SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND, Calif.-- Members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces teamed with U.S. Marines in Southern California on June 17 for amphibious training partly aimed at sending a message to an increasingly aggressive China and beefing up the SDF's emergency response capabilities.
Dubbed "Dawn Blitz," the joint drill involves a scenario in which U.S. and Japanese forces retake an airfield on an island after it becomes occupied by about 15 members of an invading force.
To continue until June 28, the drill is taking place on San Clemente Island, about 120 kilometers off the coast of San Diego. The exercise comes as tensions between Tokyo and Beijing over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea have been making headlines for months.
On June 17, about 80 U.S. Marines aboard four Osprey MV-22 aircraft landed on the island and recaptured the airstrip.
An hour after the Marines landed, an estimated 60 members of the Ground SDF's Western Army Infantry Regiment aboard the destroyer Hyuga landed ashore via helicopter, and the commander of the Japanese troops reported their status to his counterpart in the Marines. Communications were conducted in English.
At a news conference, Japan's vice chief of the joint staff, Lt. Gen. Koichi Isobe, stressed the urgency for the SDF to develop its amphibious capabilities.
“The defense of remote islands is a pressing issue, but the SDF has just begun training to develop such capabilities, which are required of U.S. Marines,” Isobe said. “Japan needs to determine its defense strategy and procure necessary equipment and train SDF members for the purpose.”
The U.S. military previously conducted similar drills in 2010 and 2011 to bolster its amphibious capabilities.
This is the first time for all three branches of the SDF--Air, Ground and Maritime--to participate in the exercise together. About 1,000 Japanese troops are taking part.
In the past, an amphibious operation to recapture a Japanese island taken by occupation forces was not a scenario envisioned by the SDF because Japan had focused strictly on national defense since the end of World War II.
But such an operation has taken on greater urgency in recent years.
Japan has been forced to review its preparedness to defend the Nansei island chain, which lies between Kyushu and Taiwan, as ties between Tokyo and Beijing sour over the territorial dispute surrounding the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The Senkakus, a group of uninhabited islands, are part of the Nansei island chain.
Defense Ministry officials emphasize the importance of developing the SDF’s amphibious operations capability to better work with the U.S. military in the event of a contingency.
Ministry officials said the U.S. military offered assistance to help Japan cope with the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami only after SDF helicopters took up a dangerous mission to spray water on the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011.
The U.S. forces realized the resolve of the SDF members' efforts to help contain the nuclear crisis when they saw the operation being carried out amid extremely high radiation levels at the site.
“It is out of the question to ask the U.S. Marines to land on an island (occupied by an adversary) for the SDF,” a senior Defense Ministry official said. “Only when the SDF demonstrates its will and capability, will the Japan-U.S. alliance function and serve as a deterrence.”
The U.S. military is obliged to defend the Senkakus in line with the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
For the amphibious exercise, experts said it is important for all three branches of the SDF to work together.
Hideki Yuasa, commander of the MSDF’s Escort Flotilla 2, said that communications between the three branches could have been better.
“We sometimes did not understand what each other was talking about,” he said.
Defense officials said Japan needs amphibious vehicles for landing on shorelines to launch an initial counterattack if an invader occupies an island, and long-range Osprey transport aircraft to better protect Japan's island territories.
Another factor behind the increasing importance of bolstering the SDF’s amphibious capability is that Japan needs to enhance its preparedness to respond to disasters that could strike a broad area.
In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, U.S. Marines and Navy sailors on amphibious assault ships came to the rescue of the residents on Oshima island, off Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
Until the U.S. forces arrived, the island had no access to relief goods and activities because its port had been destroyed and its ferry boats were lost to the tsunami.
A senior SDF official said amphibious capabilities will prove useful in a natural disaster, such as a devastating temblor striking Tokyo or off the Pacific coast in western Japan.
“There will be many places where vehicles cannot get into due to damaged roads,” he said. “Approaching those areas from the sea could be an effective action.”
By participating in Dawn Blitz, Japan also aims to keep China’s maritime ambitions in check.
Japan and the United States decided to proceed with the joint exercise as planned to “show their stalwart alliance to China,” according to a Japanese diplomatic source, despite Beijing’s urging to cancel the drill.
The SDF’s participation in the exercise is welcomed by the United States because it expects Japan to play a larger role in the security alliance. Japan also seeks to improve the SDF’s capability of protecting the nation's islands on its own.
Tokyo is considering the creation of special troops capable of staging amphibious assaults like the U.S. Marines.
With the compilation of Japan's new National Defense Program Guidelines expected by the end of this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told lawmakers at a Diet session in May that they should discuss the need to create a force that functions like the U.S. Marines to defend remote islands.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said last week that the SDF needs to expand troops and procure more equipment for that objective.
Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, headquartered at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, hailed the SDF troops for their resolve to develop amphibious abilities.
The Obama administration is prioritizing its Asia strategy as it becomes increasingly vigilant of China’s pursuit of maritime interests in the western Pacific. But the government has been forced to cut defense spending to address the U.S. budget deficit crisis. It wants Japan and other Asian allies to play larger roles in regional security at a time of increasing fiscal restraints.
Michael McDevitt, a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses, said the GSDF’s participation in amphibious training is meaningful to defend not only Japan’s main islands but also its southwestern territories.
“The GSDF has very little or no experience in amphibious operations. And so, now that Japan has island security issues, along the Ryukyus and the Senkakus, it makes perfectly good sense for them to go to the best amphibious experts in the world, which would be the U.S. Marine Corps and practice, learn how to do this with them,” he said.
“Japan, of course, is the first line of defense of its own territory, and so the United States would very much like Japan to have the capability to deal with defense, not only of its main islands, but the islands to the south."
Washington has yet to present specific steps the U.S. military will take in the event of a contingency involving the Senkaku Islands dispute.
Toshi Yoshihara, professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, said Japan should be the first responder.
“There are some people who say, ‘Why should the United States get involved in these God-forsaken, uninhabited, pile of rocks in the middle of the East China Sea?' ” he said. “From that larger alliance perspective, it seems to me that this is a necessary move because Japan should be the first responder to this issue, as a part of a larger alliance management.”
Yoshihara said if an adversary seizes an island and strengthens its defenses there, the U.S. Marines may be the only forces with the capability to undertake a landing operation to dislodge a dug-in defender.
But he said Japanese troops need “some independent capability” to be able to respond to various situations that could arise in coming years.
The Obama administration, which is calling for an easing of tensions in the East China Sea, appears to have become adept at dealing with Japan and China.
It showed off the collaboration between U.S and Japanese troops through Dawn Blitz, while it displayed a cooperative attitude toward China at the U.S.-China summit on June 7-8 in California.
(This article was written by Fumiaki Sonoyama and Takashi Oshima in San Clemente Island in California and Koji Sonoda.)
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