashore at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Feb. 13 for the final phase of exercise Iron Fist, an annual U.S.-Japan bilateral training. Japan is responding to regional security concerns by flexing and improving its military capabilities. (Gidget Fuentes / Staff)
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CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Hauling large packs, rifles and 84mm mortar tubes, they stormed ashore from Navy ships Feb. 13 looking a lot like Marine infantrymen. But these grunts belonged instead to a company-size force with Japan's Western Army Infantry Regiment, having traveled here for the annual three-week exercise Iron Fist.
Now in its eighth year, the exercise is designed to enhance the Navy and Marine Corps' interoperability with Japan. Yet unlike years past, this iteration featured Japanese troops much more willing to publicly display some of their tactical might.
Indeed, Japan's military is classified as a self-defense force, established to maintain peace, protect the homeland and provide disaster relief. Its soldiers don't tend to execute beach assaults, as Japan's military has no unit like the Marine Corps, but driven by fears of missile attacks from its unpredictable neighbor North Korea, these skills are becoming a growing interest among leaders there.
"They want to be a more viable force," said Col. Christopher D. Taylor, commander of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. His Marines partnered with the Japanese throughout Iron Fist. "As a [U.S. treaty] partner, they are stepping up."
Despite expanding its missile defense and stepping up talk about remilitarization, Japan remains sensitive to any impression of having offensive capabilities. Dozens of Japanese journalists followed every aspect of Iron Fist — from opening ceremonies at Camp Pendleton to desert training at in Twentynine Palms, Calif., and later operations on San Clemente Island, the Navy's offshore range — but they didn't capture any images of soldiers loading their rifles with blank rounds. They did so out of sight from the press.
Taylor, a veteran pilot who has interacted with Japan's military in several overseas assignments, including as commander of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265 in Okinawa, described the Japanese approach to tactical decision-making as having evolved, calling it "much more aggressive."
Speaking at a Feb. 11 press briefing, Maj. Gen. Melvin G. Spiese, deputy commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force, said Japan's military capabilities have grown significantly during the last decade. He pointed to the North Korea threat and noted Japan's build-up of its ballistic missile defenses.
"We are seeing the Japanese increasing their ability to provide their own security," he said. "That is a benefit to the United States as we leverage our resources across the world as best we can."
Japan muscles up
The U.S. wants to position the majority of its deployed forces in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020, a plan that faces near-term uncertainty if Congress fails to avert mandatory defense cuts set to take effect March 1. A stronger Japan, Spiese said, will increase stability in that region, "and that might allow us to adjust where we have to array our forces and capabilities around the world."
Like other nations in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia and India, Japan is looking to build its skills and abilities both at sea and in projecting forces from the sea. For them, doing so is a national security issue, the general said. Japan faces a handful of security challenges today beyond the North Korea threat, most notably a dispute with China over the Senkaku islands, an area thought to contain large oil reserves.
Col. Matsushi Kunii, a Japanese regimental commander, said the self-defense forces need to build a structure that integrates air, ground and maritime forces. As such, throughout Iron Fist Japanese commanders were carefully watching the Marine Corps, which organizes and often fights as an air-ground task force. But there are several other advantages to training with the Marine Corps and Navy, especially on their turf, Kunii said.
"In Japan, our live-fire training areas are somewhat limited," he said. "So having those areas available to us is important. Also, having sea space … that allows us to train, which is important since we don't have those kinds of training opportunities in and around Japan."
Experiencing conditions like those off the California coast, where there are large waves and high sea states compared with Japan, "is good training for us," he added.
Another contingent of Japanese troops is scheduled to visit California in June for an appreciably larger exercise, Dawn Blitz. It's set to include U.S. and Japanese naval ships, with the Japanese landing force operating under its own control, Spiese said.
"It's targeting particular objectives that the Japanese have asked we work with them in achieving," the general said. "We are getting everything out of Iron Fist — and we will in Dawn Blitz — that they have been designed to achieve."