September 2014

Traditional Amphibious Warfare

Wrong for decades, wrong for the future
Volume 98, Issue 9

LtGen Kenneth J. Glueck, Jr.

Robert Kozloski
The call is to return to our amphibious roots.
Photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John Lill.

Military news is replete with calls from traditionalists for the Marine Corps to return to its “amphibious roots.” Citing a dubious account of history, traditionalists have long held amphibious warfare to be the defining characteristic of Marines while simultaneously displaying a strong aversion to Corps participation in irregular warfare (IW) in the decades following the 1950 amphibious landing at Inchon. With Afghanistan winding down, that war will join Iraq and Vietnam in a list of military campaigns that traditionalists will point toward to justify their aversion to IW no matter the circumstances. Notwithstanding the mixed results of these campaigns, the traditionalists’ claim that the Marine Corps is rooted in amphibious warfare is dubious insofar as it is not a full presentation of the historical record. Moreover, a return to amphibious warfare in the same way traditionalists have wanted since Inchon, with the opposed amphibious landing being the crown jewel of these forcible entry operations, will be detrimental to the Nation and the Corps.

To reveal the fullness of history, Marine Corps participation in IW is just as storied and far predates its amphibious mission, the latter only having been officially codified in World War II. In truth, while it is acknowledged that the Marine Corps is inherently amphibious in the same way the Air Force is inherently aeronautical, as an institution, the Corps was rooted in IW from its very inception. Serving in what today would be termed a “special” operations capacity, Continental Marines conducted offensive and defensive combat operations, protected Navy officers from mutiny, served as snipers in naval battle, and conducted amphibious raids and other operations short of war. Being historically small, the Corps has a dismal record of adequate resources for conventional warfare. When called for conventional battle, the Corps relied on the same attributes that served it well in IW: innovative thinking, rigorous training, and esprit de corps. In World War II, the Marine Corps was instrumental to America’s unprecedented success in conventional warfare by being innovators in both the theory and praxis of amphibious warfare and emerged victorious in the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater. The seizure of advanced naval bases and conventional land operations, previously held as a secondary role, thus became codified as a primary mission, a decision seen as a victory by Marine leadership who were actively seeking a conventional mission. Yet with the immense cost of World War II (in terms of economic and natural resources) and unprecedented carnage (some 55 million dead), the postwar years saw a steep decline in conventional and amphibious warfare as a result of international reflection from the Geneva Convention, Vatican II, etc., while economic strain forced the nations into increasing interconnectedness as the world moved toward globalism. Though Inchon can be cited as a notable exception, the trend away from conventional and World War II–style amphibious warfare has held. It was in the midst of the many proxy wars with communism that President John F. Kennedy predicted a future marked by IW, which led him to endorse special forces and other irregular forces that would see a steady increase in utility and funding for Vietnam and other asymmetric conflicts to follow.

One noteworthy characteristic that makes IW problematic for conventional military practitioners is its tendency to remain less defined. The declaration for war in 1941 was overwhelmingly passed by Congress and widely supported by the American public, so the prospect of operating in morally ambiguous gray areas in wars of choice again, rather than absolute necessity, was abhorrent to Marine leadership who became overtly political in associating IW as both procapitalistic and oppressive and opposed a return to the Corps’ previous IW role. Prior to World War II, MajGen Smedley Butler negatively characterized his earlier Banana Wars experience by saying that he spent most of his time “being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, for bankers.”12 Dedication on the part of Marine leadership to find favor in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration by drafting America’s amphibious doctrine in the lead up to World War II was thus as much an attempt to find a conventional mission as to legitimize efforts at distancing the Corps from its IW history. The latter was a role Marine leadership did not want to see reprised despite noteworthy Marine contributions, including the Small Wars Manual (Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, 1940), seminal doctrine in IW that would repeatedly fall out of favor over the years since its first publication amidst repeated efforts by leadership to steer the Corps toward subsequent decades’ new amphibious mission.

As IW threats came to dominate modern warfare, the once-subdued noninterventional attitudes of Marine leadership became much more pronounced and political. A poignant example of this phenomenon came during the early 1960s. While special forces were being legitimized to combat the rising IW threats, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen David Shoup, echoed previous objections to the Banana Wars by openly expressing disapproval of the strategy and his distaste for corporate involvement in Vietnam:

I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, dollar-soaked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution on their own—and if unfortunately their revolution must be of the violent type because the “haves” refuse to share with the “have-nots” by any peaceful method, at least what they get will be their own, and not the American style, which they don’t want and above all don’t want crammed down their throats by Americans.3

A Medal of Honor recipient, Shoup’s criticisms rise among the most pointed and high profile leveled against the war. Notwithstanding leadership’s objections, Marines drew from their small wars history to perform admirably by rightly identifying Vietnam as a counterinsurgency, cutting hard against military practitioners pervasively attempting conventional tactics against an asymmetric threat. Marines implemented innovative and effective programs like the Combined Action Program—where modern Marine civil affairs groups take inspiration—which consisted of Marine rifle squads dispatched to Vietnamese villages to train and partner with local nationals charged with the defense of their community.4 Equally remarkable are the achievements of Marine force reconnaissance against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong for deep reconnaissance and raids.5

Marine successes could not overcome the deluge of misguided conventional warfare catastrophes that plagued U.S. efforts, and the final pullout revealed a Corps eager to shed its image of Vietnam. Leadership resumed efforts to ensure the Corps’ identity remained defined in an amphibious role similar to World War II, but were again stymied as subsequent years saw more IW flare-ups including a resurgence of Islamic terrorism beginning in 1979. To contend with increased IW, the Special Operations Command (SOCom) was created in 1986 and immediately met with strong opposition from Marine leadership who resisted allowing the Corps to participate in what would be termed “special” warfare under the new command. In response to continued pressure for the Marine Corps to lend its undeniable institutional expertise and IW capabilities, Marine leadership made a willful decision to permanently marry the Corps to the Navy, choosing amphibious warfare—to the near exclusion of IW or special warfare—as central to Marines’ identity, an incomplete representation highlighting only the recent amphibious portion of Corps history while again relegating older IW roles to the periphery. Marine Corps leadership did adopt the “special operations capable” moniker for its expeditionary units to feign compliance with national security demands while in praxis pursuing the amphibious role they wanted the Corps to fulfill since World War II; yet with Inchon remaining the last major amphibious assault of that nature, history simply has not validated their position.

In that respect, traditionalists’ calls for the Corps to again return to its amphibious roots are misguided. Recent IW campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have reconfirmed several truths. First, World War II–style amphibious operations are ever more unlikely, whereas IW campaigns like Iraq and Afghanistan and so-called special operations look to continue dominating the future of warfare as Kennedy accurately predicted. Second, swift victory in Iraq in Phases 1 to 3 of combat operations against the world’s fourth-largest army with a comparatively small combat force revealed that U.S. conventional capability remains unmatched, thus past commitment on the part of Marine leadership to see the Corps defined in a conventional way is self-defeating. In an era marked by IW threats, one need look no further than the most recent defense budget which sacrificed conventional capabilities to retain technology and special operations capabilities necessary to combat the modern threat. A child could have foreseen this decision, which leads to the third point, namely that struggles in Phases 4 to 5 in Iraq and later in Afghanistan highlighted America’s woefully underdeveloped IW capabilities. Notwithstanding continued distaste from Marine leadership, Marine Corps competence in IW is remarkable, and the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan saw the Corps finally contributing forces to SOCom (after being ordered by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2006)—a belated, measured, and shamefully involuntary step in the right direction. With the world’s population occupying the littorals, Marines are uniquely positioned and being called upon to regain IW operations previously ceded to SOCom by providing valuable historical expertise where America demonstrates the most need rather than returning to a wrongheaded pursuit of traditional amphibious warfare as it has for decades.

A New Era in Small Unit Specialized Amphibious Warfare

If one considers amphibious warfare in the same traditional way as the landing at Inchon, the Marine Corps might appear less prepared for forcible entry today. A close examination of the concepts and amphibious capabilities that made Inchon successful should indicate whether traditional methods still apply or have been replaced with something better. If the latter proves true then the notion that the Marine Corps is less prepared today is a misperception and signals that a paradigm shift has occurred. In addition to highlighting the need for Marine leadership to relinquish a long-held political agenda, this article contends that, based on current concepts and amphibious capabilities, the Corps has the potential to be better prepared for forcible entry operations today and actually deliver a better product to budget makers and the American people than ever before by not returning to the amphibious roots narrative and agenda that traditionalists have pushed for decades. A new way of thinking, foreshadowed at Inchon, is at hand.

Inchon was remarkable in that nearly every doctrinal condition desired for a tactically successful amphibious operation was unfavorable for that landing.6 Yet the same factors that made Inchon undesirable for an amphibious landing also made it strategically bold from a maneuver perspective and contributed to its decisiveness since few expected a landing there.7 Though technically still a forcible entry, the unorthodox location avoided the massive casualties associated with previous attrition-style amphibious landings of World War II, which were deliberate assaults on isolated islands of strategic significance and therefore subject to heavy resistance from an entrenched enemy expecting attack. It would be inaccurate to say Inchon went unopposed, yet GEN Douglas MacArthur’s shrewd operational maneuver from the sea (OMFTS) resulted in resistance and casualties that were light by comparison to World War II landings. Additionally, with much of its leadership being reactivated World War II veterans, Inchon had a lot of expertise from the hard-won Pacific theater. Likewise, many of the amphibious naval assets were taken out of mothballs, so equipment, tactics, techniques, and procedures from a few years earlier all remained familiar.8 Valuable naval surface fire support (NSFS) again covered the Marine Corps’ landing and initial advance such that, notwithstanding its reliance on OMFTS, Inchon was a veritable replay of the amphibious landings that made Marines famous in World War II.

Since most of the things contributing to Inchon’s success no longer exist, the current environment of extreme fiscal austerity would seem to place the future of the Marine Corps into question again. Yet on closer examination, the perceived shortfalls in capabilities previously listed have already been replaced with something better, and, if implemented well, current concepts and amphibious capabilities will enable the Marine Corps to do even more with even less long into the future. For example, it cannot be denied that the shipping assets traditionally required to conduct forcible entry operations are considerably less today in terms of the number of vessels. A total of 261 ships participated in the Inchon landing, including 6 destroyers and the Iowa-class battleships that provided critical NSFS. The entire modern U.S. Navy is comprised of only some 283 ships, so the landing at Inchon, if conducted in the same manner today, would require virtually the entire surface fleet. In addition to that perceived shortfall, many U.S. Marines argue that the most notable forcible entry capability lost since Inchon is the critical NSFS traditionally relied upon for previous landings.9 The sainted Iowa-class, which provided the most powerful NSFS, has been retired since the mid-1990s despite protests from Marines at the highest levels for what they see as the Navy’s dereliction of duty in failing to provide sufficient NSFS for today’s forcible entry operations. Yet apologists for the Navy argue compellingly that advances in modern capabilities, including so-called smart weaponry and unmanned aircraft, have increased ordnance variety, accuracy, and potency to further the notion that the loss of NSFS has been compensated. Battleships performed well, but several critical shortfalls in traditional NSFS, including an inability to fire at targets in defilade, have been overcome by these advances.10 Though not amphibious in character, successful combined arms operations like “shock and awe” were carried out far inland to demonstrate the merits of modern weaponry without NSFS to essentially render moot the traditionalist argument for its return while amplifying calls for the Corps to think in new ways about combined arms support for today’s forcible entry operations.

As a matter of historical context, the previously noted decrease in naval and amphibious vessels since Inchon is of additional importance in that it took place amidst a simultaneous increase in the antiaccess/area denial capabilities of would-be enemies. The combination of these two occurrences exponentially increased the formidable dangers already inherent to forcible entry operations. Amphibious landings are marked by extremely high costs and heavy casualties, and are considered among the riskiest and least desirable operations to conduct. Heavy casualties on both sides of the Battle for Okinawa compelled the Truman administration to drop the atomic bombs rather than risk an amphibious assault on mainland Japan. With an economically burdened electorate that is demonstrably averse to casualties, increases in enemy antiaccess/area denial capabilities have created enough additional uncertainty to effectively render traditional forcible entry operations no longer viable in addition to being unpalatable to the American public.11 Therefore, the continued pursuit of traditional amphibious capabilities on the part of Marine leadership is a strategy that has long been far out of square with budget makers and cut hard against the desires of the American people. In their continued demand for new ways to lower risks, cut costs, and avoid casualties, both groups have transferred their trust and confidence to support the highly mobile and potent small units produced by SOCom as the better alternative to what the Marine Corps has been offering. This trend will continue if the Corps fails to harness current concepts and amphibious capabilities and moves away from the “more-of-the-same” traditional amphibious operations it has pursued for decades.

As previously mentioned, the unlikely location of Inchon confirmed that shrewd OMFTS can be just as decisive as maneuver warfare on land.12 Modern concepts like seabasing decrease the necessity of conducting opposed amphibious assaults that the Corps no longer has the assets or public support to conduct anyway. Seabased operations enable Marines to conduct highly mobile, specialized, small unit, amphibious landings by stealth from over the horizon at multiple undefended locations of our own choosing based on shrewd OMFTS planning.13 Seabased operations conducted in conjunction with the Osprey enable smaller MAGTF operations from increased ranges.14 If a vehicle is developed for transport in the Osprey, then these specialized small units can be highly mobile and conduct distributed operations from locations behind enemy lines, plus have the ability to mass on an enemy airfield or port from the rear to achieve the same advanced naval base seizure results as before, but with decreased risk of casualties while simultaneously reducing the high costs associated with traditional forcible entry operations.1516 Successes in the way of unmanned aircraft can provide combined arms capabilities to smaller MAGTFs than ever before and eliminate the bureaucracy of small unit commanders having to coordinate with adjacent fire control entities, thus increasing the efficiency and potency of small units coming ashore from multiple locations. Collectively, such ideas constitute the dawning of a new era in specialized amphibious operations which ought to be pursued in place of fruitless, unpopular, and costly traditional capabilities that only cause the Corps to fall further out of favor with budget makers and the American people.

In an organization heralded for its ability to provide more with less, the loss of amphibious shipping and NSFS has been seen as debilitating by traditionalists wrongly married to past methods. By returning to the pursuit of these perceived shortfalls since Inchon, traditionalists have given short shrift to the reduced risk/reduced cost/reduced casualty paradigm being presented. Futurists should apply modern advances in new and innovative ways to demonstrate that the loss of traditional capabilities is a misperception. Specialized small unit amphibious operations will make the future of the Corps more optimistic and better ensure America’s security. Current concepts and amphibious capabilities have the collective ability to all but eliminate traditional forcible entry operations, increase institutional agility, help the Corps regain America’s trust and confidence, and retake ground wrongly ceded to SOCom.


1. Schlosser, Dr. Nicholas J., “The Marine Corps Small War Manual: An Old Solution to the New Challenge,” Fortitudine, Marine Corps Historical Bulletin, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Washington, DC, 2010.

2. Butler, Smedley D., War is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America’s Most Decorated Soldier, Roundtable Press, New York, 1935.

3. Millett, Allan R., and Jack Shulimson, Commandants of the Marine Corps, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2004, p. 379.

4. Vietnam display area, National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, VA.

5. Lanning, Col Michael Lee and Ray W. Stubbe, Inside Force Recon: Recon Marines in Vietnam, Random House, New York, 1989.

6. Davies, Kevin L., “An Amphibious Resurrection,” Marine Corps Gazette, p. 92.

7. Ibid., p. 92.

8. Ibid., p. 94.

9. A good portion of modern Marine leadership still supports the activation of two battleships in support of Marine amphibious operations and has openly expressed these views to budget makers on several occasions, most notably in 2007. See National Defense Authorization Act, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2007, pp. 193–94.

10. Command and Staff Distance Education Program 8907, Amphibious Operations Lesson 3, “Amphibious Fires and Logistics,” 2014.

11. Cancian, Col Mark, “Preserving Amphibious Capabilities in a Time of Austerity,” Marine Corps Gazette, p. 17.

12. Davies, p. 93.

13. Department of the Navy, Officer of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters Marine Corps, Navy Warfighting Publication 3-62, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-31.7, Seabasing Overview, Washington, DC, 2006, pp. 1–1 to 1–9.

14. Fuquea, Col David C., “An Amphibious Manifesto for the 21st Century,” Marine Corps Gazette, 2012, p. 11

15. Ibid., p. 12.

16. Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration, Amphibious Operations for the 21st Century, Marine Corps Base Quantico, 2009, p. 217.

Maj Howell is a 1302 (combat engineer) with a secondary 0530 (civil affairs) MOS.