USS ESSEX, At sea  -- The forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) practiced decked landing craft, air cushion (LCAC) vehicle inter-operability with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) tank landing ship JS Kunisaki (LST 4003) off the coast of Okinawa, Japan Dec. 6 as part of exercise Keen Sword 2011.

The training included two U.S. Navy LCACs assigned to Assault Craft Unit Five (ACU-5), Det. Western Pacific, and two JMSDF LCACs from Kunisaki. Each LCAC entered the well deck of their foreign counterpart multiple times, demonstrating each maritime service’s ability to seamlessly integrate amphibious operations.

"The goal of Keen Sword is to enhance our interoperability with the JMSDF," said Capt. Troy Hart, Essex commanding officer. "The success of today's evolutions is evidence that we already enjoy a high level of interoperability and cooperation, and I'm sure the training we have planned throughout the remainder of the exercise will further strengthen that unity."

Keen Sword is a biennial exercise designed to allow the United States and Japan to practice and evaluate the procedures and interoperability elements required to effectively and mutually respond to the defense of Japan or to a regional crisis in the Asia-Pacific region.

Amphibious operations from the well deck would be an essential element to either of these contingencies, said Cmdr. Zachary McMechan, Essex operations officer.

“Well deck operations would be integral should Essex participate in virtually any joint effort with the JMSDF,” he said. “Whether it would be defensive military action or a response to a major disaster in the region, the ability for our small craft to operate interchangeably with amphibious ships of both nations would be vital to the success of either of these scenarios.”

Lt. Cmdr. Atsushi Sasagawa, an LCAC pilot with the JMSDF, said he thought the exercise was a clear-cut success, despite some differences between the U.S. and Japanese LCACs.

“The American LCAC is a little different,” he said. “It has a deep skirt, so when they entered the Kunisaki, we had to use some different techniques than we are accustomed to, but we have had a lot of meetings and communication about safety and procedures and it constituted success.”

The LCAC event was the first of a number of amphibious evolutions to involve Essex throughout Keen Sword 2011.

During the exercise, destroyers of JMSDF Escort Division 2 will escort the dock landing ship USS Tortuga (LSD 46), the amphibious transport dock USS Denver (LPD 9) and Essex while they perform amphibious and air operations.

Essex is the lead ship of the Essex Expeditionary Strike Group and will operate with the George Washington Carrier Strike Group throughout the exercise, which is scheduled to end Dec. 10.