Japanese soldiers training with Army at Yakima

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) A 360-degree view from Col. Paul Mele's hilltop vantage point in central Washington's high desert gave him a lot to smile about this week as a new Army brigade commander.

Snow-capped Mount Rainier and Mount Adams loomed to the west on a crystal clear day at the Yakima Training Center. Three helicopters flew just to the north, one an Apache from his 16th Combat Aviation Brigade and two from a visiting unit from the Japan Ground Self Defense Force.

And right in front of him sat a couple dozen soldiers from both nations, critiquing the morning's four Hellfire rocket launches. Each time, a Japanese crew spotted a target and an American team destroyed it with a missile.

"We're standing in the mountains, blowing stuff up, building each other's competency; it's very cool," said Mele, who took command of the helicopter brigade in late July.

His air crews along with hundreds of Lewis-McChord ground soldiers are spending this month at the Yakima training grounds for Operation Rising Thunder. The annual joint exercise between American and Japanese forces is growing in scope as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to an end.

The exercise has 20 years of history in the Evergreen State. The Japanese military regularly sends hundreds of soldiers at a time to practice large-scale maneuvers they cannot perform at home.

Lately, though, Lewis-McChord soldiers have been stepping up their involvement. About 800 of them joined about 500 from Japan in Yakima this month. That's up from 500 Americans in 2012, and far fewer during the peak war years.

It's a sign of things to come for Lewis-McChord forces who expect to spend the next few years working alongside Asian armies instead of continually deploying to fight insurgencies in the Middle East.

"We're building partner capacities with our allies," said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, whose 7th Infantry Division oversees the Lewis-McChord units participating in the exercise. "It allows us to put our focus on the Pacific."

The Japanese Self Defense Force has technological abilities similar to the American forces', though on a smaller scale because their mission centers exclusively on defense. They are careful not to discuss political disputes in their region, such as concerns over North Korea's erratic government or China's growing influence.

They say they appreciate the growing involvement of battle-tested American soldiers at the Yakima exercise.

Sgt. Maj. Munetsugo Matsubo trains snipers back home in Japan. His teams are expert marksmen, but they had a great deal to learn about the finer points of their craft from veteran snipers in Lewis-McChord's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.

"Our sniper program is still in its infancy, so we want to learn as much as possible with this opportunity," Matsubo said. "We share a lot of similarities in teaching the basics, but we're amazed at the level of experience that U.S. soldiers have."

He squatted in sagebrush Tuesday to get a close look at Stryker snipers from the 5th Battalion camouflaging themselves in freshly cut vegetation.

The Americans demonstrated painstakingly slow movements, dragging themselves by their fingertips to go undetected as they approached their firing points, carefully clipping brush and setting up their weapons so the glass on their rifle scopes would not give away their positions.

"As a sniper, you have to have patience, patience, patience," said Spc. Andrew Anthony.

Careless steps, the Americans stressed, would result in enemy fighters spotting them and potentially killing the marksmen who usually operate in three-man teams.

"We don't want to get compromised," Sgt. Chad Quillia, 28, told the Japanese soldiers. "We're a small team. We're not looking for a fight. That's a bad day if that happens."

Troops from the two countries have opportunities to bond over more than combat tips. They have a softball tournament where normally competitive soldiers don't take themselves too seriously.

"It's the world series of the Japanese Self Defense Force against the 7th Infantry Division," Lanza said, laughing with Japanese regimental commander Col. Hirofumi Hamamoto.

Next weekend, Japanese soldiers plan to connect with Japanese-American veterans of World War II at an event in Seattle. Japan also is sending members of the Diet its parliament to check out the exercise, Lanza said.

Operation Rising Thunder has been a coveted assignment for Japanese soldiers over the years. They take advantage of the wide-open desert to test themselves in ways they can't at home, said Chief Warrant Officer Kazunori Fukayama.

His eyes widened when he thought back to his first trip to Yakima six years ago.

"First impression: Huge," he said, describing the landscape and its opportunities for military training.

Several Lewis-McChord soldiers said they were impressed with their Japanese partners. The Americans are more accustomed to working with troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, which have less-advanced militaries.

The Japanese at Rising Thunder are "disciplined and are all about learning," Quillia said. Plus, "their marksmanship skills are ridiculously good."

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Young of the Lewis-McChord aviation brigade found the Japanese pilots he observed up to par and he considered their talents a benefit to both countries.

"Having allies of equal capability to us is a force multiplier," said Young, 36. "When we can deploy with units of the same capability as us, that just gives all of us an advantage."