Russia moved quickly, and in ways Ukraine and the world did not understand. On 27 February 2014, covert units occupied the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol and began a siege of Ukrainian military, political, and information spheres. In just 13 days, Russia conducted 15 port calls, 48 aircraft movements, and 10 convoys into Crimea, brought in reinforcements by sea on landing ships, and blockaded the Ukrainian Navy in its ports.1 Not one Ukrainian Navy vessel escaped. By 18 March, Russia had wrested control of key sovereign terrain from Ukraine.
Since 2014, Russia’s activities in the eastern Mediterranean and Sea of Azov have reinforced the need for NATO to have credible maritime force options. Twenty-six of NATO’s 29 members have coastlines, making the alliance an inherently littoral organization, and there is increasing recognition that maritime power is critical. As NATO considers how it should maneuver under, on, and from the sea, it also must determine how amphibious forces should contribute to its defense and deterrence.
A large amphibious task force (ATF) is an achievable and relevant capability that could significantly enhance NATO’s capacity for deterrence and crisis response. An ATF could reinforce a threatened ally or respond decisively and quickly to Russian aggression. Indeed, a NATO ATF need not be capable only of forcible entry operations—such a force also could conduct broad-scale distributed expeditionary operations in support of NATO’s overall maritime requirements. Despite a variety of amphibious forces in member nations, however, there is no available command-and-control (C2) mechanism to combine them into a credible amphibious capability.
Europe’s Amphibious Capabilities
NATO’s European nations have significant amphibious capabilities. France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom all maintain dock landing ships (LSDs) or larger L-class ships, along with landing forces. These forces generally are lighter than U.S. Marine Corps equivalents and are not designed for sustained, high-intensity kinetic operations ashore. In a crisis, however, European allies could generate two or three amphibious brigades afloat on approximately 20 amphibious ships.
Smaller navies, such as those of Portugal and Germany, maintain specialized landing forces for employment on both their own and allied amphibious platforms. Turkey and Italy are building large amphibious ships, further enhancing NATO’s amphibious posture.2
Many of NATO members’ amphibious forces also have developed long-standing partnerships that rely on interoperability to project expeditionary capabilities. The United Kingdom–Netherlands Amphibious Force, which celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2018, provides an integrated warfighting capability at the brigade level.3 Also in 2018, Italian and Spanish sailors and Marines reached their 20th year of training and exercising together as part of the Spanish–Italian Amphibious Force and the Spanish–Italian Landing Force. Spain maintains a similar long-term relationship with Portugal, regularly embarking Portugal’s Fuzilieros on board its amphibious ships.4 The nascent German Sea Battalion is cultivating an amphibious partnership with the Dutch.5 Alongside French amphibious capabilities, these bilateral amphibious task groups (ATGs) provide the core of NATO Europe’s high-end amphibious forces. The challenge is aggregating these capabilities into a coherent multinational ATF.
European allies attempted to expand cooperation in 2000 by launching the multinational European Amphibious Initiative (EAI) to provide an amphibious force to NATO and/or European Union operations.6 EAI has organized infrequent exercises and served as a mechanism for amphibious collaboration, but it has had difficulty making substantive progress toward integrated operations.7 Moreover, the United States was not included as a participant. Contemporary political optics in the European Union about seeking greater strategic autonomy aside, there still is widespread recognition that U.S. leadership is essential for sustaining European security.8
In 2016, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa (MarForEur/AF) established the Amphibious Leaders Expeditionary Symposium (ALES) as a forum for amphibious general and flag officers to discuss opportunities to improve interoperability, C2, and use of amphibious forces by NATO. Over a series of seminars and war games in 2017–18, ALES highlighted specific maritime and amphibious challenges, explored alternative C2 constructs, and identified a tentative C2 structure for an allied ATF.
The first C2-related ALES event was a tabletop exercise that examined the current maritime C2 structure for amphibious forces. More than 30 allied general and flag officers participated, and they concluded NATO’s existing maritime organizations would be challenged to provide C2 in a major joint operation–plus (MJO+).
The second event centered on options for C2 of a large, multinational ATF. Participants examined current doctrinal C2 concepts in the context of recent operational experience and the emerging threat environment. Acknowledging that no single C2 structure is perfect, they concluded that combining multiple ATGs—particularly for an MJO+—would require an intermediate C2 level between the combined force maritime component commander (CFMCC) and the individual ATGs. This intermediate C2 would facilitate direction and coordination of the amphibious force, enabling the CFMCC’s staff to concentrate on employing multiple task forces in the broader maritime campaign. Among the C2 options available, the “centralized ATF” structure was chosen for further evaluation. (See Figure 1.)
The most recent ALES event, held in June 2018, examined the utility of the centralized ATF construct in an MJO+ war game against a near-peer competitor. The war game focused on decision-making at the ATF and ATG levels, with an ATF led by two key players: a commander, amphibious task force (CATF), and a commander, landing force (CLF), each with a staff of general and flag officers. Also participating were four subordinate amphibious task and landing groups that reported to the CATF and CLF, respectively.
The war game posed a series of challenges intended to stress the C2, including how the CATF or CLF could dynamically reassign assets among subordinate ATGs while ensuring these integral formations were employed commensurate with their national or multinational capabilities and caveats. At the game’s conclusion, the leaders endorsed the centralized ATF because it enabled the flexible exercise of C2.
There is an emerging consensus among ALES participants that the centralized ATF is an appropriate baseline C2 for large-scale amphibious operations, but additional work remains to operationalize its concepts. Critically, ALES has transitioned to NATO Allied Maritime Command (MarCom), which will promote more deliberate operationalization of ALES objectives into NATO exercises and doctrine, but there remain at least four key areas for future work by NATO’s broader amphibious community: refine the C2 construct, expand interoperability through exercises, emphasize readiness, and include amphibious forces in contingency planning.
Refine the C2 construct. Given the multiple ATGs in NATO today, creating the framework for a centralized NATO ATF Headquarters under the CATF and CLF would be achievable at relatively low cost and would be the next step toward employing the aggregate fighting capacity of NATO’s available amphibious forces. One option would be to source the CATF and CLF around a lead nation.
Several nations could field a CATF and staff in the near term, given their existing experience with employing amphibious forces; France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States all have one- or two-star commands that likely are capable of this level of C2. The U.S. Navy’s Expeditionary Strike Group Two presents a promising opportunity, particularly since assignment as a NATO CATF would build on lessons learned during Trident Juncture 2018.
NATO likely would require the 2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade or the II Marine Expeditionary Force initially to serve as the CLF, as they may be the only standing Marine commands with the experience and proficiency to provide C2 over multiple landing forces simultaneously. This implies that the United States would retain assignment of NATO CLF responsibilities until other allies develop the requisite capacity.
Expand interoperability through exercises. Participation in an MJO+ likely would require greater flexibility from all components of the ATF, including the ability to rapidly reconfigure task elements or force groupings outside traditional national or bilateral lines. The CATF and CLF must control forces that are sufficiently interoperable to allow them to move elements across the ATF and retain their operational effectiveness. Currently, it is not clear that NATO’s naval platforms are sufficiently interoperable to provide a satisfactory level of consistency across an ATF. Moreover, technical interoperability, such as tactical communication links (ship-to-ship and among landing forces), need exercising under MJO+ conditions.
Myriad amphibious exercises already are conducted regularly in Europe and North America. National forces do not have the resources to invest in yet another engagement to organize an ATF. In 2018, for example, there were national-level amphibious exercises in France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Only Trident Juncture 18 presented an opportunity for aggregation, but participating forces were not poised to operate as a coherent ATF. MarCom has started an effort to cohere these activities under the renamed NATO ALES (NALES); nations must be willing to support this effort to sustain the momentum and make progress toward real aggregate capability.
Emphasize readiness. Options would be increased by including amphibious forces in the alliance’s regular activities and by giving them prominence in the NATO Response Force (NRF). Specifically, an ATF could be made available to the NRF within 30 days’ notice to move.9 NATO’s Readiness Initiative, announced in the Brussels Summit Declaration, includes a commitment from member nations to maintain 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 major naval combatant vessels ready for use within 30 days.10 Amphibious forces, typically employed as first responders, should contribute to the Readiness Initiative or other readiness-enhancing efforts ongoing in NATO, such as revisions to the Standing Naval Forces concept.
Include amphibious forces in contingency plans and emerging concepts. Given their geographic and functional flexibility, allied amphibious forces could be used to project light and medium maneuver forces in an array of scenarios, from Arctic operations to actions to counter instability emanating from the Middle East or North Africa. Amphibious forces can function as a dynamic reserve in any NATO graduated response plan. Success will depend not only on C2 and readiness, but also on the ability to develop innovative operational concepts that address the modern antiaccess/area-denial (A2AD) threat. A2AD capabilities introduce new challenges for the employment of amphibious forces, but they are not a force field. NATO and national planners must not assume away the strategic effects that amphibious forces can provide.11
Generating a large-scale ATF does not mean NATO is returning to a Cold War–era operating model. Emerging concepts such as the United Kingdom’s littoral maneuver or the United States’ Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations all espouse the role amphibious forces can play in a distributed maritime environment.12 Effective amphibious C2 supports operating models necessary for a 21st-century multidomain fight; enabling an ATF and its commensurate C2 for NATO must not be seen as meeting a need to conduct yesterday’s amphibious assaults. Rather, this is an effort to facilitate the alliance’s capacity to employ in aggregate both the large L-class ships of today’s navies and a multitude of task-oriented littoral platforms called for in future concepts.13
More Work Ahead
A large-scale, multinational ATF that can respond rapidly and decisively would give the Supreme Allied Commander Europe an instrument of action unrivaled by adversaries and relevant across warfighting dimensions. Fortunately, national amphibious forces in NATO already are present in a state of high readiness, and many allies have achieved considerable interoperability through long-standing bilateral relationships. What NATO lacks is the structure and mechanism necessary to provide C2 over multiple ATGs simultaneously.
ALES began a program focused on the C2 of an ATF-level amphibious capability, but more work must be done. MarCom will need considerable assistance from allies with amphibious capabilities to maintain momentum. The future requires refining the ATF construct, testing it in large-scale NATO-sponsored exercises, increasing operational and tactical interoperability, and writing amphibious forces into NATO operations, plans, and activities. It will not require vast sums of money to rebuild this atrophied capability. Rather, the alliance must better employ the ready and capable forces nations already have. The benefits would greatly exceed the costs.
NATO should not simply aspire to a multinational ATF; it must establish one.
The authors wish to thank Aaron Daviet, MarForEur/AF’s political advisor; Professor David Yost from the Naval Postgraduate School; and Gene Germanovich and J. D. Williams from the RAND Corporation for their contributions to this article.
1. Anton Lavrov, “Russian Again. The Military Operation for Crimea,” in Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov, eds, Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: East View Press, 2015), 157–81.
2. Presidency of the Republic of Turkey, “Multi-Purpose Amphibious Assault Ship.”
3. Joseph C. Musto, The Fighting Instructions BRd 4487 Vol 2.2, Amphibious Warfare (Fareham, UK: Royal Navy, 2014), C-2.
4. “SILF: Spanish-Italian Landing Force,” Global Security, 11 July 2011; and “The Spanish Navy Kick-starts the Amphibious Exercise GRUFLEX 61,” 14 November 2016, .
5. Lars Hoffman, “German Armed Forces to Integrate Sea Battalion into Dutch Navy,” Defense One, 4 February 2016.
6. European Amphibious Initiative, “Declaration of Intention Regarding the European Amphibious Initiative,” 8 May 2015.
7. LCOL Gregory DeMarco and Gene Germanovich, “The Hidden Potential of NATO's Gator Navies,” Defense One, 17 March 2017; Italian Ministry of Defense, “Exercise ERMO 2016 Concludes. Enhancing Synergy and Interoperability for the European Amphibious Capability,” 14 October 2016.
8. Joyce P. Kaufman, “The U.S. Perspective on NATO under Trump: Lessons of the Past and Prospects for the Future,” International Affairs 93, no 2 (2017): 252.
9. NATO has taken steps to address readiness and NRF composition within the alliance, including increasing amphibious capabilities at much faster readiness levels.
10. Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, “NATO Command Structure Adaptation: The Way Ahead,” North Atlantic Council, “Brussels Summit Declaration,” 30 August 2018.” See also Sam LaGrone, “Navy Reestablishes U.S. 2nd Fleet to Face Russian Threat; Plan Calls for 250 Person Command in Norfolk,” USNI News, 4 May 2018.
11. Grant Newsham, “Exploiting Amphibious Operations to Counter Chinese A2/AD Capabilities,” Center for a New American Security, 13 June 2016; and Megan Eckstein, “Marines Begin Wargaming ‘Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment,’” USNI News, 25 April 2017.
12. See Richard Beedall, “Is There a Case to Be Made for Small Carriers?” UK Defence Journal (3 May 2018).
13. See John Berry, “Forward to a New Naval Future,” Marine Corps Gazette, February 2019, 8–15.