A Window on the Future of Amphibious Warfare KERNEL BLITZ 88-1

by Col Richard B. Rothwell

KERNEL BLITZ 88-1, a free play exercise involving the Navy-Marine Corps team, was the first major attempt to develop and execute a tactical scheme compatible with the new concepts and weapons pertinent to amphibious warfare. Interested readers may wish to refer to Col Rothwell’s earlier work, “Toward a New Amphibious Tactical Concept” (MCG, Jul83, p. 63), which lays much of the theoretical groundwork for the concepts discussed here, as well as Col Bruce G. Brown’s excellent twopart series, “Maneuver Warfare Roadmap” (MCG, Apr82, p. 42, and May82, p. 80), an early look at the doctrinal implications of maneuver warfare on amphibious operations.

1000, D-1. Only 10 hours before the first elements will land. The officers are assembled in the flagship wardroom-some in woodlands, others in khakis. Commander Amphibious Task Force (CATF) and Commander Landing Force (CLF) are at the end of the long table flanked by staffers and commanders seated in no apparent pattern. CATF and CLF are about to take a major practical step into the future of amphibious warfare. The G-3 stands at the other end and, in an understatement that masks the significance of the event, says, “Gentlemen, the purpose of this meeting is to decide where we will land.”

The Concept

Critics of traditional amphibious assaults have challenged their merit in the face of the mismatch between today’s reduced seabased fire support and the standoff defenses of even modestly sophisticated potential foes. The answer, they generally agree, is to replace the direct approach with the indirect. Emphasis should shift from overwhelming firepower and massive daylight assaults against heavily defended beaches to stealth, speed, and nighttime, over-the-horizon (OTH) launches.

New items of equipment, such as the air cushion landing craft (LCAC), tilt-rotor Osprey (MV-22), remotely piloted vehicle (RPV), and light armored vehicle (LAV), will play big roles in the new tactics, but the specifics of their employment are not clear. This is not for a lack of ideas. Papers have been written, speeches delivered, arguments joined-and rice bowls threatened. Will the LCAC be an assault craft or a logistics platform? Does the time-honored assault amphibian vehicle (AAV) still have an assault role, or will its slow water speed require amphibious ships to venture too close to shorebased defensive fires? Even if AAVs are too slow, what is the alternative, given the midterm shortage of LCACs and supporting amphibious lift? Are LAVs too lightly armed-and armored-to have a significant role in amphibious assaults? Will a tactic that emphasizes stealth, speed, and night OTH launches be too complex to succeed? Good questions all, and ones without clearcut answers.

KERNEL BLITZ 88-1 was perhaps the first major attempt to develop and execute a tactical scheme compatible with the new concepts and weapons systems of amphibious warfare. It was a free-play exercise conducted by Amphibious Group 3 and the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) in Southern California during February 1988. The major event was an amphibious assault in the fictitious country of Orange (Camp Pendleton) to seize a beachhead and permit the uninterrupted flow of follow-on forces. The ground combat element (GCE), Regimental Landing Team 5 (RLT-5), included two active duty infantry battalions (1/5, 2/9), one Reserve infantry battalion (2/25), one direct support artillery battalion (2/11), a tank company, LAV company, AAV company, reconnaissance company, and an engineer company. Orange forces, a reinforced mechanized infantry battalion, had the mission of defending the 17-mile coastline of Camp Pendleton. They were not told exactly where or when the attack would come.

Free play invited innovative offensive tactics, but limitations of fast ship-to-shore lift could not be ignored. Two LCACs and two composite helicopter squadrons (19 CH-46s, 8 CH-53s) were too few for a true OTH launch. They were, however, sufficient to test a new type of assault plan that included many characteristics applicable to future OTH launches. At the same time, the assault plan also served as a practical model for testing new approaches to amphibious operations with current capabilities. While the results may be only a step in the evolution of amphibious doctrine, they are of sufficient significance to warrant careful study by all students of our profession.

The assault plan had six key elements:

* Multiple options. Rather than a traditional, set scheme there were three landing options, each with a different beach and initial objectives. For planning purposes, one option was designated as primary, but all were feasible. The decision on which plan would be used was delayed until noon on D-1.

* Simple landing plan. Even though the assault could take place over any one of three widely separated beaches, the composition, sequence, and timing of surface and helicopter waves were identical for all options. From the ship-to-shore perspective, only the beach and helicopter landing zone (HLZ) locations were different. Of course, the assault forces would have to adjust their schemes of maneuver ashore to complete their mission from different starting points, and this caused some concern. Since detailed rehearsals for each option, though desirable, were impractical, briefings, sandtable exercises, and careful coordination would be essential.

* Avoiding enemy strength. This tactic embodied the indirect approach. The decision of where to land would depend on information about enemy weaknesses provided by a comprehensive system of human, optical, and electronic intelligence gatherers.

* Night landing. Picking the least heavily defended beach was not enough. The landing had to be made in darkness to reduce the chance that defenders would detect and react to the attack.

* Isolation of the main landing beach. Beyond assaulting a lightly or undefended beach under the cover of darkness, it would be necessary to isolate the beach to ensure the rapid buildup of surface landed, heavy combat forces: tanks, AAVs, and artillery. Assault forces landed by LCACs and helicopters before H-hour would accomplish this important task.

* Rapid seizure of inland objectives. Finally, the assault plan called for the uninterrupted attack of surface landed, heavy combat power from the high water mark toward inland objectives. It would not be easy for an armored task force to pass through the helicopter landed elements isolating the beach at night. But waiting for daylight might allow any advantage gained to shift back to the defender, something that could not be permitted.

The Options

Tactical surprise for a MEB-size amphibious exercise at Camp Pendleton is easier said than done. Although the coastline between Oceanside and San Clemente is 17 miles of largely uninterrupted beach, steep cliffs, built-up areas, and state parkland overlook most of the shoreline, severely restricting movement inland. Interstate 5 and a railroad parallel the entire ocean front. While not significant obstacles for a combat assault, in exercises they can be crossed at only a few bridges and underpasses, futher limiting the choices of landing sites.

In recent years virtually all large amphibious exercises at Camp Pendleton have landed over one of two beaches on the southern half of the base (Figure 1). White Beach, the more southerly, is some 1,700 meters wide. It is partially backed by marshes that channelize vehicles and also serve as nesting grounds for an endangered species of seabird, the least tern. These characteristics limit the training value of White Beach. By default, Red Beach, about 2,500 meters to the northwest, has become the most commonly used Camp Pendleton landing site.

Landing force planners expected a free play defender with a strategy of defending the shoreline to contest Red Beach and, most likely, White Beach as well. Nevertheless, the dearth of good landing beaches and the chance that the enemy might not choose to defend the shoreline led them to select Red Beach as the primary landing site and White Beach as an alternative.

The search for additional landing options created interesting risk versus potential gain challenges. Most of the remaining coastline was backed by 30- to 50-foot cliffs that severely restricted movement inland. Assault forces might have to attack in column along the narrow shoreline to Red or White Beach before finding an exit for vehicles, hardly a popular idea. On the other hand, tactical surprise was most likely at remote locations.

The risk became more manageable with the discovery of a little known, unimproved road from a remote stretch of beach to the crest of the cliffs that loomed about 100 meters beyond the high water mark. Tanks, AAVs, and, hopefully, self-propelled artillery might be able to reach the high ground over this road, although a better exit would be needed to offload 5th MEB’s logistical train. Of course, a surface assault would likely fail unless the cliffs were undefended or firmly under the control of the landing force. With this in mind planners chose Gold Beach, some 7,500 meters northwest of Red Beach, as the third landing option.

The Decision

The alternatives now identified, emphasis turned to the selection process. CATF and CLF needed timely answers to two questions: Had recent storms obstructed the normally good offshore approaches to any of the beaches? Where was the enemy weakestnot just at the water’s edge, but along the routes to inland objectives as well? A coordinated collection effort by all ATF and LF intelligence gathering agencies and a dependable shore-to-ship communications system were essential.

In the aggregate, the collection plan was well coordinated. Reconnaissance battalion teams assigned to the GCE were responsible for observing potential HLZs and enemy defenses along routes to the ATF Objective “S”-the Camp Pendleton Air Station. On the night of D-5, 7 teams launched in combat rubber raiding craft (CRRC) from USS Harry W. Hill (DD 986) some 10 miles at sea. After navigating to the surf line, the Marines swam ashore, buried their sea entry gear, and began their treks to reconnaissance areas of operations high in the coastal hills (Figure 2). CATF-controlled SEAL teams infiltrated by CRRC from a submarine on the night of D-3 to positions near Red and Gold Beaches. Lacking a third team for White Beach, the SEALs on Red Beach were assigned double duty.

Finally, two of CLF’s force reconnaissance teams also launched at night from a submarine. Their mission was to reconnoiter two potential LCAC landing sites, CLZ-A to the north and CLZ-E on the southern extremity of the Camp Pendleton littoral. Depending on the assault beach decision, a reinforced LAV company was to be landed before Hhour at one of these locations.

All SEAL and reconnaissance teams completed their insertions without incident.

Dependable transmission of information to the CATF, CLF, and GCE staffs was a challenge. SEAL teams were the most capable. They communicated reliably with AN/PRC-117 VHF radios over the covered special warfare net. As a backup they were prepared to use AN/PSC-3 radios and a satellite link. The shortcoming of their system was that the special warfare net terminated aboard the primary control ship (USS Duluth, LPD 6). Reports had to be relayed from Duluth to CATF and CLF on the flagship (USS Tripoli, LPH 10). A second relay was necessary to pass their findings from Tripoli to the GCE aboard USS Germantown (LSD 42).

Communications for Marine reconnaissance elements were less effectual. Force reconnaissance teams carried only AN/PRC-104 HF voice radios for shore-to-ship transmission over the landing force intelligence/recon net While that net reached decisionmakers on both Tripoli and Germantown, secure voice transmissions were at best extremely slow and sometimes unintelligible. Teams from the reconnaissance battalion had an even greater challenge. They sent reports over AN/PRC-77 VHF radios to a communications coordination and radio relay team high in the coastal hill range. From there the information was sent seaward by a URC-104 (SATCOM) radio over the MAGTF command net Unfortunately, that net, which doubled as the ATF command net, was heavily used. Tightly scheduled reports every four hours made the best of a poor situation. Both CATF and GCE guarded the MAGTF command net, CATF by ship’s SATCOM and the GCE by an AN/ PSC-3 radio. Successful communications for the GCE depended upon the ability of a Marine on a weather deck of Germantown to point his handheld antenna at the proper point in the sky as the ship steamed a sinuous course. Not an easy task.

Human intelligence gathering was supplemented by the RPV Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibited RPVs from flying through the busy southern California coastal airways, so missions were flown from a strip ashore, and helicopter couriers brought videotapes to the flagship. This artificiality notwithstanding, RPVs proved their value. Their videotapes provided a perspective that in some ways was superior to verbal reports.

While the intelligence gathering effort on KERNEL BLITZ 88-1 molded available assets to do the job, improvements are needed to support multiple-option landing plans:

* There must be greater integration of the capabilities and employment of SEAL and landing force reconnaissance teams. SEALs are more attuned to seeking answers to questions about offshore approaches, while the force reconnaissance teams concentrate primarily on indications of enemy activity. Multiple-option landings require that both agencies be prepared to perform the tasks normally assigned to the other and that plans for their use be made jointly by a CATF-CLF-GCE team.

* Covered, HF voice nets used by reconnaissance elements should be replaced with either HF continuous wave (CW) or, more desirably, satellite nets. CATF, CLF, and the GCE must recieve all reports directly.

* CATF, CLF, and the GCE need a downlink to receive RPV video signals.

By 1000, D-1, the picture developed from the collection effort was sufficiently clear for CATF and CLF to make a decision. Shifting sandbars clogged the approaches to White Beach, eliminating it from consideration. As suspected, Red Beach appeared to be heavily defended. SEALs reported large numbers of troops in the vicinity. An RPV videotape highlighted a newly constructed tank obstacle running the entire length of the beach that, surprisingly, had gone unreported by the SEALs. In contrast, offshore approaches to Gold Beach remained clear, and neither SEALs, RPVs, nor RF-4Bs reported any enemy presence. Tactical surprise seemed possible.

Shortly before noon, only eight hours before the first assault forces were to land, CATF and CLF changed the landing site from Red to Gold Beach.

The Assault

2000, D-1. Startled by the roar of engines outside her rented Special Services trailer on the San Onofre Recreation Beach, an Orange officer’s wife rushed to the window. At the water’s edge a large craft, which she recognized as an LCAC, had touched down. In contrast to the din that was now almost deafening, the craft’s approach had been surprisingly quiet. By steering a course perpendicular to the shoreline the LCAC pilot had kept his engines directed seaward. Masked by the pounding surf he had closed to within 1,000 meters of touchdown before anyone on land had heard his craft.

The LCAC began to discharge its cargo-four LAVs and a small truck that the woman recognized as a HMMWV (high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle) or Humvee. Immediately seaward, a second LCAC waited with a similar load.

Mindful that her husband and his battalion had the mission of defending Camp Pendleton from an amphibious assault, she telephoned the alarm to his battalion’s duty officer, “The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming!”

It was the defenders first knowledge that the attack was underway.

At his field command post, the Orange battalion commander received the duty officer’s report with ambivalence. Were the Marines really landing over the restricted northern beaches, or was this merely a diversion to draw him away from his prepared positions at Red and White Beaches? Even if it was not a ruse, how could he mount an unrehearsed counterattack in darkness against an undefined enemy at least 12 miles away?

The fog of war plays no favorites. He decided to remain in place.

While the Orange commander considered his options, three turnaround LCAC sorties landed the remainder of a uniquely configured reinforced LAV company. In addition to its own LAVs (12 LAV-25s and 2 logistic variants) and 2 HMMWVs, there were 7 RLT-5 TOW vehicles. Beyond their antiarmor firepower, TOW thermal sights provided a night vision capability that LAV companies currently lack. Additional attachments included a combat engineer platoon to provide reconnaissance expertise and closein protection, a forward air controller team, an artillery forward observer team, and a naval gunfire team. This force would be a powerful weapon throughout the exercise.

Soon after the initial touchdown, the first LAV platoon with TOWs attached crossed under I-5 and the railroad and headed southeast (Figure 3). Using the TOW thermal sights, it silently advanced some 8,500 meters in 90 minutes, sweeping through the HLZ on the coastal plain above Gold Beach. The platoon reported no enemy contact.

The first turnaround LCAC filled out a second LAV/TOW platoon that began to screen inland along the Basilone Road corridor. Near Homo Summit, about 10,000 meters from the CLZ, it made the first hard contact. An Orange company commander and 35 of his men were surprised to find themselves prisoners so far from the shore.

The main assault was still several hours away, but, with minor exceptions, the landing unfolded as painstakingly practiced during map and sandtable exercises (Figure 4).

2400, D-1. With the aid of terminal guidance from the LAVs, helicopters from HMM-161 landed the assault elements of 2/25 into a zone above Gold Beach. Still no contact along the coast. With the cliffs secured, a successful surface assault by the armored task force seemed certain.

H-Hour, D-Day. The first wave of AAVs churned ashore at 0100 carrying assault elements of 1/5. Within five minutes it was joined by a second, similar wave. By H+40, 17 tanks along with Beachmaster and Landing Force Shore Party teams had landed. Self-propelled artillery would follow on the first turnaround landing craft. Quickly, a rifle company in AAVs attacked southeasterly along the narrow beach toward Red Beach. A tank-mech team reached the high ground overlooking Gold Beach via the little known, unimproved road, passed through 2/25’s perimeter, and attacked on a parallel axis above the company in AAVs. A third tank-mech team with LAVs leading the way began a deliberate attack toward initial inland objectives to the south (Figure 5). With tactics similar to those used in the landing, it probed several routes, seeking the path of least enemy resistance to RLT Objective “J” that dominated ATF Objective “S”-the Camp Pendleton Air Station. From Objective “J” it could support a daylight helicopterborne assault by 2/9 to seize the air station.

Continued pressure kept the defenders from recovering from their initial surprise. Facing a twopronged armored-mech attack on their flank and rear. Orange forces withdrew from Red Beach after only light resistance. Quickly, Beachmaster and Landing Force Shore Party teams closed Gold Beach and shifted south to unload the remainder of 5th MEB at the more suitable Red Beach.

As reconnaissance teams had warned, lead mech elements met stiff resistance in the canyons that were the most likely avenues of approach inland. But Orange forces could not be everywhere. Other 1/5 assault elements soon found undefended routes to RLT Objective “J” dominating the airfield. By the end of D-day, 24 hours ahead of schedule, a helicopterborne assault by 2/9 had seized the ATF objective.

With one significant change and several miner variations, RLT-5 continued to base its tactical decisions on actual intelligence for the remaining six days of the free-play exercise. The major change was in the focus of the intelligence gathering effort. Rather than seeking holes in Orange defenses. reconnaissance elements sought to fix Orange forces so that they could be destroyed by air, artillery, or direct attack. The reinforced LAV company was particularly effective in that role. Working in general support of the RLT, it ranged far forward of the front lines to provide intelligence and bring fire on the enemy. Maneuvering at night with the aid of TOW thermal sights, LAVs completely disrupted the Orange commander’s plan to mass his armor for a major strike against the beach support area. The marriage of LAVs, TOWs, engineers, and fire support teams yielded far greater capabilities than anyone imagined.


Experiences from KERNEL BLITZ 88-1 will not end the debate over amphibious assault tactics. They did not prove the superiority of indirect tactics over the time-honored direct approach, but they did confirm four important points:

* Complex, flexible amphibious assault plans are manageable by both the Navy and the landing force.

* Tactical surprise can be achieved, even in unlikely circumstances.

* Reconnaissance is critical; coordinated collection planning and improved, interoperable communications are a must.

* LAVs, adequately reinforced, add a powerful new dimension to the landing force.

These “lessons” give confidence and direction as we look toward the future for amphibious operations.