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Amphibious Assaults:  Obligatory Or Obsolete?
AUTHOR LCdr James J. Bird, USN
CSC 1990
SUBJECT AREA Strategic Issues
                    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
THESIS:  An austere defense budget climate will cause a
re-examination of the necessity and feasibility of
amphibious warfare.
ISSUE:   The role and future of amphibious warfare is
marked by controversy.  Historically this is not a new
debate.  There are a number of historical examples
where individuals have forecasted the demise of
amphibious operations due to technological changes.
They were subsequently proven wrong. Recent trends
point towards a greater reliance upon amphibious
capability.  Improvements in weapon systems and sensors
have made amphibious assaults more difficult.  Modern
critics point out that the proliferation and lethality
of precision guided munitions coupled with its
vulnerability to satellite reconnaissance have made
amphibious operations obsolete.  The Navy and Marine
corps have adopted the over-the-horizon concept in
order to deal with the increased threat imposed by
technological improvements.
CONCLUSION:  The need for an amphibious assault
capability has not diminished.  If anything, it has
only increased in importance.  An over-the-horizon
assault capability significantly increases the ability
to overcome the threat posed by precision guided
munitions.  It does not solve all of the problems and
introduces some challenges of its own.  The techniques,
tactics, and equipment have to be further improved.  It
may not be a question of whether or not amphibious
operations are still feasible but rather whether or not
the United States can afford not to be able to conduct
this uniquely flexible and decisive form of warfare.
Thesis Statement: An astere defense budget climate
will cause a re-examination of the necessity and
feasibility of amphibious warfare.
1.   Historical Background
     A.  Review of Gallipoli
     B.  Statements following World War II
     C.  Results of landing at Inchon
     D.  Statements following Korean War
     E.  British experience in the Falklands
     F.  Current Congressional Reports
2.       Necessity of an Amphibious Capability
     A.  Development of national security concerns
     B.  Force structure to support national security
         1.  Declining overseas bases
         2.  Reducion in forward troop deployment
     C.  Amphibious forces provide necessary
3.   Feasibility when facing a modern threat
     A.  Review of precision guided munitions
         1.  Mines
         2.  Cruise missiles
     B.  Limitations of current assault craft
     C.  Limitations of current helicopters
     D.  New and proposed equipment
     E.  Advantages of an 0TH assault
4.   Conclusion
     A.  Budget restaints will force tough decisions
     B.  Is there really any choice?
     The ability to strike at land from unexpected
     and/or advantageous direction gives a flexibility
     which is the greatest strategic asset that a
     maritime nation can posses'.  Without it the
     utility of maritime power would seem considerably
                                      B.H. Liddell-Hart
     Discussion of the role and future of amphibious
warfare is one marked by controversy.  It has been
recognized over and over again as being a form of
warfare that offers great strategic and operational
flexibility.  Yet its feasibility is continuously
debated.  The arguments against it have historically
been that the advent of more modern weapon systems and
sensors have made it obsolete.  The  very same argument
exists today.  Current planners in both the U.S Navy
and Marine Corps have proposed and invested in an
over-the-horizon (0TH) assault capability in order to
overcome the modern threat.
     The debate over the feasibility of amphibious
warfare is not a new one.  In light of the dismal
British experience at Gallipoli, Capt. W.S. Pye in an
article in the Naval Institutes Proceedings in 1926,
     As a consequence of the greater effectiveness of
     weapons, modern ships, air scouting, and of radio
     communications, and of the increase in the size of
     armies and of the complexity and amount of their
     equipment, large (amphibious) operations are
     becoming increasingly difficult... The chances for
     success of an invasion by forces transported
     overseas are becoming smaller and smaller.  The
     greater facility of movement of forces on shore by
     railroad and motors; the rapidity of
     communication; the increase in power of mobile
     artillery; the increased efficiency of the
     submarine and aircraft; and the increase in size
     and effectiveness of regular armies and navies,
     have made invasion by sea almost an impossibility,
     at least until bases near the scene of landing
     operations have been permanently secured, and
     command of the sea is permanently secured.(16:256)
     If a few phrases were deleted, and some more up to
date terms such as:  cruise missiles, precision guided
munitions, satellites, and mines were inserted; then
modern day critics would feel comfortable with the
exact same argument against amphibious warfare today.
Gallipoli is remembered by most as a British failure.
Few people realize that the beach-heads were held from
25 April 1915 till August and that it was not a failure
of the amphibious aspect of the campaign but rather the
slow piecemeal introduction of follow on forces that
allowed the enemy to reinforce and drive the British,
French, and ANZAC forces off the peninsula.
       World War II has been considered the renaissance
age of amphibious warfare.  But, no sooner had it ended
when experts such as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Gen. Omar
Bradley, and LtGen Roy S. Geiger, stated in effect that
the advent of nuclear weapons would prevent the
occurrence of large landings such as those at Normandy
and Okinawa, and that they were obsolete.  Several
years later, Gen. MacArthur proved them all wrong with
a classic textbook example of the utility and
decisiveness of a large scale amphibious landing at
     The scepticism continued, and in 1975, James
Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense, stated:
     An amphibious assault force... has not seen
     anything more demanding than essentially unopposed
     landings for over 2O years, and... would have
     grave difficulties in accomplishing a mission of
     over-the-beach and flanking operations in a high
     threat environment. (16: 199)
     More telling, in 1966 the British defense minister
declared that British armed forces would never again
have to face another opposed land, and never again have
to operate on their own.(2:429)  Yet the summer of 1982
found the British Royal Navy and Royal Marine
Commandoes successfully operating 8,000 miles from
their home coast against a determined foe, equipped
with modern weapons, in what closely resembled one of
the many World War II pacific island campaigns.
       It should be noted however, that had the
Argentinians waited an additional year prior to
invading the Falklands then the British would have been
much more restricted in their options.  The scheduled
decommissioning of her two major amphibious ships,
"Fearless" and "Intrepid", as well as the scheduled
sale of the aircraft carrier "Invincible",  would have
in effect left the British without a viable amphibious
assault capability.  An often repeated quote from the
British in the Falkland Campaign was that, "We
re-learned a lot of old lessons."(4:322)  Prior to the
War, the British Defense establishment was one that
primarily focused on it's NATO role and had not paid
much attention to responding to national interests
outside of NATO.  Before the Falklands War, the British
Defense establishment viewed the amphibious warfare
capability of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines as a
collection of skills and expensive equipment of
questionable utility and diminished priority.(13:5)
The situation the British found themselves in April,
May, and June of 1982 seems reminiscent of the period
in 1944 prior to the cross channel invasion at Normandy
when Winston Churchill was quoted, "the destinies of
two great empires... seem to be tied up in some
Goddamned things called LSTs." (1:283)
     In a report by the Congressional Budget Office
titled "Moving the Marine Corps by Sea in the 1990's";
a section presenting arguments against maintaining an
amphibious assault capability states:
     . . .the United States should not devote its scarce
     defense resources to maintaining the capability to
     conduct amphibious assaults because changes in
     technology have made assaults against defended
     beaches impossible to carry out successfully(12:6)
The report is not one sided.  It does present both
sides of the issue but fails to answer any questions.
Are amphibious assaults obsolete?
     Generalized statements of obsolescence can be
dangerous.  There is a tendency of attempting to make a
black-and-white issue out of one that is not so easily
categorized.  Amphibious warfare should be assessed on
the basis of military necessity and utility. If the
concept proves desirable and necessary then the
question of feasibility should be examined.
     The necessity of an amphibious assault capability
has not diminished.  If anything the importance of this
capability as a means of conducting and winning wars
has increased.  Yet, in order to be successful it may
have to emerge in an alternate form.
           Necessity of an Amphibious Capability
     The enemy must not know where I intend to give
     battle.  For if he does not know where I intend to
     battle he must prepare in a great many places.
     And when he prepares in a great many places, those
     I have to fight in any one place will be few.
                                                Sun Tzu
     The wisdom of the writings of Sun Tzu is
timeless.  Unfortunately the development of a clear,
coherent national security strategy is not.  The
concept, design, acquisition, and introduction of
modern weapon systems may take up to twenty years.  The
events occurring in a single week can have a profound
impact on the basis of the employment and application
of these systems.  Unfortunately the focus of our
national security concerns and defense budget appears
to be more concerned with the headlines of the previous
day's newspaper.
     No matter what the current world situation or
national security threat; one can count on the fact
that it is going to change. There are however, certain
facts that will not change.  The United States is a
world power with a globally dependent economy.  It is
also a maritime nation with worldwide maritime
interests.  Accepting these global interests requires a
national security strategy and policy that it is able
to promote and protect them.
     What is not obvious is what type of armed forces
is necessary in order to protect these interests?
Given the current state of change in world affairs it
would seem prudent to design a force structure that is
flexible enough to respond to these changes and not one
centered exclusively on a single threat or region.  For
many years it was argued that if you designed a force
that was able to meet and beat opponent forces in a
worst case scenario then it should follow that you
would have sufficient capability to meet any reduced
threat.  This theory did not pan out with the American
experience in Vietnam where an Army designed and
trained to fight a Warsaw pact scenario was found
initially, inadequate for the situation in Vietnam.
     How then to prepare for the near infinite
possibilities of the employment of armed forces?;
especially when one considers and plans for change?
     The future demands more flexible and mobile forces
that are adequately trained and equipped to deal with
any number of threats.  The trend of reduced overseas
bases and reduction in forward deployed troops only
increases the need for forces that can be effectively
employed without relying on foreign based facilities.
Amphibious forces provide not only the strategic
mobility that is somewhat independent of overseas bases
but also offers a strategic flexibility that is
difficult to match when comparing any other realistic
options.  The essential usefulness of the amphibious
operation stems from its ability and flexibility, that
is, the ability to concentrate balanced forces and to
strike with a great strength at a selected point in the
hostile defense system.(14:I-2)  To strike at the most
opportune time, the most opportune place, and to leave
the enemy having to guess and defend everywhere along
his coast.  A good example of what an adversary would
have to contend with is that an amphibious task force
steaming 400 miles off an enemy's coast would be able
to launch an amphibious assault against any point along
more than 1,000 miles of coastline within 24 hours.
(12:10)  Given enough time and money any section of a
coastline could be prepared strong enough to make it
virtually impenetrable.  The dilemma the defender faces
is that he can not prepare everywhere, for if he
     The unresisting progress causes continual change
     in the weapons, and with that must come a
     continual change in the manner of fighting.
                                  Alfred Thayer Mahan
     It is easy to present arguments that espouse the
unique advantages and flexibility that amphibious
operations give the National Command Authority.  The
strategic flexibility it offers planners almost seems
too good to be true.  Strategically mobile forces that
are self-sustaining and that can pick the time and
place of battle would be any military theorist's ideal.
Yet, any good plan must pass a test of feasibility, and
herein lies the problem.  The advent of relatively
inexpensive, long range, and lethal precision guided
munitions as well as satellite reconnaissance can pose
unacceptable risks to the amphibious task force.  In
order to fully appreciate the threat that improved
technology poses to the amphibious task force it is
necessary to review the threat.
     Mines:  Recent experience in the Persian Gulf
region have highlighted the U.S Navy's shortcomings in
its ability to effectively counter the threat from
mines.  Even if this capability were to be
significantly strengthened so as to reduce the United
States' reliance upon NATO assets to perform
minesweeping operations there is still a problem with
time.  In order to effectively sweep an area clear of
mines requires a significant amount of time.  Current
amphibious doctrine requires that the Amphibious
Operation Area (AOA) be swept prior to the arrival of
the task force.  Depending upon the size of the area
and the nature of the mines employed this could take up
to several days to complete.  It would be near
impossible to conceal the location of the AOA if
minesweepers and their protective escorts were
operating off an enemy coastline for several days.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the very
threat of the presence of mines is almost as effective
as their actual emplacement.
     As in most aspects of warfare the best way to
neutralize a threat is to avoid it as much as possible.
One of the key limitations of mines is that they can
not be effectively employed in waters where the depth
exceeds 100 fathoms.  If the task force can conduct its
operations outside the 100 fathom curve then the task
force can avoid the threat.  Ships transiting from this
area closer to shore as well as landing craft and
assault amphibian craft will then have to traverse
through restricted swept channels, which can be swept
much faster than having to clear the entire AOA.
     Another significant threat is the one posed by
shallow water mines.  Current clearance capability is
also limited.  Conventional underwater demolition and
clearance performed by Navy SEAL teams is very manpower
intensive, as well as time consuming.  This is an
acknowledged deficiency with no real proposed solution.
It is interesting to note that in the previously
mentioned report by the Congressional Budget Office;
"Moving the Marine Corps by Sea in the 1990's", when
discussing shallow water mines the report references
press reports and not military sources.  Almost every
other section references military sources.  There is
ongoing research and development in new systems to
overcome this shortfall but any future amphibious
operations in the near term will have to rely upon
traditional pre-assault intelligence gathering and
underwater demolition operations.
     One factor that is oftentimes overlooked when
reviewing the mine warfare threat is that nations that
posses a significant coastline are normally
economically dependent upon the seaways for their own
trade and fishing industries.  Mines can be effectively
employed as a control measure to limit access but they
can not be used everywhere.
     Precision Guided Munitions:  Precision guided
munitions are missiles and other weapon systems that
are guided to their targets by radar, lasers, heat, or
a video link between the weapon and its shooter.(12:6)
The attack upon the USS Stark in May 1987, as well as
the loss of the 3 British ships to Exocet missiles
during the Falkands War in 1982 have raised many
questions about a surface ship's ability to defend
itself from this type of threat.  Cruise missiles pose
a particular problem because they can be launched from
almost any type of platform.  While cruise missiles can
be launched from aircraft, submarines, ships and from
land, the land launched version is the one that poses a
unique threat to the amphibious planner.  There are a
number of various countries that manufacture and export
them. The following table lists some of the major
coastal defense systems that could be encountered:
Click here to view image
Note:  The above table is by no means an all inclusive
list. Versions of the older Soviet Samlet system are
still held by a number of countries.  The Chinese
version of the Styx, known as the Silkworm has been
exported to the Iranians, and as the Argentinians
proved during the Falkland War that versions of cruise
missiles designed to be launched from alternate
platforms can be easily converted to a coastal defense
mode. (9:27-29)
     The best defense against cruise missiles is to
attack the firing platform first before he can get a
shot at you.  Amphibious doctrine presupposes that the
task force will have local superiority of the sea and
air.  This means that cruise missile firing platforms
will have to be neutralized prior to conducting the
operation.  This problem is exacerbated by land based
air with long stand-off cruise missiles and mobile
shore based launchers.  During the amphibious operation
ships are going to have to close the coast and would be
within range of many of these systems.  The fact that
they can be easily concealed and are mobile makes them
very difficult to locate and target.  The assault
landing craft and helicopters are also vulnerable to a
number of very portable and effective precision guided
munitions.  Shoulder fired anti-armor, and anti-air
weapons similar to United States' TOW and Stinger
systems are now in the inventories of almost every
nation that maintains armed forces.  If properly
emplaced and alerted that operations were about to
commence, they could be very effective in opposing an
amphibious landing.
     One of the many lessons of the 1973 Arab-Israeli
War was that with the advent of improved modern weapon
systems; if you could be seen you could be hit and if
you were hit you would be killed.  In order to overcome
the threat imposed by precision guided munitions the
Navy and Marine Corps have adopted the strategy of
developing an over-the-horizon launch capability.
Operating ships over the horizon reduces the enemy's
ability to locate and target the ships as well as
allowing the ships adequate time and space to utilize
all defensive weapon systems to defend against the
cruise missile threat.  The concept of an over-horizon
amphibious assault capability plans for the launch of
high speed(40 knot+) LCACs and heliborne forces to
their assigned objectives and to seize a beachhead.
The capability to conduct a true amphibious assault
does not currently exist.  While LCACs are now
operational, the actual number of craft is very
limited.  A capability to conduct amphibious raids and
demonstrations over the horizon is viable with current
equipment but the ability to conduct an 0TH assault,
that is, a forcible entry against a defended beach is
dependent upon the development and acquisition of
additional systems.  This would include the replacement
of the aging fleet of assault helicopters with a more
capable version that is better able to operate in
today's high threat environment as well as a faster
more capable assault amphibian vehicle (AAV).  Programs
for both improvements exist.
     The MV-22 Osprey helicopter is probably the most
widely publicized, controversial weapons acquisition
program in many years.  It promises a quantum
improvement in the capability of the helicopter but
with the current defense budget climate it poses more
of a question of affordability than of desirability.
Nevertheless, the aging helicopters that are currently
in the Navy-Marine Corps inventory are going to have to
be replaced in order to maintain any semblance of an
amphibious assault capability.
     Another limitation of the current amphibious 0TH
assault capability is the assault amphibian vehicle
(AAV).  The slow speed and subsequent long transit
times of the current design require ships to close to
within several thousand yards of the beach.  This
places the ships within range of almost every direct
and indirect weapon system at the defender's disposal.
New programs such as the Advanced Assault Amphibian
(AAA) are under development and like the Osprey offer
significant improvements in speed and range and thus
     Satellites:  Amphibious warfare requires the rapid
buildup of combat power faster than the defender can
organize a counterattack of sufficient strength to
repel the attacking forces.  In order to achieve and
maintain the momentum of the increasing buildup of
combat power requires an element of surprise.  The
advent of satellite reconnaissance and other
sophisticated information collection systems reduces
the element of surprise.  The counter-argument is that
while many nations posses precision guided munitions,
few have satellite technology.  The information is also
perishable in that even if a defender were to be
provided with information of the location of the
amphibious task force 24 hours prior to an assault it
does solve his dilemma as to where along the coast an
attack might occur.(12:8-10)
     Amphibious landing is the most powerful tool we
                            General Douglas MacArthur
     Sweeping changes in Eastern Europe as well as an
increased concern for domestic fiscal responsibility
have promoted an open forum for debate concerning the
size and composition of the United States Armed Forces.
This is not the first time in our history that this has
occurred and it will not be the last. After each
draw-down of forces there have been fierce debates and
in each case there have been many similar issues.  The
issue of the feasibility of amphibious warfare is one
that seems to continuously repeat itself.  Yet, in each
of these situations there have been those that have
argued vehemently for retaining this capability.  The
most glaring example is the well known formulation of
tactics and techniques by the US Marine Corps during
the 1920's that laid the foundation for future
successes in World War II.
     Today we are in very much the same dilemma.
During what has called an "unprecedented military
buildup" during the 1980's the Navy and Marine Corps
expended significant resources to revitalize our
amphibious warfare capability.  During the forthcoming
era of reduced defense budgets there are going to be
some tough decisions to be made.  Realistically many
programs and concepts currently under development are
going to have be revisited.
     Amphibious warfare has been called the most
complex of all military operations.  Adoption of an
over-the-horizon assault capability makes it even more
complex.  The complexity of the operation coupled with
the inherent risk due the nature of the threat and the
number of prerequisites for success makes it very
risky.  The over-the-horizon amphibious assault reduces
many of the threats posed by improved weapon systems.
It is a step in the right direction and there are still
a number of further refinements in techniques,
tactics,and equipment that are necessary.
     Conducting an amphibious assault against a well
defended beach, defended by precision guided munitions
and being continuously provided with real-time
satellite reconnaissance is probably impossible.  Just
as an Allied cross channel invasion would have been 50
years ago at the most heavily defended positions along
the French coast.  The position the United States found
itself during World War II was not whether or not
amphibious operations were desirable but that they were
absolutely necessary.
     As stated previously, recent trends in reduction
of overseas bases and reduction of forward troop
deployments point at needing more strategically
flexible and mobile forces.  The question again may not
be one of desirability but rather of absolute
necessity.  The burden is upon the US Navy and Marine
Corps to explore all avenues and again perfect the
tactics and techniques so as to be ready when the need
arises again.
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