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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.