APRA HARBOR, GUAM – Slipping off a warship in small raiding boats, some 60 Japanese soldiers and U.S. Marines came quietly ashore on an isolated beach here this weekend, looking to catch an unnamed enemy unawares. It was part of a first-ever, month-long series of training exercises designed to teach the Japanese the fine and deadly art of amphibious warfare.
And while it may not be directly related to a boiling territorial dispute in the nearby East China Sea, it has everything to do with checking an increasingly assertive China.
“Participation in this exercise has great significance for Japan’s self-defense forces,” says Gen. Eiji Kimizuka, chief of staff for the Japan Ground Self Defense Force, who traveled to Guam to observe the final phase of the training. “It will help us develop an amphibious capability and to be able to respond to any threat.”
Japan has been working since 2010 to shift the focus of its defense forces to its southwestern islands, which stretch some 700 miles (1,126 km) from Japan’s home islands. The area has seen increased Chinese naval and air activity in recent years. Japan has few ground forces in the region and little or no capability to retake islands that might be occupied by outside parties.
The training program on Guam and nearby Tinian Island was the result of 2+2 meetings in Tokyo in April. Officials called for more joint training and greater interoperability between U.S. and Japanese forces.
By design or not, the current training comes amidst a growing crisis. Chinese protesters landed on the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands after Tokyo nationalized the islands earlier this month; Chinese maritime surveillance ships have entered territorial waters surrounding the islands repeatedly, despite Japanese objections.
Violent protests have targeted Japanese citizens and property in China. And on Sunday Chinese authorities cancelled events commemorating this week’s 40th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Some 40 soldiers from Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force began training in mid-August with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, a rapid-response task force based in Okinawa. The MEU is completing preparations for a four-month patrol through the Asia-Pacific region and have integrated the Japanese troops into a wide range of amphibious warfare drills in the Guam/Tinian region – beach landings aboard armored assault vehicles; raids using small rubber boats; helicopter rescue and evacuation missions; disaster relief operations; and so forth.
Moving from ship to shore in a hostile environment is among the most difficult military operations, says Marine Capt. Tobias Walker, who commanded the boat raid on Saturday.
“There is so much interdependence in amphibious operations. You have ships, aviation, logistics, communications, and you can have major problems with any one of those. You are always talking with everybody else and making sure all the different parts are working together – everybody knowing what everyone else is doing. You have to get the timing and coordination right between the air and the ships and support. And all that takes constant rehearsal and planning and practice,” says Walker.
Saturday’s raid – conducted during daylight in part to accommodate a small horde of Japanese news media — was the continuation of a drill that was halted a few nights earlier because of dangerous weather and sea conditions. The mission was to get ashore quickly, secure an unspecified objective, then return without mishap. The force was split evenly between Marines and Japanese soldiers; some of the Japanese soldiers speak fluent English, but much of the communication was conducted through hand signals.
Six inflatable rubber rafts, each with seven or more Marines or Japanese soldiers, disembarked from a U.S. warship about 1,000 meters (1,093 yards) offshore. The boats stopped at a pre-arranged point, where swimmers were sent ahead to mark the landing beach. When an all-clear was received from the swimmers, the boats fanned out and raced the final distance to the beach.
Maj. Yohei Ito, a Japan ground forces liaison officer taking part in the exercises, said the Japanese troops — all from an infantry regiment charged with protecting western and southwestern Japan — were initially surprised by the amount of detail and rehearsal involved in even the simplest amphibious missions.
For example, the two men assigned to the front of each rubber boat were required to watch for submerged rocks, floating objects or anything else that might strike the boat and pitch men and equipment into the sea; that means learning to lie prone on the inflated outer tubes with hands wrapped tightly around a safety rope and knees bent for balance, heads only inches from the water. The man at front-left — Number 1 in the crew numbering system – signals when the boat is within seconds of striking the beach by abruptly dropping his ‘inboard’ (inside) arm; that alerts the driver to shut off the boat’s outboard engine and drag it inside (sparing the shaft and screw from scraping bottom) and the rest of the crew to jump over the side, turn the boat around and drag it above the high-water line (which means the boat is ready to launch for the trip back to the ship and won’t float out to sea if the tide comes in).
“None of this is particularly difficult but it’s new for us,” says Ito. “We really don’t have the opportunity to train like this because our training areas are very restricted. So this is very valuable for us.”
Lt. Gen. Kenneth Glueck, the senior Marine commander in Japan, says the Marines have been impressed by the Japanese troops, but cautions against expecting them to master amphibious operations anytime soon.
“It takes many, many training evolutions to develop and maintain your proficiency. (But) over the next year, I believe they should be able to develop a very credible capability. You start off in the crawl phase, then you walk, then you run,” says Glueck, who also traveled to Guam for part of the exercise.
Japan’s Ministry of Defense has included $75 million in the 2013 defense budget to buy four amphibious assault vehicles of the type used by Marines.
Historical note: Saturday’s landing point was only a few miles from the beaches where Marines came ashore during the battle for Guam in July 1944. Almost 8,000 Marines and U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded; of the 18,000-plus soldiers of Japan’s Imperial Army on Guam, fewer than 500 survived. According to the Marines and Japanese troops taking part in the current exercises, the war rarely comes up in conversation.