A Military Odd-Couple Trains in Tandem To Forge Closer Ties

Operation 'Keen Sword' melds Japan's concept of cautious defense with aggressive US style

Ask Marine Capt. William Hooper about the plane he flies, and he'll mention that the F/A-18D Hornet has a combat range of 550 miles and a wide variety of weapons.

Capt. Takeshi Sukegawa, who pilots an F-1 for Japan's Air Self-Defense Force, has to be a little more circumspect. Even seemingly innocuous bits of information, such as combat range, are touchy. "It's in the catalogue, but we can't say it," he explains with an apologetic smile.

Openly acknowledging that Japan's aircraft could fly far enough to attack another country is sensitive stuff in a nation where military adventurism has brought sorrow and shame. For the same reason, most members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) don't wear their uniforms in public.

The contrast between these two pilots illustrates the divide that separates the American and Japanese militaries. The United States maintains a fighting force ready for aggressive action. The SDF is bound by constitutional and political constraints that demand a strictly defensive posture.

It is a gap the two nations are trying to work around.

In a summit meeting last April, President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto agreed to revise guidelines on how Japan could help the US during a crisis in the region. Their subordinates signed an agreement to make it easier for the two countries to provide each other with logistical assistance during training exercises and peacekeeping activities. Officials called these steps the beginning of an unprecedented era of defense cooperation.

Earlier this month, the two militaries tried to put this enhanced relationship into practice during training maneuvers known as "Keen Sword." Eager to publicize progress, they ferried a group of journalists around Japan for four days of photo shoots and interviews - much more access than was offered when the exercises were held two years ago.

Evidently, military cooperation is not that easy to show off. Public affairs officers labored to find instances where American and Japanese troops actually did something together - preferably so they could be captured in a single photo.

What came across more easily, however, were the differences between American and Japanese warriors.

In the hills of the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, 2nd Lt. Kenneth Prather, a National Guardsman from Hawaii, is watching show-and-tell. He heads a scout platoon - soldiers who lead the search for the enemy - and a similar Japanese unit is displaying its portable radar and listening devices.

Lieutenant Prather looks impressed: "They seem to specialize more in electronic gadgetry and gizmos. They have an instrument for everything." While he covets the small, lightweight Japanese radios, Prather says most of the equipment is too cumbersome for his scouts, who must move quickly.

The Japanese posture seems much more, well, defensive, the lieutenant adds. "They stay down and wait: Is the enemy coming to attack us?" he says, summarizing the Japanese strategy.

Prather's observations bring out the distinction that separates Japan's military from the fighting forces of the world's other major countries: It is purely defensive. It exists to fight off a land invasion and protect commercial sea lanes. It doesn't contemplate any strategy - such as a preemptive strike - that would entail offensive action.

In recent years the government has begun to send troops and policemen overseas on United Nations peacekeeping missions. But these deployments are barely tolerated by Japan's pacifists and many of its Asian neighbors, who remember the bloodshed that Imperial Japan caused more than a half-century ago.

STANDING in a field of pampas grass a couple of miles away, Capt. Koichi Momosaka of the Ground Self Defense Force contemplates the benefits of working alongside the US Army. "I've heard some of their soldiers have experienced combat," he says. He hasn't met any of them yet, but speculates that hearing about their experiences might be useful if he ever finds himself in a conflict.

But the captain also acknowledges the obvious: "I don't think I'll ever experience combat."

That is another key distinction - Japan's warriors can reliably assume that armed conflict will not be part of their military career. During the cold war, there was at least the fear of a Soviet invasion. But a land attack seems ever more remote these days.

American soldiers, of course, often find themselves in dangerous situations. In the eyes of Japanese counterparts like Momosaka, this experience gives them a "big brother" stature.

Officers from both countries try to play down this aspect of the relationship. "We are not here to train or direct our counterparts in the SDF," says Lt. Col. Mark Waldron of the US Army.

"I think this image of big brother and little brother has died away long ago," adds Col. Akira Kurai of the SDF. "We're just comrades in arms."

But a Japanese private, relaxing in front of a barracks with some US soldiers, disagrees. "The Americans are so cool," he gushes. And his colleagues in the SDF? "They're all stupid."

The USS Independence, an American aircraft carrier based in Japan, is in the middle of a busy schedule. In late October and early November the ship took part in exercises with South Korea's military and, after a hiatus of 72 hours, began participating in Keen Sword.

The dovetailing suggests to some Japanese analysts that a Japan-US-South Korea trilateralism is emerging. While this might not surprise Americans, in Japan it runs afoul of a ban on collective security arrangements.

Japan's Constitution - drafted by US occupation forces after World War II - bars the use of force in resolving international disputes, a pacifist stance that limits the roles the SDF can play.

Rear Adm. Charles Moore, commander of the battle group that includes the Independence, insists that there "is absolutely no correlation" in the timing of the two exercises. He praises Keen Sword and the possibilities it offers for increased cooperation.

Progress hasn't been "bold" or "adventurous," he adds, but is "the next logical step" in improving "our readiness." Given the nature of Japan's military, it's no surprise that boldness and adventure are not part of the program.

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