Sergeant Benjamin M. Miller, right, chief scout swimmer for Fox Company, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, draws out formations to designated scout swimmers with the 12th Infantry Regiment, 8th Division, Western Army, Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces, during familiarization training here June 3. (Sgt. Jonathan Wright/Marine Corps)
Lance Cpl. Samuel J. Kruse, right, infantry automatic rifle gunner with 2nd platoon, Company F., Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, explains and shares his Meal, Ready-To-Eat with a Japanese soldier with the 12th Infantry Regiment, 8th Division, Western Army, Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces, during familiarization training June 3. (Sgt. Jonathan Wright/Marine Corps)
Colonel John E. Merna, commanding officer of 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, greets soldiers of the 12th Infantry Regiment, 8th Division, Western Army, Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces on May 29. As part of the Japanese Observer Exchange Program, the soldiers will live alongside Marines and Sailors of the 31st MEU while observing approximately three weeks of amphibious operations. (Cpl. Codey Underwood/Marine Corps)
Members of the Japan Self-Defense Force are teaming with U.S. Marines on more exercises to boost that country’s amphibious operations capabilities. The training includes scout swimming, boat handling and loading amphibious vehicles. They’re also honing navigation skills for amphibious operations and emergency helicopter landings at sea.
The training is a result of an April 2012 agreement to enhance security and defense cooperation between the two countries, said Cmdr. Takashi Inoue, deputy director of public affairs for Japan’s Joint Staff.
“These joint exercises between Japan and the United States contribute significantly to maintaining and enhancing joint-response capability, and efforts are being made to enrich the contents of exercises,” he said.
Over the past year, platoon-size elements of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force have partnered with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which operates out of Okinawa, to observe the way they conduct training. The platoon has primarily worked with the battalion landing team’s boat company, said Col. John Merna, the MEU’s commanding officer, but that could expand to other elements of the MEU.
“We learn from them as well, and it helps us to increase our capability for Japan as a very important ally in this region,” Merna said.
In July, shortly before the MEU went out on its annual “fall patrol,” members of the JGSDF’s Western Army teamed with members of the boat company and observed their predeployment training. Over a two-day period, the Marines demonstrated the operation of combat rubber raiding crafts, according to a Marine Corps news release. That included the assembly and positioning of the boats as well as the positioning of stealthy Marine scout swimmers.
Brad Glosserman, the executive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum, said all of this points to a shift in the way Japanese officials are viewing future threats. Still operating largely on the Cold War doctrine, troops there had been focused on a ground invasion from Soviet tanks in the north. Now Japan defense officials recognize that the real theater of operations for them is a maritime theater, likely involving islands.
“What you’re seeing now is an attempt by the Japanese to shift their focus geographically to the southwest,” he said. “You’ve got to have maritime and marine forces that are prepared to operate in that theater. [We’re also seeing them] modernize and update their services in ways that prepare them for these new contingencies.”
It’s clear that other countries in the region, particularly China, are watching closely.
In June, China called on the U.S. and Japan to cancel portions of Dawn Blitz, a multilateral training event held off the shore of Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms, Calif., and aboard ships off the coast of San Diego. Chinese officials were skeptical of a training event that simulated the recapture of a remote island. Tensions between China and Japan have been high due to a territorial dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands.
But Merna said bilateral relations are especially important with a country that hosts tens of thousands of Marines.
“Because we operate in and out of Okinawa, our relationship is inherently different than it is for other partners around the region,” Merna said. “Not only does it help us with ... training issues at Okinawa ... it’s the right thing to do with our host nation.”