Hitting the Beach in the 21st Century

By Under Secretary of the Navy Robert O. Work and Lieutenant Colonel F. G. Hoffman, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

• What new capabilities will our Navy–Marine Corps team need, and which ones will potentially be made obsolete?

On the first question, Gates cited a number of exemplary naval leaders who provided visionary and intellectual leadership during periods of great uncertainty and reduced defense spending. He referred to Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and his contribution to carrier warfare. He also cited Lieutenant General Victor Krulak, who championed amphibious tractors and the famous Higgins boat in the 1930s.

Given the dynamics of the emerging security environment, we will need new Krulaks to come to the fore—leaders willing to challenge longstanding assumptions and to push new ideas—as well as senior leaders who are tolerant of experimentation and failure. These are the qualities the maritime services should encourage in a new generation of leaders, both up and down the chain of command.

These types of leaders will be especially needed as we attempt to answer Secretary Gates’ second question: What new capabilities will our Navy–Marine Corps team need, and which ones will potentially be made obsolete? The example Gates used involved the future of amphibious operations:

We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again—especially as advances in antiship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore. On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much? 1

Of course, Gates just as easily could have asked how we might conduct carrier operations in the face of increasingly capable anticarrier weapons, or how we intend to conduct antisubmarine warfare against advanced diesel-powered submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles. Nonetheless, we would like to take the Secretary’s question about the future of amphibious warfare head on—both because it is an important question for the Navy and Marine Corps to answer, and doing so will demonstrate the requirement to think about old missions in new ways.

Keeping Amphib in the Portfolio

There is broad and growing agreement that the future security environment is likely to see increasing anti-access and area-denial threats (A2/AD ) overseas. Anti-access strategies seek to prevent U.S. force entry into a theater of operations, while area-denial operations encompass actions to prevent joint-force freedom of action within the more narrow confines of an area under an enemy’s direct control within their defended battlespace. 2 These threats include political as well as military challenges.

Both the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review ( QDR ) and the recently signed National Security Strategy mention the need to preserve access to the global commons and to counter aggression in anti-access environments. In the QDR , “deter and defeat aggression in anti-access environments” is listed as the fourth of six critical mission areas. Likewise, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Capstone Concept for Joint Operations describes the same challenges. Clearly, then, A2/AD threats are now widely recognized as a growing problem for U.S. joint forces. 3

One option might be to forego power-projection operations in the face of growing A2/AD threats: to develop long-range bombardment capabilities that would allow U.S. forces to remain well outside expanding threat rings. But the QDR also emphasized the strategic importance of being able to project multi-dimensional and multi-domain power even in the evolving and more lethal future security environment. “In the absence of dominant U.S. power-projection capabilities,” the report noted, “the integrity of U.S. alliances and security partnerships could be called into question, reducing U.S. security and influence and increasing the possibility of conflict.” 4 The perception that U.S. forces cannot gain or sustain access or influence in regions of interest to our nation or those of key allies could severely undercut American diplomacy and deterrence.

Why is this? Power projection, broadly defined to include amphibious operations, has numerous strategic benefits. It can serve to deter many forms of aggression, because aggressors will realize that we can respond appropriately if they try to take a preemptive action. It assures allies of U.S. capability to intervene decisively on their behalf, with forces that can regain ground or compel compliance. It provides the ability to gain and exploit operational access into theaters at a time and place of U.S. choosing, regardless of political or geographical limitations. Finally, it serves as a key element of a cost-imposing strategy to make expensive demands on any potential adversary’s plans.

Multi-Dimensional Power

Strategically, a strong U.S. power-projection network will force a potential adversary to invest in a broad array of forces and capabilities. Operationally, it forces an enemy to distribute forces geographically, which imposes great demands on command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I), logistics, and joint training.

For these reasons, we believe that the United States must continue to be prepared to project power in multiple dimensions. If true, one critical component of any future power-projection capability will be an ability to negate a potential adversary’s anti-access networks and systems by precision strike, cyber attack, and special operations. Another will be an ability to project and sustain a joint force in a contested battlespace in spite of threats from guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles.

In many cases, the U.S. joint force may be able to launch attacks from friendly bases located close to an enemy’s defended territory. For a global power like the United States, however, when bases are not readily available, having the ability to seize a joint lodgment to support the introduction of follow-on forces will likely remain a vital capability. Moreover, for a host of operational and tactical reasons, a lodgment may have to be seized from existing ports or airfields. Under these circumstances, some reasonably sized amphibious capability should remain a vital part of our counter-A2/AD portfolio. After all, creating strategic and operational dilemmas for an enemy has been a hallmark of sea-based power-projection operations.

Future amphibious assaults, though, will necessarily be different from those conducted in the past—primarily because the virtual monopoly the United States has long enjoyed in guided-weapon battle networks is going away. Future adversaries are developing sophisticated new anti-access networks with long-range targeting capabilities, as well as advanced conventional missiles of greater range and precision that can attack both fixed land targets and ships at sea. In future crises, these developments could put some of our most prized Navy and joint-force assets at risk from far greater ranges than before. In other words, these developments threaten to eliminate the virtual operational sanctuaries our Navy–Marine Corps and joint team has enjoyed since the end of World War II. Unsurprisingly, then, the Navy is working closely with the Air Force on a new AirSea Battle Concept designed to confront and defeat advanced anti-access strategies and systems. 5

New Threats, New Thinking

None of these increasingly sophisticated challenges should come as a surprise to naval strategists, since the character of the anti-access and hybrid threat was accurately captured in A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power . 6 New threats demand new thinking about joint power projection in general, and amphibious operations in particular. They cannot be approached in terms of “storming beaches under fire,” making amphibious investments with little application across the range of military operations, or resting on our laurels. 7 For example, although the Marine concept Operational Maneuver from the Sea was well ahead of its time, it is essentially predicated on a late-1980s forecast of the threat. The Navy and Marine Corps team must update its ideas about when, how, and for what purpose it will execute amphibious assaults, as well as the kind of threats or adversaries it can expect to encounter.

With regard to purpose, we believe the Navy’s future amphibious-assault capability must first be viewed within a larger joint context and focused on the theater-entry mission. In other words, future amphibious assaults will more likely be designed to seize and develop a lodgment in support of a joint land campaign than seizing advance naval bases as part of a naval campaign. This is in no way a step away from the Navy–Marine Corps traditional amphibious expertise. Indeed, given new threats, future sea-based joint forcible-entry operations will rely on lessons learned from both land and naval campaigns. The formal joint definition of forcible entry is simply “the seizing and holding of a military lodgment in the face of armed oppostion.” That is exactly what amphibious forces are designed to do, and the operational challenge that our Navy–Marine Corps team should focus on.

Looking back in time may help. In the World War II Pacific theater, the Marines were primarily tasked with seizing small, well-defended island bases. The Navy needed these bases as stepping stones across the huge breadth of the ocean to support the Fleet’s logistics and operational needs. The Navy was able to isolate these islands, and subjected them to intensive surface fire and aviation strikes. Yet the Marines had little maneuver room ashore and had to be able to confront resistance at the beach. This shaped their operational approach and equipment, including tracked landing vehicles to overcome coral barrier reefs. 8

In contrast, when opening a new theater in North Africa, Italy, and France, the Army always viewed the initial amphibious operation as simply the first phase of a sustained theater campaign, and the hub from which reinforcing forces and supplies could be funneled until ports could be opened. Consequently, the Army always had far more choices for landing areas, and could avoid areas where strong beach defenses were already built up. These expanded choices meant the Army relied far more on deception and surprise to mask where they intended to land. Indeed, they did not find what we today call “shaping operations” to be worth the loss of surprise, so they often avoided extensive pre-landing naval and aerial bombardments. 9

A Combined Approach

In the future, given the advent of long-range precision fires, the Navy/Marine approach for extensive preparation of the landing area will need to be combined with the Army approach for seizing lodgments within the context of a larger land campaign. This combined method will likely be more appropriate for the future operational environment. Moreover, just as the World War II Army found it necessary to avoid heavily defended ports, future joint theater entry will often be mounted in areas away from existing ports, airfields, and logistics infrastructure ashore. As a result, a central requirement for future amphibious operations will be an ability to create a usable port where one does not exist.

This is hardly an original idea. When the British intervened in Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) in 1867 in response to the kidnapping of British consular officials, they brought their own port and infrastructure with them. 10 And at Normandy, the Allies brought their Mulberry ports as part of their theater-entry capability. 11 Since World War II, however, the U.S. joint force has more often than not been able to come ashore and take advantage of existing ports and infrastructure. In the future, threatened by prompt guided-weapons bombardment and hybrid warriors that hide among the people, the joint force should once again plan to avoid enemy “surfaces” and learn to exploit the sea as maneuver space to set up our initial landing, independent of any assumptions about ports and airfields. This is where the maritime prepositioning squadrons with new mobile landing platforms and joint logistics over the shore assets can be applied to good effect to enhance joint movement of forces and supplies after initial landings.

The Navy–Marine Corps team thus needs to think in terms of a joint approach that seeks to gain entry then develop and secure a lodgment of sufficient breadth and depth as part of a joint campaign. Indeed, any theater-entry effort will necessarily be a major joint endeavor, relying on Air Force space and air support, Army airborne, and joint special-operations forces. As it has always been, the Navy will be central to securing the amphibious objective area from air, missile, surface, and subsurface attack. And the Navy-Marine Corps team will continue to practice littoral maneuver—the ability to project ready-to-fight cohesive combat forces from the sea to and across the shore.

Joint Theater Entry 101

The new terminology is consistent with the conceptual shifts. “Theater entry” offers a more appropriate context and argument for exploiting the contributions of amphibious warfare in this century. The same goes for “littoral maneuver,” which purposely shifts the focus and the conception of trying to directly confront or storm a contested shoreline a la Tarawa or Iwo Jima. The terms “forcible entry” and “amphibious assault” recall for too many people the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan or HBO’s The Pacific . That is not the model the Navy–Marine Corps team should prepare for or the mission the Department of the Navy should invest in.

This is not, as some suggest, a watering-down of the future amphibious challenge. It’s about adapting to new threats and new realities and is completely consistent with the new Naval Operations Concept signed by our service chiefs. 12 It is also consistent with Marine maneuver-warfare doctrine, which emphasizes the employment of intelligence resources, deception, and mobility. Creating windows of opportunity and landing where the enemy is not has been Marine doctrine since former Commandant General Al Gray published FMFM 1 Warfighting 25 years ago. 13 And in any event, a theater-entry operation in an A2/AD environment will be challenging enough for any joint force commander (JFC).

In that regard, the Navy-Marine team will never contemplate littoral maneuver until an enemy’s battle network, capable of firing dense salvos of guided weapons, is suppressed. Consequently, the initial phase of any joint theater-entry operation will require achieving air, sea, undersea, and overall battle-network superiority in the amphibious objective area. Air Force bombers, naval strike assets, Marine reconnaissance, and special-operations forces would work to degrade and destroy enemy antiship capabilities and to reduce the guided rockets, artillery, mortals, and missile (G-RAMM) threat ashore.

A Deliberative Undertaking

Once the JFC judged the risks to be acceptable, Marines would then land at a time and place of their choosing, perhaps supported by Army airborne forces. The ship-to-shore movement would be covered by Fleet air-defense and strike assets. Central to our ability to operate in a guided-weapons environment will be the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air program, which allows the Fleet to counter increasingly capable and less detectable cruise missiles and manned aircraft, and in the future, tactical ballistic missiles, well over land.

Unlike the past, then, no JFC will equate a theater-entry operation with a rapid, decisive operation conducted along tight timelines. There will be no 10- to 14-day deploy/arrive/ landing scenarios in an A2/AD environment. A joint theater-entry operation will be a deliberative undertaking with weeks of pre-landing shaping operations. Only after these have successfully identified, isolated, and sanitized access areas would littoral maneuver begin. In this critical phase, both surface and vertical-assault elements may have to start from farther offshore than we do today. But against adversaries with less powerful A2/AD networks or networks that have been neutralized, the force could be much closer to shore. Obviously, this would facilitate more rapid maneuver to secure, extend, and clear the lodgment.

Once ashore, the primary threat to the lodgment will come from G-RAMM counterattacks and hybrid warriors who will hide among the people and complex terrain and employ ambush tactics. The Marines will have to concentrate on gaining entry ashore and establishing an inner perimeter designed to keep G-RAMM suppressed or out of range. The joint force, especially the defending Navy battle network, would concentrate on defeating the longer-range threat and extend a defensive umbrella over the expanding lodgment area. This will require the development of new counter-G-RAMM systems and tactics.

There is still much work to do before we can adequately answer Secretary Gates’ question. The Navy and Marine Corps are collaborating to define the actual operational parameters for our contributions to future theater-entry operations, including issues about what the stand-off distance for launching assaults will be. But one thing is certain: The future strategic utility of forcible operations should not be discounted despite the adaptations anticipated by potential adversaries. Therefore, the Navy needs to invest in the capabilities necessary to conduct these operations in the future.

Thus far we have only argued that some capability to conduct theater-entry operations and littoral maneuver must be retained. But it is fair to ask how much amphibious capacity is needed. During the 2010 QDR , the Navy and Marines successfully explained how amphibious shipping can support theater engagement, security cooperation, and crisis-response missions. There was strong agreement within the defense-policy community and the Department of the Navy that no fewer than 33 ships would be needed to fulfill those tasks, and an acknowledgement that this force would also provide the platforms for the assault echelons of two Marine brigades, with moderate risk.

Preserve the Mission, but Adapt

This is not an overwhelming or excessive capacity. In World War II, the United States developed a strong amphibious capability to support both the Army and the Marine Corps. The Army was composed of 90 divisions and the Marine Corps was standing up its sixth division by the end of the war. The amphibious fleet of the time could lift a total of 13 divisions, or roughly 13.5 percent of the total joint ground force. Today’s Army and Marine Corps can field a total of 86 brigade equivalents when one factors in the total force, active and reserve. Out of these 86 brigades, we can deploy two Marine brigades on amphibious shipping. These two brigades constitute approximately 2 percent of the joint ground force. Viewed in historical terms, this appears to be a minimal investment for a strategic capability that gives the nation such a valuable deterrent-and-response function. So, from both a historical and operational perspective, the Department of the Navy can justify a two-brigade assault echelon as a minimal national capability to secure joint objectives in access-contested environments.

Retaining the ability to project power and conduct landing operations into hostile territory remains strategically important to American global interests. It is a crucial component of translating theater access into secure operational access and the attainment of operational objectives—at sea or ashore. This is what makes sea power a strategically valuable investment. To divest this capability or fail to adapt it in the face of increased anti-access and area-denial challenges is contrary to U.S. national-security objectives and strategy. It concedes no-go areas to future adversaries, undermines our diplomacy and alliances, and allows adversaries to focus resources on our remaining power-projection options—perhaps with greater effectiveness. This mission and capability should be preserved, but adapted to reflect changes in the threat, changes to technology, and fiscal realities. We await the Krulaks of the future to tell us how best to do so.

1. Robert M. Gates, remarks as delivered, Navy League Sea-Air-Space Exposition, 3 May 2010, accessed at http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1460 .

2. Andrew Krepinevich, Barry Watts and Robert Work, Meeting the Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenge , Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, 2003, p. 5.

3. Robert Gates, Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review (Washington, DC, February 2010). Barack Obama, National Security Strategy , (Washington, DC: The White House, May 2010), p. 14. ADM M. G. Mullen, USN, Capstone Concept for Joint Operations , Version 3.0 (Washington DC: Joint Staff), 1 January 2009.

4. QDR, p. 32.

5. Ibid. Andrew Krepinevich, Why Air Sea Battle? (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, 2009). Jan Van Tol, et al., Air Sea Battle: A Point of Departure Concept (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, 2010).

6. GEN James Conway, USMC, ADM Gary Roughead, USN, ADM Thad Allen, USCG, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC, 2007) p. 4.

7. A comment by my colleague and former DASD James Thomas, Center for a New American Security annual conference, “Shaping the Agenda: American National Security in the 21st Century,” Washington, DC, June 10, 2010, Future Force Panel comments, transcript accessed at www.cnas.org/June2010 .

8. Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., “Naval Maneuver Warfare,” Naval War College Review , vol. L., no. 3 (Summer 1997), pp. 25–49.

9. Christopher D. Yung, Gators of Neptune: Naval Amphibious Planning for the Normandy Invasion (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), pp. 21–41.

10. Niall Ferguson, Empire, The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2004), pp. 127–128.

11. Yung, Gators of Neptune , pp. 113–115, 214–215.

12. GEN James T. Conway, USMC, ADM Gary Roughead, USN, ADM Thad W. Allen, USCG, Naval Operations Concept: Implementing the Maritime Strategy (Washington, DC, 2010), pp. 65–68. MAJGEN F. R. H. Howe, OBE, Commandant General Royal Marines, “What Lessons from Today’s Operations are Shaping Capability in the Future?” Royal United Services Institute, 2010 Future Maritime Operations Conference, London, 8 July 2010.

13. GEN Alfred Gray, FMFM 1 Warfighting (Washington, DC: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1986).

The Honorable Mr. Work is the Under Secretary of the Navy. During his 27-year career in the Marine Corps, he held a wide range of command, leadership, and management positions, including his final assignment as military assistant and senior aide to Secretary of the Navy Richard J. Danzig.

Lieutenant Colonel Hoffman currently serves in the Department of the Navy. He is the author of Decisive Force: The New American Way of War (Praeger, 1996), From Preponderance to Partnership: American Maritime Power in the 21st Century (CNAS, 2008), and more than a hundred articles on national-security, military, and historical subjects.


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