Military Exercises and the Media

By Fumiaki Sonoyama

Fumiaki Sonoyama is a student in MSc Geopolitics and Security, Royal Holloway University of London. He has been working for a Japanese newspaper as a staff writer since 2000.

The U.S. military exercise ‘Valiant Shield 2014’, which was conducted off the coast of Guam, was completed last month. The first Valiant Shield was held in 2006 and this is now the fifth one. According to the U.S. Forces press release, two aircraft carriers, 19 surface ships, more than 200 aircraft, and approximately 18,000 personnel from the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps took part. Some media outlets have speculated that this big ‘war game’ is a factor in the ever-growing Chinese military buildup .

Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) fires a Standard Missile (SM) 2 during Valiant Shield 2014 (U.S. Navy photo)

Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) fires a Standard Missile (SM) 2 during Valiant Shield 2014 (U.S. Navy photo)

In general, when reporters ask military officers if the exercise concept is directed toward a specific country or military, they routinely deny that being the case. They never give the name of a ‘potential threat.’ This is because it is not the military but the government that formulates and executes foreign policy, which is why they keep their mouths shut. But an exercise surely reflects the real military situation in a region where the exercise is held. Diplomacy requires finesse, and the military is an organ that plays only a certain part in it. That is why the exercise scenario is not revealed in detail to the public. Now, does it mean the media are not supposed to speculate on a potential threat in a military exercise? I don’t think so, because the media are not a military propaganda machine / vehicle.

Let me give you an example here on how the potential threat can be unveiled. When I covered the second Valiant Shield in 2007, I employed a few tactics. I first asked some red force (enemy force) fighter jet pilots what kind of aircraft they were supposed to operate as aggressors in the exercise. They gave the names of Chinese fighter jets, such as Su-27 and Su-30, and disclosed to me that these were flown adopting ‘former Soviet Union’ tactics. Through those interviews and covering actual evolutions of events in the exercise, I was able to picture a basic scenario, in which the blue force (friendly force), consisting of three aircraft carrier strike groups, cooperated with each other to protect themselves from the red force bombers, fighters and submarines. Considering the present situation in Asia, I became certain that this exercise was aimed to prepare the U.S. military for contingency involving China. That was how I shaped my views and came to write an article on Valiant Shield 2007 for a Japanese publication. It is important not only to analyze published documents and to collect background information from experts but also to actually cover the exercise in progress and to interview military personnel on scene.

This procedural approach might be a little easier in Valiant Shield 2014. This is because a U.S. rear admiral said in the press release that the lessons learned in this exercise will be in developing the tactics and techniques for the Air-Sea Battle concept. This concept is to counter anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities which are aimed to prevent the U.S. Forces from approaching a conflict region and moving freely in the theatre. The U.S. DoD Quadrennial Defense Review 2014 points out that China, in particular, has been developing A2/AD capabilities. In fact, China has been deploying various types of longer-range and precision strike missiles that can reach Okinawa and Guam and that can intercept incoming enemy warships. For instance, the 2014 annual report on the Chinese military published by the Department of Defense states that the Chinese target is to establish the multi-layered offensive measures in the western Pacific in order to deter intervention by third-party countries. Apparent in this context is China’s intention to unify Taiwan. It is therefore natural for reporters to conclude that these exercises are directed toward China. This assumption is supported by a fact that Chinese surveillance ships were operating in waters near the exercise area. There is little doubt that those ships were collecting intelligence.

Lastly, there is one thing I should mention when reporters are to cover military exercises. We must understand that the military authorities allow the media to cover an exercise for the purpose of delivering messages not only to their own people but also citizens of allied countries and countries that pose a potential threat. It is one of their public relations strategies. Therefore, we must remember that who we interview and what part of the exercise is open to the media are carefully weighed and chosen in advance. In order to write a balanced article, we need to always ask ourselves whether or not we are writing as they please. If not, we would end up with a stereotypical story.


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