Amphibious Redux

By Rear Admiral Leonard F. Picotte, U.S. Navy (Retired) and Captain Kendall King, U.S. Navy (Retired)

In Admiral Blandy's 1951 article, he identified effective coordination as the "prime essential" to successful amphibious warfare. During World War II, amphibious operations were conducted below the theater level either by component commands or as a joint task force. At Algiers, Oran, Sicily, Salerno, and Normandy the component units remained primarily under their respective service chains of command. The joint task force system functioned equally well at Casablanca, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Kwajalein, the Marianas, Palau, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Leyte, and Lingayen, and was integral to the Kyushu invasion planning. No matter which organization was used, "the naval component commander usually commanded the joint naval and landing forces during the amphibious phase of the operations." 3

Inherent in these structures was the need for the joint amphibious assault commander to exercise operational or tactical air control within the amphibious objective area. Every air unit, from combat air patrol and ASW aircraft, to direct air support and aircraft just passing through, was controlled while they were in the objective area by the commander's air-control units. The necessity to maintain control, in conjunction with naval bombardment, artillery, and troop movement drove this solution-one that Admiral R. K. Turner devised to be the best organization possible for tactical air support of amphibious operations.

After the war, the Army proposed that an Army officer should be in charge of an extensive land campaign to include the amphibious assault since it was merely the seaward extension of the operation. Certainly an Army officer could head the entire invasion, just as General Eisenhower did at Normandy, but Ike eliminated confusion by providing clear-cut direction that placed the naval commanders in charge of the amphibious assault.

Until the Army is firmly established ashore, the command of each naval task and assault force of the military formations will be exercised by the naval commanders. 4

By the end of World War II, the uniformly accepted procedure was for command to remain unified under the naval component commander until the landing force commander reported that he was ready to assume command ashore. Variations in these procedures were not long in arising, however. The amphibious operation at Inchon was successful, but command and control were not quite exactly orthodox. General Douglas MacArthur desired an Army officer to lead the land campaign so the CATF, under the Navy Joint Task Force Commander, passed control to the Army X Corps ashore, instead of CLF, the 1st Marine Division Commander. The Commanding General, X Corps, as land component commander, had not been involved in detailed planning for the landing so he quickly encountered problems with resupply and command relationships that could have been avoided. 5

Admiral Blandy's article concluded with two more important principles. Unified command was "most necessary at the point of contact with the enemy." One officer must be in charge and be the decision maker. Secondly, the unified command need not exist after the joint task has been achieved. After the landing force is ashore, the joint amphibious task force may be dissolved, its mission completed. The direction for the joint task force commander simply becomes: "Land and support the landing force."

Since Admiral Blandy's days as an amphibious warrior, there have been continued attempts to erode battle-tested doctrine. In Southwest Asia, amphibious forces were relegated to duties as a tactical force and never integrated into the overall strategic plan, primarily because the chain of command did not understand how best to use them. Marine units afloat were subordinate to the Marine component commander ashore, serving as his tactical reserve rather than in any operational capacity. The naval component commander's staff had limited amphibious experience, so they were constantly tasking subordinate amphibious staffs to develop plans without providing firm direction—in one proposed landing, for example, no initiating directive was published. For another proposed landing, the CATF, not wanting to interfere with offensive air strikes, anticipated exerting passive control of amphibious objective area (AOA) air space. Scarce amphibious assets were relegated to other missions—such as a helicopter assault ship operating as a mine countermeasures ship, without fully evaluating the impact of such a tasking on the landing plan.

For the afloat Marine units in Southwest Asia waters, a unique organizational arrangement was established. The 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) (MEU[SOC]) were linked together, but with each retaining its own battle staff instead of compositing to form a Marine Expeditionary Force. Although unity of command was violated, maximum independence and flexibility were supposedly maintained. 6 The structure was never fully exercised or tested, but problems still emerged with regard to asset sharing among three separate units and planning among three distinct staffs. This structure seems to have come full circle from Blandy's call for unity of command, and Southwest Asia does not appear to be a sterling example for future amphibious operations or command relationships of any type.

Whether operating off Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, or anywhere at sea, there seem to be as many initiatives to change command relationships in amphibious warfare as there are deploying flag officers. Initiating directives often have been perceived to be too binding and too specific, and they have not been used. Delineating amphibious objective areas with well-defined tactical air control procedures has been a source of apprehension, because these areas must include landing force objectives ashore as well as adequate space seaward, which could conflict with carrier air operations. All component commanders have felt compelled to compete for a piece of any joint operation, regardless of its scope—fewer units have been participating, but more staff jobs have been required. Today, there also is a possibility that another commander—the joint littoral warfare commander—may be invented to exacerbate the competition for roles and to challenge the writers of doctrine.

Today's discussions often focus on "current reality" operations as models, finding it easier to modify doctrine than to follow it in peacetime while neglecting the obvious: that doctrine that has been proved in war should continue to work in wartime. Some advocates call for a Marine officer to have CATF or joint amphibious task force commander duties, relegating the naval commander counterpart to transport commander. Or some of the "round" CATF and CLF pegs are retitled, and shoved into "square," ill-defined composite warfare commander roles (Land Commander or `Alfa Mike,' for example). Perhaps, amphibious warfare, evolving into expeditionary warfare with revitalized political visibility, may be thought too important to be delegated to a dying breed of amphibious warfare experts, experienced in traditional unity of command.

Is there really a need for change? Certainly, technology and technical sophistication have accelerated, but much of their impact has been to decrease delivery and reaction times and to increase weapon lethality. Landing and supporting the landing force still must be accomplished from the sea, and although we can do ship-to-shore movement faster and from over the horizon today, the landing force ultimately must establish itself ashore for an operation to succeed. In fact, the operational maneuver from the sea concept stresses the need to maintain a strong seabase—so what is really new?

Technology is not always a panacea. Modern command-and-control systems can suffer from their capacity to deliver data fast enough to overwhelm the decision maker—and unfortunately, human brain capacity has not grown significantly since World War II. In fact, one wonders how hundreds of ships and thousands of planners executed D-Day at Normandy with only typewriters, carbon paper, and continuous wave radio. Technology should remain a tool, rather than a catalyst for change.

So what has changed? Our Navy and Marine Corps are smaller. The Soviet submarine, Badger, and Backfire hordes no longer menace blue-water ocean crossings. Traditional missions seem less clear cut, and within an era of fiscal conservatism, the services compete more aggressively for scarce resources. Real-time communications and CNN television coverage have raised second-guessing of the commander on the scene to a new art form. Yet, collectively, these factors do not amount to adequate rationale to change a command structure.

One result is that the emerging world focus is now on the littoral instead of the blue-water strategy. "Forward . . . From the Sea" and "Operational Maneuver from the Sea" reflect this emphasis, but such thinking still has a distinct parallel with what has gone before. Instead of mandating change, this renewed interest in the littoral would seem to call for established doctrine and command relationships, rather than reinventing the wheel. Raids, special-operations missions, and non-forcible entry operations are gaining importance and will continue to do so, but the present amphibious squadron/MEU organization accomplishes those special operations effectively. CATF, CLF, AOA, and unity-of-command principles exercised by the Navy amphibious task force commander and Marine landing force commander still work and will continue to work until we prove that something else actually can do better. Expeditionary Warfare is a progressive art, but the fundamentals of "unity, simplicity, and clarity" remain much the same in modern command structure.

The composite warfare commander (CWC) structure repeatedly forms the stimulus for change since CATF and CLF do not fit neatly into it. It is an effective command structure for a blue water or defensive-type operation. Yet, the littoral calls for an offensive mind set—"Forward...From the Sea" and associated structure—to smooth the transition from blue-water environs. Perhaps the CWC concept should be modified to mesh with existing expeditionary/amphibious warfare doctrine instead of altering what we know will work. CWC should not be sacrosanct.

We know that the CATF and CLF can work with CWC and a joint command structure. During Exercise Agile Provider in the Spring of 1994, a joint task force conducted a brigade-sized amphibious and airborne operation effectively, under unity of command. The naval component commander directed the battle group to sustain the supported commander, CATF. The amphibious objective area was adequate, and was controlled by tactical air controllers on board the amphibious flagship. The battle space boundaries were not seamless, but by its very nature amphibious warfare has seams. The key is to avoid having gaps. Indeed, much like the transition on a baseball diamond between fair and foul territory, all of the battle space could be controlled and monitored, with minimal impact on carrier air while preserving the safety of Marine air assets.

The CATF, relying upon a specific initiating directive, managed the AOA and the 11 amphibious, cruiser, destroyer, and Coast Guard ships—without blue-on-blue engagements or the loss of a ship to enemy action. The battle group commander employed a littoral transition plan, promulgated by the naval component commander, that told all concerned: who was in charge of whom; when transitions were to take place; who was supporting; and who was supported. The representative traditional example that resulted succeeded within the framework of modern technology, the littoral, and a joint focus.

If it isn't broke—don't fix it.

Amphibious/expeditionary and joint warfare remains complex and perhaps there is concern that there are not enough of the right officers in place who understand it. Admiral Blandy already was seeing a decline in amphibiousity and the trend has not been reversed. However, a pool of rising experts does exist.

MEU(SOC)/Amphibious Ready Group staffs daily hone their expeditionary warfare and joint skills. These Navy and Marine planners do everything in their dual operations that their Army and Air Force brethren do in joint exercises, but at an accelerated level. A typical MEU staff officer will work 40-50 crisis action plans and 20-30 deliberate plans in a two-year tour—the amphibious squadron staffer about half that much in his 18-month tour. Then they will execute and validate the plans. Such a level of experience, often gained at the 0-3 level, creates an invaluable resource that could be quickly funneled into other joint staffs without the requisite learning curve. Building upon this expertise through a feasible career pattern would create a nucleus of experts who can effectively exert unity of command, while retaining the expeditionary-warrior flavor.

Maintaining the status quo for the time being is a better alternative than to change for change's sake. Navy chains of command may become insurmountable obstacles when the CWC doctrine is arbitrarily interposed on CATF and CLF or their functions modified to become land commander and amphibious transport commander. Throw in joint task force, Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine planners, and the structure becomes confused. Meanwhile the confined space in the littoral only compounds the challenges. On the other hand, if the appropriate structure and unity of command are used for the mission, even the CWC will find a niche. Within the joint hierarchy there is room for the traditional CATF and CLF relationship as well—so with the jointness umbrella encompassing every amphibious operation, a basic expeditionary building block is already in place. We just need to reaffirm or even adjust the doctrine and tactical techniques and procedures to benefit from this proven baseline.

Most important, using what we know works will make sense. At a time when "non-joint" bears a stigma, the littoral battle space cannot afford to be looked upon as an "easier" theater. If anything—judging by Admiral Blandy's experiences—it will offer the greatest challenges in the 21st century. His words still state it best:

I am eager as anyone to see our armed forces develop and advance, but I am reluctant to see discarded, on the basis of theoretical argument alone, procedures born and perfected when bombs, big guns, and bullets were doing the talking. 7

1 Adm. W.H. Blandy, USN (Ret.) "Command Relations In Amphibious Warfare," Proceedings, June 1951, p. 581.

2 Admiral Blandy was Commander, Amphibious Group One in 1944-45 and took part in the Kwajalein, Saipan, Palau, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa campaigns. As Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Special Weapons, he planned and commanded the atom bomb tests at Bikini. He was Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet and the Atlantic Unified Command, before retiring in February 1950.

3 Blandy, p. 573.

4 Extract from the Operation Plan of Admiral Ramsay, R.N., General Eisenhower's naval component commander, dated 10 April 1944, cited in Blandy, p. 574.

5 Maj. Michael G. Dana, USMC, A Contrast in Capabilities: Amphibious Forces at Inchon and SWA, Thesis submitted to the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, VA.

6 LtCol. R.J. Brown, USMC, "Marine Forces Afloat in Southwest Asia, 1990-1991," Marine Corps Gazette, November 1992, p. 65 cited in Dana.

7 Blandy, p. 581.

Admiral Picotte retired as Commander, Amphibious Group Two, in Norfolk, Virginia. During his 35-year career, he held a variety of billets, including enlisted service as a radarman and with explosive ordnance disposal. He commanded four ships, and was the commissioning captain of the Wasp (LHD-1). Admiral Picotte is supporting LPD-17 development for American Systems Corporation.

Captain King served in seven surface ships, and commanded the Fresno (LST-1182). He was chief staff officer for Commander, Amphibious Squadron Six, in Norfolk, Virginia, and participated in various joint exercises. Captain King is supporting the development of LPD-17 for American Systems Corporation, and is a frequent contributor to Proceedings and Naval History .


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