June 20 (UPI) -- The commander of U.S. Forces Japan told Japan's defense minister during their first meeting since both assumed their current roles that the two nations are facing a "greater number of challenges" in the region.
Japan's Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya and Lt. Gen Kevin B. Schneider, the USFJ commander since February, reaffirmed the strength of the U.S.-Japan Alliance "and the importance of U.S. and Japanese forces working together closely in pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific" during a meeting Wednesday at Yokoto Air Base.
The two men also spoke to reporters, but didn't take any questions.
It was Iwaya's first visit to USFJ headquarters since assuming his position in October 2018.
Iwaya also visited the headquarters of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force's Air Defense Command, and later had lunch with a group of senior leaders from Air Defense Command and USFJ.
Schneider said the United States is committed to ensuring the readiness of U.S. forces stationed in Japan through rigorous and realistic training and exercises.
But, he added, "there are also a greater number of challenges that we both must contend with, which puts greater emphasis on training and readiness and the ability to respond to whatever situations may arise."
The leaders said they discussed ways to further enhance bilateral cooperation despite complex regional security challenges.
"I believe that Yokota Air Base is well and truly a symbol of our ironclad alliance, hosting some of our key commands like Air Defense Command, USFJ and 5th Air Force," Iwaya said. "I'd like to extend my heartfelt respect for your work as you have been dedicating yourself not only to the peace and stability in this country, but also the region on behalf of U.S. forces."
Schneider said that he is "convinced that the alliance between our two nations has never been stronger."
The nations are strategically aligned, he said, "which provides great benefits to stability, security and strength, not only for our two nations, but the entire region."
Schneider also said he's committed to ensuring the readiness of 54,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan through rigorous and realistic training and exercises.
The United States and Japan conducted the biennial Keen Sword exercise, which involved 10,000 American personnel and 47,000 Japanese troops, last October and November. The two nations' forces trained in realistic simulations of multiple mission areas to improve response capabilities in crisis situations.
Last January, the Iron Fist 2019 multilateral training event included the certification of Japan's first amphibious assault force.
Japan's military has also become increasingly involved in the protection of U.S. carriers and aircraft since the passage of a law in 2015 that allows Tokyo's self-defense forces to operate overseas.
An analysis of Japanese military documents shows self-defense force activities involving U.S. warships and aircraft rose steadily beginning in 2017, Tokyo Shimbun reported in March.
Japan's defense budget will grow to $47 billion in fiscal 2019 -- the fifth consecutive year of increases. Japan already has the seventh-largest defense budget in the world, and it's about 1 percent of the gross domestic product. Conversely, China and the United States spend between 2 percent and 3 percent of their gross domestic products annually on defense.
In January, the U.S. State Department approved Japan's $2.15 billion purchase of two land-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense systems.
And in April, the State Department approved the sale of anti-ballistic missiles to Japan, including up to 56 SM-3 Block IB interceptor missiles, with missile canisters, technical assistance and support at an estimated cost of $1.150 billion.
Iwaya on Monday apologized to Akita Gov. Norihisa Satake for errors in the ministry's geographical survey to select the northeastern prefecture as a candidate for hosting the missile defense system.
Numerical mistakes were found in the elevation angles of mountains in the geographical survey calculated based on map data from Google Earth. Iwaya said the ministry will conduct an on-site survey and possibly utilize experts to correct the figures.