Amphibious, Now More Than Ever

By Captain Samuel C. Howard, U.S. Navy, and Colonel Michael S. Groen, U.S. Marine Corps

Fundamental to Enhancing Global Security

Global insecurity is here to stay, as is American interest in reducing it. As a maritime nation, our position as a guarantor of freedom of the maritime commons will remain a linchpin to our own prosperity and that of our partners. Economic pressures will no doubt test our resolve to maintain a worldwide naval presence afloat and, by extension, our ability to project power from the sea. We are in the infancy of a largely uncharted security environment. Our current mission in Afghanistan is not yet complete, and we can only vaguely see the outlines of the future. Unfortunately, the only discernible currents seem to be pronounced sources of instability.

Although we have not yet seen the rise of a peer competitor, the perceived decline of the uni-polar hegemon is marked by the reemergence of regional balance-of-power politics. The rise of the developing world puts even more demand on key resources, most of which must be transported through the littorals. Advanced anti-access systems challenge our presumptions of dominance, even when addressing regional instability. As Hezbollah demonstrated in Lebanon in 2006, even non-state aggressors can gain access to modern antiair and antisurface capabilities.

Our forward-basing posture continues to decrease, as even close friends are reluctant to consider large foreign-military footprints ashore. All of these currents flow through the littorals and the global commons that surround them. The strategic relevance of the force that can master both is compelling.

The Heart of Our Service Guidance

The naval services have clear implementation guidance for our role in the nation’s security strategy. There is no ambiguity in the words of either the new Chief of Naval Operations or the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Both have issued clear guidance about our role as warfighting organizations and both have reiterated the special partnership between the Navy and Marine Corps. 2 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS-21), to which the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard are signatories, lists six core capabilities we will employ in execution of our maritime strategy:

• Forward Presence

• Deterrence

• Sea Control

• Power Projection

• Maritime Security

• Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response (HA/DR) 3

The Naval Operations Concept 2010 ( NOC ) describes the when, where, and how of implementing that strategy. 4 Amphibious capabilities are central to that implementation. Our blue-green team combines our material capabilities—and smart, innovative personnel—into amphibious ship/Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) force packages that provide operational reach from deep blue water to nearly as far inland as we choose. In fact, a careful reading of the NOC reveals that amphibious forces are the only ones specifically cited as contributing to all six core capabilities. 5 Our senior leadership has told us to work together, our strategy describes the things we need to do, and our operating concept gives us implementation direction. It is high time we started doing it. The Marines cannot do it without the Navy. The Navy cannot do it without the Marines. The nation cannot do without it.

Where Sea Control Matters Most

Our Navy is unsurpassed in blue-water sea control, but even the NOC acknowledges our limited ability to control the entirety of the global oceans. 6 We have geographic combatant commanders (GCCs) who tell us which parts of the maritime domain are relevant to the challenges they face, and these are in the littorals. It’s where most of the world’s population lives and the location of 17 of the world’s 20 largest cities. 7 While global trade crosses oceans, the sea routes most threatened are those that pass through the littorals.

Creating effects in the littorals has long been the hallmark of our maritime success as a nation, but thinking about the littorals can be uncomfortable. Naval warriors quickly recognize the risks and dangers that the littorals present. Commercial traffic, pirates, choke points, and threat anti-access systems all inhibit free maneuver at desirable standoff distance, and all are to be found in the littorals.

For some, even the word “amphibious” causes discomfort. It has been said, “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” 8 This is turned on its head in the littorals. Ships are indeed safer well out to sea, but the security environment that makes our naval capabilities relevant is to be found where we can have an impact on the course of human activity ashore—and not just by fires coming unseen from over the horizon.

We cannot seek sea-room when the enemy to be confronted is in the littorals. If emerging threat technology challenges our dominance in a littoral toe-to-toe shootout, then we have to build our operational concepts to avoid fighting on terms dictated by the enemy. Credible naval amphibious capability, which only the Navy and Marine Corps can deploy on demand, must remain a priority as we determine our optimal naval and military force structure.

A Good Investment

If they think about it at all, most people would consider full access to the global commons as a “free good.” Certainly, those of us in the naval services know that it is not free, that it comes at a price paid in treasure and (if necessary) blood. Very capable, integrated naval forces are the price we pay for overseas access, something provided to the international community through cooperation with like-minded nations. As contributors across all six core naval capabilities, our investment in amphibious capabilities is quite reasonable for what the nation gets in return. Only about 10 percent of our ships are dedicated to the amphibious mission. A much smaller fraction of the afloat maintenance budget is dedicated to their upkeep.

The cost of the Marine Corps (including its aircraft) is less than 8 percent of the Department of Defense budget. This small slice buys capability that spans multiple domains—maritime, land, cyber, and air. Naval amphibious capabilities, like all others in our inventory, are acquired and maintained to fight and win wars. Unlike many others, they also have the innate flexibility and capacity to be effective in humanitarian or peacetime engagement roles. While some might argue that naval warfighting capabilities are not fiscally efficient for these roles, the calculus changes when those same ships, aircraft, and Marines that deter conflict or deliver aid in the littoral can be employed eliminating terrorists, defending innocents, or rolling back aggression in a different setting.

A Proven Resource in High Demand

Today, amphibious capability is most typically deployed as an Amphibious Ready Group with an embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit, or ARG/MEU. Smaller force packages of a single ship with a special-purpose MAGTF or another task-organized Marine detachment embarked have filled various commitments in the U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Southern Command areas of responsibility. The number of amphibious operations of all types has grown significantly since 1990, to an average of over 9.1 per year. 9 The GCCs’ collective demand for ARG/MEUs and independent amphibious ships has increased by nearly 30 percent since Fiscal Year 2008 and is expected to be even greater next year. 10 Our ability to satisfy that demand has declined precipitously. Acknowledging that GCCs can register their requirements without fiscal constraint, the sum of their requests still far exceeds our ship capacity.

That demand is a reflection of the value of amphibious capabilities, not only in warfighting, but also in preventing disruptions to the global system—a fundamental tenet of CS-21 . In the past year alone, amphibious forces have been active contributors to the mission in Afghanistan, conducted anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, responded to the Japanese earthquake/tsunami, supported the NATO mission in Libya, and stood by to defend American citizens and interests during the uprisings in Bahrain.

Concurrently, they provided more conventional deterrence value—a reminder to both state and non-state aggressors that the United States has the ability to put a sustainable, combined-arms team—boots on the ground in common parlance—wherever it chooses. Cumulatively, this host of strategic engagement and deterrence explain the broad base of steady-state demand for amphibious capabilities. The GCCs well understand the deterrent effect and range of options amphibious capabilities provide.

Not Nearly As Good As We Should Be

For all their relevance and inherent value, our amphibious capabilities still fall short of what they might become. Looming austerity should move the Navy and Marine Corps to work closer than ever to arrive at “whole-of-Navy Department” solutions and investments. Significant limitations on financial investments are sure to come, but improving our amphibious capabilities is about far more than the shipbuilding plan. Our shortfalls are driven largely by a deficit in institutional intellectual focus on a set of capabilities that define our core relevance as a department. “We are out of money, it’s time to think.” 11 We need to turn the cacophony of talk into a symphony of action. A dialogue about the nation’s littoral power-projection capabilities might include:

Recognizing the security demands of the emerging environment. Neither the battles of Midway nor Tarawa is a suitable operational construct for our future capability development. If amphibious ships are targets, then so too are our even larger ones. If anti-access technologies threaten our sea-dominance at ever-expanding ranges, then we should learn to work without the presumption of dominance. National security or the lives of innocents may force us to operate well within threat envelopes. If naval tactics in the littoral power-projection arena require focused choreography of movement, we cannot afford to lunge around like a bunch of dancing bears.

Recognizing that littoral power projection is an all-of-naval-force mission. While we have treated carriers, surface, sub-surface, amphibious, and MAGTF resources as stove-piped capabilities (each with their own portion of the maritime domain), their close integration will be indispensible in achieving our national objectives in a regional anti-access environment. Every functional pillar of the Navy will be enlisted in this fight. In a challenging littoral, the nation’s power-projection force must be able to deliver a series of coordinated blows (from precision fires to amphibious raids) from the sea.

Taking on more fully the challenges posed by joint-force maritime-component command (JFMCC) responsibilities. The maritime domain includes the littorals, which in turn have a landward element. Thus, the functional component construct may require the maritime component commander to “own” battle space ashore without deference to a separate land-component commander. Amphibious operations are some of the most complex in the panoply of military options, and we need to refine naval command-and-control methodologies for amphibious capabilities larger than the MEU/ARG. The Expeditionary Strike Group concept showed initial promise in this area but has “failed to launch.” Ad hoc command-and-control relationships will serve as a debilitating obstacle if we are responding to crisis.

Forming a naval amphibious warfare center of excellence. There have been fits and starts toward this end, but a true center of excellence will need to be a focused institution to which both the Navy and Marine Corps are willing to send their best personnel and demand the best output. Existing commands such as the Expeditionary Warfare Training Groups may serve as the near-term nuclei for an enduring reservoir of advocacy for the study of our littoral power-projection capabilities.

Leveraging the newly established Naval Board to make real progress guided by our senior naval service leaders. The relationship between the Navy and Marine Corps depends on a high level of communication and collaboration. Their contribution to joint-force victory in our nation’s wars should be one of bringing more to the fight than the sum of their parts. Difficult organizational relationships should not simply be hashed and rehashed at the lower staff level.

Treating our amphibious ships like the warships they are, rather than mere transports. We must ensure amphibious ships are included in our investments in communications, intelligence, precision navigation, and shipboard self-defense systems. Antiship cruise missile and fast inshore attack craft defense in the littoral is a true knife fight; self-defense systems for amphibious shipping should be a clear priority. As our amphibious fleet will be required to draw the closest to unfriendly coastlines and lethal enemies, precision navigation for amphibious shipping and support boats is a must. Compatibility between amphibious ships and MAGTF command and control must be seamless.

Ceasing internecine warfare. Competition for resources is sometimes more fierce inside the family than among families. Programmatic competition might be a fact of life inside the Beltway, but it cannot stand in the way of gaining real traction on a true Navy-Marine Corps partnership on the waterfront.

Backing our words with training. This requires fully embracing truly “naval” amphibious capability as a primary warfare competency, not a specialty. This will demand training and education from the flag- and general-officer level to our junior non-commissioned leaders. It might include advanced JFMCC training, or an advanced littoral-operations course.

Developing a long-term commitment of exercises and experimentation to help work through issues of operational excellence. The series of Rim of the Pacific, Bold Alligator, Dawn Blitz, and other Fleet exercises should test our ability to integrate capabilities.

Still Without Peer

Amphibious capabilities have never been more comprehensively relevant than they are today. Although other nations are eagerly seeking it, we currently have no peer in this warfare capability. This asymmetric advantage for the nation—useful across a range of military operations—is particularly relevant to the security environment. The options it offers commanders are vital given today’s threats and uncertainties.

The challenge of amphibious operations in the modern littorals, however, demands the integration of all pillars of naval capability. In a resource-constrained investment climate, what we lack in dollars must be compensated for by a windfall of ideas. It is time we turn to.

1. Johns Hopkins University, unpublished USMC Amphibious Requirements Study , September 2011.

2. See ADM J. W. Greenert, U.S. Navy., “CNO’s Sailing Directions,” (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, 23 September 2011), pp. 1–3, and GEN J. F. Amos, U.S. Marine Corps, “Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense: The Role of the United States Marine Corps,” (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 12 September 2011), pp. 1–2.

3. GEN James T. Conway, U.S. Marine Corps, ADM Gary Roughead, U.S. Navy, and ADM Thad W. Allen, U.S. Coast Guard, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower , (Washington, DC: U.S. Government, October 2007).

4. GEN James T. Conway, U.S. Marine Corps, ADM Gary Roughead, U.S. Navy, and ADM Thad W. Allen, U.S. Coast Guard, Naval Operations Concept 2010 ( NOC ), (Washington, DC: U.S. Government, June 2010), pp. 1–81.

5. NOC , Table 1, p. 92.

6. NOC , p. 51.

7. GEN J. F. Amos, U.S. Marine Corps, “Briefing to the IDGA Amphibious Operations Summit,” 27 July 2011.

8. Attributed to RADM Grace Hopper, U.S. Navy (Retired).

9. Johns Hopkins University, unpublished, USMC Amphibious Requirements Study , September 2011.

10. Derived from U.S. Fleet Forces Global Force Management data.

11. Attributed to Lord Rutherford, Nobel Prize–winning chemist, 1908.

Captain Howard is a former commanding officer of the USS Bataan and is now assigned to U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

Colonel Groen is a former battalion commander now assigned to the Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration. Both are members of the Amphibious Capabilities Working Group.



Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting

Wed, 2014-04-16

U.S. Naval Institute members and supporters are cordially invited to attend the 2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting...

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

View All

From the Press

Award Presentation

Sat, 2014-04-26

"Wrecks, Rescues, and Mysteries: Air and Sea Disasters"

Sat, 2014-04-26

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