Littoral Combat Clip

The U.S. military needs to prepare for more operations along the world's coastlines.

Gregory N. Juday/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Gregory N. Juday/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

The United States may be winding up over a decade of war, but the military is facing significant challenges — in no small part because it is expected to prepare for a wider range of contingencies at a time of shrinking budgets. Among other things, the Department of Defense’s 2012 report, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, asserts that the U.S. military must strengthen its power-projection capabilities to assure access to contested regions and unfettered freedom of movement.

Protecting such freedom of movement has been a near-constant mission of naval forces since strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan first defined the "wide commons" in the late 19th century. But, confronted with such an ambitious task, it may be useful to conceive of the wide commons more narrowly. Consider that an increasing majority of the world’s population, more than 80 percent at last count, resides within the littorals — that narrow strip of coastline that rings the world’s continents. Increasingly, this is where the world’s transactions and interactions occur. This concentration of people, political power, and economic dynamism means that the littorals are where the world’s future crises will take place.

Since World War II, the United States has sought to avoid the tragedy of war. There has been a continual effort to find technological solutions to deter our adversaries (nuclear weapons) or to fight a "clean" war (precision strike). Yet the nation has repeatedly called on its Marine Corps to protect its citizens and interests. In particular, the demand for amphibious forces to engage forward and respond to crises has risen dramatically since the end of the Cold War. The critical employment of these forces in uncertain and austere environments where access is challenged is exemplified by the more than 50 amphibious operations that have taken place since Sept. 11, 2001.

Ongoing budget constraints and force reductions will test the ability of all the military services to meet today’s missions while preparing for tomorrow’s threats. As access to the littorals is further complicated, expeditionary naval forces must be able to respond with what is immediately within reach and available — "come as you are." And that in turn means that the Marine Corps — which, among other things, specializes in projecting power in coastal areas — is going to be increasingly central to U.S. national security. But it must adapt to the new environment.


The United States has entered an expeditionary era, one in which it does not enjoy ready access to overseas bases in the regions where conflict is most likely to occur or unchallenged access to all regions — not unlike when the nation first began trading globally and lacked the capability to adequately protect its foreign trade. The United States remains a global power, but it now competes in a world where many regional powers, nation-states, criminals, and extremists are expanding their influence. This challenge requires Marines to engage forward and build partners, create access where adversaries challenge us, and protect U.S. interests and citizens when necessary.

Today, new threats emerging in the littorals include piracy, area-denial weapons, and competition among populations for scarce resources, to name only a few. The littorals are where the action will be in the coming years — indeed, they will only become more important as the global flow of commerce increases. Specifically, a handful of strategic maritime chokepoints scattered across the world’s littorals must remain free and open to all commerce. For example, consider what impact closing the Suez would have on the world’s economy when the shipping of two to three million barrels of oil was interrupted or trade from Asia was delayed from reaching the Mediterranean.

These chokepoints represent the archipelago of action for American naval forces:

  • The Malacca Straits are arguably the most important chokepoint in the world. Located midway between Australia and India and bisecting the Malay Peninsula and the island country of Indonesia, the straits are a 500-mile-long narrow body of water that directly links the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Described as the "Fulda Gap" of the 21st Century, its geographic and strategic significance has drawn the attention of India, China, Japan, and the United States. Tanker traffic in the straits is expected to increase by 50 percent by 2020. The threat posed by non-state terrorist groups and pirates has increased in recent years. Regional states like Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have increased naval patrols, which have stymied the piracy surge. This "triad" of littoral states, however, has asserted it is solely responsible for security in the Malacca Strait, making it difficult for other nations to assure safe passage.
  • Approximately 35 percent of all oil traded by sea transits the Persian Gulf via a maritime chokepoint: the Strait of Hormuz. Recent Iranian statements and activities across the region threatening harassment at sea only escalate security concerns. For example, the well-publicized Iranian "swarming" fleet of small boats armed with rockets and anti-ship cruise missiles poses an operational challenge to access through the strait. The importance of both the Malacca and Hormuz straits, situated at each end of the Indian Ocean, will only increase in strategic value in coming decades as trade and commerce continue to expand across the region.
  • The Arctic Ocean could soon emerge as a new strategic transit route, as the polar ice cap recedes and more nations eye its sea lanes to shave valuable time on shipping cargo from Asia to Europe. Shipping companies could save as much as 35 percent using Arctic routes compared to using the Panama Canal or transiting the Horn of Africa. Within 30 years — possibly sooner — the Arctic Ocean could be ice free for up to two months of the year, allowing dramatically more shipping and exploration for large oil, gas, and mineral deposits.
  • The Panama Canal is growing in strategic importance as a huge revitalization effort nears completion in 2014 that will dramatically increase the size of cargo vessels the canal can handle. The canal will soon be able to accommodate dry bulk cargo ships of up to 180,000 tons, compared to only 80,000 tons today. This will increase the number of cargo vessels in the Caribbean Sea and enhance the strategic importance of Panama and its surrounding waters.
  • The waters off East Africa have become pirate-infested in recent years, negatively affecting global shipping. The pirate scourge has forced the world’s navies to devote considerable assets to protecting the free flow of commerce. Piracy has been steadily increasing since 2006, with an 11 percent increase from 2010 (489 incidents) to 2011 (544 incidents). Piracy off the Somalia coast impacted commercial shipping at a cost of $7 to $12 billion dollars in 2010. According to the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre, there were 13 vessels and 185 hostages being held by Somali pirates as of June 2012.
  • At the onset of the 1967 Six Day War, Egypt closed the Suez Canal without warning, locking 15 cargo ships in the canal for the next eight years until it finally reopened. This act significantly affected trade patterns and in many cases forced trade partners to more than double their transit distance. Oil, food, and other goods rose in price as shipping companies adjusted to the additional time and fuel costs associated with longer routes. What would the effect be today if Egypt closed the Suez? The turmoil associated with the Arab Spring, including political uncertainty in Cairo, is reason to pause and contemplate the possibility. If commercial shipping were forced to reroute south around the Cape of Good Hope, it would further exacerbate piracy issues not only on the eastern coast of Africa, but the western coast as well.
  • The Gulf of Guinea on Africa’s western coast is emerging as a globally significant region because of its economic development. Estimates that the region could eventually provide 25 percent of U.S. oil imports within the next five years provide ample reason to ensure the stability and security of its littorals. While West Africa shares many characteristics with East Africa, the focus of piracy is quite different. Ransoming of crew, goods, and vessels challenges the local West African pirates more so than in the East due to the lack of secure sites for the vessels that have been seized. Instead, kidnapping of high-value individuals or stealing of goods, to include oil to be sold on the black market, is the modus operandi. The lack of regional stability affects security both ashore and at sea and warrants further examination as the United States ramps up economic interest in this region.

The inherent flexibility built into every Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) — a unit that integrates infantry, aviation, and logistics support into a coherent force — provides U.S. leaders with a uniquely adaptable force that is fully prepared to deal with the challenges emerging in the world’s littorals and maritime chokepoints. As Gen. James Amos, the Marine commandant, has said, the Corps is the nation’s middleweight force, "light enough to get there quickly, but heavy enough to carry the day upon arrival, and capable of operating independent of local infrastructure."

In the maritime environment, Marine Corps Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Units (ARG-MEUs) are forward deployed every day, providing a ready response force that is ideally organized and equipped to operate in the littorals’ unique land-and-sea environment.

During deployments, the sailors and Marines that make up these amphibious teams routinely conduct security cooperation exercises and activities with partner nations, provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and undertake combat operations ashore. When operating forward deployed in the littorals and a terrorist attack or some other crisis erupts that threatens one of the strategic maritime chokepoints, Marines on Navy amphibious ships are specially equipped to respond immediately. They can undertake such tasks as port security; visit, board, search, and seizure; incident response; humanitarian assistance; and combat operations.

The composition of this team enables it to accomplish such a wide variety of missions. The amphibious group brings both seaborne maneuver and a sea base for the embarked Marines. Additionally, its tie into the Navy’s global logistics capability provides the amphibious team with theoretically endless sustainment, allowing unrivaled time on station in a crisis area. Complementing the amphibious ships, the embarked Marine units bring a general purpose combat force whose inherent ground, air, and logistics elements provide a highly capable force ready to respond immediately and stay indefinitely.

While a fully equipped Marine amphibious team is most formidable when operating as a cohesive unit, certain instances require "disaggregated" operations, in which individual ships and Marine units break off from the larger group and operate in separate locations under potentially separate chains of command. This disaggregation is another element of flexibility embedded in the Marine amphibious force, and the ability to operate in multiple areas over larger distances provides commanders with a richer set of options to meet national interests.

For example, in 2011 the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit carried out three distinct missions, all on the same day:

  • Operating off the coast of Yemen, Marines boarded the Magellan Star, a German-owned commercial shipping vessel, in order to neutralize pirates and liberate the crew.
  • Launching from and recovering to the USS Kearsarge, Marine Harrier aircraft conducted strike operations in Afghanistan.
  • Responding to the worst flooding in more than a century, Marines airlifted humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to Pakistan citizens.

Maintaining this capability in the littorals is vital to U.S. interests, as demonstrated during Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. As Vice Admiral Walter Skinner emphasized in recent Senate testimony, having Harriers offshore "slashed transit times to the battlefield by two-thirds and kept close air support aircraft on station without strategic tanking assets." That allowed Marine MV-22 Ospreys to rescue a downed F-15 pilot, who had been shot down by Qaddafi forces. "Twenty minutes from the time he was evading capture in hostile territory, the rescued pilot was safely back on American territory aboard USS Kearsarge."


As the world’s littorals increase in importance, the United States requires a force that is forward-deployed, engages locally, creates relationships and develops access, and is poised to quickly respond to crises. Since the turn of the 19th Century, that force has been naval, and our capabilities today are impressive. But change is required. As Admiral John C. Harvey, Jr. and Colonel P.J. Ridderhof recently wrote, the Navy and Marine Corps "must break out of the ARG-MEU mold to explore the possibilities and fully take advantage of the flexibility and combat power of a larger MAGTF."

As states and non-state actors increasingly challenge our ability to project power across the global maritime commons and access contested regions, our naval forces must be able to operate in scalable and adaptable formations. The ARG-MEU is one tool, but larger naval forces, including forward-deployed and amphibious forces, may be needed — for example, to secure one of the world’s chokepoints or sea lanes. Marine amphibious forces may also be required to seize an advance base for use by U.S. air forces or for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations — or simply to deny the use of terrain to the enemy.

For example, if an adversary were to disrupt a strategic chokepoint, ship-based aviation and ISR, patrol craft, and Littoral Combat Ships with detachments of Marines could be employed to counter fast attack craft. Simultaneously, other Marines could maneuver to prevent enemy use of islands or littoral areas or to destroy specific anti-access sites or capabilities. The entire naval force would operate in this contested maritime domain, which increases the importance of exercising up-front command arrangements before a crisis occurs.

Training as a larger, aggregated naval force is required now in order to surmount the evolving threats of tomorrow. By exercising and training to larger force compositions, the United States will be better postured to counter the increasing capabilities of potential adversaries throughout the world. Often the discussion about amphibious assault focuses too much on ship-to-shore movement. Regardless of the means of ship-to-shore movement, the proliferation of anti-access and area denial challenges, such as the Iranian capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz, requires an assessment of the whole littoral maneuver challenge. This includes a future amphibious vehicle to provide maneuver and lethality; long-range, high-speed, and large-capacity connectors (craft that move cargo and personnel from larger ships to a beachhead); and multi-functional, sea-based platforms to increase our ability to aggregate amphibious forces in crisis response.

This expanded look at the littoral maneuver challenge requires more attention and effort focused on the selection, reconnaissance, and control of the air and surface landing sites before the assault force arrives on station. Meeting this requirement places a premium on deception, ISR, and cyber operations. It also demands an amphibious force capable of maneuvering throughout the depth and breadth of the littorals to enlarge the operating area, confuse the enemy, and dilute their "home field" advantage in order to exploit the Marine Corps’ and Navy’s own asymmetric advantages. Achieving this edge requires embracing sea control and power projection from what the U.S. military calls a Single Naval Battle perspective, closing gaps between Marine and Navy operations, and providing flexibility to maneuver throughout the littorals with speed, agility, and capacity.

Maritime nations make up 80 percent of the international community, increasing the likelihood that the next crisis or regional conflict will occur within the operational reach of U.S. naval forces. With the initial response capability and decision room it provides, the naval force represents the leading edge, forward operating force called for in the nation’s power projection strategy. As a critical element in that strategy, the Marine Corps conducts operations to deter and combat adversaries or deny them the ability to exert their will on U.S. interests. However, further refinement of aggregated operations and littoral maneuver is required to exploit our at-sea advantage.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola