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West Coast Marines, Japanese troops focus on amphibious operations as China becomes more active in Pacific

In the coming weeks, a Japanese amphibious force will work alongside Marines in California as part of a joint exercise to coordinate amphibious operations.

The five-week exercise includes planning to seize objectives in real-world amphibious scenarios and will also include advanced marksmanship, amphibious reconnaissance, fire and maneuver assaults, logistics, medical support and fire support operations such as mortars, artillery and close-air support, according to a statement from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, planners for the I Marine Expeditionary Force exercise.

“It is through hard yet realistic training which embodies our universal warrior ethos that we continually build on established relationships between partners and allies,” said Col. Christopher Bronzi, 15th MEU commanding officer.

The 15th iteration of the bilateral exercise known as “Iron Fist" kicks off on Friday and and involves a Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces’ 2nd Amphibious Rapid Deployment Regiment Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, which is sending about 330 personnel for the exercise.

The brigade is charged with protecting southern islands of Japan that do not have established units on site. For that it needs to move and displace in amphibious terrain quickly.

Participating Marine units include elements of: 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit; 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment; 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment; Combat Logistics Battalion 15; 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing; 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion; 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO); 1st Reconnaissance Battalion; amphibious transport dock ship Portland (LPD-27) and dock landing ship Pearl Harbor (LSD-52), Amphibious Squadron 5, 1st Lt. Pedro Caballero, 15th MEU spokesman, wrote in an email to Marine Corps Times.

“We won’t publicly name any country, but the fact is that the Chinese navy has frequently made incursions into the Pacific Ocean by passing through the Miyako Strait,” a Japanese defense official told Japan Times in April. “They’ve become increasingly active (in the Pacific) over the past five years.”

Japanese officials have spoken publicly about Chinese military aircraft, submarines and warships making deeper excursions in the Western Pacific Ocean, specifically crossing waters between Okinawa, Japan, and Miyako Island in both 2017 and 2018, according to Japan Times.

The Miyako Strait is considered a strategic choke point that experts say the Chinese navy must travel to be considered a true blue water navy in the Pacific and move beyond coastal maneuvers.

In mid-2019, reports from Japan Times also referenced a three-month deployment of the Izumo helicopter carrier ― one of the two largest vessels in the Japanese fleet. That carrier was slated to traverse areas of both the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

Though the Izumo-class vessels were built to launch helicopters, in 2018 the Japanese government announced plans to convert some of those helicopter carriers to make them capable of launching F-35B stealth fighters.

The year 2019 was the first time Japan brought its own assault amphibious vehicles to the U.S. for the exercise, according to Marine Corps statements.

“The development brought about by [Japan’s] own assault amphibious vehicles significantly increases [their] ability to employ amphibious combat power and keep the people of Japan safe from our adversaries,” said the then-commander of 1st Marine Division, Maj. Gen. Robert F. Castellvi.

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