Japan Learns Anew How to Fight From the Sea

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Capt. Joshua Diddams, USMC

Japan Maritime Self Defense Force warship JS Hyuga ghosts offshore as ground troops fire heavy mortars during amphibious warfare training with U.S. Marines on San Clemente Island, Calif., last week.

TOKYO – It’s unlikely that Japan’s land, sea and air forces will sweep all before them anytime soon – and perhaps that’s best. But if they are required to defend or re-take any of Japan’s thousands of remote islands from a hostile force, a major amphibious warfare exercise that concludes Friday in southern California could prove a turning point.

“I am very impressed with the progress that the Japanese Self Defense Force as a whole has made in integrating their navy and their army,” says Brigadier General John Broadmeadow, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade. “Like many of our coalition partners, their concept of joint operations isn’t as refined as ours. But they understand the need to work together, and they are growing that capability.”

Nearly 5,000 U.S. and Japanese troops, and smaller contingents from Canada and New Zealand, are taking part in the month-long Dawn Blitz exercise. It is the largest amphibious warfare exercise on the West Coast in more than a decade, and was designed largely to refresh skills that the Marines and Navy lost during a decade or more of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Japan, it represents a first-ever opportunity to bring their three armed services together to practice amphibious operations.

Under Japan’s pacifist constitution, the so-called self-defense forces are forbidden to engage in offensive operations. Until recently, they each operated with sharply limited and widely separated roles.

That began to change in 2010, when China started pressing aggressive territorial claims in Japan’s southwestern islands.  Chinese government patrol vessels now regularly operate in and around the territorial waters of Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which China calls Diaoyu.

Chinese naval vessels twice locked fire-control radar on Japanese ships and aircraft in international waters near those islands earlier this year. The increasing boldness has prompted concerns about the JSDF’s ability to re-take any islands that might be occupied by Chinese troops or activists.

Japan’s participation in Dawn Blitz was ramped up in recent months. Taking part are three Japan Maritime Self Defense Force warships, including the helicopter carrier JS Hyuga, one of Japan’s newest and most powerful warships, along with 250 ground troops and contingent of Japan Air Self Defense Force liaison officers.  Those forces have conducted beach landings, helicopter assaults, live-fire exercises, mock combat with Marines and a variety of other tasks related to ship-to-shore warfare. They have operated both independently and with the Navy and Marines.

“Over the last few weeks we’ve been able to improve our tactical expertise through several exercises, including amphibious landings on San Clemente Island, which included live-fire support exercises,” said Rear Adm. Hideki Yuasa, the overall commander of Japanese forces in Dawn Blitz. “It’s really the culmination of training that has great significance for us.”