An amphibious operation is a military operation launched from the sea by naval and landing forces embarked in ships or craft involving a landing on a hostile or potentially hostile shore. An amphibious operation requires extensive air participation and is characterized by closely integrated efforts of forces trained, organized, and equipped for different combat functions. The complexity of amphibious operations and the vulnerability of forces engaged in these operations require an exceptional degree of unity of effort and operational coherence. The difficulties involved in conducting amphibious operations will normally dictate that the combatant commander will participate in planning, theater integration, and support.
Amphibious operations are designed and conducted primarily to:
- Prosecute further combat operations.
- Obtain a site for an advanced naval, land, or air base.
- Deny use of an area or facilities to the enemy.
- Fix enemy forces and attention, providing opportunities for other combat operations.
The principal type of amphibious operation is the amphibious assault, which is distinguished from other types of amphibious operations in that it involves establishing a force on a hostile or potentially hostile shore. Other types of amphibious operations that do not involve establishing an landing force on a hostile or potentially hostile shore include:
- Amphibious Withdrawal. An amphibious operation involving the extraction of forces by sea in naval ships or craft from a hostile or potentially hostile shore.
- Amphibious Demonstration. An amphibious operation conducted to deceive the enemy by a show of force with the expectation of deluding the enemy into a course of action unfavorable to it.
- Amphibious Raid. An amphibious operation involving swift incursion into or a temporary occupation of an objective followed by a planned withdrawal. Raids are conducted for such purposes as: inflicting loss or damage; securing information; creating a diversion.
The essential usefulness of an amphibious operation stems from its mobility and flexibility (i.e., the ability to concentrate balanced forces and strike with great strength at a selected point in the hostile defense system). The amphibious operation exploits the element of surprise and capitalizes on enemy weaknesses by projecting and applying combat power at the most advantageous location and time. The threat of an amphibious landing can induce enemies to divert forces, fix defensive positions, divert major resources to coastal defense, or disperse forces. Such a threat may result in the enemy making expensive and wasteful efforts in attempting to defend their coastlines. The salient requirement of an amphibious assault, which is the principal type of amphibious operation, is the necessity for swift, uninterrupted buildup of sufficient combat power ashore from an initial zero capability to full coordinated striking power as the attack progresses toward amphibious task force (ATF) final objectives.
Amphibious operations may involve high-risk, high-payoff efforts to accomplish critical missions. Complete appreciation of the amphibious operation must include recognition of its chief limitation; i.e. the vulnerability of the landing force during the early hours of the operation. Strength ashore must be built up from zero to a coordinated, balanced force capable of accomplishing the assigned mission. Throughout the amphibious operation, but most particularly during the highly vulnerable ship-to-shore movement phase, success may hinge on the ability to integrate both land-based and maritime air defense resources to isolate the area of operations from hostile air platforms and airborne weapons attack to the maximum extent possible.
The conduct of landings from beyond enemy visual and radar range is a technique that employs maneuver warfare concepts such as surprise, operational speed, operational flexibility, and tactical mobility to achieve a tactical advantage over the enemy that can be decisively exploited while minimizing risk to assault shipping.
A beachhead is a designated area on a hostile or potentially hostile shore which, when seized and held, ensures the continuous landing of troops and materiel and provides maneuver space requisite for subsequent projected operations ashore. It is the physical objective of an amphibious operation. The landing area is that part of the objective area within which the landing operations of an amphibious force are conducted. It includes the beach, the approaches to the beach, the transport areas, the fire support areas, the air occupied by close supporting aircraft, and the land included in the advance inland to the initial objective. A landing beach is that portion of a shoreline usually required for the landing of a battalion landing team. However, it may also be that portion of a shoreline constituting a tactical locality (such as the shore of a bay) over which a force larger or smaller than a battalion landing team may be landed. A Helicopter Landing Zone [HLZ] is a specified ground area for landing assault helicopters to embark or disembark troops and/or cargo. A landing zone may contain one or more landing sites.
Naval amphibious forces provide flexible and adaptive combined-arms crisis-response capability, and a self-sustainable forcible-entry capability. Modern U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships are the primary landing ships for assault operations of Marine expeditionary units. These ships use Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC), conventional landing craft and helicopters to move Marine assault forces ashore. In a secondary role, using AV-8B Harrier aircraft and anti-submarine warfare helicopters, these ships perform sea control and limited power projection missions. Amphibious warships are uniquely designed to support assault from the sea against defended positions ashore. They must be able to sail in harm's way and provide a rapid built-up of combat power ashore in the face of opposition. The United States maintains the largest and most capable amphibious force in the world.
An Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) carries a variety of Navy landing craft. All of these water-borne vessels carry thousands of pounds of payload. But loading these units is most unique. Equipment and personnel travel down a wide ramp and board the units in an area referred to as the ship's well deck. More precisely, it's a huge area near the ship's water line at the aft end of each ship. A large gate at the aft end of the ship lowers to near the water line while massive ballast tanks near the well deck are filled with water. This causes the ship's aft end to considerable lower into the water and further allows the ocean overflow to fill a level up to six-feet in the deck, thereby giving the craft the opportunity to steam from the ship. Once operable, these craft exit the ships and head for the beach only to do the exact opposite upon arrival.
Another method of loading these units requires none of the above. The water craft exit the ship and return with its front ramp down. The craft reenters the ship and places this ramp inside the ship while the other half of the craft is still in the ocean behind the ship. Once the vessels near a shoreline, the front ramp opens forward and off come the Marines and their equipment in a most impressive and orderly manner. In Kosovo, the Marines of 26 MEU accomplished this feat in less than 34 hours only to be in Kosovo in another 42 hours. From beginning to end, Marines on a ship to Marines in Kosovo took less than 3.5 days, not counting time on the ground in Greece awaiting the green light from NATO.
The ships loiter near the coast, then offload the Marines on LCAC's and LCU's that transport them from the ships to shore. Once the Marines have completed their mission, they return to the ships either the same way the left the ships, or the ARG can pull into port. The latter typically makes it much easier and faster depending on the country and the port.
These warfare assets provide two key ingredients to any warfare planner -ability and agility. Within a matter of a couple of days, an ARG, MARG and MEU can be in theatre and on the ground when tasked. They play a powerful role in today's Navy-Marine Corps Team. They not only provide a force with a rapid response force, they provide military planners with another major component - they can come around the enemy from the backside.
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