Army theory and naval practice seldom meet in amphibious operations*

*Moderators Note: This post is extracted from an article published in the ‘Views and Opinions’ section of Canadian Military Journal (Summer 2007): 79-80.  You can read the original article here.

The idea of acquiring large amphibious ships for the Canadian military is based on the assumption that only a ship of the ‘correct’ size is acceptable.  This calculus is driven by the army’s notion of what comprises a tactically ‘useful’ landing force and that drives their assessment of the capacity required to deliver it over the beach.  Because the Canadian navy has never had its own marines or naval infantry, much less operated even occasionally with marines or naval infantry of other countries, the concept of amphibious power projection from the sea to the land is based on a very limited experience with the Canadian army during the Second World War; Operation Neptune in June 1944.

A fairly typical example of this type of ‘army thinking’ was Major Les Marder’s article from Canadian Military Journal, entitled “Reviving the Princes: Some Thoughts on a Canadian Standing Contingency Task Force,” (Summer, 2006).  Marder used the idea of a ship employed by the RCN at Juno Beach as the ‘hook’ to open the idea of recreating an amphibious capability for Canada.  But, he did not carefully study the case of the Prince-class medium infantry landing ships (LSI[M]s), and so missed their operational significance and the historical lessons to be derived from them.

Marder’s army-centric logic was based on the lift required for “a battalion-sized landing force that is equipped with: some armoured fighting vehicles; 17 medium or 9 to 12 heavy transport helicopters; six attack helicopters; and six landing craft.”  He showed that such a force could only be accommodated by one of the largest and most expensive of modern amphibious ships.  He described the resultant force as “a robust and reasonable capability to conduct a Canadian-only Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO), or to contribute effectively to a large coalition operations.”   The author hinted darkly “… minimalist approaches to meeting the requirement” are simplistic, and could lead to a “limited operational capability.” So, the author’s implied deduction was that unless the army can get its basic tactical building block into the space provided, the whole concept of amphibious operations is invalidated by a failure to conform to army requirements.

I wrote a rebuttal to Major Mader’s article that drew on the same historical example he used to show that the ideal tactical configuration (at least from an army perspective) is almost never achieved in amphibious warfare.  (For more on why naval doctrine changes very little over time, see Topic #9, “Canadian Naval Doctrine.”) Here is most of what I wrote: First, some civilian vessels are suited for conversion to military purposes, but the best and least expensive conversions are those that most closely match the vessel’s original purpose.  The RCN’s first inclination was to covert the three Prince-class coastal passenger liners to auxiliary warships.  Even after their utility as armed merchant cruisers had proven to be very limited, one ship was retained for a second very expensive conversion to another type of questionable warship – an auxiliary anti-aircraft cruiser – rather than creating a joint capability for which there was a pressing need.  In that era, service ambitions overrode joint requirements, a condition that must not be allowed to occur today.  Conversion of merchant vessels is a viable option to achieving an amphibious capability, and their characteristics do not need to approximate theoretical ideals for them to be very useful.

Second, the LSI[M]s demonstrated how their intended use in an amphibious assault, where enemy opposition was anticipated to be strong enough to imperil the success of the operation, dictated the composition of the landing force.  In all cases, the embarked force was considerably smaller than the theoretical capacity the ship permitted.  The combination of a myriad of operational and tactical factors produced a joint perspective that reduced the importance of the volumetric requirements of the landing force to third place behind the naval characteristics of the ships that made them optimal for landing operations – speedy transit, manoeuvrability, and rapid disembarkation – and competing demands for landing craft – fire support coordination, obstacle clearance, and landing higher priority units.  These factors are still true today, which is why marine forces around the world do not resemble their army equivalents.

Third, despite their relative smallness, the two landing ship ‘Princes’ were employed extensively as strategic lift assets.  Their speed, flexibility, and simple mode of operation made them highly useful in a variety of ways and on a number of occasions other than their specific tactical task – ‘amphibious assault’.  … For an ‘amphibious landing’ into enemy-held territory, where opposing forces are not anticipated to be strong, or where it is hoped they may be avoided, the emphasis should still be placed upon the naval characteristics of the landing ships, rather than upon the volumetric requirements of the landing force.  This is particularly true if the speed of the vessel or its efficiency in disembarkation (or both) is expected to be key to achieving the necessary criteria for success.  Again, the landing force will be required to modify itself to achieve the most effective organization possible within the volumetric capacities provided.  In the case of an ‘administrative landing’ into friendly territory, the tactical situation does not demand a wholly capable landing force, and the loading of the vessel will be dictated by volumetric efficiency, and not by the order of deployment desired by the commander of the ground forces.  There is no such thing as “robust administrative delivery.”

History shows that joint priorities will vary depending upon circumstances, and the compromise necessary will lead to altered circumstances that do not satisfy all planning requirements.  These types of operational logistics considerations represent only some of the complicating factors that exist in expeditionary joint warfare, and they number among the reasons why amphibious operations are some of the most challenging of all military endeavours.  The type of administrative neatness and completeness suggested by Marder has never been attained in the real world. … A move into amphibious operations will be a major change in direction of CF policy, one that has not been seen in Canada in over half a century.  Such a development will require dramatic force structure reorganization and a new flexibility of thought by both the navy and the army.