A Keen Eye on Keen Sword

By Rear. Adm. Karl Thomas
Commander, Task Force 70

This week, we wrapped up Keen Sword 2019, the biennial exercise with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, (JMSDF) or Kaijo Jieitai as they are known in Japan. This exercise is designed to strengthen and demonstrate our commitment to the U.S. – Japan alliance and ultimately increase the interoperability of our forces.

As we prepared for the final maritime strike, I had the opportunity to assist in the targeting of the enemy forces in the exercise from the back end of a VAW-125 Tigertail E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. With nearly 3,000 hours in the back of an E-2C, this was my first opportunity to experience the impressive capability of an E-2D. Hawkeyes have always been the fleet’s eye in the sky, but with the advancements in the new E-2D that eye is much more focused. I watched this radar develop throughout my career from its beginnings on a mountain-top in Hawaii, through a transition to the back of a C-130 test platform, and finally as it became reality in the fleet. It is simply a game changer.

PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 7, 2018) Rear Adm. Karl Thomas, commander, Task Force 70, departs an E-2D Hawkeye on the flight deck of the Navy's forward deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) during Keen Sword 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class MacAdam Kane Weissman/Released)
PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 7, 2018) Rear Adm. Karl Thomas, commander, Task Force 70, departs an E-2D Hawkeye on the flight deck of the Navy’s forward deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) during Keen Sword 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class MacAdam Kane Weissman/Released)
PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 7, 2018) An E-2D Hawkeye launches off the flight deck of the Navy's forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) during Keen Sword 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kyleigh Williams/Released)
PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 7, 2018) An E-2D Hawkeye launches off the flight deck of the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) during Keen Sword 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kyleigh Williams/Released)

As we walked to the aircraft in preparation for our flight, it dawned on me that I had more years of service than all four young Tigertail aviators combined. To fly with this next generation of warfighters who have the same drive and energy I possessed at their age is exactly why I continue to serve. It seemed like just yesterday I was the young aviator walking to the plane, showing the old guy how the system worked. The young Tigertail aviators manipulated the numerous systems in the back of the aircraft with ease as they fired up one system after another. A talented young E-2D naval flight officer, Lt. Cmdr. Mike “Hansel” Boyle, walked me through the radar functionality, explaining the differences of the APY-9 radar and how it transmits, receives and processes energy. I was like a kid in a candy store as I witnessed on my radar scope what I had only seen in simulators. This system is already making a huge impact on Keen Sword 19 and I couldn’t help but think of the capability and capacity that the recently acquired Japanese E-2Ds would add to future Keen Sword exercises. It all comes down to interoperability; the U.S. Navy and Kaijo Jieitai are an extremely effective team because of the common tactics, procedures and equipment we employ.

PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 8, 2018) The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), left, and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga (DDH 181), right, are underway in formation with 16 other ships from the U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) as aircraft from the U.S. Air Force and Japan Air Self-Defense Force fly overhead in formation during Keen Sword 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erwin Jacob V. Miciano/Released)
PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 8, 2018) The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), left, and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga (DDH 181), right, are underway in formation with 16 other ships from the U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) as aircraft from the U.S. Air Force and Japan Air Self-Defense Force fly overhead in formation during Keen Sword 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erwin Jacob V. Miciano/Released)

Throughout this exercise, ships and aircraft from both of our countries have focused on sailing, operating, flying together and building interoperability so that we can respond as one team if ever needed. Day after day, I watched U.S and numerous Kaijo Jieitai ships protect USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) from attacking exercise submarines, while the striking power of Air Wing Five launched from the deck several times a day to fight side-by-side with the Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) and U.S. Air Force. This ability to fight with our allies across service lines is simply awe-inspiring. The relationships we build amongst aviators, surface warriors, warfare commanders and senior leaders in exercises such as Keen Sword is the cornerstone of our alliance – an alliance that has ensured regional peace and stability for nearly 60 years.

PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 8, 2018) The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Murasame-class destroyer JS Kirisame (DD 104) and the JMSDF Hatsuyuki-class destroyer JS Asayuki (DD 132) steam in formation with other ships from the U.S. Navy and JMSDF during exercise Keen Sword 19. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Timothy M. Black/Released)
PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 8, 2018) The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Murasame-class destroyer JS Kirisame (DD 104) and the JMSDF Hatsuyuki-class destroyer JS Asayuki (DD 132) steam in formation with other ships from the U.S. Navy and JMSDF during exercise Keen Sword 19. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Timothy M. Black/Released)

As I sat drinking a cup of coffee with Rear Adm. Egawa, commander, Escort Flotilla One, while discussing lessons from our current exercise, we reminisced on our experiences as young naval officers. We talked of the ports we had visited, agreed how we could build upon our already strong relationship, and discussed how this partnership would only grow stronger upon our return to Yokosuka, Japan. At one point, we discussed my flight and what I observed, and it dawned on me how that moment really summed up what made Keen Sword special. From the young Kaijo Jieitai and U.S. Navy officers and Sailors flying and sailing together as one to the two senior officers ending the day together over a cup of coffee; exercises like Keen Sword enable us to practice integration so that it becomes simple, routine and highly effective. We ended our meeting with a keen eye to the future, and pondered whether the young aviators who fly our two nation’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes would be the catalyst to take Keen Sword 2021’s interoperability to an entirely new level.

Editor’s note: Rear Adm. Thomas is a career E-2C Hawkeye naval flight officer and the commander of Task Force 70, which is based in Yokosuka, Japan.


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A Keen Eye on Keen Sword