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Iron Fist exercise wraps up, cements America's ties to Japan

A Japan Ground Self Defense Force Soldier uses green string to mark the mine training area during exercise Iron Fist 2018, Jan. 24 at Camp Pendleton.

JACOB A. FARBO/U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 5, 2018

It was 8:11 a.m. on Monday and California was under simulated attack by Japanese forces.

While the American warship Rushmore wheeled into the fog of the sea, a string of six armored amphibious vehicles churned through the water to link up with Japanese snipers who already infiltrated Camp Pendleton’s “Red Beach.”

In the fake town nearby, Marines dressed as enemy troops shot blank ammo at the onrushing Japanese Western Army Infantry Regiment soldiers but it was all in vain.

By 9 a.m. the Japanese assault force controlled the beach, the village and the bluffs beyond it, a victory that capped the final day of Iron Fist, the annual bilateral war games.

Held since 2006, this year’s exercise was the largest, sprawling across Camp Pendleton, San Clemente Island, 29 Palms and Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. More than 350 Japanese personnel participated, joining elements of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines and the Navy’s 3rd Fleet.

Iron Fist 2018 also was the most important because in March the Japanese debut their Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, the first unit of its kind since Japan’s defeat in World War II.

Like a U.S. Marine Corps expeditionary unit, it’s designed to land 2,100 troops from the sea and defeat an entrenched enemy through combined air, artillery and infantry combat.

It was created in response to China’s 2013 declaration of a control zone over the Senkaku Islands, which has been administered by Japan since the United States ceded the uninhabited atolls east of Taiwan to Tokyo in 1972.

The amphibious force will be led by Maj. Gen. Shinichi Aoki, the deputy chief of staff for Japan’s Western Army. He stood next to Col. Fridrik Fridriksson, commander of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, as the battle unfolded, both of them smiling.

“The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from here is how impressed I’ve been by the Japanese Self Defense Forces,” said Fridriksson, shortly before landing craft carrying follow-on forces arrived behind him.

“The leadership of Maj. Gen. Aoki and his officers has been incredible to watch and to learn from them as we’ve developed our interoperability.”

Well trained and led, the Japanese landing team took the lead during this year’s exercise and his Marines faded into the background, Fridriksson said.

Retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair said that Fridriksson’s high grades on Japan’s capabilities and willingness to seize the initiative shouldn't surprise anyone.

Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence and commander of the Hawaii-based Pacific Command, said that two decades ago Tokyo’s forces would have backed up the American ships, planes and Marines that policed the Pacific Rim, but the rise of China and an increasingly aggressive North Korea altered that.

“It’s been a major change in the alliance but one that’s for the good,” Blair, now chairman and the distinguished senior fellow at Washington, D.C.-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, said by telephone.

Instead of pointing its air and heavy armored forces toward northern territories held by Cold War enemy Russia, Japan’s military has become increasingly high-tech, nimble and capable of fighting across the width of the East China Sea, Blair said.

Those military reforms coincided with a robust debate over Tokyo’s military within the Diet, Japan’s parliament, sparking 2015 legislation that allowed their forces to participate more seamlessly in combined operations with American units.

Japan’s national security renaissance wasn’t without friction, especially inter-service competition between the air, sea and land forces.

“Anyone who has studied Japan’s history has encountered that inter-service rivalry,” Blair said. “It makes ours in World War II look like child’s play.”

Aoki said his brigade is well funded by Tokyo and fully supported by his sister air and naval services, but he acknowledged his amphibious force faced some challenges during its inception.

Headquartered at Camp Ainoura near Sasebo in Nagasaki Prefecture, Aoki’s light infantry brigade still needs more equipment — BAE Systems is building 52 AAV-7 armored amphibious vehicles for them, and last year the American military trained the first Japanese crew chief for the tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey, a workhorse for Marines on sea and land — but he predicted only closer training in the future with his American counterparts.

Toshi Yoshihara, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and one of the world’s foremost maritime strategists, said by email that Aoki’s brigade filled several important roles.

“Homeland defense, particularly the physical defense of sovereign territory, is a basic duty of any nation,” he said. “Politically, Japan must demonstrate to it own constituents that it has some capability, however modest that may be, to retake islands from hostile forces.

“Strategically, Tokyo must demonstrate to China that it is developing an indigenous capability to counter potential Chinese aggression.

“Japan must also demonstrate to the United States that it is doing something as a reliable partner. Operationally, this is a start. It will provide an additional basis for allied cooperation and interoperability.”

The burgeoning brigade and Japan’s naval and air forces act as deterrents to Chinese designs, he said, but if that fails Tokyo can turn the tables on Beijing by deploying anti-ship missiles and air defense units on the Senkaku Islands and other atolls.

“Japan would in effect create a series of anti-access bubbles along the island chain that substantially increase the risks to Chinese air and naval operations,” Yoshihara said. “Indeed, Japan is already taking advantage of its natural blocking position around the East China Sea by fortifying the Southwest Islands.”

That strategy could be enhanced by Japan’s superb submarine fleet combined with “tighter tri-service cooperation,” Yoshihara added.

By holding and defending the Southern Islands, Japan would free up resources for American forces to conduct offensive operations.

Echoing Aoki, Yoshihara said that American and Japanese commanders working closely on regular training, exercises, demonstrations and joint patrols along the Southwest Islands will “bring this defense posture to fruition.”

“The goal is to increase the potential pain to Chinese operations to such an extent that the (People’s Liberation Army) would be deterred from rolling the iron dice in the first place,” he said.

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©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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Japan Ground Self Defense Soldiers encourage their teammates in a squad competition to practice speed while hooking up ground supplies to aerial cargo during exercise Iron Fist 2018 on Jan. 23.
JACOB A. FARBO/U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

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