US-Japan military exercise makes JBLM general think of kin

Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s senior Army general spent the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in a place that once would have seemed unlikely to his late World War II veteran father-in-law.

Lt. Gen. Robert Brown marked the day “which will live in infamy” while serving alongside the Japanese Northern Army in a joint military exercise that mimicked how the two countries would collaborate to repel an assault on the island nation.

Saturday’s anniversary of the attack did not come up much between the allies. They focused instead on their annual exercise.

“What’s really amazing is how strong the alliance is between the U.S. and Japan,” Brown said in a phone interview Friday from Japan. “Although those things did happen, we have never had a stronger alliance.”

He and about 400 soldiers from Lewis-McChord’s I Corps are in the Japanese city of Chitose for an exercise called Yama Sakura.

All together, about 1,000 U.S. military service members are taking part in the exercise in Japan.

In the exercise, another nation invades Japan through the northern island of Hokkaido. U.S. and Japanese forces then fight together to repel the enemy force.

That might seem like an unlikely scenario among developed nations, but Brown said the exercise’s real purpose is to build partnerships between the two militaries so they can work together in crises.

“These are the reasons you have to do this,” he said. “You have to get together. You don’t want to wait for a crisis; then you’d be in a real hurt. You don’t want to wait for an emergency, for North Korea to do something.”

Yama Sakura used to be a tradition for the I Corps, which historically has a Pacific focus as an Army command. That changed after the 2007 exercise as the corps began preparing for deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. This year’s exercise is the first Yama Sakura for the corps in Japan in six years.

“We’re back in the Pacific to stay,” Brown said. The corps this year also has participated in exercises in South Korea and Australia.

Fast-moving political events underscored the importance of the alliance during the corps’ visit. On Nov. 23, China declared that it had expanded its national air defense zone, the air space off its coast that it controls. U.S. and allied aircraft have tested that zone with military flights, though commercial planes are reported to be honoring it.

South Korea responded Sunday by expanding its own air defense zone into territory China claims. China and Japan have conflicting claims to small islands, as do China and South Korea.

Brown said he was concerned about China’s announcement because it carried the risk of raising tensions in the region.

“I don’t really understand why (China) would do something like that,” Brown said. “It is perplexing. In this case they did it without talking to anybody. They did it on their own.”

This year’s exercise was Brown’s third Yama Sakura. He has participated as an officer from Hawaii’s 25th Infantry Division and more recently as an observer.

He characterized this year’s exercise as leaner than his previous experiences.

Typically, the U.S. would bring 2,000 or more troops. This year, it’s getting more done with virtual networks that connect Yama Sakura to commands in Hawaii and at Lewis-McChord.

“Although the exercise does cost money, we are doing it as efficiently as possible,” he said. “That’s a key thing. We can still be effective.”

He noticed another change. U.S. and Japanese service members are sitting in the same briefings and making plans together. In the past, they’d work from different buildings.

And this year’s Yama Sakura has a new emphasis on cyber warfare. Troops from the two countries are being tested on whether they can recognize a cyber attack and defend against it.

Brown said the countries are not practicing offensive cyber warfare.

Brown said he occasionally thought about his father-in-law, Bob Pope, during the exercise. Pope was a Navy pilot who fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Brown said he wished he could have called him.

“I would have loved to have talked to him from Japan working with the Japanese army from Japan,” Brown said.