As Keen Sword grows, so do Japan’s security ambitions
IWAKUNI, Japan — The USS George Washington strike group may be the United States’ most potent example of military power in the western Pacific Ocean — but for now, a Japanese admiral is directing its positioning at sea.
The Japanese have long taken positions of command during Keen Sword, a U.S.-Japan biannual exercise that began in the 1980s. However, U.S. officials say they think this is the first time that a Japanese officer has been the sea combat commander in a “free play” Keen Sword this large and complex.
The free play scenarios, as opposed to structured exercises that rely on preplanned positioning, tend to mean more surprises from the forces playing as the enemy.
“[Free play] puts you in dangerous positions you may not put yourself in, if you were given the opportunity to move around,” said Rear Adm. John Alexander, who in October was named the carrier strike group’s commander.
The Maritime Self-Defense Force’s more prominent role in the biannual exercise mirrors the Japanese government’s ambitions for a larger role on the world’s security stage, particularly in the tense Asia-Pacific region.
When Keen Sword was first held, under the Cold War world order in 1986, Japan trained mainly to protect its shores, while helping the U.S. monitor Soviet activity. Reaching far beyond its home islands was generally considered both unnecessary and taboo. Japan’s post-WWII constitution requires the nation to “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.”
Japan left offensive strike power to its U.S. allies, while it concentrated on more defensive-minded measures. That remains largely true in Japan’s training and procurement, but recent moves suggest that Japan isn’t willing to rely on the U.S. as heavily as in the past.
Japan’s faltering economy and a government perceived as ineffective led to a landslide 2012 victory for the Liberal Democratic Party and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has long wished to bolster Japan’s defense.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s emerging nuclear program and China’s claim on the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands have presented potential flash points in the region.
Abe has repeatedly chastised China for attempting to use force and coercion to gain territory in the region. Each country has increased sea and air patrols near the uninhabited islands.
Last year, Japanese troops traveled to California for training with U.S. Marines on retaking invaded islands.
At a sea exercise involving the USS Germantown and the Marine 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, U.S. personnel taught their Japanese allies “everything that goes into tactically planning an amphibious assault,” according to a military press release.
Next year, the Japanese will acquire amphibious assault vehicles, an opening step toward the assembly of a Marine-like force.
The Japanese government also plans to introduce legislation next year codifying a re-interpretation of the constitution, which would allow it to defend its allies in combat; currently, it cannot legally defend a U.S. ship fired upon by a common enemy.
That re-interpretation has been heavily criticized in public polls because of the method used and concern that it will push Japan into unnecessary wars, despite government assurances that the right to “collective self-defense” will be employed only if Japan is threatened.
Japan’s actions are a logical course of action to keep China from growing aggressive, said Edward Luttwak, senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who recently discussed regional strategy with Japanese officials in Tokyo.
“First people try to reinforce themselves, to increase their ability to operate — in the case of Japan, to remove obstacles to collective security,” Luttwak later told reporters. “You do low-cost things like that, then you start building a little more force. But then you really do alliance [building].”
Japan is reaching out to countries throughout the region, several of whom have territorial disputes with China, to forge closer security ties.
However, its closest relationship remains with the United States. Military officials say they expect Keen Sword, which included about 30,000 Japanese troops and 10,000 total U.S. personnel from all four military branches, to continue growing in complexity.
“We work with them all year, but then at the end of the year we have a large, complicated, difficult scenario where we’re challenged in all aspects of our warfare areas,” Alexander said. “It’s the equivalent of a Super Bowl training exercise.”