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NEWS | Dec. 5, 2021

Yama Sakura 81 reinforces strength of U.S-Japan alliance through world’s largest command post exercise

By Maj. Elias Chelala U.S. Army Japan

CAMP ZAMA, Japan – U.S. Army Pacific and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force just completed the largest U.S.-Japan bilateral and joint command post exercise in Yama Sakura’s 40-year history. Yama Sakura 81 (YS81) was larger in size, scope, and complexity compared to previous iterations and located primarily at Camp Zama, Camp Itami and Camp Ainoura, Japan, from Dec. 1 – 13.

During last year’s YS79, America’s First Corps was only able to deploy around 30 personnel forward to Camp Kengun, Japan, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s YS81 was the largest exercise to date. U.S. Army Japan raised the bar to new heights, facilitating the forward deployment of over 1,500 Soldiers and thousands of pieces of equipment from Hawaii and Washington to multiple locations across Japan from Nov. 15 – Dec. 20.

YS81 enables participants to work as dedicated partners in support of the U.S.-Japan security alliance and for continued peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. This year’s exercise included participants from I Corps, 25th Infantry Division, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, USARJ, 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade – SFAB, 9th Mission Support Command, and JGSDF’s Ground Component Command, Middle Army, and Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade.

For the first time in Yama Sakura’s history, I Corps partnered with the GCC as the secondary training audience and the Joint Task Force (JTF) higher headquarters of 25th ID and JGSDF Middle Army. The JTF was established as the Joint Force Land Component Command to exercise land power and provide command, control, and direction over assigned and attached forces throughout the scenario.

“America’s First Corps began participating in Yama Sakura in 1995. Each year our militaries have worked hard to improve our bilateral capabilities,” Lt. Gen. Xavier T. Brunson, I Corps commanding general, said at the start of the exercise. “To this day, we continue to work toward maintaining the collective security of the Indo-Pacific region.”

Brunson’s Corps successfully deployed hundreds of Soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord to Camp Zama, where they integrated with the GCC’s Bilateral Coordination Department in building J14 and conducted a start of the exercise (STARTEX) ceremony Dec. 2.

Since its inception in 1982, Yama Sakura has focused on the development and refinement of the JGSDF and U.S. Army’s bilateral planning, coordination, and interoperability efforts.

The 5th SFAB was also back in Japan for Yama Sakura 81 as part of Force Package 22-1 and deployed multiple Battalion Advisor Teams comprised of highly qualified professionals to embed with the training participants. The BATs were located with I Corps and GCC at Camp Zama, 25th ID and JGSDF Middle Army at Camp Itami, and 3rd MEB and the ARDB at Camp Ainoura. This marks the 5th SFABs second major exercise in Japan, the brigade was last here during Orient Shield 21-2 in July, and continues to forward posture elements around the Indo-Pacific.

“We are much better prepared for the future challenges that we may face together and I look forward to future iterations,” said Col. Jeffery A. VanAntwerp, 25th ID deputy commanding officer for operations. “We have enjoyed ourselves here and that is a result of your (Japan’s) hospitality and just a way of how you all approached the exercise.”

With the Corps and GCC acting as the JTF, it allowed an active duty Army division to partner with a JGSDF regional Army for the first time. The 25th ID and JGSDF MA were the primary training audience at Camp Itami, but this isn’t the first time the 25th actively participated in Yama Sakura. The unit can trace its roots back to Yama Sakura I, conducted in 1982 at Camp Takigahara. For YS81, the division successfully deployed over 170 soldiers to Camp Itami and integrated with the Middle Army staff to train on multi-domain and cross-domain operations.

During the opening ceremony on Dec. 5, Lt. Gen. Shin Nozawa, JGSDF MA commanding general, said, “The focus of YS81 is to link cross-domain operations of the JGSDF’s to multi-domain operations of the U.S. Army. This will improve the interoperability between the JGSDF, U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps, specifically for bilateral response capabilities.”

After the ceremony, Nozawa participated in a bilateral press conference with Maj. Gen. JB Vowell, U.S. Army Japan commanding general, and spoke with the media about Yama Sakura’s history and answered questions to several Japanese news organizations. “Yama Sakura has a long and storied history, and has evolved over the course of 40 years to where it is today – a complex and realistic exercise that will test the U.S. and JGSDF staffs and provide a great opportunity to improve interoperability between our forces,” said Vowell.

At Camp Courtney, Okinawa, the 3rd MEB along with Maneuver Advisor Team 5310, 5th SFAB, successfully deployed over 200 personnel to Camp Ainoura aboard several KC-130J aircraft from 1st Marine Air Wing before the start of the exercise. This is the first time the exercise was hosted at Camp Ainoura, but it isn’t the first time the 3rd MEB has partnered with the ARDB. “This command post exercise makes us more capable and more lethal. Although our daily objective is to prevent conflict, our adversaries should not take that to mean we will not be prepared for conflict,” said Brig. Gen. Kyle Ellison, 3rd MEB commanding general.

YS81 strengthened U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, and JGSDF interoperability, demonstrating how a bilateral, joint and capable force is committed to the U.S.-Japan alliance and a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Back at Camp Zama, around 30 personnel from the Australian Army, led by Col. Corey Shillabeer, Colonel Effects at Headquarters 1st Division of the Australian Defense Force, were fully integrated and observing multi-domain and cross-domain concepts among the U.S. and JGSDF staffs. The Australians have participated as observers in previous YS exercises, but this year they sent their largest contingent forward with one team each at Camp Zama, Camp Itami and Camp Ainoura.

Also at Hiro Ammo Depot, Soldiers with the 38th Air Defense Artillery Brigade helped load a package of MIM-104 Patriot missiles on a U.S. Army Landing Craft Utility Dec. 8. The 10th Support Group tasked the 97th Transportation Company to transport missiles belonging to the 38th ADA from Hiro to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in a proof of concept rehearsal during YS81. The LCU is capable of moving vehicles with its roll-on/roll-off platform or standard cargo, but this is the very first Patriot missile movement utilizing the Army’s own watercraft systems.

YS was primarily virtual, but there were several live and constructive aspects to the exercise, including the movement of equipment utilizing air, ground and maritime assets. YS81 effectively demonstrates to regional adversaries the readiness, commitment, and capability of the U.S. and Japan forces to defend Japanese sovereignty.

Additionally, the Army Reserve and 9th Mission Support Command were fully engaged and brought several unique capabilities to YS81. Four reserve units with more than 30 Soldiers provided support from the 206th Digital Liaison Detachment, 1984 Medical Detachment, and 322nd Civil Affairs Brigade completing the total Army and joint force integration package for the exercise.

“We were able to conduct operations throughout the exercise with close coordination supported by the GCC, I Corps, subordinate units and bilateral cooperation,” said Nozawa.

This was the largest demonstration of USARPAC and JGSDF’s ability to strengthen the alliance and rehearse defending Japan. The forward posture and network of ground personnel and equipment proved that land power is critical to regional security and binds the Indo-Pacific together.

Yama Sakura reinforces that the U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps and JGSDF can execute the world’s largest command post exercise in any environment and test multi-domain and cross-domain operations through integrated deterrence providing assurances to allies, deterring adversaries while enabling the participants to increase their warfighting advantage.

“Our collective team is comprehensive and extremely capable as a warfighting unit,” said Brunson. “USARPAC, GCC, I Corps, and our down trace units 25th ID, JGSDF MA, 3rd MEB, the ARDB, Pacific Air forces and Special Operations Command Pacific are all prepared and ready to train.”