Elite Japanese paratrooper unit joins Talisman Saber drills for the first time
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 18, 2017
SHOALWATER BAY TRAINING AREA, Australia — With their faces slathered with camouflage paint and foliage tucked into their helmets, members of one of Japan’s preeminent fighting units sat virtually unseen along a dry river bed made of volcanic rock in eastern Queensland.
The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s 1st Airborne Brigade, 3rd Infantry Battalion — taking part in this month’s Talisman Saber drills in Australia for the first time — was tasked last week with protecting the flank for their Australian, American and Canadian allies. The paratroopers sat stoic behind their scopes, motionless and ready for mock enemy forces that could have struck at any time.
“Here in Australia, we are strangers here and the enemies are from other countries, so we don’t know exactly what will happen next,” said company commander Maj. Yohei Hatayama. “Normally, when we have exercises in Japan, we do [some of the same training] so sometimes we expect what will happen or the next situation, but here we have no expectation what will happen.”
The elite unit, which is akin to the U.S. Army’s Rangers, participated in the exercise to hone tactical skills and increase interoperability with their American airborne counterparts, as well as develop deeper relationships with their Australian and Canadian allies, Japanese planners said.
The vastness of the Australian training area, the size and scope of the exercise and its dynamic nature were important points as well, said battalion commander Lt. Col. Akinobu Hota.
“We secured the airfield over there,” Hatayama said while pointing out through the brush. He was referring to his unit’s participation in a strategic air drop on July 13 near Williamson Airfield in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area with a coalition of paratroopers from the Army’s 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, the Australians and Canada’s Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The JGSDF performed an air landing where they were helicopter in by the New Zealand air force.
“Then we came up to here,” Hatayama said. “Our role is to protect against a counterattack by the enemy, to [prevent them from moving] south to north. We have to stay here and protect the U.S. Army from a counterattack.”
Hatayama said it had been great working with Japan’s coalition partners.
“They are very friendly,” he said. “It’s very comfortable. For many of my guys, this is their first time to come to Australia and especially having exercises with allied forces. It’s a very good experience.”
The only hiccups involved communication; however, they were able to overcome those thanks to the universal language of soldiering.
“There’s a language barrier but it’s gotten a little bit better,” Hota said. “By looking at maps and having a mutual understanding of reference points, it kind of goes out from there and it works very well. By doing things like this, there is a trust that develops. With that trust, we become a stronger and better team.”
Tokyo decided to send an airborne unit to Talisman Saber this year after providing amphibious units in 2015, Hota said. He added that next time around he’d like to parachute into the training area just like the Americans and Canadians did, though he has no idea what the future holds for Japan’s participation in Talisman Saber.
More than 33,000 Australian and U.S. troops are taking part in the monthlong, biennial exercise, which includes “high-end warfighting scenarios” to “innovatively prepare for regional and global security challenges,” a Navy statement said.