The entire room of soldiers and Marines inside the Camp Margarita headquarters sprung to attention.
His boots glinting like melting onyx, Maj. Gen. Shigeo Kaida of the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force entered the hall, flanked by Col. Ryuji Toyota, commander of Japan’s Western Army Infantry Regiment, and Col. Chandler “Chud” Nelms, commander of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
This gathering on Feb. 16 was part of a mutual-defense treaty that has bound their two nations since 1952. It involved the commanders’ staffers toiling to produce a daring plan code-named “Iron Fist.”
The mission called for a flotilla led by the U.S. amphibious warship Anchorage and aircraft from both countries to bombard Osea, a remote atoll held by enemy invaders. Then they would turn to a neighboring populated island — Isea — and blast to bits half of the foes there. They would cap off the campaign with waves of amphibious landing craft splashing ashore alongside frogmen commandos.
Osea is actually San Clemente Island, which is routinely pounded by Navy warships and planes for training purposes, and Isea is a fictional dollop of the sprawling Camp Pendleton that was demarcated just for Iron Fist.
The overall combat exercises, which began in early February, are set to conclude Monday morning with a celebration to honor the hard work and cooperation of the Americans and Japanese that liberated both Osea and Isea.
Conducted annually since 2006, this year’s Iron Fist training combined 1,000 Japanese and American service members. The San Diego Union-Tribune followed them from planning sessions to shore assaults to battles that snaked through simulated “combat towns” and up hillsides, where the Japanese soldiers and American Marines blasted apart targets with mortars, artillery, rockets and tens of thousands of rounds of rifle and machine-gun fire.
It all began with long planning sessions, with officers hunched over computers and translators preparing files in Japanese and English for commanders to vet.
During Camp Margarita’s marathon sessions, Nelms scrutinized a map showing a proposed assault on a pair of combat towns, then turned to his Marine planners and told them they must “minimize the risk of civilian casualties.”
“This is a difficult problem for all of us, but it’s what has to be done,” Nelms said before urging his Marines to also think about how the enemy would react to the loss of those towns — where it might flee, how it might try to evade Marine and Japanese forces.
Speaking in both English and through an interpreter, Kaida the major general ordered the joint team to develop a better communications plan so adjoining U.S. and Japanese units can move, shoot and talk to each other flawlessly once they hit the beaches and start to close in on a list of targets.
Everyone takes orders from the Japanese commander when he’s the highest official in the room. When Marine Maj. Gen. David Coffman — deputy commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force — arrived on the beach alongside Kaida a week later, they issued commands together as equals.
Throughout the past month, neither American nor Japanese commanders would reveal the identity of the fictional enemy they schemed to defeat. But defense analysts told the Union-Tribune that it obviously was China, a nation that asserts numerous territorial claims throughout the Western Pacific and South China Sea, including islands long held by Japan.
Toshi Yoshihara, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank and widely considered one of the globe’s top naval strategists, said Iron Fist “is not just about island disputes” but also Tokyo’s fears of China’s growing maritime power and how Beijing sees Japan’s 700-mile long archipelago of islands that enclose the East China Sea and stretch to Taiwan.
“To Chinese eyes, these islands are symbolic and physical obstacles to China’s freedom of maneuver at sea,” Yoshihara said. “Chinese mariners, both commercial and military in nature, must pass through the choke-points formed by these islands to reach the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. That these islands are administered by Japan does not sit comfortably with the Chinese. Indeed, it adds to a sense of claustrophobia among Chinese strategists.
“Chinese naval flotillas pass through the narrow seas formed by the Southwest Islands with increasing frequency and regularity. Tellingly, Chinese media often describe these passages as a demonstration of China’s ability to ‘break through’ the island chain.”
In past weeks, senior Japanese commanders told the Union-Tribune that this year’s exercise has been particularly important because Kaida and Toyota are the chief architects of the new Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, an assault force modeled in part on Nelms’ Marine expeditionary unit.
Japan is in the midst of buying dozens of V-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys and amphibious assault craft, the same systems used by the Marines, and the brigade is slated to be ready for combat operations by early next year.
“We have to get every knowledge now to establish this brigade,” Kaida said through an interpreter. “I think everything is a challenge for us. It’s why I have 350-plus Japanese Self Defense Force soldiers, one of our biggest deployments, participating at this time. We have to train, utilizing the limited time available, to live up to our expectations.”
Yoshihara said Kaida’s brigade is designed to reach contested islands over the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean, but that politically, Tokyo is also seeking “to demonstrate to its own people and to the United States that it is acquiring an independent, if modest, capacity to defend Japanese territory” on its own.
Coffman, the deputy commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said his Marines and sailors also were constrained by the short span of exercises to build “inter-operability” with Japanese allies. He looked forward to future annual war games — called “Dawn Blitz” and “Keen Sword” — to beef that up.
“Amphibious operations are very complex. It takes lots of practice and lots of time and lots of resources to put that together and produce quality training,” he said.
What became apparent throughout the month was that both the Marines and Japanese soldiers were highly trained and well led. There were things the Marines excelled at — charging across a beach and up dunes to dislodge enemy sharpshooters — and other skills the Japanese had honed enough to impress their American partners.
“They’re pretty professional,” said Marine Sgt. Thomas “Tommy” Spencer, leader of the Red Team of pretend enemy forces holed up in a combat town taken by a company of Japanese infantry. “They do things a little differently from the way we do in the , and it’s not our job to tell them what’s necessarily wrong or right. They have really good communications with each other.”
Spencer, 25, of Portland, Oregon, had served as a Marine embassy guard in Tokyo and fought in Afghanistan. He pointed out how expertly the Japanese assault teams with Iron Fist sealed off the houses, repeated orders so every soldier knew what to do, and rapidly and remorselessly cleared rooms of his Red Team forces.
“We tried to delay them,” said Spencer, a machine gunner assigned to Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. “We knew that their most likely course of action would be a front attack, and our first couple of guys shot at them. But then they moved around us to our exposed flank. They got us pretty good on that side.”
Which is another message Iron Fist’s organizers want to send to China, even if they don’t want to say it out loud.
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