This article by Sgt. Desiree King, UMSC, was originally published by Leatherneck Magazine
The rumbling of vehicles fills the air as a layer of clouds lifts from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton’s 17 miles of California coast line. The rumble increases to a roar as tracks propel the heavily armored vehicles down the deep sand into waves of the Pacific.
Two units are conducting beach landing training, and an astute observer can detect slight cosmetic differences between the assault amphibious vehicles (AAVs). A pattern change in the camouflage paint and siding distinguishes those operated by U.S. Marines with 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division, from those operated by Japan Ground Self Defense Force (JGSDF) soldiers with 2ndAmphibious Rapid Deployment Regiment(ARDR), Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade. They’re in the second week of Exercise Iron Fist 2020, a critical training opportunity for 2nd ARDR before they complete their amphibious certification next year at Iron Fist 2021.
Exercise Iron Fist 2020’s opening ceremony fell within days of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security by U.S. and Japanese leaders. First drafted in 1951 on the heels of World War II, international lawmakers revised and signed the current version of the treaty on Jan. 19, 1960.
The treaty outlines conditions for lasting peace, partnership, and prosperity as well as each nations’ “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense as affirmed in the Charter of the United Nations … and common concern in the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East.” As an island nation, Japan’s focus on amphibious capabilities is forefront in fulfilling this condition of self-defense.
Iron Fist is one of a handful of annual large-scale exercises designed to enhance interoperability between the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Marine Corps. Most recently, Exercise Forest Light Western Army and Exercise Yama Sakura, both held in Japan, focused on infantry and combined armed tactics,honing techniques, exchanging military experience, and testing bilateral planning capabilities.
Exercise Iron Fist focuses on sharing amphibious doctrine across nations by creating scenarios that allow for the demonstration of tactics, techniques, and procedures associated with amphibious command and control, combined arms fire and maneuver, expeditionary logistics, and operational concepts.
“What I’ve seen in the past with exercises like Forest Light is they’re limited in scope by their training area and by their integration with the Marine Air-GroundTask Force and our Navy counterparts,”said Captain Coleman Fuquea, a targeting officer and exercise lead planner with 15thMarine Expeditionary Unit, I Marine Expeditionary Force.
“What you see herewith Iron Fist is integration with one, a MAGTF, and two, support from [U.S. Navy’s] Amphibious Squadron 1 and[Japan’s] Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, which is a unique unit in-and-of-itself.”
Exercise planners employed a multi-phase approach to training that began almost a year before the arrival of 2ndARDR. The first phase ensured leaders from each participating unit had the opportunity to provide feedback and recommendations during initial planning, while the second phase set the conditions for successful execution. The third phase adopted a progressive approach that allowed participants to conduct functional training and rehearsals before executing live-fire exercises and an amphibious landing, which have little margin for error.
Ties to the Pacific
The amphibious focus of Exercise Iron Fist falls in line with the Commandant’s Planning Guidance and initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region. The relevancy of a unit’s ability to simultaneously respond to threats on the sea and land makes the planning and coordination that go into an exercise like Iron Fist an indispensable framework for the protection of a region with strategic significance.
“The Indo-Pacifi c is a large number of small islands and island chains that can affect maritime shipping routes,” Fuquea said. “Historically, we’ve already seen how valuable that territory can be with nations expanding their power, so for the security of the United States and our allies, those amphibious operations can be crucial.”
Exercise Iron Fist began in 2006 when200 soldiers from JGSDF Western Army trained with U.S. Marines for three weeks on Naval Base Coronado, Calif. While The training was considered beneficial,world events would eventually force a broadening of scope.
In 2012 Japan’s leaders recognized a dedicated amphibious operational unit would be imperative for the defense of its southern islands. On March 27, 2018,following that year’s iteration of Iron Fist,the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade was stood up for the defense of Japanese territory from threats in the Indo-Pacific region. In 2019, Exercise Iron Fist and MCB Camp Pendleton became thevenue for the official certification of 1stAmphibious Rapid Deployment Regiment’s troops.
Iron Fist 2020’s training has served as a precursor to 2nd ARDR’s amphibious certification in 2021. For this year’s iteration to be successful, synergy was required from more than 1,200 service members of two different cultures and 10 distinct units, representing three branches of their respective militaries—U.S. Marine Corps’ I Marine Expeditionary Force,U.S. Navy’s Amphibious Squadron 1,and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade.
One of the Marine Corps units was 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st MarDiv. 3rd AA Bn’s primary purpose during the exercise was to exchange best practices and procedures when operating the assault amphibious vehicle P7/A1, the same model which JGSDF purchased from theUnited States before officially standing up ARDB.
Following the progressive framework of the exercise itself, Marines and JGSDF soldiers first instructed each other on safety and standard operating procedures.
Next, they conducted splash recovery drills in the battalion’s sheltered training day before rehearsing beach landings in the open ocean. Finally, 3rd AABn and2nd ARDR embarked on two ships under the U.S. Navy’s Amphibious Squadron 1, amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland (LPD-27) and Harpers Ferry-class dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (LSD 52), to execute the culminating event—a ship-to-shore amphibious landing exercise.
Exercise Iron Fist challenged U.S. Marines and JGSDF soldiers to not only learn from the prescribed training, but also from working with each other. With more than a thousand participants, spread over MCB Camp Pendleton’s 200 square miles,interpreters were not always available.
That didn’t stop service members from either country from forming a connection.
“The [job] itself … we connect very well because we do the same thing. We Understand each other in the aspect of our working ethic,” said Sergeant Salomon Segura, a section leader with 3rd AABn.
“It’s learning and teaching with the Japanese and within ourselves as well. It’s creating a greater bond between us …”
Exercise Iron Fist 2020 has officially ended, but the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security ensures that it will not be the last. Each year forces its execution to evolve; new technology is acquired, new equipment introduced, and new leaders appointed. The consistency lies in the professionalism of our organizations and the relationships made between us.
“Don’t take it for granted,” said Fuquea.
“Allies, relationships. It’s all based on interpersonal interactions; it’s not anything that either nation can take for granted. And the more time we spend with each other,the more times we get put into stressful situations like Iron Fist, the more we’ll build on that treaty.”
Author’s bio: Sgt Desiree King entered the Marine Corps in 2015 and now serves as a combat videographer with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit on MCB Camp Pendleton, Calif. She has a bachelor’s degree in film and media arts from Temple University