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Blood and Water: The Present and Future of Amphibious Operations

Brett Friedman

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Captain Brett Friedman is a Field Artillery Officer in the United States Marine Corps and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is currently a student at Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico, Virginia.
Friedman, Brett, “Blood and Water: The Present and Future of Amphibious Operations”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 2, Fall 2012, pages 12-15.
The 21st Century has thus far seen a variety of changes in warfare. The world’s most powerful armed forces, prepared to fight a conventional struggle against a near-peer competitor, instead found themselves stymied by insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. During operations in those two countries, unmanned aerial systems (UASs) found widespread use. UASs were so effective that they have become the center piece of the American counterterrorism strategy. Additionally, warfare is rapidly expanding into the cyber domain as the global computer network becomes more widespread and integrated with society. Despite these changes, the waterways of the world retain their strategic importance due to the commerce that crosses their waves and the access to land they provide. While amphibious operations have always been a critical part of any maritime nation’s repertoire, they are now increasing in importance and utility.

In fact, amphibious operations will prove to be a vital investment as budgets of Western armed forces continue to shrink. Although the projection of naval power ashore will rarely take the form of the amphibious assault which most are familiar with, amphibious operations and maritime-centric power projection will increasingly be the preferred weapon of choice for Western nations. In 1999, then Commandant of the US Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak described the ‘three block war’ where major combat, humanitarian aid, and stability operations could coexist in a very small area.[i] While most military forces must be prepared to meet each of those operations in one location, amphibious forces are needed to meet these operations when they occur simultaneously in far flung corners of the globe. This very scenario occurred in September 2012 when a wave of protests at US and European embassies in Africa necessitated US Marine reinforcements in the region and US Navy ships to support them. Simultaneously to this, US Marine forces continued both combat operations in Afghanistan and security cooperation activities.[ii] It is no coincidence that amphibious power projection is being relied upon more frequently. This article will point out some of the trends that are currently affecting the operating environment, highlight major amphibious powers, and survey recent amphibious operations around the globe.

Trends

The Joint Operating Environment 2010 report, one of the last reports published by the now shuttered United States Joint Forces Command, accurately captures global trends that will affect the security environment. Urbanization, the movement of people to cities vice rural areas, continues.[iii] The vast majority of these urban centers will be along coastlines.[iv] The US defense budget will continue to shrink.[v] The world’s largest and most important oil chokepoints are either straits or canals that provide passage between oceans.[vi] Sea lines of communication are increasingly important as globalization progresses. Lastly, the United States, stung by its desultory land operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, will lick its wounds and prefer to operate from the sea where it can, as Sir Francis Drake said, to ‘take as much or as little of the war as he will.’[vii] The combination of strategic interests that hinge on the world’s waterways, decreasing budgets, and reluctance to commit to open-ended land wars will make amphibious forces the most attractive option for crisis response in the coming years. An unpredictable operating environment where emergencies occur near the coasts demands forces that are flexible, rapidly employable, and easily withdrawn. Amphibious forces efficiently provide all of these capabilities.

A Maritime Moment

Recently, the United States Marine Corps convened a group of senior officers, called the Amphibious Capabilities Working Group, to study the future of amphibious operations. Their report, issue in April of 2012, stated that the ‘U.S. is entering a renewed maritime moment.’[viii] It is difficult to argue with that conclusion. However, the maritime moment is not just limited to the United States. Nations with advanced, professional armed forces are beginning to realize this. The Australian Army is considering the adoption of an expeditionary mission and an expansion of the Australian Defence Force’s amphibious capabilities.[ix] This would be a wise decision considering the archipelagic nature of the seas around Australia. The UK has retired its fleet of Harrier Vertical Short Take-off and Landing (V-STOL) airframes and will rely on rotary-wing aircraft and the Royal Marines for amphibious power projection until the Joint Strike Fighter is fielded.[x] While this decision raises concerns, it is telling that the UK retained a significant amphibious power projection capability even in the face of deep budget cuts. This capability was evident during operations off the coast of Libya.

To the Shores of Tripoli

The United Nations sanctioned intervention in Libya typifies the way that Western maritime powers will prefer to confront challenges in the future. Although the world supported the Libyan rebels in their quest to free themselves from the grip of Moammar Al-Qaddafi, direct intervention by Western military power in another Arab country was problematic. Maritime power, provided mostly by France, Great Britain, and the United States, gave world leaders another option to support the rebels. After United Nations sanction, the coalition positioned a variety of maritime assets in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya. These naval and amphibious assets, able to reach the area of operations in a very short time, effectively enforced a UN arms embargo, imposed a No-Fly Zone over Libya, conducted strike missions in support of Libyan rebels and allied Special Forces inside the country, and executed search and rescue of downed pilots. [xi,xii,xiii,xiv] Aerial and indirect fire support, projected largely from the sea, enabled Libyan partners to succeed on the ground without a significant Coalition footprint. US forces were even able to relieve the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with the Bataan ARG ‘in stride’ without a loss of capability.[xv] In the end, these efforts proved decisive and the coalition ensured regime change in Libya without a single NATO or allied casualty. The United States is currently attempting to replicate this success in Yemen, this time in support of a host nation against a threat, where maritime forces offshore are in support of friendly Yemeni units and US Special Forces on the ground.[xvi]

The Horn of Africa

Amphibious power projection is the key component in the United States’ effort to fight both Al-Shabaab, the Al Qaeda aligned terrorist organization in Somalia, and the persistent piracy that exists in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Most novel, perhaps, is the use of naval assets as afloat detainee holding facilities, but US forces off shore have also conducted air and missile strikes as well as air assault functions, both independently and in support of African Union peacekeepers.[xvii] The US had ample cover for these operations in the form of Combined Task Force-151, a multinational naval organization formed to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia. The existence of TF-151 is indicative of the willingness with which nations will deploy naval and amphibious assets as opposed to the higher threshold required to deploy ground forces. None of the 25 participants are willing to conduct ground operations or strikes on Somalia itself to combat piracy, despite the increasing threat.[xviii]

In September of 2012, the Kenyan Defence Forces demonstrated the continued validity of amphibious operations at Kismayo, Somalia.[xix] After months of stalemate around the Al-Shabaab controlled city, the Kenyan Navy used the sea as maneuver space to transport a company-sized element of Kenyan Army soldiers north of Kismayo, thereby preventing Al-Shabaab fighters from fleeing to Mogadishu and inducing them to abandon the city. Meanwhile the Kenyan Army coordinated close air support from Kenyan Air Force aircraft. The Kismayo operation shows that amphibious capabilities do not require advanced technologies or massive investment; but rather training, expertise, and coordination between branches of service.

Seabasing

While US and Filipino operations against Jemaah Islamiyaah, Abu Sayyaf, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines have received little attention, the ongoing effort offers significant lessons. US personnel from all four services and Special Operations Command as well as their Filipino partners have conducted over ten years of amphibious operations around the Sulu Archipelago region. US forces established an afloat forward staging base that provides a base of operations, refueling, rearming, supply, and command and control functions.[xx] By utilizing maritime capabilities in an irregular warfare capacity, the US has succeeded in disrupting terrorist organizations with a minimal footprint in accordance with the desires of the government of the Philippines, thus minimizing the strain on the relationship between the two countries.

Utilizing afloat basing is not a new idea. During the ‘Tanker War’ in 1987 and 1988, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait refused to allow US bases ashore. The US utilized two oil field support barges to support armed forces in the Persian Gulf.[xxi] More recently, the US Navy is utilizing the USS Ponce, an Austin-class amphibious transport dock, as a seabase for US Special Forces in the Middle East.[xxii] Countries will increasingly turn to seabasing as an option as it has proven to be more amenable to both the country employing force and the host nation.

Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HA/DR)

Maritime forces are just as effective during HA/DR missions as they are in violent conflicts. No asset offers the speed, sustainability, and logistical capability that amphibious assets bring to a region struck by natural disaster. After Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in January of 2010, amphibious forces were amongst the first assets requested by US Southern Command.[xxiii] A litany of naval and amphibious units were mobilized in response to the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March of 2011.[xxiv] Also in 2011, the US Navy’s Peleliu Amphibious Ready Group, which included the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), supported flood relief operations in Pakistan.[xxv] Later, the 26th MEU simultaneously supported Pakistan flood relief operations and combat operations in Afghanistan.[xxvi]

Limitations

Although amphibious forces are a potent capability, they are not right for every situation and they can rarely be employed alone. Amphibious forces depend on strong naval and air forces to ensure air and sea superiority. Unless operating in completely permissive environments, amphibious troops require very specialized vehicles to act as a connector between the ship and the shore. Lastly, while amphibious forces can enhance and support large scale ground operations in a conventional war, they are usually not sufficient to bring victory by themselves.

Conclusion

Increasing use of amphibious operations is a natural extension of the advantages that maritime forces have always offered to the nations that employ them. Power projection from the sea to the shore can almost instantaneously ‘tip the scales’ of warfare towards the assaulting force, as occurred with Operation Chromite in Korea in 1950. The insertion of US forces behind North Korean lines severed lines of communication and caused the entire North Korean war plan to collapse. Sea-based assets are more sustainable, flexible, and less intrusive than ground facilities. While effective amphibious operations require investment in dedicated professionals steeped in their art and the technology to support them, the investment pays dividends. Amphibious operations are demonstrably effective against both conventional and irregular threats. Despite the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles and continued advances in air power, forward deployed amphibious forces remain the fastest and most flexible crisis response available to a maritime power. Amphibious ships that can both launch troops ashore and air support that are the single most flexible asset on the water, a fact often ignored in favor of more expensive aircraft carriers.

Amphibious warfare has proven itself to be a vitally important capability and the weapon of choice for the defeat of irregular threats in the littoral regions, for immediate crisis response and humanitarian aid, and the maintenance of peace and order around the globe. In 1939, the military theorist Captain B. H. Liddell Hart said that, ‘It [landing on a foreign shore in the face of hostile troops] has now become almost impossible.’[xxvii] Although technology continues to advance, similar predictions will prove to be similarly false. The advent of unmanned aerial and undersea vehicles, as well as cyber warfare, will only enhance the utility and viability of amphibious forces. Meanwhile, the proliferation of irregular threats, and the desire of many countries to avoid establishing an inherently long-term onshore presence, will increase the need and desirability for amphibious forces. Far from a diminishing capability, amphibious operations are in the early stages of a 21st Century renaissance.

Footnotes

[i] ‘The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War’ http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/usmc/strategic_corporal.htm, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[ii] “Anti-U.S. fury widens in Muslim world as protests rage in many countries” http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/anti-us-fury-widens-in-muslim-world-as-protests-rage-in-many-countries/2012/09/15/894e2cbc-ff2f-11e1-b153-218509a954e1_story.html, access 15 Sept 2012.
[iii] United States Joint Forces Command. Joint Operating Environment 2010. Washington, D.C. 2010. Page 57.
[iv] Ibid, 57.
[v] Ibid, 20.
[vi] Ibid, 28.
[vii] Corbett, Sir Julian, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988. Print. Page 58.
[viii] ACWG Report, page 9
[ix] Love, Andy. “You Can’t Ride a Concept to the Beach: The Gaps in Australia’s envisaged amphibious capability.” Australian Defence Force Journal. Nov/Dec 2011. Pages 5-13. Digital.
[x] Defence Review- Harriers scrapped and Nimrod cancelled” http://www.armedforces-int.com/news/defence-review-harriers-scrapped-and-nimrod-cancelled.html, access 06 Oct 2012.
[xi] ‘NATO Ships Move to Enforce Arms Embargo’ http://www.nato.int/cps/en/SID-F071A826-49A1586D/natolive/news_71726.htm, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xii] ‘UN authorizes no-fly zone over Libya’ http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2011/03/201131720311168561.html, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xiii] ‘US lead ‘Odyssey Dawn’ initial attack on Libya’ http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Military/2011/0319/US-leads-Odyssey-Dawn-initial-attack-on-Libya, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xiv] ‘Marines rescue downed pilot after fighter jet crashes in Libya’ http://www.marines.mil/unit/hqmc/Pages/Marines-rescue-downed-pilot-after-fighter-jet-crashes-in-Libya.aspx#.UCbx66FlSSp, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xv] ‘Bataan ARG heads to Libya duty in Med’ http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2011/03/navy-libya-bataan-arg-deploys-early-032311w/, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xvi] ‘Why the U.S. is Aggressively Targeting Yemen’ http://www.npr.org/2012/05/17/152854335/why-the-u-s-is-aggressively-targeting-yemen?ft=3&f=1003,1004,1007,1013,1014,1017,1019,1128, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xvii] ‘The Secret War: Africa ops may be just starting’ http://www.armytimes.com/news/2011/12/army-africa-mission-may-be-just-starting-120511w/, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xviii] ‘The Future of U.S. Naval Power’ http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/6399/the-future-of-u-s-naval-power, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xix] ‘Kenyans enter Kismayo, Mopping up begins’ http://www.somaliareport.com/index.php/post/3596/Kenyans_Enter_Kismayo_Mopping_Up_Begins, accessed 06 Oct 2012.
[xx] http://edocs.nps.edu/npspubs/scholarly/MBAPR/2010/Jun/10Jun_Clark_MBA.pdf page 34
[xxi] Ibid, 62.
[xxii] ‘USS Ponce to Become Spec Ops Mothership’ http://defensetech.org/2012/01/28/uss-ponce-to-become-spec-ops-mothership/, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xxiii] ‘Military Preps for Broader Haiti Relief Mission’ http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=57493, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xxiv] ‘Japan Earthquake: U.S. Mobilizes Humanitarian and Military Relief’ http://abcnews.go.com/International/japan-earthquake-us-mobilizes-humanitarian-military-relief/story?id=13124482#.UCfpM6FlSSo, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xxv] Navy, Marine helicopters to support flood relief’ http://www.centcom.mil/pakistan-flood/navy-marine-helicopters-to-support-flood-relief, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xxvi] ‘26th MEU from Lejeune heading to Afghanistan to support Operation Enduring Freedom’ http://www.wwaytv3.com/26th-meu-from-lejeune-heading-to-afghanistan-to-support-operation-enduring-freedom/01/2011, accessed 20 Aug 2012.
[xxvii] Quoted in Frank, Richard B., Guadalcanal, New York: Penguin, 1992. Print. Page 58.