MSDF MH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter lands on the deck of USS Denver. U.S. Navy photo.

–Updated 12/10/10 –

Keen Sword exercises have ended. Here’s a wrap photo.

MSDF and US Navy ships in formation. Department of Defense photo. Click for full size version.

I count 25 ships. I figure at least half of those ships are Japanese. All of the major Japanese combatants — Hyuga, Kunisaki, Kongo, and Shirane are present.

That’s USS Houston in front. Why aren’t there any Japanese submarines in the formation? (Then again, maybe there are…)

USAF B-52 accompanied by ASDF F-15Js and USAF F-15s. UPI photo.

I usually don’t steal photos, but this one was too good to pass up. Keizo Mori at UPI has a great collection of photos apparently taken aboard George Washington, including one of a Hornet with its nose on the flight deck.

  • Japanese reporters on the USS George Washington.
  • The MSDF has some more photos up…and that’s it. Ministry of Defense still mum.
  • More photos via USS George Washington on Facebook, including joint U.S. – Japanese P-3C Orion overflight.

– Updated 12/9/10 –

Morning on the JS Hyuga flight deck. Ministry of Defense photo.

  • Additions to list of U.S. units participating.
  • Defense Media Activity video on Keen Sword, including Refueling At Sea operations with JS Kongo, JS Hyuga.

The drought of information continues.

– Updated 12/8/10 PM –

Japanese LCACs approach USS Essex's well deck. U.S. Navy photo.

Hey, look at that: Japanese LCACs approaching USS Essex. These are the exact same models the U.S. Navy owns — Japan has six of them. How’s that for interoperability?

I have an idea where this is — the location of the exercises and the atolls in the background suggest it’s right off White Beach, Okinawa.

– Updated 12/8/10 AM –

- 2 Russian Il-38 “May” maritime patrol aircraft interrupted Keen Sword on Wednesday, flying near the exercises. Fighters were scrambled as the Mays were picked up on radar over the Sea of Japan. The incident occurred near the Noto peninsula, where BMD exercises have been taking place. One report says that the exercise was temporarily halted out of fears the Russian aircraft were trying to gather electronic data from the exercise. (Link)(Link)

Tea time. Note the difference in ages between the two groups. The average age in the SDF is 35; the average age in the U.S. Marines is 25. U.S. Marine Corps photo.

- U.S. Marines and GSDF troops undertook joint training at the Kirishima Training Area, on Kyushu. Participating in the “Forest Light” exercise are 43rd Regiment, 8th Division, Western Army, and C Company, 1-7 Marines, 31st MEU.  (Link)

Oddly enough, the Chinese press has the best writeup of the training.

The ground training, called “Forest Light”, involves 550 Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) members and 215 marines and sailors from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) of the United States, and will last to Dec 15.

Major training events include bilateral heliborne assault, helicopter and fast rope training, motorized movement to contact, passage of lines, sniper training, communications and first aid, among others.

Following an opening ceremony, the two sides held practice of first aid in the afternoon, during which the US Marines shared with GSDF members the experience they gained through missions in Iraq. (Link)

- MSDF and U.S. military helicopters have been practicing deck landings on each others’ ships. MSDF SH-60K Seahawk helicopters have practiced takeoffs and landings from USS George Washington and USS Essex, while U.S. Marine CH-46s have practiced on the LST JS Kunisaki and helicopter destroyer JS Shirane.

Lt. Cmdr. Kenji Sakaguchi, an SH-60K pilot with the JMSDF, observed flight operations from the Essex flight control tower. He said the deck landing qualifications were successful despite some small differences in communication.

“The flight decks and helicopters are very similar,” Sakaguchi said. “The control zones are more important to the U.S. Navy and regulations, such as identifying the pilot, are a little different, but the briefing was very beneficial.”

According to Sakaguchi, the U.S. pilots had more of a challenge because the Kunisaki is a smaller ship and doesn’t normally have helicopters aboard. (Link)

I find it hard to believe that Kunisaki, with such aa large flight deck, is difficult to land on. It’s an LST, though, so one wonders if it doesn’t have as much in terms of landing assistance capability for helicopters.

– Updates End –

It’s Day 4 or 5, depending on how you count it, of the U.S. – Japanese “Keen Sword 2011″ exercises. The exercises, designed to show the strength of the U.S. – Japan alliance were announced months ago, and the official word is that they’ve been in the planning stages for a year. All branches of the Self Defense Forces are involved, as well as all branches of the U.S. military (with the possible exception of the Coast Guard).

The exercises have been all over the American online press from the start, although in the old world of print journalism it would probably go somewhere between pages 3 and 5 of the New York Times. Only the most basic information has been provided in the American press, i.e. that there’s an exercise going on, how many people, how many ships, and that an aircraft carrier is involved. The rest I’ve had to get from Department of Defense sources and a single page on the Japanese-only version of the Ministry of Defense web site. What information — and it’s a pathetic amount — I’ve cobbled together I list here.

The Japanese press is even worse, often not covering it all. I don’t read Japanese, and Google Translate’s offerings can make your brain hurt so I usually don’t bother, but I used it on a number of popular news sites…and came up with nothing. The press, and by extension the people, are just not interested. It’s a bit frustrating, but it’s also what you can expect from a pacifist society.

Unidentifed MSDF ships involved in Keen Sword. Ministry of Defense photo.

- 8 days in duration (December 3-10)
- 44,000 military personnel (32,500 SDF, 10,500 US Army/Navy/Air Force/Marine Corps)
- 60 ships (40 SDF / 20 US)
- 400 aircraft  (250 SDF / 150 US)
- Keen Sword 2011 is the tenth drill of its kind since 1986, and largest U.S. – Japan exercise ever.

This is a huge exercise. That’s a very large mobilization for the SDF, approximately 1/8th of the total force is involved in the exercise. 40 ships is also more than half of the fleet above 3,000 tons or so. It’s such a large number I suspect it’s a mistake and that the combined U.S. – Japanese fleet is 40 ships.

F-16s from the 35th Fighter Wing, USAF. Air Force photo.

The Japanese government has this to say about it:

When asked about the significance of the exercises, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa told reporters: “Naturally we take into consideration changes in the security environment in surrounding areas. But with this, we are not targeting a specific country.”

He said the drills will also contribute to strengthening cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the United States. (Link)

China, on the other hand, said:

“At present, there are already enough of these kinds of military exercises. Under the present conditions, all relevant parties ought to do more to benefit the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the region, and not the opposite,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu. (Link)

Translation: “Hey you kids, stop playing on my lawn!”

White Beach, Okinawa, December 4th. I spy...USS Essex, USS Denver, unidentified MSDF helicopter destroyer, and USS Tortuga, among others. U.S. Navy photo. Click to enlarge.

Component Exercises:
- Amphibious Warfare (Specifically, retaking an island conquered by the enemy. George Washington and Essex Strike Groups)
- Anti-Submarine Warfare & Air Defense (USS George Washington, JS Hyuga, off coast of Okinawa, Kyushu)
- Refueling at Sea (USNS Tippecanoe + 3 Japanese destroyers)
- Air Defense (Patriot PAC-3, “from Okinawa to Hokkaido”)
- Fighter Escort (4 x F-15J SDF, 8 x F-16, 1 x C-130 USAF vs 8 x SDF fighters on intercept)
- Missile Defense (Sea of Japan, Noto Peninsula)
- Base Security (Sasebo, Misawa)
- Mine Countermeasures (?)
- Search and Rescue (waters off Okinawa)
- Maritime Security and Interdiction (Shikoku, western Kyushu, waters east of Okinawa)
- Personnel Exchange (<30 JMSDF personnel on USS George Washington, 13 on USS Essex)

Joint search and rescue training. (OMG! That USAF PJ is wearing Multicam and Ops-Core! Someone run and tell Christian!)

Now, the units involved. This is all I’ve been able to put together.

U.S. Forces:
Task Force 70
-USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group (USS George Washington, USS John S. McCain, USS Cowpens, - not sure about the last one)
- USS Essex Expeditionary Strike Group (Amphibious Squadron 11: USS Essex, USS Tortuga, USS Denver + 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit) augmented by MSDF Escort Division 2.
- USS Shiloh
- USNS Tippecanoe
- 14th Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter Wing (F-16), USAF. (Staging from Komatsu AB, originally from Misawa)
-67th Fighter Squadron (F-15)
-185th Air Refueling Squadron, USANG
- 31st & 33rd Rescue Squadrons, USAF
- Mine Countermeasures Squadron – 14 (MH-53), USN (Staging from Essex ARG)
- 1-1 Air Defense Artillery Battalion (Patriot), U.S. Army (Kadena, Okinawa)

Japanese Forces:
- Maritime Self Defense Force Escort Division 2 (JS Hyuga, JS Ikazuchi, JS Kongo + 1 more unknown DD)
JS Shirane
JS Inazuma
- JS Kunisaki (LST)
- Fleet Squadron 111 (MH-53)

It is frustrating that 40 MSDF ships are apparently involved in the exercise and I am unable to name 90% of them. The information just does not seem to be out there. I suspect there’s a second escort division involved — I don’t see Hyuga or a Aegis destroyer in the second photo — that may consist of smaller ships and tasked for anti-submarine warfare. Even if true, that’s only 20% of the force. There are also certainly MSDF submarines involved.

JS Hyuga stands by to perform a Refueling At Sea from USNS Tippecanoe. Ministry of Defense photo.

This is also the first Keen Sword with outside observers, this time from South Korea. This is after Japan sent observers in July to U.S. – South Korean exercises immediately after the sinking of the Cheonan.

Not a lot of press seem to be directly covering the exercises. The U.S. Air Force’s 13th Air Force public affairs is apparently coordinating media coverage. This is kind of strange considering the Navy seems to be running the bulk of the exercises. Several journalists based in Japan were embarked on a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules flight that sounded seriously underwhelming. (I mean, when they mention sighting the base Chili’s…)

One final question: why are they calling it “Keen Sword 2011″ when it’s…you know…2010? Why would you intentionally get the date wrong? Is it to confuse the Chinese? Is it for tax purposes? Is there a party at the wrap and they don’t want the uncool people to come? (Is that why the 13th AF PAO blew me off twice when I called them?)

This post updated as more information rolls in.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch