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Troops practice island-seizing in the Pacific amid US-China tensions

Sailors assigned to the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48) recover a Landing Craft Personnel, Large (11M-PL) during a small boat training exercise. Ashland, part of the Wasp Amphibious Ready Group, with embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, is operating in the Indo-Pacific region to enhance interoperability with partners and serve as a ready-response force for any type of contingency. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Markus Castaneda)

Marines, airmen and soldiers recently practiced seizing a small Japanese island in an exercise that honed skills some experts say may be necessary in a face-off against China.

The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, along with forces from the 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Marine Logistics Group and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, the U.S. Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Group and the Army’s 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group, held a simulated expeditionary advanced-base operations March 11-14, according to a Marine Corps statement.

“This entire mission profile simulated the process of securing advanced footholds for follow-on forces to conduct further military operations with rapid redeployment,” the statement said.

It kicked off with a free-fall jump onto Japan’s Ie Jima Island for reconnaissance and surveillance before 1st Battalion, 4th Marines “conducted a 600-mile long-range raid” to seize an airfield on the island, according to the statement.

Once the airfield was secured, troops turned it into a forward arming and refueling point for C-130J Super Hercules and F-35B Lightning II fighter jets, which were “armed to conduct expeditionary strikes with inert precision Guided Bomb Units” at a nearby range while artillery units elsewhere simulated long-range fire missions.

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The event ended with another simulated long-range raid after infantrymen flew 900 miles with the support of aerial refueling.

“We are ready to rapidly seize ground and project lethal combat power,” 31st MEU commanding officer Col. Robert Brodie said in the statement. “The Indo-Pacific region is incredibly dynamic, so we prepare and train daily for real world crises.”

This kind of approach could be necessary should the U.S. need to face-off against China, said American defense and security analyst Paul Buchanan. The 2018 National Defense Strategy listed China as one of the U.S.’s “strategic competitors” as the country grows its influence in the Pacific.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Marines are engaging in these sorts of exercises because that’s exactly the combat environment that they’re most likely to find themselves in, at least in the near future,” Buchanan said.

Over the past five years, China has claimed dozens of islands and reefs in the South and East China Seas, building military bases on several and protesting foreign-ship passage through the waters surrounding them without first seeking Beijing’s permission. The U.S. does not recognize the sovereignty of the islands and reefs and regularly sends Navy ships within 7 ½ miles of them to challenge China’s claims.

Island-seizing will be “critical for us to be able to project power in the context of China,” Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing March 14.

“If you look at the island chains and so forth in the Pacific as platforms from which we can project power, that would be an historical mission for the Marine Corps and one that is very relevant in a China scenario,” he told the committee.

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China has the largest military force in the world with 3 million servicemembers and its strength has been fast growing, according to a January Defense Intelligence Agency report. But, Buchanan said, they lack real-world practice, which could be an advantage for the United States.

“[China’s military is] not a battle-tested military, and that’s one advantage the United States has. The Chinese would be wading into a big problem if they confront U.S. troops in the field,” Buchanan said. “The U.S. has the most experience combat records of any developed nation.”

The island-seizing concept practiced last week is reminiscent of Marine Corps strategy in the Pacific during World War II. Buchanan said the exercise likely sent a “clear signal” to China.

“You just want to make the Chinese think twice about asserting their claims,” he said. “That’s a clear signal to the Chinese that they’re not kidding around.”

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.