The US and Japan finished their largest and most complex military exercise, amid rising tensions with China

US Navy Air Force Japan Keen Sword
aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, left, and the Japanese
helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga, right, sail with 16 other ships
from the US Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, as US Air
Force and Japan Air Self-Defense Force aircraft fly overhead
during Keen Sword 2019, November 8, 2019.

US Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 3rd Class Erwin Jacob V.

  • The US and Japan were joined by Canadian forces for
    Keen Sword 19, which ended this week.
  • The exercise was the biggest and most sophisticated the
    US and Japan have carried out.
  • It comes amid growing tension with China in the seas
    and airspace of East Asia.

US and Japanese forces this week wrapped up exercise Keen Sword
19, which the US 7th Fleet commander called the “largest and most
complex” field exercise conducted by the two longtime allies.

This year’s exercise, in which Canadian forces also took part,
featured air, maritime, and amphibious exercises involving dozens
of US and Japanese ships and hundreds of aircraft.

About one-fifth of Japan’s Self-Defense Force — some 47,000
troops — worked with 10,000 US service members. Canada also sent
two ships and personnel. In all, this year’s Keen Sword included about 11,000 more
troops than the last edition of the biennial exercise.

This year’s Keen Sword comes amid heightened tensions with China,
whose forces have had several close encounters in recent weeks
with the US Navy in the South China Sea, where China has made
expansive territorial claims.

US Navy Los Angeles-class submarine Japan Keen Sword
US Navy Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine participates in
exercise Keen Sword with Submarine Group 7 and Japan Maritime
Self-Defense Force sailors, south of Japan on October 27,

US Navy/Chief Electronics
Technician (Radioman) Robert Gulini

Beijing and Tokyo are also involved in disputes in the East China
Sea, where both navies have been more active.

Japan has taken a number of steps to increase its military
capacities in recent years.

This spring, it activated an amphibious brigade, its first such unit since World War
, which is also taking part in its first Keen Sword. Other
recent firsts for Japan’s military include deploying armored vehicles
for the first time and its first exercises in Japan with

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The amphibious brigade was set up with the defense of
Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea in mind. China
has also claimed those islands, which are uninhabited and called
the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China.

During Keen Sword the JSDF amphibious unit conducted landing on beaches
near the islands of Guam and Tinian, east of Japan, working with
members of the US 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force.

US Navy aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan E-2D Hawkeye Keen Sword
E-2D Hawkeye lands on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan
during exercise Keen Sword 19, November 7,

US Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist
3rd Class MacAdam Kane Weissman

Earlier this year, Japan criticized China for sailing a
submarine close to the islands in the East China Sea, and in
August Chinese warships conducted air-defense and
anti-missile live-fire exercise in the East China Sea. Japan also
recently did submarine exercises in the South China Sea for the first time.

Submarine activity in the South and East China seas has increased
in recent years, led by China’s rapid addition of more advanced
. Keen Sword 19 also included submarine and
anti-submarine-warfare exercises.

Submarine Group 7 command staff, based in Yokosuka, Japan, and
the crew of a US Navy Los Angeles-class attack sub trained with
their Japanese counterparts on land and at sea to practice
detecting, locating, tracking, and engaging enemy targets,
according to a Navy release.

The Yokosuka-based USS Ronald Reagan, the Navy’s only
forward-deployed aircraft carrier, also took part in Keen Sword’s
anti-submarine-warfare drills.

US Air Force C-130J Super Hercules paratrooper Japan Keen Sword
Air Force crew members fly a C-130J Super Hercules over Kyushu,
Japan, during Keen Sword 19, Nov. 4, 2018.

US Air Force/Yasuo Osakabe

During the first weekend of November, F-18 Super Hornets were
taking off the Reagan about once every minute to practice
sortieing and to support the ASW drills.

“We go out there. We work with the Japanese and they tell us what
the problem is, where to go and what to search for,” Naval Air
Crewman 3rd Class Ronald Pierpoint said in a Navy release. “It helps us grease our gears working
with real submarines and, at the end of the day, we go over our
training to get better and better.”

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Commander, Task Force 72, the Navy maritime patrol and
reconnaissance aircraft within the 7th Fleet, was also present.
CTF-72 carried out 13 flights with both P-3C
Orion and P-8A Poseidon — the latter of which is considered one
of the most advanced maritime patrol
in service — to support maritime drills during Keen

“Creating a positive relationship with 7th Fleet [anti-submarine
warfare] communities is extremely important,” Lt. j.g. Conner
Ferguson, the plans and exercises officer for one of the patrol
squadrons taking part, said in a release.

US Air Force Japan paratrooper Keen Sword C-130J Super Hercules
soldiers board a US Air Force C-130J Super Hercules at Tsuiki Air
Base, Japan, during Keen Sword 19, November 4,

US Air Force/Yasuo

Also over the weekend, two US Air Force C-130J Super Hercules
aircraft flew from their base near Tokyo to southern Japan with
US Army paratroopers to pick up JSDF paratroopers for a practice

The exercise was to simulate inserting troops to an area without
an airfield, one of the Air Force loadmasters involved told Stars and Stripes. The
exercise was the first time that a US aircraft dropped JSDF
soldiers over the Hiju-dai drop zone in Japan’s Oita prefecture,
on the northern coast of Japan’s Kyushu Island.

“We don’t always get the opportunity to drop Japanese forces,”
said Capt. Jeff Larkin, the
unit commander, calling the drill “another
exciting moment for us because we can fly in an atypical

“They jumped safely and accurately,” US Army Master Sgt. Nathan
Greer, a US Army Alaska jump master overseeing the jump, said of the JSDF troops
involved. “This is most important thing for jumpers, and they
were professionals during the airborne operation.”

US Army paratrooper Japan Keen Sword
Army jump master Master Sgt. Nathan Greer, right, gives a hand
signal to JSDF soldiers over Hiju-dai drop zone during Keen Sword
19, November 4, 2018.

US Air
Force/Yasuo Osakabe

US Air Force pilots based at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa also
participated, practicing command and control, aerial refueling,
air defense, and escort operations.

Working with Japanese fliers was not a new experience for those
US pilots, but last-minute changes to the exercises they were
conducting helped enhance the training effect, Lt. Col. Nichelle
Somers, a KC-135 pilot instructor, told Air Force Magazine.

The exercises forced pilots to plan and fly the same way they
would if they were in Iraq or Afghanistan, Somers said.

“These exercises are key because this is what keeps us ready to
‘fight tonight,'” Somers added.