By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Sept. 07, 2015) -- Exercise Rising Thunder kicks off for the 22nd time today at Yakima Training Center, Washington.
The exercise annually brings Japanese soldiers to the United States to train alongside U.S. Soldiers. This year, the exercise runs Sept. 8-25, and involves about 300 soldiers from the 10th Division of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force's, or JGSDF's, "Middle Army."
About 275 U.S. Soldiers will participate in Rising Thunder, including Soldiers from 2-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division, who will serve as primary trainers for the exercise. Soldiers from 16th Combat Aviation Brigade will also participate.
Col. Tony Aguto, who serves as the deputy commanding officer for operations of the 7th Infantry Division, will also serve as a senior trainer for Rising Thunder. He said the Rising Thunder event is designed to benefit the JGSDF by providing them access to the large training grounds and support staff offered at Yakima Training Center.
"This is actually their training event," Aguto said, explaining that the Japanese units come to the United States to make use of the training ranges and training support packages offered by the U.S. Army. "It's their event, and we support them. We help them build their event to match their training objectives while they are out here. They are the lead, and we support them."
Exercises, like Rising Thunder, Aguto said, contribute to increased interoperability and partnership between American and Pacific nation armies. The three-week Rising Thunder exercise will strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Japanese armies, he said.
"From the tactical level it is very important," he said. "We've been building this partnership with the Japanese divisions for a long time. From the operational/strategic level it is very important. It is part of our engagement out to the east, and something we have been doing for quite a long time."
This year for the first time, he said, the Japanese hope to focus their training on use of their air assets.
"They want to be able to train their helicopters in conjunction with artillery," he said. "We are conducting aerial gunnery in conjunction with their artillery and their infantry. One of the goals is to do a combined live-fire exercise, where we integrate American and Japanese units in a live-fire event. What is unique about this Rising Thunder is the use of their air assets. We are integrating their aircraft, and our aircraft - the AH-64 Apache - in the training. That's something we haven't done to this level before."
Aguto said the JGSDF will bring Bell AH-1 Cobra aircraft to the exercise, and that there will be challenges to integrating their aircraft with American aircraft. But that type of challenge is exactly what exercises like Rising Thunder are meant to address.
"A lot of it has to do with how we work together, as opposed to the actual technical communications systems," he said. "We will have our tactical operations centers set up right next to each other and we'll share liaison officers all the way down to the platoon level to make sure we have some sort of interoperability across the functions, from infantry, to aircraft, to artillery. It's a challenge to us to do combined live fire with just our own units. When you add in a partnered event, such as this, it's a great training event, it's a great exercise, but it adds its own unique challenges."
During the first two weeks of Rising Thunder, Aguto said, U.S. and Japanese Soldiers will work hand-in-hand on training. There will be platoon live-fire exercises and bilateral heliborne training - which involves mounting and dismounting out of a helicopter in a combat environment. The culminating event this year will be a bi-lateral combined arms live-fire exercise during the last week, he said.
In advance of Rising Thunder, U.S. Soldiers received training regarding how the Japanese army works, as well as some cultural training, Aguto said. During the exercise, there will be plenty of time for U.S. and Japanese Soldiers to get to know each other as well.
"There is a familiarization time here with the Japanese soldiers," he said. "So when we go through these first couple weeks, just individual - and crew-level training, all that is partnered. And throughout this training, there are a number of social, team-building and athletic events. And at the end, there is a half-marathon we are running with the Japanese."
Early next year, the 7th Infantry Division will continue strengthening partnerships in the Pacific though participation in a Pacific Pathways exercise, which kicks off in February. During that Pacific Pathways iteration, Soldiers, with the 7th Infantry Division, will travel to Thailand to participate in Cobra Gold, Feb. 9-23; South Korea to participate in Foal Eagle, March 7-17; and the Philippines to participate in Balikatan, April 18-30. Participation in the exercises with armies there will increase interoperability and strengthen relationships in the Pacific.
"We as an Army go out to other armies in the Pacific and do joint/combined exercises with them to really build a global network of armies across the pacific," Aguto said. "Rising Thunder is just one exercise of many we do out in the Pacific to increase our partnerships, and to increase army-to-army relationships, in case we need them in the future."