Obey the Iron Law

By Terry Pierce

As these officers learned, and we unwittingly have forgotten, mastery of "amphibiosity" should not be presumed. It does not derive directly from understanding naval and military warfare. It is a singular art that requires special skills-abilities our warriors once held. Today, however, the Navy is paying little more than lip service to amphibious warfare, and the Marine Corps, "in its haste to be included in land warfare, no longer possesses the institutional expertise to conduct amphibious warfare above the [Marine expeditionary unit] level." Therein lies the problem; given the sea services' superficial attention to amphibious operations, where do we go to find the answers to create a practicable modern doctrine?

This problem is not insurmountable. We may find the answers to the future by looking to the solutions of the past. Indeed, shedding light on our amphibious "masters" should strengthen our efforts to developing a modern amphibious doctrine significantly. Arguably, one of the still-fundamental concepts for a successful amphibious assault is unity of command.

Students of littoral warfare long have been familiar with the "Iron Law" governing unity of command. This great truth reveals, among other things, that amphibious operational effectiveness is directly proportionate to the degree to which one commander has authority over all parts of the naval expeditionary force-including the landing force. The British failure at Gallipoli confirms this tenet. Amphibious operations there foundered at the outset because of conflicts in command jurisdiction between naval and landing forces. Not surprisingly, the disaster caused a general disbelief among military planners about the feasibility of amphibious assaults. By 1939, British strategist B. Liddell Hart had concluded that advances of technology had rendered not only British but also all future amphibious assaults "almost impossible."

Fortunately, the naval services rejected this conclusion, and in 1934, the Marine Corps produced the "Tentative Landing Operations Manual," which included the Iron Law and placed overall responsibility for amphibious operations with the Navy commander. With these arrangements, the Navy and Marine Corps (and subsequently the Army) made a significant stride toward a workable joint doctrine.

But why place a Navy commander in charge? Retired Marine Corps Colonel Allan Millet notes that overall command of the landing was placed with the naval commander because "the landing force was only one element of a complex naval task organization designed to protect the landing force from enemy sea and air attack." Thus, with a few refinements after the Solomon Islands and North African assaults, this doctrine successfully supported the massive amphibious landings at Normandy, Leyte, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa in 1944 and 1945. In fact, toward the end of the war, General Alexander A. Vandegrift-landing force commander for the Guadalcanal campaign-observed that "despite its outstanding record as a combat force in the past war, the Marine Corps' far greater contribution to victory was doctrinal: that is, the fact that the basic amphibious doctrines which carried Allied troops over every beachhead of World War II had been largely shaped by U.S. Marines." That doctrine, it should be emphasized, placed the naval commander in charge.

Half a century later, the Navy-Marine Corps white paper . . From the Sea" signaled a change in focus toward the littorals (again) and forged a renewed partnership based on a shared understanding of the role of naval expeditionary forces (NEF) and the contribution each service makes to the protection of our national interest. The white paper introduced the term naval expeditionary forces as "forces that are designed to operate forward and respond quickly." Two years later, "Forward . . . from the Sea" defined the NEF as a "force conceptually built around fleet operational forces and a forward-deployed Marine Expeditionary Force."

Remarkably, since ". . . From the Sea" was signed, the Navy and Marine Corps have not been able to develop the proposed NEF concept. The central problem is, once again, a turf battle over who controls what. Navy and Marine Corps planners, quite simply, have forgotten the approved, time-honored doctrine governing the command relationships between the two services.

Today, there are two points of view; one reflected by the naval expeditionary force commander, the other by the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) commander. Although the two approaches are much the same, there are some significant differences, particularly in regard to command of amphibious operations. The source of the differences stems from the Marine Corps historically having a more narrow view of littoral warfare than the Navy.

During World War II, the Marine ground commander merely wanted the Navy to transport his Marines safely ashore, where control would shift and post-assault operations would begin. Thus, for the Marine Corps, command structures conformed to static divisions of labor delineated by the high-water mark. Of course, tactically separating the naval (ship-to-shore movement) and the land (operations ashore) components resulted in amphibious forces having a functional split. Unfortunately, the split occurred at the most precarious time-when the assault was transitioning from amphibious warfare to land warfare.

In contrast, the Navy wanted the amphibious assault and subsequent operations ashore to be considered as a single operational entity; the naval commander of the amphibious task force (CATF) would view "his" naval and land forces as interchangeable components of an operational whole. Unfortunately, such an arrangement proved to be ineffective during the Guadalcanal campaign-competent admirals do not necessarily make good generals and the Navy and Marine Corps compromised and drifted away from the approach of having a single commander with complete tactical responsibility throughout the operation. At some point, near the end of the ship-to-shore movement, control of tactics ashore would transfer from the CATF to the commander of the landing force (CLF).

A principal shortcoming in this modified doctrine was that it did not specify when the ship-to-shore portion of the amphibious operation would end. At what point does the landing force commander become free to conduct operations ashore as he sees fit, tactically independent of the naval attack force commander?

Not surprisingly, every few years, the Marine Corps takes the field over this issue. The winner of the Marine Corps Gazette's prestigious Chase Prize Essay Contest for 1996, "Let CLF Do It" by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Hammes, debunks the time-honored tradition of Navy controlling the landing force. "It makes no sense at all," the colonel writes, "to have a Navy officer, usually well to sea, making the final decisions for [amphibious] operations for which he has no training or background." He continues, "While our Navy colleagues may be reluctant to admit it, in most littoral operations their role is much like that of the Air Force in an airborne operation. While each is vital to the success of the mission, no one would consider putting the airlift commander in charge of the airborne operation. As a transport pilot, he quite simply lacks the experience and training to conduct operations on the ground. Our Navy counterparts face the same career limitations when it comes to ground operations."

The sad fact is that no one from the Navy side has objected to the Marine quest to control amphibious operations. Arguably, it is not because they agree with the Marine Corps, but rather because they do not know enough to make an argument. Truth be known, the Navy does not have a lot of officers who are experts in amphibiosity. As Marine author Lieutenant Colonel Scott Moore argues, both Navy and Marine Corps amphibious expertise and memory have vanished through disuse. Thus, if we are to once again be the best amphibious warriors in the world, we must answer the unity of command question.

Following World War II, many influential military leaders felt amphibious warfare no longer should be part of future planning. Indeed, in 1949 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs testified to Congress that "it was doubtful if there would ever be large-scale amphibious operations." In this atmosphere, Navy specialists in amphibious warfare were relegated to the "has been" group. General Douglas MacArthur would lead the Inchon assault within a year of the chairman's statement, but it was too late for many amphibious sailors.

Unfortunately, the Navy has never recovered from this event. So we must go back and examine what the masters of amphibiosity (before they were purged) thought about their craft and the doctrine and principles on which its application was based.

Most of our amphibious masters-Navy, Army, and Marine Corps-agreed in principle that a Navy officer would command the landing force until it was established ashore. In the Algerian landings of 1942, the leading general of the 34th Infantry Division suggested that the Army should take charge once the troops got into the landing craft, but General Dwight D. Eisenhower disagreed. He reminded his subordinate that the Navy had control until the troops were ashore, then the Army took over. In Africa, Rear Admiral Richard Conolly, tasked with training boat crews, fought with the Army over methods and control. Finally, General George Patton solved the problem by saying that the Navy was responsible for getting the Army ashore and they could put the Army ashore in any "damned" thing they want to. General MacArthur also supported the Navy commanding the landing force during the amphibious assault phase.

Rear Admiral W. H. P. Blandy-who was Commander, Amphibious Group One, in 1944-45 and took part in the Kwajalein, Saipan, Palau, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa campaigns-wrote in 1951 that the unquestioned mission of an amphibious assault operation is to establish the landing force firmly on shore. He argues that is easy to prove that the landing force has the eventual "dominant interest" in the operation, and that in every case, the naval commander must give every consideration to the tactical plan of the landing force commander.

But the dominant interest of one service must not be permitted to dictate the assignment of an officer from that service to command the joint effort, when the active, mobile, combat forces during the most critical phases of the operation come from another service. "If that principle were followed in the operating room of a hospital," Admiral Blandy notes, "the patient, not the surgeon, would control an appendectomy."

Yet the Marine Corps, the dominant interest in operational maneuver from the sea, is making this very argument today. OMFTS combines the maneuver of Navy forces and the maneuver of the Marine air-ground task force to produce a seamless operation between actions at sea and actions on land. It exploits the extraordinary operational mobility of naval forces without loss of momentum during the transition from sea to shore. Our ability to achieve this improved power projection capability, however, requires that we possess a seamless command-and-control capability from sea to land.

The landing force in OMITS clearly is the main effort. But this does not mean that "the commander of the landing force must become the overall commander of the amphibious task force." What the Marine Corps fails to grasp is that OMFTS is but one aspect of a larger overarching concept called naval operational maneuver.

Naval operational maneuver is the cornerstone concept of naval littoral and expeditionary warfare. Put simply, rather than begin the application of maneuver warfare at the water's edge, or over the horizon, this concept envisions maneuver warfare being applied from the very beginning of any naval operation.

There are two aspects of naval operational maneuver: operational maneuver at sea (OMAS) and operational maneuver from the sea. OMAS is the application of maneuver warfare to naval operations at sea. Naval forces establish operational sea control in sea lanes critical to the campaign, fight their way into the littoral waters, and establish battlespace dominance. The focus of OMAS is gaining a sufficient degree of operational sea control, which is defined as the level of sea control needed to achieve the objectives of a joint campaign plan.

The second aspect of naval operational maneuver is operational maneuver from the sea, which is the application of maneuver warfare to naval power projection. The goal is to project combat power ashore seamlessly and continuously. OMFTS exploits the sea as secure maneuver space and seeks to generate overwhelming tempo and momentum to which the enemy cannot respond.

Thus, naval operational maneuver provides the joint force commander with the capability to maneuver his naval forces within the seaward and landward dimensions of the littoral theater in the same manner he maneuvers his land forces. It is during the OMAS phase that the naval expeditionary force commander-the overall commander of naval forces (including amphibious and landing forces)-visualizes and plans for all actions before, during, and after the operation. Perhaps the NEF commander's most important function during the OMAS phase is to shape the battlespace-through precision naval fires, strike, interdiction, fire support, electronic warfare, and anti-mine operations-to create the most favorable conditions possible for the joint force commander's decisive maneuver actions. After the NEF commander prepares the battlespace, he continues to maneuver his task force to create the decisive action-in the form of naval power projection-at the best time and place to win.

The most decisive tool for power projection is an amphibious operation-OMFTS. Only the landing force commander can introduce troops into hostile territory from the sea, culminating a naval operation or enabling a continental one. At this point in the campaign, therefore, the naval expeditionary force commander will designate his main effort as CLF, and OMAS will transition seamlessly into OMFTS.

The masters of amphibiosity believed in the Iron Law of unity of command, and as we introduce new concepts, we would be well served to adhere to this tenet. Also, we should not be so quick to give up the proven CATFCLF relationship. Indeed, in naval warfare, an admiral always should be in charge of all maneuvers at sea and from the sea. But this admiral easily can adopt the concept of supporting and supported relationships to make his CLF the main effort of the OMITS phase. This is all feasible if the Marine Corps understands that a Navy commander should be and will be in charge of naval maneuvers on the sea and from the sea-a time-honored naval tradition.


More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

WEST 2017

Tue, 2017-02-21 - Thu, 2017-02-23

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Tuesday, 21 February - Thursday, 23 February 2017 Co-Sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute. Registration...

View All

From the Press

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Thu, 2016-12-08

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Tue, 2016-12-13

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership