The 19th year of a U.S.-Japan military exercise in Central Washington peaked today with batteries of American canons collaborating with hundreds of soldiers from their Pacific ally in one of their biggest joint-drills yet.
Both nations stepped up their contributions to so-called Operation Rising Thunder this year. Each side sent about 500 service members to take part in the three-week exercise, said Army Capt. Cynthia Holuta.
For the Americans, the extra troops reflect the Pentagon’s reemphasis on the Pacific as well as a chance for soldiers to refresh combat skills they can’t exercise at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The Japanese have long used the annual drills at the Yakima Training Center for exercises they can’t do at home, but they had fewer forces to send last year because of the fallout from the tsunami that hit their shores in 2011.
Japan sent about 300 soldiers in 2011, down from about 350 in 2010, according to Army reports on “Operation Rising Thunder” from those exercises.
Lewis-McChord in the past tended to provide limited, logistical support for Japanese forces in Yakima.
Last year, the base south of Tacoma sent soldiers from an infantry battalion to carry out joint drills with the Japanese. That was a bigger commitment than most years.
This year, the Army raised its stake by providing soldiers from its artillery, combat aviation and battlefield surveillance brigades.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the Pacific is a priority as the Pentagon prepares to reduce spending after a decade at war. Lewis-McChord leaders anticipate playing a major role in that change.
Soldiers at Lewis-McChord have more drills with Pacific allies on the horizon. The base’s senior Army officer, I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, last week told leaders that exercises are scheduled for next year in Australia, Japan and South Korea.
“This shift has provided really unique opportunities to work with our partners in the Pacific,” Brown said in remarks to a Lewis-McChord leadership conference. “I Corps serves as the operational force for the Pacific so we help shape relationships with countries there, we help prevent conflict and we build friendships.”