- - Monday, July 9, 2018


There will never be another amphibious landing. That piece of conventional wisdom was prevalent at the end of World War I in the wake of the debacle at Gallipoli where an Allied amphibious landing was disastrously repulsed by the Ottoman Turks. Two decades later, Allied troops were making war winning amphibious landings in Europe, North Africa and the Western Pacific.

However, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan ending World War II, the conventional wisdom of new military experts was again that amphibious operations were obsolete. Five years later, Marines were storming ashore at Inchon to disrupt the North Korean invasion of it southern neighbor. Today, the efficacy of amphibious operations is again being questioned in a study on military roles and missions by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).

It is a good idea for a nation to periodically review its force structure and doctrine. If the French had done so between the two world wars, they might have avoided of being overrun by the Germans in 1940. One of the proposals in the SASC study is to drop amphibious operations as a core constituency of the Marine Corps and substitute it with low intensity operations such as counterinsurgency and other nation building activities.

The theory here is essentially that advanced access denial systems such as the Chinese are developing has made large-scale amphibious operations impossible. This was the same argument made in 1918 regarding coastal artillery and in 1945 in the wake of the development of atomic weapons. It is true that much money could be recapitalized by not building more amphibious ships and mothballing the ones we have. But before that conclusion is reached, the study group needs to look at what would be lost.

I would be willing to bet a substantial amount of my retired paycheck for the next year that the SASC study group will find that amphibious ships have been the vessels most used in actual operational missions — vice training exercises and port visits — than any ships in the Navy since the Vietnam war.

In evacuations of civilians, humanitarian operations and emergency military interventions, amphibious ships have been active at least once a year and often more since the evacuation of South Vietnam in 1975. The 1983 evacuation of Palestinians from Lebanon has been followed by at least three such operations in Somalia alone as well as evacuations in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Libya and the Philippines in the wake of the Mount Pinatubo eruption.

Amphibious ships have been absolutely vital to major humanitarian operations in Somalia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and a host of other smaller operations. Less frequent, military interventions in Grenada, Panama, Cambodia, Lebanon and — again — Somalia would not have been possible without amphibious forces.

The study group will likely also find that rather than too many, the U.S. Navy does not have enough amphibious ships to meet demand. The potential for post-Benghazi emergency response situations has forced the Marine Corps to position quick reaction forces ashore in places like Italy and Spain to react to fast-moving threat situations in the Mediterranean basin.

The rationale for studying the possible elimination of amphibious ships is to replace them with smaller aircraft carriers because large carriers put too many aircraft on one platform. I agree that putting too many eggs in one basket is bad tactics, but we should explore alternatives to replacing amphibious ships with carriers. First, carriers are more expensive than amphibs. Second, there are alternatives. Jump-jet technology allows us to spread combat aircraft over a wide range of shipping — to include converted oil tankers — which are virtually unsinkable.

I would encourage the SASC study group to keep its mind open. In an era when our potential opponents, Russia and China, are expanding their amphibious capability, we need to seriously ask if eliminating ours is a wise option.

Military reform can do wonders when it works, but be disastrous if it goes wrong. That was the case with Israel after the 1967 Six Days War. The Israelis decided that tanks and air power were the future of warfare and drastically reduced infantry and artillery. In 1973, the Arab armies came up with Soviet-supplied anti-armor and anti-air systems, and the result was a costly surprise for the Israelis. The Israelis then had to reinvent combined arms operation on the fly. A capability once surrendered is hard — and costly — to get back.

• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who was the chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.

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