Seventh Fleet's flagship, the USS Blue Ridge, is docked at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.

Seventh Fleet's flagship, the USS Blue Ridge, is docked at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. (Jennessa Davey/Stars and Stripes)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Marine commands from the U.S. and South Korea recently met for the first time aboard the 7th Fleet’s flagship to coordinate drills taking place more than 700 miles away.

Officers from the III Marine Expeditionary Force joined their South Korean counterparts aboard the USS Blue Ridge at Yokosuka on Aug. 24 to form a combined command for the second phase of Ulchi Freedom Shield, according to III MEF spokesman Lt. Col. Josh Diddams.

The occasion marked the first time that U.S. and South Korean marines have operated from the ship during the exercise, Diddams told Stars and Stripes by email Tuesday. Seventh Fleet staff also participated, with a “specific focus on the maritime component of the exercise,” he said.

Ulchi Freedom Shield kicked off Aug. 21 and is scheduled to conclude Thursday. The semiannual exercise consists of about 30 separate drills. U.S. Forces Korea and South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense describe it as routine, defensive training; South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Col. Lee Sung-jun also described it as a means “to counter the advancing threats from North Korea.”

The marines plan to operate from the Blue Ridge — the ship was in port at Yokosuka on Tuesday — as an amphibious command-and-control headquarters to coordinate the exercise, despite being approximately 720 miles away from the Korean Peninsula.

The Blue Ridge, the oldest deployed warship in the Navy, is purpose-built for such activities. While it typically serves as an emissary and platform for humanitarian efforts in the region during peacetime, it’s also equipped with a communication suite that allows it to operate as a command hub for fleetwide operations.

“Operating from the ship allows us to simulate command and control from the sea — which comes with unique challenges and opportunities,” Diddams wrote in his email. “These realistic conditions help to enhance our capability to respond and defend against any threat to [South Korea].”

The Navy describes the Blue Ridge as “the most capable command ship ever built,” representing “the accumulated knowledge of four decades” of Navy experience, according to the U.S. Naval Surface Force Pacific website.

The ship recently returned to Yokosuka after a 40-day patrol that included stops in Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. Its Aug. 17 return marked the completion of the ship’s first full patrol since 2019.

Stars and Stripes reporter David Choi contributed to this report.

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Alex Wilson covers the U.S. Navy and other services from Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Originally from Knoxville, Tenn., he holds a journalism degree from the University of North Florida. He previously covered crime and the military in Key West, Fla., and business in Jacksonville, Fla.

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