UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Naval Transformation, Ground Forces, and the Expeditionary Impulse: The Sea-Basing Debate

Naval Transformation, Ground Forces, and the Expeditionary Impulse: The Sea-Basing Debate - Cover

Authored by Professor Geoffrey Till.

January 2007

69 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Reviewing the past, present, and future contribution of maritime forces to the conduct of expeditionary operations, the author concludes that the importance of this contribution is growing. He considers the diplomatic and "good order" roles of maritime forces which enable such operations in the first place. He reviews contemporary naval thinking about the nature and the relevance of sea control, and examines changes in the way maritime power may be projected ashore. Finally, the author analyses the extent to which future sea-basing can enable expeditionary forces can meet the challenges of the 21st century. Using past and recent experience, he demonstrates how important maritime outcomes are to the achievement and, equally important, the consolidation of victories ashore. Accordingly, navies around the world are having to adjust their plans and their priorities in order to meet these challenges.


The end of the Cold War has ushered in a period in which Western military forces have engaged primarily in expeditionary operations. These have turned out to be much more complex politically than first thought and have required naval planners to focus on delivering effects from the sea rather than at sea. Accordingly, navies around the world are going through a time of transition and transformation in which questions are being asked about their priorities, the relative importance of their contributions to joint and combined campaigns, and how these best might be provided.

Because of the understandably widespread fixation on the warfighting phase of the expeditionary operation, current conceptions of the naval contribution, even in the United States, do not pay sufficient regard to the less obvious aspects of the naval contribution to campaigns which mostly are by their nature maritime. It is easy, for example, to neglect the importance of the diplomatic activity which acts as a kind of beforeand- after-sales service to the main warfighting event. Naval diplomacy, of course, may reduce the necessity for high-intensity expeditionary operations in the first place. But even when it does not, a naval diplomatic campaign to win friends and influence people and to deter potential malefactors should be designed to create the optimum political context within which the expeditionary campaign may be fought. The same can be said for the naval effort to assure maritime security by maintaining good order at sea against those that threaten it (such as waterborne terrorists, pirates, smugglers, arms suppliers, and the like). Even navies with their institutional and budgetary priorities for the requirements of high-intensity capabilities have a tendency to neglect these less visible low-intensity tasks that often are crucial to the winning and, as important, the sustaining of victory in the land campaign.

While the U.S. Navy may be taking the lead in developing capabilities of direct value to the prosecution of expeditionary operations, many other navies are doing so as well, if on a smaller and less ambitious scale, although this widespread effort may be predicated on assumptions about “an expeditionary future” which, in the end, may not be obtained. There are three maritime requirements of expeditionary warfare. First is the capacity to maintain sea control on the open ocean and in the littorals to protect the force and enable it to engage in missions against the land. Second is the projection of power ashore, and third is the provision of sea-based logistical support for maritime forces at sea and land forces ashore. These are interrelated in complex ways and should not be considered as separate and discrete.

The maintenance of sea control raises issues about the difference and relative priority between operations in the littoral and on the open ocean, and provides a set of significant technological challenges to today’s naval planners and force developers. The effectiveness of the response of these planners to these sometimes novel challenges will have significant implications for those involved in the land campaign because of their military and political reliance on high degrees of sea control. Political constraints of the sort revealed in the Iraq war of 2003 also have emphasized the advantages of maritime power projection.

The apparently newest aspect of the maritime contribution to the joint expeditionary campaign, however, has been the emergence of the concept of sea-basing, which generally is regarded as the most “transformational” aspect of the issue. Its advocates consider it a sea change in the extent to which maritime forces can support land and air forces ashore, emphasize the extent to which recent operational experience has high-lighted its political and military advantages, and consider it a thoroughly “joint” asset. But, since future performance will be determined by the extent to which many of these anticipated capabilities can be delivered technologically, definitions and expectations remain ambiguous.

A brief review of the military experience of the 20th century shows that the notion that navies can base military power at sea and can support forces ashore directly is by no means new, and a close study of the realities of the Normandy campaign of 1944, in particular, will reveal its historical strengths and weaknesses. Since that time, however, the demands of expeditionary operations have both grown and become more complex. Military conditions have become more difficult because of the increased distance from the home base, the unfamiliar and difficult terrain in which such operations may need to be conducted, and because of the growing sophistication of the adversary. On top of that, the political necessities of rebuilding the peace in fractured societies have placed an additional set of logistical burdens on any sea-based system intended to support the process.

Navies around the world, therefore, are busily reviewing their sea-basing policies in order to cope with these increasing demands. Solutions will depend on industry’s capacity to provide technical solutions to the many detailed requirements that are being identified and on the political and military establishment’s ability to resolve key procedural difficulties. The first is largely a military-technical matter of producing the requisite platforms and capacities; the second, though, depends absolutely on service agreement, on a holistic approach to the entire sea-basing issue, and on government’s willingness to give sea-basing the financial and political support that it needs.

For the time being, the expeditionary impulse will continue, and a quiet naval revolution is taking place in order to support it. But the extent to which these developments really will prove “transformational,” and whether practice confirms theory, remain to be seen. Much will depend on the political consequence of current events and on how well thought-out the project proves to be.

Access Full Report [PDF]: Naval Transformation, Ground Forces, and the Expeditionary Impulse: The Sea-Basing Debate

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list