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Summary Article: Warfare, Amphibious
From Encyclopedia of Military Science

Amphibious warfare involves military operations that are launched from the sea by an amphibious force embarked in ships or craft. The primary purpose of these operations is the introduction of a landing force ashore. This landing force can be offensive, defensive, or humanitarian in nature. The ultimate goal of amphibious warfare is to contribute substantially to the attainment of those national strategic objectives that require the ability to project combat power onto a landmass from the sea. Modern major amphibious operations are complex and require extensive specialized sea- and air-based logistical support. As such, they can be undertaken and sustained only by nations with well-developed land and sea combat capabilities.

Historical Background and Development of American Doctrine

Projecting combat power ashore has been a part of military and naval operations since antiquity. Some historical examples of landing operations include Greek landings against the Persians at Mycale in September 479 BCE; the Norman invasion of England in 1066; the Japanese invasion of Korea during the 16th century; the British and French attempts to land at Gallipoli in what is now Turkey between February and December 1915; numerous American landings in the South, Southwest, Central, and Western Pacific, 1942–1945; and the amphibious demonstrations and rehearsals leading up to the opening of the ground war in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, in January and February 1991. Military leaders exercising overall command of both land and sea forces undertook the earliest of these actions. Dividing the command of the naval and landing forces between admirals and generals, respectively, an innovation introduced in modern times, created many planning and force coordination problems that proved very difficult to solve. One of the most significant aspects of the history of modern amphibious warfare, therefore, is how military leaders analyzed these problems and eventually overcame them.

Three nations, in particular, developed solutions for the problems associated with landing operations by the beginning of World War II. The British failed to maintain an amphibious capability during the 1920s and 1930s. This failure was due to several reasons. First, they were stung by their failure at Gallipoli. Second, they viewed amphibious operations to be of doubtful importance in any war that could be foreseen. Third, they were financially hamstrung during the interwar period. The impetus of World War II finally made them look at landing operations seriously in 1940. By that time, however, they were far behind both the Japanese and the Americans and had to play rapid catch-up. The doctrine they developed placed great emphasis on surprise, landing troops where the enemy's defenses were weakest or, preferably, nonexistent.

The Japanese, on the other hand, viewed amphibious landing capability to be of the utmost importance, especially in a war with the United States. Such a war seemed more and more inevitable as the years passed. To prepare for it, they developed during the 1920s and 1930s a doctrine of amphibious assault that emphasized landing troops in the teeth of an enemy's defenses. The Japanese army took the lead in developing this doctrine. The Imperial Navy contributed to the development of naval gunfire support, the movement of troops from ships to the shore, and other areas of a purely naval nature, but it was the army that dominated the process.

The United States, like Japan, undertook during the interwar period the development of a doctrine for moving troops ashore against determined opposition. Unlike Japan, however, the two American sea services, the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps, were principally responsible for this development. In 1934, the Marine Corps Schools (MCS) were given the task of writing doctrine for the type of war envisioned by War Plan Orange, the American plan for a war against Japan. The Americans decided to study closely the British and French failure in the Dardanelles. The problem at Gallipoli, to their minds, was not in the concept of assaulting a defended beach but in the lack on the part of the British and French of a doctrine for doing so. Taking action based on this conclusion, the Marine Corps Schools stopped holding classes for several weeks beginning in November 1933 to develop a set of effective guidelines.

The instructors and students of MCS eventually completed the Tentative Landing Operations Manual in 1935. The navy adopted the manual 3 years later, retitling it Fleet Training Publication [FTP] 167: Landing Operations Doctrine, U.S. Navy 1938 and giving it wide distribution within both of the sea services. This document, with modifications, provided the foundation for navy and Marine Corps amphibious operations from the landings at Guadalcanal in August 1942 to those at Okinawa in April 1945. It broke landing operations down into six components:

  1. Command relations within the amphibious task force

  2. Naval gunfire support of landings

  3. Air support of landings

  4. The movement of troops from transport ships to the shore

  5. The securing of the beachhead once the troops had landed

  6. The logistical support of the operation

At the heart of this doctrine was an emphasis on meticulous planning and diligent training.

The U.S. Army adopted FTP 167 in 1941, putting it in army covers and retitling it Field Manual 31-5: Landing Operations on Hostile Shores. In Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower oversaw an amalgamation of British and American doctrine, ultimately producing the plan for the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. This plan, relative to FTP 167, placed too much emphasis on air support and did not allow for enough naval gunfire support of the landings. In the Southwest Pacific, because of the size of many of the islands in that area, Douglas MacArthur did not have to land troops in the teeth of Japanese defenses as often as was necessary in the Central Pacific. Also, landings in the Southwest Pacific had to take place within range of Japanese land-based air power, a situation that was very dangerous for the supporting naval assets. MacArthur's amphibious commanders, therefore, developed a doctrine that emphasized putting troops ashore quickly where the Japanese were weak or not present and then withdrawing the majority of supporting ships from the area. The best examples of these types of landings were the operations undertaken as MacArthur's forces made their way along the northern coast of New Guinea from January 1943 until December 1944.

The U.S. Army's modifications in Europe and the Southwest Pacific of the basic doctrine contained in FTP 167, it has been argued, constituted the creation of two additional doctrinal traditions. The basis for all three, however, was the sixfold division of landing operations that had been developed during the 1930s. Lessons learned during World War II were incorporated into this basic doctrine, the one promulgated as FTP 167, and the improved version provided guidance for U.S. landings at Inchon in September 1950, Lebanon in July 1958, Da Nang in March 1965, and all along the coast of South Vietnam during the balance of the Vietnam War. By the late 1970s, however, weapons technology had developed to the point where the landing of troops in the teeth of an enemy's defenses seemed problematic at best. The British experience in the Falklands in 1982 showed just how lethal some of these new weapons could be. A new doctrine was called for.

American assault troops in a landing craft huddle behind the protective front of the craft as it nears a beachhead on the northern coast of France. Smoke in the background is naval gunfire supporting the landing (June 6, 1944).

Modern American Doctrine

The two most significant modifications of the old doctrine occurred during the 1990s and early 2000s. They are evidence of the growing importance of littoral operations in the minds of American naval planners after the end of the Cold War. The littoral is the area from the open ocean to the shore as well as the area inland from the shore that can be supported and defended directly from the sea. The conflicts of the post–Cold War world appeared to require a different naval emphasis than did the Blue Water world of the United States versus the USSR, and thinking had to evolve accordingly.

The first modification was introduced in three U.S. Navy and Marine Corps publications: From the Sea, Forward… From the Sea, and Operational Maneuver From the Sea (OMFTS). The most substantial change presented in these publications was the idea that establishing a beachhead was unnecessary. The power to move the landing force beyond the shore would be developed from the transporting ships themselves. The troops did not have to collect supplies and gather strength on a beach in order to then proceed inland. Movement from ships to points of enemy strength beyond the shore would be seamless, rapid, and violent. Also, the transporting ships would launch the operation from over the horizon, staying as far away from an enemy's defensive guns and missiles as possible. New technologies such as the Landing Craft, Air Cushion, and the V-22 Osprey would allow this doctrine to be implemented. The second significant modification of the 1940s-era doctrine was the incorporation of amphibious capability within the concept of joint operations. This recasting of amphibious warfare doctrine is promulgated in Joint Publication 3-02: Joint Doctrine for Amphibious Operations. One can still discern remnants of FTP 167 in the new document, but the level of services integration called for in JP 3-02 stands in marked contrast to that foreseen and allowed for in 1938, as does JP 3-02 's emphasis on nonmilitary uses of amphibious assets.

The build-up of Omaha Beach: Reinforcements of men and equipment moving inland.

The doctrine put forward in JP 3-02 can be described succinctly. The principal phases of an amphibious operation are planning, embarkation, rehearsal, movement, and action. The purpose of an amphibious operation will vary depending on the mission that it must accomplish. It can be used to strike swiftly at an enemy's critical vulnerabilities and decisive points, thereby defeating operational and tactical centers of gravity and achieving overall campaign objectives on its own. It can also be used as the first phase of a campaign or major operation, establishing a military lodgment ashore that can then serve to support further action against an enemy. Amphibious forces can also be used to deny the use of an area or of particular facilities to an enemy or to divert enemy attention from the main effort of a campaign. Finally, amphibious forces can be used to support Military Operations Other Than War in order to accomplish such missions as the deterrence of war, the resolution of conflict, the promotion of peace and stability, or the support of civil authorities during severe domestic crises.

The new doctrine recognizes four key characteristics of modern amphibious operations. First, there must be a close integration between the navy and the landing force. Second, combat power must be rapidly built up from the sea to the shore. This characteristic takes into account the concept of operational maneuver from the sea. Third, amphibious forces must be organized according to the mission to be carried out. Organizational decisions must be made early on. No time can be wasted once an amphibious task force arrives at the point of insertion. Fourth, there must be an exceptional degree of unity of effort and operational coherence. The highly complex nature of amphibious operations and the extreme vulnerability of the forces engaged in putting a landing force ashore call for rapid deployment and rapid exploitation. Everyone must work together to complete the mission with dispatch. The result of this combination of key characteristics is rapid movement ashore with enough combat power to maintain the speed of operations well inland.

Though there have been numerous examples of landings from the sea since World War II, no nation has been involved in a conflict that has required the full implementation of amphibious warfare doctrine since the Korean War of 1950–1953. The United States used the threat of a full-scale amphibious landing during the 1991 Persian Gulf War to distract and confuse Saddam Hussein's commanders in Kuwait and Iraq, but that landing did not occur, and U.S. Marines were used in that conflict, as well as in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that began in 2003, as ground rather than amphibious troops. It has been in the area of Military Operations Other Than War that amphibious forces have been most active in the post–Cold War world. The United States, in particular, has been heavily involved in these type operations. U.S. naval and amphibious assets were used to provide relief in the aftermath of catastrophes such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.


In a word, modern amphibious warfare equipment and techniques are adaptable. The present American doctrine allows for both military and nonmilitary uses of amphibious assets. An amphibious task force can be used either to attack an enemy or to support a friend in time of dire need. Modern weapons of war make the types of landings undertaken during World War II unlikely in the future, but the development of amphibious operations is not limited by their connections to the past.

See also Combined Arms; Marine Corps, U.S.; Navy, U.S.; Strategy, Naval; World War II

Further Readings
  • Clifford, K. J. (1973). Progress and purpose: A developmental history of the U.S. Marine Corps. Headquarters Marine Corps Washington, DC.
  • Clifford, K. J. (1983). Amphibious warfare development in Britain & America from 1920 to 1940. Edgewood Laurens, NY.
  • Department of the Navy. (1992)…. From the sea: Preparing the naval service for the 21st century. Government Printing Office Washington, DC.
  • Department of the Navy. (1994). Forward… from the sea. Government Printing Office Washington, DC.
  • Isley, J. A.; Crowl, P. A. (1952). The U.S. Marines and amphibious war: Its theory and practice in the Pacific. W. W. Norton Princeton, NJ.
  • Lewis, A. R. (2001). Omaha Beach: A flawed victory. University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill.
  • Macleod, J. (Ed.). (2004). Gallipoli: Making history. Frank Cass London, UK. doi:10.4324/9780203489314.
  • Millett, A. R. (1991). Semper fidelis: The history of the United States Marine Corps (Rev. ed.). Free Press New York, NY.
  • U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2001). Joint publication 3-02: Joint doctrine for amphibious operations. Government Printing Office Washington, DC.
  • U.S. Marine Corps. (1997). Operational maneuver from the sea. Headquarters Marine Corps Washington, DC.
  • Vagts, A. (1952). Landing operations: Strategy, psychology, tactics, politics, from antiquity to 1945. Military Service Harrisburg, PA.
  • Donald Mitchener
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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