By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Dec. 11, 2015) -- The two-week Yama Sakura 69 exercise kicked off Dec. 5 in Osaka, Japan. The bilateral command post exercise is a key element of the U.S. shift in focus to the Pacific region. It's also one facet of I Corps' mandate to maintain readiness to operate across the Pacific, and globally if called upon.
The annual Yama Sakura exercise revolves around a fictional scenario involving the defense of Japan. About 5,000 service members from both Japan and the United States are participating in the exercise, now in it's 34th year.
This year, the center of the exercise is Camp Itami in Osaka. About 1,300 American forces are participating globally, and that includes service members from across the joint force. Army participation is "total force," and includes members of the active, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve forces.
The primary participants in Yama Sakura 69 include Japan's Middle Army and the U.S. Army's I Corps, which serves as lead for U.S. involvement in the exercise. Planning for the exercise usually begins a year out.
"The greatness of Yama Sakura is that it evolves every year with the lessons learned, as it gets passed down from every Yama Sakura in terms of our exercise design," said Lt. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, I Corps commander. "But this is really about the defense of Japan -- the defense of Japan as a sovereign nation to restore their territorial integrity against a notional threat. It's a realistic exercise and it's portrayed from an operational perspective of what these headquarters would be doing."
During the exercise, Lanza partners with Lt. Gen. Junji Suzuki, Middle Army commander, as a bi-lateral command team for the two headquarters.
Yama Sakura, Lanza said, enhances regional stability and cooperation in the Pacific.
"The cornerstone of our relationship with Japan is about peace and security in this region," he said. "When you look at what we are learning in the exercise, there are a couple of big things. What is the decision-making process between two commanders of different headquarters in a bi-lateral fashion? And how does that information get to the commanders as our staffs work together and are joined together, so that the commanders can make an informed decision?"
Lanza also said new to Yama Sakura this year is a bi-lateral joint task force headquarters that both commanders report to, which provides additional learning opportunities for participants.
Lanza said the exercise strengthens familiarity between U.S. and Japanese forces, and also keeps I Corps sharp, allowing Soldiers to maintain the readiness demanded of them so they can respond globally, or as part of their regional alignment with U.S. Pacific Command.
At the forefront of that readiness, Lanza said, is familiarity of how to operate with their Japanese counterparts.
"There is readiness being built here as you look at how the organizations would work together," Lanza said of the exercise. "You don't want to learn that the first time something would happen."
Lanza said at Yama Sakura, I Corps develops readiness in terms of, among other things, how it works with the Japanese, how it operates as a joint task force headquarters to support U.S. Army Pacific or U.S. Pacific Command, how it works with land, air and sea components, and how it exercises its digital sustainment systems.
Individual Soldiers also grow in their own readiness, he said, as they gain experience beyond the tactical level.
"There is readiness going on here for how our young leaders learn to develop themselves at the operational level," he said. "A lot of our leaders just come here with tactical experience. But when you look at exercises like this, they grow as a team here in terms of how we conduct operational exercises."
Also a benefit of Yama Sakura is the opportunity for learning, Lanza said.
"With our mentors and our senior leaders out here, we have observer/controller teams here from the 75th Reserve Division -- there is readiness going on, because every day is a learning day," he said. "Every day we are learning as a team, we are learning what we did, how we make it better, and we are moving on with different things we can do to adjust to make our team better every single day, which is truly enhancing our readiness."
COMMON LANGUAGE MEANS LITTLE FRICTION
Despite the language barrier and cultural differences between the Japanese and Americans participating in Yama Sakura, Lanza said he found little friction in how the two forces operate together.
"At this level, there is so much commonality of how we do operations, and there is so much here in terms of how we do fires, and how we do intelligence and how we make decisions based on sustainment -- how do we plan," he said.
Contributing to the frictionless operations at Yama Sakura were language interpreters and Lanza credited their broad understanding of military terminology, which he said allows the Japanese and Americans to work together seamlessly as experienced military partners. Rather than focusing on the language differences between English and Japanese, he said, they can speak the common language of Soldiers.
"I watch our kids do this. There is a commonality that you have between Soldiers that spans culture and spans language. It's the language of being a Soldier and the language of being a professional. You watch them work through that, and it mitigates any issues with language or culture. It's a privilege and pleasure to watch these kids work together and just the joy they get from being a team."
The United States is participating in more than just Yama Sakura in the Pacific.
Yama Sakura 69 is just one part of the overall U.S. military strategy in the Pacific. Another part of that strategy is called Pacific Pathways. Participation in both Yama Sakura and Pacific Pathways are two ways I Corps develops and maintains its readiness to serve as an operational headquarters for U.S Army Pacific.
Lanza said that right now the Army is gearing up for Pacific Pathways 16-01, which includes a Stryker brigade coming out of 7th Infantry Division. As part of that Pacific Pathways, the Army will partner with the military of Thailand for the Cobra Gold exercise; with Korea for Foal Eagle; and with the Philippines for Balikatan. Pacific Pathways 16-02 includes Hanuman Guardian in Thailand; Garuda Shield in Indonesia; and Keris Strike in Malaysia. Planning has also started for August's Ulchi Freedom Guardian in Korea.
U.S. partnerships in the Pacific region, such as at Yama Sakura in Japan, "send a message that the U.S. wants to partner with our friends here," Lanza said.
"I think when other countries watch this, and we do have some observers here that came through from different countries that the Japanese brought through, it sends a message about partnership, and sends a message about building partner capacity," Lanza said. "It sends a message about theater security cooperation, and it sends a message here that we want to work together to avoid miscalculation, and de-escalate conflict and keep this region peaceful and secure for every country that operates in this region."
The Yama Sakura command post exercise involves a fictional scenario where the United States helps Japan reclaim sovereign territory from a fictional enemy force. At the end of the exercise, the results of the scenario are not as important as the collaboration that happened while the scenario was played out, Lanza said.
"It's more than a box score at the end of the day," Lanza said. "Success started at the beginning when we brought our teams together. It started with reinforcing teamwork, our interoperability, the cohesion between the staffs. That's where it starts.
"Every day we learn more and grow more as a team. At the end when we do our bi-lateral after-action review, I think the successes of what we have learned here as an operational headquarters, bi-laterally, what we have done here to increase our interoperability, and to build readiness, has made this exercise and this operation a success at every echelon."