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U.S. Marines and troops from the 30th Infantry Regiment, 12th Brigade, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force are briefed on upcoming integrated defensive tactics training during exercise Forest Light 21 in Niigata Prefecture, Japan, Dec. 10.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Jonathan Willcox

Seizing and defending islands: U.S. Marines, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force strengthen integrated capabilities during exercise Forest Light

21 Dec 2020 | Capt. Nicholas Royer The Official United States Marine Corps Public Website

With MV-22 Ospreys and CH-47 aircraft operating overhead, U.S. Marines and Japanese soldiers manned machine guns, managed interlinked sensor screens, and provided targeting information for long-range fires assets in preparation to defend against an amphibious assault and enable a fast-hitting counterattack into enemy-held territory.

The soaring mountains, chilling snow, and thick mud of northwest Niigata Prefecture played host to countless iterations on these scenes from December 7 through 17 as part of exercise Forest Light Eastern Army, the latest in the long-running bilateral exercise. Communications, maneuvering units, fires, and complex effects across the spectrum of military operations were on display across two training areas simulating islands as the integrated forces exercised tactics that will support expeditionary advanced base operations. These widely distributed, but connected, operations became a matter of muscle memory for the more than 1,000 Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and U.S. Marines who embraced the challenging terrain and weather.

During this iteration of exercise Forest Light, Marines with 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, currently deployed under 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, joined their Japanese counterparts from the 30th Infantry Regiment, 12th Brigade.

“The command and control, the logistical challenge involved … it was intense,” described Maj. Joshua White, operations officer for 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines. “Our logistics Marines did incredible work ensuring a self-supporting capability and distributed command and control, and I can attest to the relentless drive and skill of our entire combined U.S.-Japan operations team.”

 “It is always a great opportunity to exchange knowledge and train with our allies... We are prepared for any conflict.” Sgt. 1st Class Noriaki Araake, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldier

White and a small, flexible team of his operations counterparts from across the battalion and the JGSDF’s 30th Infantry Regiment controlled the exercise forces from a variety of distributed locations.

“It’s not about the location; it’s not about the conditions,” said White. “It’s about the people being able to work with their systems and make the connection from finding and fixing, to firing on any target, while we’re on the move all the while.”

A traditional tent complex, impromptu use of existing infrastructure, and mobile command post systems mounted in Joint Light Tactical Vehicles and carried in on Marines’ backs were all approaches exercised by 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines and their JGSDF partners, allowing a fast, smooth, and distributed control of forces.

With JGSDF snipers relaying information, U.S. Marines and 30th Infantry Regiment troops storming landing zones from Japanese CH-47s and U.S. MV-22 Ospreys, and an integrated effort across all domains, Forest Light was “a significant step forward in our partnership and becoming stronger together,” said Lt. Col. Neil Berry, commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines.

As an integrated force, the troops relentlessly drilled together on the tactics, techniques, and procedures required to seize and defend key maritime terrain – from the individual marksmanship, unmanned aerial systems operations, and intelligence collections to planning and coordination of airborne assaults and distributed maritime defensive operations.

Weapons Examination Photo by Capt. Nicholas Royer
U.S. Marines and members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force's 30th Infantry Regiment examine each other's weapons as part of exercise Forest Light in mainland Japan, Dec. 11.

“Through this exercise, we have learned many fruitful lessons and deepened mutual understanding,” said Col. Yuichiro Endo, commander of the JGSDF’s 30th Infantry Regiment.

Lt. Col. Berry echoed this assessment, stating directly that the exercise was about developing the U.S.-Japan Alliance’s “innovation, capabilities and lethality, leaving no doubt about our readiness and willingness to operate in the current environment.”

“We’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder against any challenge,” Berry noted. “Whether it comes in the form of a humanitarian crisis, aggression against the Japan-U.S. Alliance, or COVID-19, we are integrated, prepared, and ready to defend our nations’ greatest treasures - our people.”

The enduring image of Japanese and U.S. forces manning the same defensive positions, keeping watch on the same sights and systems in a mobile command post, and sharing moments of cross-cultural understanding permeated Forest Light, from command centers down to the troops on the ground.

“It is always a great opportunity to exchange knowledge and train with our allies,” noted Sgt. 1st Class Noriaki Araake of the 30th Infantry Regiment. “We are prepared for any conflict.”