In March, U.S. Fleet Forces Command and U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command completed their Exercise Bold Alligator 2012 (BA12), the largest amphibious exercise in the past decade. A mix of live and simulated forces, the exercise followed Bold Alligator 2011, executed in December 2010, which was conducted wholly with simulated forces. The commands’ staffs are now crafting an extended campaign plan to incorporate Bold Alligator exercises into annual operations and training of East Coast naval forces. So why are these exercises important, and what challenges lie ahead?
Amphibious capability has become associated primarily with assaulting defended beaches and seizing lodgments for land campaigns. However, such forces provide much broader capability to the nation than that narrow mission profile. Stripped to its essence, an amphibious capability places an intact, ready-to-operate landing force ashore and supports it from the sea to accomplish the mission.
A simple assessment of U.S. global interests and geographic position, set against a backdrop of continuing instability in the world, clearly points to the need for a U.S. amphibious capability so described. We have been fortunate to have ready access to friendly ports for our major operations over the past decades. This will not necessarily, nor even likely, be the case in the future. We may be denied these ports not only based on overt hostile action, but also by political decision, natural disaster, or lack of infrastructure. Amphibious capability brings a greater guarantee of access to a foreign shore at the time and place of our choosing.
An amphibious operation becomes a forcible-entry capability when the environment is either hostile or potentially hostile. Since the end of the Cold War, the threat was ashore. However, today’s and tomorrow’s adversaries have capabilities that extend the threat out to sea. Whether it is against conventional or irregular forces, or a combination of both—what many describe as a hybrid threat—an amphibious forcible-entry capability must be able to succeed in a hostile air-land-sea environment.
Amphibious capability is not a one-way operation from sea to shore. Amphibious forces can adjust from sea to shore and back again, depending on logistical or political factors. They can also rapidly withdraw the landing force from one point and make use of the inherent mobility afforded naval forces to move and strike elsewhere. An amphibious attack is not only an axis of attack inland, but it can operate and dominate laterally along an extended littoral area.
This has been a key characteristic of U.S. military power, from its initial ad hoc forms in the Barbary Wars, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War; through being the primary U.S. operational capability of World War II, all the way to the multitude of crisis-response actions of today. The nation will continue to need amphibious capability in the future, and it is the U.S. Navy’s and Marine Corps’ responsibility to provide it.
The Challenge: Beyond the ARG-MEU
Belying recent chatter that the Marines and Navy are returning to their amphibious roots after a decade of war on land, we have never stopped preparing and deploying amphibious forces over the past ten years. There is always an Amphibious Ready Group–Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG-MEU), trained and ready, afloat somewhere on the oceans. The ARG-MEU has proved its worth in countless crises. The naval services have nurtured this amphibious cutlass to a sharp and lethal edge. It has served us well in the past and will do so in the future.
However, the continued excellence of the ARG-MEU program does not by itself mean that the United States has an effective amphibious capability for the full range of operations. The ARG-MEU excels at forward presence, theater-security cooperation, and crisis response, but it is not sufficient for all missions, or for taking on a competent adversary of significant size and strength. The Navy and Marine Corps must provide combatant commanders with workable doctrine and trained forces to execute amphibious operations, including forcible-entry operations, larger than the ARG-MEU.
To develop this effective amphibious capability, the naval services must think and train beyond the ARG-MEU. As we have found in both 2011 and 2012, executing a large amphibious operation is not only quantitatively bigger, it is qualitatively different from an ARG-MEU operation. Lessons learned from the latter may not be relevant; some may actually be counterproductive. We must address a number of challenges in order to achieve expanded amphibious capability.
How to Expand Amphibious Capability
We must tactically integrate amphibious, sea-control, and strike capabilities. A common belief is that the air-and-sea superiority battle must be completely fought and won before ever contemplating an amphibious assault. However, that has not been the historical pattern. While the amphibious attacker has usually set the local conditions for an assault, the defender has normally not made his strongest challenge to air and sea superiority until after the actual initiation of the operation. Think of the great air and sea battles—around Guadalcanal in 1942–3, the Philippine Sea in June 1944, Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the kamikaze assaults off Okinawa in April-May 1945, and the Battle of San Carlos Sound in the 1982 Falklands campaign. In each case, the great battle for air-sea superiority around the beaches did not begin until after the amphibious force was committed to the landing area.
Before the amphibious operation commences, the attacking naval force has the natural advantage of mobility and concealment afforded by open sea. Knowing this, the defender has little incentive to uncover his weapons and sensors to risk them in a long-range strike duel. Once the assault begins, however, the amphibious task force and supporting fleet elements are constrained to a relatively defined littoral area to support the landing force. This gives the defender a much easier detection problem to solve and a host of lucrative targets in the form of the amphibious ships.
The intertwined dynamic of the air/sea-superiority fight and the amphibious assault makes it critical that these operations are tactically integrated. Operating ARG-MEUs and Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) in the same vicinity has not provided us the experience or insight on how to closely align amphibious, sea-control, and strike operations. In fact, we have developed doctrines and operating practices that do not mesh with one another. If Bold Alligator 2012 is any indicator, we have work to do to ensure that a CSG, Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG), and Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) can effectively integrate their operations in a maritime environment.
We must know how to embark and employ a larger Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) across more ships. While there are variations in each deployment, ARG-MEUs all go out with a standardized embarkation of the Marine elements. More amphibious ships and a larger MAGTF mean more capability and more options, but these advantages will only be realized if we rediscover the art of combat embarkation and amphibious ship-to-shore tactical employment. This includes all elements of the MAGTF, from aviation coordinating across multiple decks to an infantry battalion launching from multiple well-decks to land in a single wave on a single beach. Parts of the MAGTF, especially aviation, may be based ashore within range of the amphibious operation, further enhancing capability, but complicating the situation. We must break out of the ARG-MEU mold to explore the possibilities and fully take advantage of the flexibility and combat power of a larger MAGTF.
We must be able to command and control a large Amphibious Task Force (ATF). A large ATF is not simply a collection of three-ship ARGs. There is no single template for how an ESG commander employs his subordinate ships, Amphibious Squadron Command elements, and other Navy assets. Amphibious doctrine calls for very centralized control under the commander ATF in the form of a primary control officer for surface movement and a tactical air officer for all air operations. We have very little recent practical experience in knowing whether or how this doctrine will work in large task forces in light of new capabilities as well as the pervasive influence of composite warfare doctrine in the force.
We must be able to embark and employ larger command elements. A large amphibious force requires more command elements. From where do they embark and operate? Do they all need to embark? The requirements levied by these command-and-control nodes can come at a cost to combat capability of the force as well as stressing already limited bandwidth available at sea.
We must be able to simultaneously deploy, aggregate, and operate the force. A large amphibious force will not be embarked and sail from a single port, or even a single coast. Deployed ARG-MEUs and CSGs will be the first naval forces on-scene and will be task-organized to begin operating immediately. Coordinating embarkation and deployment of Continental U.S.–based forces with aggregation and initial shaping operations in-theater will be a daunting challenge for fleets and tactical amphibious command elements. Our approach to large-scale amphibious operations must account for how our amphibious forces will realistically concentrate from a dispersed strategic posture.
Role of the Military Sealift Command
We must leverage Military Sealift Command (MSC) capabilities. Current practice divides the landing force into an assault echelon on amphibious shipping and an assault follow-on echelon on MSC and other craft. We need to consider whether these categories and their impact on our thinking still make sense. BA12 featured MSC ships closing rapidly to provide support and additional MAGTF elements, even while the assault echelon was still operating from the amphibious ships. MSC ships are by no means amphibious vessels, but further integrating MSC shipping into the amphibious operation, with proper shaping and risk assessment, may provide a more powerful assault-echelon punch than can be mustered by amphibious ships alone.
We must integrate Navy expeditionary capabilities. The classic rationale for an amphibious operation is to secure a port and/or airfield complex for the introduction of follow-on forces. Another look at the historical record indicates that physically securing a port has not been as much an issue as have the challenges in getting that port operating. We only need to think of Naples in 1943, Cherbourg in 1944, and Port-au-Prince in 2010 to see the significant impact of damaged ports to sustaining operations ashore. The capabilities to execute port opening, operations, and security, or logistics over the shore may need to be prioritized for embarkation and offloading—even to the degree of having these capabilities as part of the assault echelon.
We must be able to understand and tie the amphibious operation into the broader joint campaign. On the far end of the amphibious operation, the landing always serves a further purpose. When that purpose is a lodgment ashore to allow the introduction of a larger joint force, then the plans and requirements of that joint force will drive the amphibious operation. Left to our own devices, the naval services will tend toward courses of action that maximize the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses of the amphibious force. However, the needs of the campaign, and possibly the planned concept of operations for a land component, may drive the naval force to “sub-optimize” the conditions for its amphibious phase to better support the overall campaign. The Inchon landing during the Korean War is the best example: General Douglas MacArthur’s need for the assault to occur in close proximity to Seoul overrode Navy and Marine Corps objections concerning the suitability of the area for amphibious operations.
We must be able to integrate Special Operations Forces. Amphibious operations rely heavily on good intelligence and shaping of the operating environment. Many of the required capabilities to accomplish these tasks now reside in U.S. Special Operations Command forces.
The Answer: Single Naval Battle and Aggressive Action
As the list here demonstrates, large amphibious operations are not the domain of just the “Gator Navy” and the Marines. We will need to apply CSGs, submarines, patrol aircraft, mine warfare, Navy expeditionary forces, as well as the amphibious ships, landing craft, beachmasters, and the entire inventory of MAGTF capabilities to address land-air-sea threats and accomplish the amphibious mission. In order to integrate these units into coherent operating forces, we need a common approach across the naval services. “Single naval battle” is a term that has recently emerged from the deliberations of the Marine Corps’ Amphibious Capabilities Working Group. Single naval battle is not an operating concept or a separate doctrine. It is a framework, or lens, for thinking, planning, and executing naval operations: Everything that occurs in the maritime battlespace affects everything else in that battlespace—so every aspect of Navy and Marine Corps doctrine and operations must take into account the impact across the whole naval force. This framework will facilitate developing our ideas and capabilities with integration foremost in mind.
However critical single naval battle is to bringing naval thinking into coherency, it is only a first step. To address the challenges itemized in this article requires active experimentation and training. U.S. Fleet Forces and Marine Forces Command are taking action to this end by crafting a multiyear campaign to develop and train to our capability of executing large-scale amphibious operations. This campaign will get after the “how” of large amphibious operations, and in the process ensure our forces are trained and ready.
The Combined/Joint Maritime Component Command with the Maritime Operations Center provides an actual naval command-and-control tool with which to apply single naval battle approaches in wargaming and exercises. In BA12, U.S. Fleet Forces and Marine Forces Command employed an inherently naval Combined Force Maritime Component Command (CFMCC), with equal Navy and Marine Corps staff representation, to pursue the single naval battle at the tactical and operational level of war. The CFMCC will be a centerpiece of the campaign plan.
‘Premier Annual Event’
The Bold Alligator exercise will be the premier annual event of this campaign. However, the campaign will not solely be an exercise series. It will feature experiments, professional military education, leadership seminars, and other events to truly develop and sustain this capability. This effort on the East Coast is part of a larger Navy and Marine Corps effort to revitalize the full range of our naval capabilities.
The naval services have a great deal of work to do to deliver the amphibious capability that our nation expects of us. There will always be capacity and resource limitations, and in an era of declining budgets, the naval services will not be able to field and maintain all the forces we desire. However, the challenges laid out are primarily those of doctrine, training, and education. If we fail to understand how we should execute these operations, and fail to build a generation of sailors and Marines who have been trained to do so, we will also fail in execution, regardless of whether we have more resources or not.
Colonel Ridderhof is an infantry officer and has been the Fleet Marine Officer at U.S. Fleet Forces Command since 2010.