CAMP PENDLETON -- Col. Ryuji Toyota, commander of the Western Army Infantry Regiment of the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force, said Monday he was looking forward to learning more about the Marine Corps' and U.S. Navy's capabilities for amphibious assaults.
That opportunity started this week and continues for a month, as 500 Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton train with soldiers from the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force at the base and San Clemente Island in an annual exercise known as Iron Fist. The U.S. and Japan have been key allies in the Pacific Rim since 1952.
U.S. Navy sailors and two ships will also participate in the training scenario that parallels some of Japan's growing concerns over China's growing military might and an ongoing conflict between the two countries over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
On Saturday -- in his first foreign trip as Secretary of Defense -- retired Marine Gen. James Mattis reaffirmed U.S. support in defending Japan and the group of islands.
Control of the uninhabited islands has fueled tensions between Japan's and China's naval and air forces. In 2012, Japan nationalized the islands that are located near rich fishing grounds and untapped natural gas.
"I made clear that our long-standing policy on the Senkaku Islands stands -- the U.S. will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands and as such Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies," Mattis said in a press conference with Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada.
On Monday, command staff from both nations held an opening ceremony at Camp Pendleton to celebrate the collaboration and kick off the training. The event, planned to be held on an outside parade deck at the base, was moved into a gymnasium because of the rain.
This Iron Fist exercise -- in its 12th year -- is meant to improve U.S. and Japanese collaboration. It trains the Japanese soldiers in Marine Corps strategies of operations from the air, land and sea.
Exercises start with a joint strategy planning to simulate the invasion, using combined arms, live-fire, amphibious assault and explosive ordnance training.
"Each year we continue to learn from each other and increase our interoperability and work on our military-to-military relationship," Col. Chandler Nelms, commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said Monday. "It is essential we have key understanding on how we plan and execute an amphibious assault."
This year the Marines have a focus on training the Japanese in the use of the amphibious assault vehicle -- a critical component of the Marine Corp's sea-to-land assaults because it allows Marines and sailors to respond anywhere from a naval sea base.
"This training is very important to us because we are going to establish a new amphibious brigade," Japanese Col. Toyota said.
Amphibious assault vehicles travel at 6-8 knots and are powered by water jet propellers.
Marines will teach the Japanese soldiers how to drive the amphibious assault vehicles and to do beach assaults.
The training will help the Japanese not only with assaults but also the use of amphibious assault vehicles for humanitarian aid.
The current model of amphibious assault vehicle could be obsolete in a decade. The U.S. has plans for a new model that is faster and less of a target than the current one, military officials have said. That new vehicle could deploy within 10 years.