Yama Sakura Reflects New Approaches in Historic Alliance
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2013 An exercise underway in Japan is giving U.S. forces an opportunity to apply the leadership and problem-solving skills they developed in Iraq and Afghanistan as they refocus on the Asia-Pacific theater.
Yama Sakura 65, an annual bilateral exercise between U.S. and Japan, kicked off for its 33rd iteration Nov. 29 and will wrap up within the next few days, Army Lt. Gen. Robert B. Brown, the I Corps commander, told American Forces Press Service.
The largest bilateral ground exercise for the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, Yama Sakura includes about 1,500 U.S. military members and about 4,500 Japanese forces.
For Brown, who first participated in Yama Sakura in the mid-1990s, this year’s exercise represents a tremendous evolution from the one he remembers 17 years ago.
“It’s totally different, like night and day,” he said during a telephone interview today from Japan. “Back then, the Japanese were in one building, planning, and we were in another building. It was really hard to interact.”
Not so today. “Now we are right next to each other, truly working together bilaterally, and learning from each other,” he said.
Working together to confront a notional invasion of Northern Japan, the military forces are maximizing the advantages of technology never dreamed of in the early days of Yama Sakura.
Only about 1,000 of the U.S. participants are on the ground in Japan. The rest, Brown explained, are in simulation centers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.; in Hawaii, South Korea and several other locations.
“We are much more efficient today than in the past because we put money into simulations. That has really paid dividends in saving money, yet still providing an effective and realistic exercise,” he said. “Instead of everyone having to Japan to participate, they are up on [video teleconferences] at their home bases every single day. So you still have that realism, but in a more efficient manner.”
Another departure for Yama Sakura is that military forces are operating directly with their interagency and intergovernmental counterparts to replicate a joint, interagency, inter-governmental and multinational or “JIIM” domain.
For example, during the course of the execution phase of the exercise wrapping up this week, Japanese civil authorities worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the military participants to conduct a notional civilian evacuation. They hammered out the specifics of how they would conduct it and where they would send the evacuees and planned for some of the complications they would likely confront during a real-world event.
“I wish we had exercises more in the JIIM environment before deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, because it is more realistic,” Brown said. “We used to say we wouldn’t fight unless we were joint. Well, that is a given now. But I don’t think we will ever fight again unless we are truly joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational. It is the way the world has changed.”
Among those changes are the operational challenges posed by cyber threats. “Cyber is something we didn’t use to practice a lot, but now we include it in every exercise,” including Yama Sakura, Brown said.
Participants are practicing defensive cyber operations, which Brown said begins with recognizing attacks or attempted attacks on networks and reporting them to the appropriate authorities.
Many cyber attacks go unrecognized because users mistake temporary outages or unusual activity on their networks for the kind of interruptions they sometimes get on their cell phones, he explained. “It’s often a cyber attack or somebody trying to phish for information and folks don’t even know,” he said. “So the first thing is getting them to pay attention and report it, and we are playing that a lot in the exercise.”
While much has changed in the Yama Sakura exercise, Brown said its goals of promoting communication, understanding and interoperability haven’t.
Although the scenario was based on a fictitious invasion, Brown said the way Japanese and U.S. military and governmental personnel responded could apply to just about any situation – including one like the devastating earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster that struck Japan in 2011.
“This really could be about just anything,” he said. “It is putting you in a challenging situation so you learn to work together and build trust and confidence among your allies.”
Like many other U.S. allies and partners in the region, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members are anxious to learn the lessons U.S. forces have learned over the past 12 years of sustained combat, Brown said.
“This is the most experienced generation, operationally, that we have ever had,” he said. “They bring in incredible experience that our allies are very hungry for….[Those allies] definitely respect that we have been tested in the toughest of conditions in combat, and they really want to learn the lessons.”
Those lessons, he noted, include leadership and problem-solving skills that would apply as much during a humanitarian assistance and disaster response mission as in combat.
U.S. allies “understand that it is not technology, it is our noncommissioned officers that make us the best Army in the world,” Brown said.
As U.S. NCOs partnered extensively with Japanese forces during Yama Sakura, they shared insights into areas beyond traditional military operations, including suicide prevention, resiliency and sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention, he noted.
But the learning wasn’t all one-way. The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force has “tremendous planning skills,” Brown said, and its members happily shared them with the U.S. forces.
“I can’ tell you how excited the soldiers are to be here,” he said. “They are working right next to their Japanese counterparts. They are learning about their culture, their traditions, and learning from them about how they plan and operate. It’s just neat to see.”
Brown said he expects the after-action review to follow the exercise’s conclusion to be “fascinating” as it takes the process from past Yama Sakura exercises to a new level. “I think we are going to get even better lessons learned,” he said.
As I Corps continues to change from its Middle East focus to support the U.S. balance to the Asia-Pacific theater, Brown said the experiences gained during exercises like Yama Sakura will go a long way in promoting the relationships that will allow the U.S.-Japan alliance to continue to grow.
“When you learn about each other and learn how to operate together and cooperate better, you get a personal view of each other than can pay off in the long term,” he said. “And in the future, if something would happen, … we know we could come together and work together well.”
That foundation is critical, he said, borrowing what has become a popular truism, “because you can surge troops and numbers, but you can’t surge trust.”
“We exercise and practice together because you don’t want to learn this the first time in the middle of a crisis,” he said. “You don’t want to go to the Super Bowl without having scrimmaged or worked together. You have to have those repetitions: be together to learn and build trust that enables effective command.
“If you can do it efficiently and effectively in exercises like this, it is worth its weight in gold, because you are training the way you are going to end up fighting or responding to a crisis,” he said.
(Follow Donna Miles on Twitter: @MilesAFPS)