First of a four part series that will run through Friday.

It was beautiful, cloudless day at Camp Pendleton, and the U.S. Marine Corps air-ground menagerie was visible in all directions. In the distance, CH-46 transport helicopters practiced swooping down on and taking off from a simulated ship deck. A UH-1Y Huey / AH-1W Super Cobra hunter-killer team buzzed overhead in tandem, simulating attacks on enemy targets. Nearby on the ground, Marines conducted a logistics exercise, and seven ton trucks and armored humvees crawled on nearby roads between khaki-colored tents clustered like giant mushrooms.

Whoever said the megafauna had died out on North America had obviously never been to Camp Pendleton.

*  *  *

It was the second week of Iron Fist, the biennial U.S.- Japan military exercise involving the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, and the Japan Ground Self Defense Force. Held since 2006, Iron Fist focuses on joint amphibious training and is only one of literally dozens of U.S. – Japanese exercises held every year. I had been invited by the U.S. Marines to Camp Pendleton to observe Iron Fist and the training with Japanese troops.

Camp Pendleton Main Gate.

Iron Fist has always been the most controversial (and, until recently, least publicized) of the joint exercises. Since World War II, pacifist Japan has prohibited itself from having marine infantry, labeling them a military asset that, like aircraft carriers and bombers, only has useful applications in wars of aggression. Marine troops are also heavily associated with Japan’s wartime past; the Special Naval Landing Forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy conducted extensive operations across the Pacific Theater, from China to Wake Island. Necessity aside, this sort of association can make certain ambitions of the Self Defense Forces unpopular to a Japanese public with a deep anti-war and anti-military sentiment.

But slowly, like nearly everything about Japanese defense policy, this is changing. In early 2010, Japan’s two major political parties, the DPJ and LDP, both announced support for the establishment of a marine infantry force. The force, it was explained, would be a marine unit charged with a defensive mission: to take back Japanese remote islands seized by an adversary, a capability the Self Defense Forces currently lack.

Minjinyu 5179.

All of this became much more relevant in the second half of 2010, as China pressed numerous territorial claims throughout the western Pacific, including Japan’s Senkaku Islands. Japanese public sentiment was also shaken by China’s belligerent and irrational response to the 2010 arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain accused of fisheries poaching, trespassing, and resisting arrest. While Japan’s naval and air forces on the periphery are undergoing a modest upgrade, the gaping hole in Japan’s defenses is a credible naval infantry force.

This year, as a decision on the creation of such a unit loomed near, the training took on a new air of urgency. A company-sized contingent from the Western Army Infantry Regiment travelled to southern California to train in this year’s Iron Fist exercise. Headquartered near Nagasaki, the WAIR is a highly trained infantry force roughly the size of a Western military battalion and equivalent in capability to the the U.S. Army Rangers. For one month the unit would train in everything from amphibious assaults to heliborne operations, naval and air support and weapons familiarization.

My trip was a rare opportunity to observe the publicity-shy GSDF. I was particularly interested in how two armies, the US Marines and the GSDF, communicated during joint operations. The United States and Japan have been allies for more than fifty years, and hold exercises together on almost a weekly basis. That having been said, how smoothly could the two sides work together, overcoming language and cultural barriers? I decided I’d find out for myself.


Iron Fist 2011

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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