Here’s What It’s Like to Command a Fighter Squadron in Japan

The United States Navy operates aircraft carriers from bases in Washington, California, and Virginia. What most people don’t realize, however, is that it also operates a carrier and its associated carrier air wing from Japan. In another installment of our conversation with retired Commander Guy Snodgrass, we talk about his experiences commanding a Japan-based strike fighter squadron, his training experience with Japanese pilots, and living abroad.

The crown jewel of the 7th Fleet is the carrier USS Ronald Reagan, operated from its base in Yokosuka, Japan. The U.S. has homeported an aircraft carrier in Japan since the early 1970s, largely out of strategic concerns: while Atlantic Fleet-based ships can typically reach Europe in a week, aircraft carriers sailing from the continental United States need at least two weeks to reach the western Pacific Ocean. A carrier homeported in Japan ensures that one is already in the region to react to any crisis that might arise.

cmdr snodgrass squadron plane flying with japanese planes

Guy Snodgrass

Every U.S. aircraft carrier is assigned a carrier air wing to embark on deployments. Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, consisting of approximately 70 aircraft and 2,000 personnel, is assigned to the Ronald Reagan and is based at Marine Corps Station Iwakuni, Japan. In 2015 Commander Guy Snodgrass assumed command of one of CVW5’s four fighter squadrons, Strike Fighter Squadron 195, the “Dambusters”.

Japan is one of the United States’ closest allies. Approximately 56,000 U.S. military personnel are based in Japan, many of whom work closely with their Japanese counterparts. U.S and Japanese troops train together in one form or another every week of every year, from ship exercises in the Philippine Sea, to tank on tank engagements at Fort Lewis, Washington.

Many U.S. forces are co-located at Japanese bases. During the time Snodgrass’ commanded VFA-195, CVW-5 was located at Naval Air Station Atsugi. Snodgrass discusses how his fighter pilots shared the same base as Japanese fighter pilots but the two groups never actually met, even informally, to discuss how they might fight together in wartime. Seeing an obvious need, Snodgrass formed a benkyoukai, or study association, where U.S. and Japanese aircrews met to discuss their planes, tactics, and other details.

Snodgrass also talks about Japan’s strategic situation, which finds it surrounded by aggressive states such as Russia, China, and North Korea. He also mentions his time living in Japan and traveling throughout the country, meeting its people, and flying over—but not climbing—UNESCO heritage site Mount Fuji, a dormant volcano and, for many, a symbol of Japan.

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