ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska - Six tiny, white lights floated in the western sky after Tuesday's ruddy sunset. The motes grew larger and, one by one, touched down on the far end of the runway. The descending whine of the jet engines caught up with the twin-tailed fighters as they rolled past.
Even in twilight, the eye-grabbing Hinomaru, or "sun-circle," emblazoned on the jets sides confirmed to the few witnesses that history was being made.
The arrival of the Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) F-15J Eagles marks the first overseas deployment of Japanese combat aircraft in nearly half a century. It's a tangible example of Japan's internal political debate on the role of the country's military in world affairs.
Snugly clad in waterproof antiexposure suits and survival gear, the JASDF pilots stretched and climbed stiffly out of the cockpits after flying nearly seven hours and more than 3,000 miles from their home base at Chitose on the northern island of Hokkaido.
The F-15s, along with several JASDF C-130H transports and a few, half-billion-dollar E-767 AWACS, are participating in bilateral air combat training with U.S. Air Force units during the multinational Cooperative Cope Thunder war game, June 5-20.
"They are here, they are safe and the jets are good," said JASDF Col. Moritaka Noguchi, a Flight Group Commander from the 2nd Air Wing at Chitose in charge of JASDF forces deployed in Alaska.
"Its a huge deal for them to venture this open-ocean crossing," said Col. Dutch Remkes, Commander of the 3rd Wing at Elmendorf, which is hosting the JASDF contingent. "Today, (the Japanese) joined a group of air forces that you can only count on two hands that are capable of doing this."
NATO and countries such as Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and India are participating in multilateral training during Cooperative Cope Thunder. The JASDF Eagles will fight and train with U.S. F-15s from Elmendorf and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
Utilizing the expansive Alaskan training ranges - which total more than 63,000 square miles - Cope Thunder is held up to four times a year at Elmendorf, and at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. One exercise a year is designated as "cooperative" and numerous allied and friendly countries participate and send observers.
Japan is a mountainous country with a population nearing 130 million. Due to urban and farming land needs, there are very few places in the country for large scale military exercises.
"In Japan, there are air combat training restrictions," Noguchi said. "In Alaska, we are looking forward to the more realistic training, big airspace and big ranges."
While the Japanese Eagles are flying air defense training missions, Japan's Upper House of the Diet will debate expanding military missions and a revision of the country's constitution that could include rescinding Article 9. The article states that Japan will "forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation."
Regional instability, caused by a bellicose and nuclear-armed North Korea, is fueling Japanese anxiety. Some officials in Japan want to see a military capable of projecting power, both defensive and offensive, should the need arise.
Japanese cargo aircraft and Stinger missile teams have participated in six past Cope Thunders. Both U.S. and Japanese military officials have suggested regular and perhaps increased JASDF participation in the future.
During the flight to Alaska, the F-15Js refueled five times from three accompanying U.S. Air Force KC-135R tankers based at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. During the exercise, the tankers will fly from Eielson to support the F-15Js and help sharpen the refueling skills of the JASDF pilots. The JASDF has no aerial tankers, though several are on order, with the first scheduled for delivery in 2006.
Japan's military consists of nearly 250,000 personnel in air, naval and land forces and a coast guard with an annual budget of nearly $50 billion.
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