A tiny island off the coast of Japan has just become the centre of attention in the escalating game of brinkmanship being played out in the South and East China Seas.

Ie Shima is only 23sq km. It has an airstrip, a fishing port and a population of about 4500.

It's just been attacked by a US Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).

It was all just practice.

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The US has deployed Marines in South China Sea in the latest military exercise. Photo / Getty Images
The US has deployed Marines in South China Sea in the latest military exercise. Photo / Getty Images

But the 'surprise attack' and rapid invasion of the island in Japan's Okinawa archipelago demonstrated a key military capability just days before a US Navy destroyer and US Coast Guard vessel ran the gauntlet of the Taiwan Strait into the South China Sea earlier this week.

Beijing's controversial tactic of simply squatting on contested islands — or manufacturing enormous military bases out of reclaimed reefs and sandbars — has inflamed tensions with Japan, Taiwan, The Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

The United States says it doesn't care who owns the islands, so long as the surrounding waterways remain free and open to international traffic. But China claims it all — including the air space and shipping lanes — as its sovereign territory.

Now the US Marine Corps says: "We are ready to rapidly seize ground and project lethal combat power."

ISLAND ASSAULT

Attacking islands in World War II proved enormously difficult, and extracted an expensive toll of lives. But the United States and its allies managed to roll Japanese invasion forces back to their home islands.

Modern warfare makes the prospect of attacking a remote, small but heavily defended outpost even more daunting. So the US Marines are attempting to evolve new tactics to overcome the prospect of missile swarms, intense electronic jamming, and fortified facilities.

A US Defense video shows troops jumping from helecopters.
A US Defense video shows troops jumping from helecopters.

But island-seizing will be "critical for us to be able to project power in the context of China," Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this month.

"In the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region, we also fly bomber missions, demonstrating a resilient global strike capability that checks Chinese ambition and assures our regional Allies and partners. Throughout the Pacific, our troops exercise and engage with partners to signal our commitment and counterbalance China's challenges to the rules-based order."

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And one of those 'signals' was just issued by US Marines based in the Pacific.

"The Indo-Pacific region is incredibly dynamic, so we prepare and train daily for real world crises," 31st MEU commanding officer Colonel Robert Brodie said in a Marine Corps statement last week.

The 'invasion' of Ie Shima was a practical test of these ideas.

The 31st MEU is part of the Wasp Amphibious Ready Group, which comprises the fighter and helicopter carrying USS Wasp, along with amphibious dock landing ships and escorting destroyers.

"Over the course of two weeks, the MEU aligned capabilities with these forces and led a small island seizure," Colonel Brodie said. "We are ready to rapidly seize ground and project lethal combat power."

THE 'ATTACK'

According to a US Marine release, reconnaissance troops were first dropped on to the island via a high-altitude, free-fall insertion technique. These then quickly moved into positions where they could observe defenders and disrupt key pieces of defensive equipment.

A range of military aircraft and vehicles were used in the drill.
A range of military aircraft and vehicles were used in the drill.

With the all-clear given, Marine Expeditionary Unit troops swarmed over the horizon from their ships and bases almost 1000km away. They were carried by fast moving, low-flying MV-22 Ospreys, flying with KC-130 tankers to give them the necessary reach.

Invisibly protecting these aircraft were Marine Corps F-35B stealth fighters, also making use of the tankers to extend their range.

The drill included a night operation.
The drill included a night operation.

The vertical lift-off and landing Osprey troop carriers dashed in to offload their raiding troops, which quickly made their move to seize and secure the Ie Shima airfield.

Immediately the field was secured, cargo planes waiting over the horizon made their move. These made low-level air drops of equipment, fuel and spare parts. In essence, it was a prefabricated US Marine airport — called an Expeditionary Advanced Base.

This enabled F-35B stealth jump jets to land, be refuelled and rearmed, and assist in securing the island from counter-attack.

A US Defense video shows troops in amphibious craft approach the island.
A US Defense video shows troops in amphibious craft approach the island.

Then large lumbering C-130J Hercules aircraft rapidly deployed heavy missile artillery systems to help defeat remaining pockets of resistance, and attack any nearby hostile ships.

Finally, the main body of occupational US Marines from the 3rd Division were flown in from more than 1500km away.

"This entire mission profile simulated the process of securing advanced footholds for follow-on forces to conduct further military operations with rapid redeployment," a Marine Corp statement says.

MISSILE MISSION A SUCCESS

Meanwhile, in the first test of its kind, the Pentagon yesterday confirmed it carried out a "salvo" intercept of an unarmed missile soaring over the Pacific, using two interceptor missiles launched from underground silos in southern California.

Both interceptors zeroed in on the target — a re-entry vehicle that had been launched 6400km away atop an intercontintental-range missile, the Pentagon said. The first interceptor hit and destroyed the re-entry vehicle, which in an actual attack would contain a warhead. The second interceptor hit a secondary object, as expected, according to a statement by the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.

The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said the trial was a success. Photo / Getty Images
The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said the trial was a success. Photo / Getty Images

The interceptors were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The target missile was launched from the Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands.

"The system worked exactly as it was designed to do," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, director of the Missile Defense Agency. He said the test result "demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat."

Even though the missile defense system has been operating for more than a decade, this was the first time it had attempted a "salvo" intercept in which more than one interceptor missile is launched at a single target missile. The salvo concept is meant to improve the chances of hitting an incoming missile, which in actual combat could contain decoys and other measures designed to make it difficult for an interceptor to find and hit the target.

Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said before Greaves' announcement that a successful intercept did not mean the missile defense system is fully ready to defend the US in combat. She noted that the test was carried out under an unusually thick veil of secrecy.

"Success is better than failure, but because of the secrecy I have no idea how high the bar was set," she said. "How realistic was the test? The Pentagon had a very long way to go to demonstrate the system works in a real-world situation."

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

The 2018 National Defense Strategy listed China as one of the US's "strategic competitors" as the country grows its influence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

"It is critical for us to be able to project power in the context of China, and one of the traditional missions of the Marine Corps is seizing advanced bases," General Dunford said.

"If you look at the island chains and so forth in the Pacific as platforms from which we can project power, that would be a historical mission for the Marine Corps and one that is very relevant in a China scenario."

MV-22 Osprey aircraft sit on a runway at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on May 31, 2018 in Ginowan, Okinawa prefecture, Japan. Photo / Getty Images
MV-22 Osprey aircraft sit on a runway at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on May 31, 2018 in Ginowan, Okinawa prefecture, Japan. Photo / Getty Images

Despite the success, General Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his Marines' "competitive advantage had eroded".

Military delegates arrive before the opening session of China's National People's Congress. The US Defense Strategy listed China as one of the US's
Military delegates arrive before the opening session of China's National People's Congress. The US Defense Strategy listed China as one of the US's "strategic competitors". Photo / AP

"China and Russia have capitalised on our distraction and our constraints. They have invested in capabilities specifically designed to challenge our traditional sources of strength and have sought to undermine the rules-based international order that brought prosperity and relative peace for the last seven decades."

"By investing heavily in the space and cyber domains while expanding air and maritime capacity and militarising disputed land formations, they are developing the ability to deny us access to the East and South China Seas. The intended effect is to weaken our alliance structure in the Pacific and allow Beijing to rewrite the norms, standards, and laws in the region."

- additional reporting AP