Monthly Archives: August 2017

Japan and US Conduct Live Fire Drills Amid Regional Tension

Following on from DB editor, Grant Turnbull’s blog on rising tensions in Asia, guest blogger Sam Bocetta takes an in depth look at the recent US-Japanese military exercise.

Last week, some 300 US and Japanese military personnel carried out live fire drills in northern Japan, despite the simmering regional tension between the US and North Korea.

The drills were part of an artillery training exercise being jointly conducted by the US and Japanese militaries. Live shells were fired from armed vehicles at a training area on the northern island of Hokkaido. Troops from Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force (JGSDF) and the USMC were both involved.

Northern Viper 4

These live fire drills formed part of a huge 19-day joint exercise between the two countries. Though the exercise had been planned years in advance, there had been calls for it to be called off due to the increased tension between the US and North Korea. The drill is likely to further inflame the war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, during which the North Korean leader has threatened to fire missiles at the pacific island – and US military base – of Guam.

Northern Viper 2017

The drills form part of Northern Viper 2017, a huge and ambitious joint exercise of the US and Japanese militaries. More than 2,000 US Marines, and some 1,500 members of the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF), were involved. The drills took place at the Misawa Air Base in northern Japan.

The exercise was designed to test the compatibility and interoperability of the JSDF and the US Marine Corps. Though primarily focused on troops’ abilities to deal with peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief, the drills also saw an impressive deployment of military hardware.

Northern Viper 6

Though the US and Japan have been military allies for many years now, they have not often trained together, and some analysts had worried about the ability of the two countries to co-operate at a tactical level. Northern Viper sought to address this issue by stressing low-level interoperability between the two forces.

The exercise involved a range of US forces. The USMC deployed in Okinawa are a highly-capable, forward-deployed unit, and are critical to the US’s ability to project power in the Asia-Pacific region. The relationship between the US and Japanese militaries allows these troops to train in Japan.

Accordingly, the exercise involved US troops from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, and the 3rd Marine Division. The aircraft wing were charged with providing direct aerial support to the ground troops of both the 3rd Marine Division and the JSDF. Various training exercises were conducted alongside the live fire artillery drills. These consisted of assault support missions, simulated offensive air support, and simulated casualty evacuations.

Northern Viper 5

During the exercise, the US military fired, for the first time ever in Japan, the M142 High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). This system can fire a range of guided missiles – either a barrage of six short-range missiles each armed with a 200lb (91kg) warhead, or one long-range missile that is capable of hitting targets out to 186 miles (299km).

HIMARS require a crew of three – a driver, gunner and chief. An advanced computer-based fire control system enables the crew or even a lone soldier to operate the entire system. The fire control system includes keyboard control, video, programme storage and GPS. The fire control computer allows firing missions to be carried out in automatic or manual mode. Fire systems use advanced GPS and optics systems to find and lock onto targets.

MV-22 Northern Viper

Northern Viper also involved a range of aircraft. The US deployed F-16 fighter jets, UH-1 Hueys and AH-1Z Cobra helicopters. Controversially, the US also deployed several MV-22 Osprey helicopters, against the wishes of the Japanese government. Several recent crashes have led to concerns over the safety of this tilt-rotor vehicle.

Training in Japan allows the USMC to conduct exercises that are impossible in Okinawa. Hokkaido has ranges that allow for aircraft to conduct live fire exercises, for instance. Large exercises such as Northern Viper also allow US forces to identify weaknesses, and possible areas of conflict with coalition partners, that are invaluable to the ongoing development of these forces.

Northern Viper 7

Regional Tensions

Though Northern Viper had been planned months in advance, there had been pressure for it to be called off due to the increased tension in the Asia-Pacific region. It has been claimed that military exercises like this, especially when incorporating live-fire drills, run the risk of escalating tensions between the US and North Korea.

Though none of the weapons deployed in Northern Viper are a threat to North Korea, the exercise serves to underline the close relationship between the US and Japanese militaries. This relationship has long been a source of tension between the US, North Korea, and China. And although Hokkaido is quite some distance away from the Korean Peninsula, it is reasonable to assume that both China and North Korea watched the exercise with interest.


For Japan, the exercise not only provides valuable training experience, but also the opportunity to showcase its increasing military capability. Japan’s defence budget has steadily risen over the last few years, driven by the deteriorating security situation in the region, and it is now coming under increasing pressure to acquire a pre-emptive strike capability.

Sam Bocetta is a retired engineer who worked for over 35 years as an engineer specialising in electronic warfare and advanced computer systems. Bocetta is also a contributor on Gun News Daily. He now teaches at Algonquin Community College in Ottawa, Canada as a part time engineering professor.


Volatile conditions – tensions rise in Asia

As the Sep/Oct issue of Shephard’s Digital Battlespace went to press, it was reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was on the brink of firing missiles towards the US territory of Guam. That has not happened, yet, but it is another sign that the unhinged leader of North Korea continues to be a threat to the region and, as his missile and nuclear technologies advance, to countries outside the region.

This year has seen North Korea’s ballistic missile capability go from strength to strength and by July the country had carried out at least 14 firings of various domestic-built missiles. The 14th was possibly the most significant, with the firing of a intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could have hit the US west coast (which was instead was fired 2,300 miles into space).


Add to that already dangerous situation the development of a possible nuclear warhead for an ICBM and the situation becomes almost apocalyptic. If it’s any comfort, it is believed that North Korea still does not possess the capability to miniaturise a nuclear warhead or even the technology for the warhead to survive re-entry. Yet despite these limitations, and an international community grouping together to impose harsh sanctions, Pyongyang still manages to achieve successes.

Another volatile leader to add to this combustible mix is Donald Trump. In his short time as president, he has shown himself to be unstable and irrational – two character traits that do not bode well for international diplomacy and dealing with despotic regimes. His response to North Korean missile tests was to promise ‘fire and fury’ if the country made any more threats to the US.


Addressing missile threats

Ultimately, it will be patient diplomacy that brings the two countries back from the brink of all-out war. But what lessons can we learn from this? First and foremost, it should act as a wake-up call – if it hasn’t already – that governments have to invest in ballistic missile defence (BMD) technologies for the protection of not just soldiers in theatre, but also citizens going about their daily lives.

Admittedly, that is easier said than done.

BMD is a huge and costly endeavour that requires significant investment, often in the billions. It necessitates a host of early-warning sensors (on land and sea, and in air and space) and for those sensors to be networked so that data can be fed into complex C2 systems. Highly capable, highly manoeuvrable interceptors must be acquired to shoot down the missiles, a feat that has often been compared to shooting down a bullet with a bullet.


The US is the only country in the world that can field multiple BMD systems, including the homeland Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which in May achieved its first-ever intercept – probably not by coincidence considering recent events – of an ICBM fired towards the US from deep in the Pacific.

However, the GMD programme has been notorious for its significant cost – its yearly budget is around $1.5 billion – and the fact that before May, it failed eight of 17 tests.


To reduce costs, NATO has pooled resources to offer a territorial BMD capability, which achieved initial operating capability last year. It includes ship-based radars as well as ground-based systems, such as Aegis Ashore, based in Romania and soon in Poland. The US also works closely with its Asian allies to provide BMD systems, including THAAD in South Korea and possibly Aegis Ashore in Japan in the future.

Effective defence

Another way BMD will become more cost-effective in the future will be the increasing effectiveness and reliability of sensors, particularly next-generation radars that can detect, track and provide fire control data for interceptors. Industry is particularly focused on how it can ensure lifecycle costs remain low, by increasing a sensor’s reliability and keeping repairs to a minimum, which is especially important at sea.


In this edition of DB, we look in more detail at naval radars, with several of the systems outlined now featuring some kind of BMD function or growth potential. With industry utilising the advances in commercial electronics, these systems are rapidly evolving in terms of capability – particularly with the onset of active electronically scanned array systems and Gallium Nitride technologies – allowing for longer detection ranges and greater kill rates for interceptors.

Of course, challenges remain, not least when it comes to funding, but the alternative of having no effective defence against ballistic missile threats does not bear thinking about.

Pasted image at 2017_08_31 08_41 AM


The latest edition of Digital Battlespace (Sep/Oct 2017) is now available to download FREE on IoS and Andriod.