Amphibious warfare has existed as a pillar of western military strategy since World War II, particularly after the experience of the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) in the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific. New concepts that have emerged and are currently under development will put amphibious forces at the center of how the Western powers will meet emerging security threats not just in the grey zone under the threshold of war but in high intensity conflict as well.
Commentators have long predicted the demise of amphibious warfare with the advent of new technologies and weapons that can threaten and neutralise landing operations in the littoral, but amphibious forces have always been adaptable and remain relevant.
The recent adoption of Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) tactics and weapons by Russia and China are attempting to neutralize the threat an amphibious force presents. The introduction of long-range anti-ship missiles and sensors, unmanned systems, hypersonic missiles to add to existing air, land, surface and underwater defenses makes a largescale amphibious landing against a well-defended coastline an extremely difficult proposition.
To this extent the commentators were right, but a large-scale beach assault such as the invasion of Normandy (Operation Overlord) in France on 6 June 1944 are what many observers still associate with an amphibious attack. However, today’s amphibious forces are extremely flexible and can be utilized for a variety of missions including different kinds of assault (the Falkland Islands in 1982), raids, withdrawals, demonstrations, and actions to support to other operations. Variations of these kinds of operations have been present throughout history.
Mature military forces are changing their priorities to meet the developing geo-strategic environment by preparing for a near-peer high intensity conflict, with amphibious forces having a specific role to play in countering the A2AD threat.
In June 2018 the USMC embarked on a new amphibious warfare concept called Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). The EABO Handbook released by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, Concepts & Plans Division states that: “EABO creates a more resilient forward force posture that circumvents the efforts and obviates the investments of aspiring peer competitors employing long-range precision fires directed at dislodging U.S. forces dependent upon legacy bases, fixed infrastructure, and large targetable platforms. By enabling the persistent presence and a more resilient force posture, EABO offers the opportunity to conduct expeditionary operations to defeat an adversary’s strategy without the requirement to destroy all of his forces.”
To engage China this requires the USMC to occupy undefended islands and atolls in the Pacific and install land-based long-range sensors and weapons that can attack enemy surface and air targets. The range of these weapons will create a bubble around that island stretching hundreds of miles that would be risky for an opponent to enter.
By setting up numerous bases like these in the Western Pacific, the USMC can establish its own A2AD sphere and effectively blockade China. Not only will Chinese military forces be prevented from breaking out into the wider Pacific, but its commercial operations and trade will also be cut off. Using these islands will make a significant contribution to the US Navy’s (USN’s) efforts to establish sea control in the approaches to the Western Pacific and with this secured more significant regular forces can be brought to bear. Without these forward bases and EABO, breaking China’s A2AD barrier from the sea alone will be either impossible or extremely costly. By making amphibious forces a key facilitator towards establishing sea control and blockading the enemy, amphibious warfare has therefore become central to US military strategy.
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