Operational Art and Amphibious Warfare

by LtCol Paul F. Pugh

Unified commanders concerned with warfare at the operational level would do well to consider amphibious forces. As was so clearly demonstrated in Operation DESERT STORM, the Navy-Marine team has unique capabilities to offer those seeking to enhance their operational art.

For over 2,000 years power projection by amphibious forces has contributed to securing the strategic aims of many nations. For example, in the Second Punic War the Roman General Scipio landed in Iberia, striking the Carthaginian center of gravity in hopes of defeating Hannibal. In the Peninsula Campaign during the Napoleonic wars, Wellington used sea-based expeditionary forces to gain a lodgment on the continent, ultimately compelling France to fight on two fronts. Throughout the Pacific campaigns of World War II, the seizure of advanced naval and air bases by amphibious forces provided intermediate objectives leading to the unconditional surrender of Japan.

Each of these historical examples illustrates elements of what is now popularly referred to as operational art. Ironically, as we witness a rebirth of thinking at the operational level of war, nearly all the literature discussing operational art, campaign planning, and maneuver warfare is too narrowly focused on a continental approach. Conspicuously absent from these writings is the link naval forces, particularly amphibious forces provide between tactical engagements and strategic objectives.

This article demonstrates how amphibious forces with their sea and air mobility, organic sea-based logistics, and tailored combined arms organization bring to the theater of war attributes that greatly enhance operational art. Such forces provide the unified commander with the momentum, tempo, and leverage to win, or contribute to winning, the overall campaign. The article first frames the anticipated international security environment, then reviews terminology associated with operational art, and finally describes how and why amphibious forces represent the essence of the operational level of war.

The Threat

Everyone recognizes that the international security environment has undergone dramatic, rapid, and unexpected change. The breakup of the Warsaw Pact, the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, and the diminishing fear of vertical esclation towards a nuclear Armageddon all indicate that the prospect of war between the two superpowers is unlikely.

The bipolar world of the past has been replaced with the multipolar world of today. The growth of independent regional power bases, some as surrogates of the United States or Soviet Union and others as nonaligned nations, has been most impressive. These regional power bases have impressive military arsenals in terms of quantity, lethality, diversity, and sophistication of both weapons and delivery systems. For example, the Democratic Republic of Yemen possesses about 450 tanks, Cuba has 1,500 artillery pieces, and Mozambique has Mi-24 Hind helicopters. It is no mere coincidence that these countries, all Soviet client states, lie astride geostrategic sea lanes or near maritime chokepoints.

Equally important as geographic position are the demographic implications of these emerging nations; their capital cities and major population centers are near the coastlines. Of the 113 cities in the world considered to be significant to U.S. interests, 80 are within 75 miles of the sea. Moreover, competition between the “have” and “have not” nations is growing at an alarming rate. Consider the State Department’s Global 2000 Report to the President:

. . . Four-fifths of the world’s population will live in underdeveloped countries and three-quarters of the population will live within 500 kilometers of the sea. . . . Many of these disiant Third World regions will become maritime theaters, and amphibious forces . . . will serve as the military instrument of choice.

Coupled with this rise of regional power bases is a reluctance to provide America with basing and overflight rights. Without forward bases the ability of the United States to project power for either global conflict or crisis management is limited. Current operations in DESERT SHIELD highlight the importance of access to friendly forward staging areas.

The next conflicts are likely to be short, politically constrained ware with limited objectives and limited application of force. They will generate from unstable political situations, regional insurgency, and political-military crises and will often be drug or terrorist related. In Gen A. M. Gray’s view this will place a ” . . . premium on capable, mobile, logistically independent naval forces able to demonstrate U.S. presence and power projection capability on the horizon of all but a handful of countries.” Amphibious forces can provide the unified commander with the operational tools to defeat these threats.

The Terms

Over the years the gray zone between tactics and strategy has been referred to as la grande tactique (grand tactics) by the French and English, operativ by the Germans, and operatvnyi by the Russians. The United States refers to it as the operational level of war or operational art. It has come to mean more than simply warlike activity or a way of organizing for war. In fact, it has become a way of thinking about war requiring the vision and ability to orchestrate many diverse and apparently separate elements towards the accomplishment of some distant, ultimate goal. It is as much an intuitive feel of how events will or should unfold as it is a learned military discipline. FM 100-5, Operations, provides perhaps the best baseline description of operational art:

The employment of military forces to attain strategic goals in a theater of war or a theater of operations through the design, organization, and conduct of campaigns and major operations . . . Operational art thus involves fundamental decisions about when and where to fight and whether to accept or decline battle . . . Operational art requires broad vision, the ability to anticipate, a careful understanding of the relationship of means to ends, and effective joint and combined cooperation . . . Reduced to its essentials, operational art requires the commander to answer three questions: (1) What military conditions must be produced in the theater of war or operations to achieve the strategic goal? (2) What sequence of actions is most likely to produce that condition? (3) How should the resources of the force be applied to accomplish that sequence of actions?

Others have defined it in terms of what it is not. Authors in Parameters (Jun88) state that “the operational level of war relates properly to the strategic aim, not the size, echelon, or type of formations involved.” Richard Simpkin in his book Race to the Swift claims that operational art is more than just a specific level of war. It is a dynamic, closed-loop system characterized by speed and appropriateness of response. It considers the opponent’s will, the synergistic effect of employing forces together, rather than separately, and is self-contained within the scope of its mission. Simpkin, in keeping with Sun Tzu, also noted that “If you were never going to be strong enough to fight and win a battle, you had to achieve operational aims without fighting one.” In other words, you have to move faster, use surprise, deploy in depth, and shatter the enemy’s cohesion.

Closely tied to operational art is the concept of maneuver warfare, as opposed to attrition warfare. Maneuver warfare emphasizes concentration, speed, and surprise in order to shatter the enemy’s morale, break his cohesion, and exploit his vulnerabilities It is frequently described in terms of the tactical level, but applies equally well to the operational level.

The operational level of war is synonymous with operational art, and links the strategic aims of a nation to the tactical battles or engagements that are waged. Joint Publication 1-02 defines the operational level of war as:

The level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives within theaters or areas of operations. Activities at this level link ladies and strategy by establishing operational objectives needed to acomplish the strategic objectives, sequencing events to achieve operational objectives, initiating actions, and applying resources to bring about and sustain these events. These activities imply a broader dimension of lime or space than do tactics; they ensure the logistic and administrative support of tactical forces, and provide the means by which tactical successes are exploited to achieve strategic objectives.

The operational level normally covers a long timespan by emphasizing that the goal is to retain the initiative, shape events in one’s favor, and focus formations before the battle commences. However, it is important to note that any event that impacts on a nation’s strategic aims, regardless of the size of the force, the timeframe covered, or the space required in terms of land mass needed, can and should be considered to function at the operational level. For example, the singular act of bombing the Marine Barracks in Beirut by a small faction of fanatics could be considered an operational level success. This distinction has direct implications for amphibious forces that have mistakenly been considered too small to function at the operational level.

The vehicle or instrument used by unified commanders to articulate the operational level of war is referred to as a campaign or campaign planning. FMFM 1, Warfighting defines campaign planning as: “A plan for a series of related military operations aimed to accomplish a common objective, normally within a given time and space.”

In practical terms then, operational art is the ability to attack the enemy force before it can be brought to bear; interdict unengaged forces; keep the enemy-to-friendly force ratio manageable at the point of contact; slow or stop the flow of second echelon or reserve forces to the battle; and attack the enemy’s plan-not just his forces.

It should be clear from the above discussion mat operational art can be applied equally to a naval or continental context, and ideally both. Now let’s look at how we apply these terms.

The Theory

By definition, amphibious warfare is one of two naval power-projection capabilities-the other being strike warfare. To conduct amphibious warfare requires sea, air, and land forces. In this regard, the amphibious forces are unique in that these functionally separate parts can be combined into a singular entity and called an amphibious task force (ATF). For the unified commander, this force provides a wide array of force employment options, from crisis response to forcible entry.

At this point, rather than recite traditional amphibious capabilities, it may be instructive to relate the operational tenets of momentum, tempo, and leverage to amphibious forces. Momentum is the product of the mass of the forces involved and the velocity that those forces can generate. Mass, or combat power, is a function of several tangible and intangible components. We tend to think of raw numbers or physical throw weight as mass. But mass is also affected by internal combat multipliers like morale and leadership. External combat multipliers like the choice of ground to wage a battle also affect mass. However, it is not the entire force that produces momentum, it is only that portion that is usable at the point of application. Amphibious forces, through sea and air mobility, can optimize mass by selecting the best terrain and then concentrating superior force at an enemy weakpoint.

Velocity, the other component of momentum, is more than just the speed with which the infantryman walks or the tank moves. Velocity also involves how fast a force can be marshalled, transported to the conflict, and employed. Forward afloat amphibious forces are uniquely qualified in this regard.

Related to velocity is tempo. Tempo is the operational rate of advance, relative to the enemy, considering the aspects of time, space, and sustainabiliry. Simpkin defines overall tempo:

as the distance from the initial line of contact to the back of the final operational objective, divided by the time (in days) from the receipt of orders by the operational commander to accomplishment or abortion of the mission.

If a unified commander can shorten this time, he increases his tempo. Theoretically, the faster the tempo, the greater the advantage gained over an opponent. The use of maritime prepositioned shipping (MPS) can compress the deployment window, thereby increasing tempo. Decentralized command and control, faster processing of intelligence, and anticipation of outcomes through development of sequels and branches all equate to faster decisionmaking and, hence, increased tempo.

Tempo is also related to what operational theory refers to as the culminating point or, as noted in FM 100-5,

a point where the strength of the attacker no longer significantly exceeds that of the defender, and beyond which continued operations therefore risk overextension, counterattack, and defeat.

The goal is to keep relentless pressure on the enemy and attain the objective as quickly as possible before reaching one’s culminating point. Critical to this process is the ability to sustain oneself. Large, lucrative, rear areas with stockpiled supplies will certainly be targeted by the enemy. Loss of these assets will reduce tempo, hence, an advantage to the enemy. Amphibious forces with their organic sea-based 15, 30, or 60 days of supply and selective offload capability can provide the unified commander with the logistic edge to avoid, or at least extend the culminating point.

The last concept to examine is leverage. A key aspect of operational art is the decision as to when and where to give battle. Amphibious forces, by their superior mobility at sea and organic aviation capability, provide latitude for this decision and gain leverage against the enemy. Leverage is the ability to move the enemy center of gravity without direct, brute, head-to-head conflict. It avoids attrition warfare. The threat of an attack in one area can hold the enemy in place; a threat in another can cause him to abandon his position. The combined arms approach to war, which is the full integration of all components in such a way that in order to counter one act the enemy makes himself vulnerable to another, illustrates the effects achieved by leverage, a capability inherent in amphibious forces.

In summary, amphibious forces, through mobility, sea-based logistics, and a tailored force organization, provide a unified command with the tools needed to conduct operations with increased momentum, tempo, and leverage. They enable him to strike at a place of his choosing with sufficient organic staying power to finish the fight.


* Traditionally and by law (Title 10, U.S.C.), the United States has used amphibious forces to seize advanced naval and air bases. Considering the paucity of overseas bases, this mission is still valid, and capabilities are far greater than in the island-hopping campaigns of World War II. Today a landing in the Aleutians or Kurils could provide a jumping off point for continued operations. More importantly, these bases serve to shorten the logistic tether and assist the unified commander in avoiding strategic overreach or lack of punch at the focus of combat. In operational art lingo, advanced bases extend the culminating point. Such bases could be used as a hinge or a pivot point enabling the unified commander to employ the concept of leverage. In some instances the fortified base becomes a holding force, while a mobile amphibious task force is free to envelope or turn the enemy’s flank. While seizure of an advanced base may not win the war, it should be considered as a corollary or supporting operation within the overall campaign plan.

* Another more traditional use of amphibious forces is to strike the flanks of an opponent. The best historical example is Inchon. By landing on the west coast of Korea deep behind the enemy’s forward forces at Pusan, MacArthur was able to collapse an overextended enemy both in the physical and psychological sense. Despite a lessening Soviet threat, a unified commander could use this same concept in Norway. Not only could the operational principle of leverage be attained, but also a second front could be opened that would divert Soviet resources. Equally important, seizure of Norway denies the Soviets the ability to use leverage against NATO forces in central Europe. Landing force aviation units ashore could be used not only for the landward sector of the outer air battle, but also in defense of the carriers. If a carrier were sunk, these land bases could provide alternative landing sites as they did at Guadalcanal. Furthermore, land-based aviation could extend the carrier’s scouting and reconnaissance ability against Soviet long-range aircraft, thereby augmenting the indications and warnings effort. It may be useful to note that the number of tactical aircraft in a Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB) roughly equates to the number aboard one aircraft carrier.

* The third traditional use of amphibious forces is in the control of the sea lines of communications (SLCO). As LtCol Thomas C. Linn has pointed out:

. . . in the event of an attempt to forcibly dominate the southern entrance to the Red Sea by either the Soviets or a regional nation, Marine Corps forces could seize Bab al Mandab, or even Aden. Air assets within the Marine Air-Ground Task Force would ensure positive control over the southern portion of the Red Sea and contribute to the air defense of eastern Saudia Arabia. In addition, the MAGTF [Marine air-ground task force] could counter any threat to Aman by Yemen while protecting Aden as an advanced naval base. It is important to note that this waterway is a vital link in the Soviets southern route connecting European and Asian portions of the Soviet Union. The employment of seapower in this operational context has important application for other vital choke points as well.

* Amphibious forces can function as the theater commander’s operational reserve. Here they could be used either to stop a breakout by blocking a penetration or to counter a strategic turning movement by acting as a counter threat force.

* Amphibious forces will be required for small wars on or near the coastline. Third World countries, using lethal weapons with extended ranges, can easily control maritime chokepoints. These new littoral theaters of war are located along the seams of continental and maritime theaters and include the air space over both. These littoral theaters have no regionally assigned commander and no Service with principal domain. Liddell Hart recognized that distinctions drawn on separate air, sea, and land lines were no longer suitable. He believed that, “Problems need to be tailored in a more integrated way, blending the functions of the three Services.” Amphibious forces blend those functions and provide the unified commander with a unique way to handle a new battlefield.

* Unified commanders can use amphibious forces in a littoral theater of conflict for bold strikes into the enemy capital, paralyzing the will of the government by early seizure of political and economic power bases. In operational terms it means striking at their center of gravity, the hub of all their strength. For most cases, a coup de main requires no bases and no overflight rights. The war is quick, decisive, and avoids escalation. It represents maneuver warfare at its best.

* Amphibious forces can be used to preempt the outbreak of hostilities. In today’s international security environment our strategic aims may not be the total defeat of the enemy. The goal may be to restabilize a situation to allow diplomacy, negotiations or mediations to resume. Using strategic mobility to increase readiness may force the enemy into military submission or simply inhibit his actions.

Preemption is best exemplified by the ‘fleet in being’ theory expounded . . .by Mahan . . . . Mahan states the theory like this: ‘The presence of a strong force even though inferior, near the scene of operations will produce a momentous effect on the enemy’s action.’

* For many conflicts involving Third World nations amphibious forces provide surprise. Surprise can be attained in the moral sense, when the enemy just doesn’t know you are coming, or a material sense, in which he knows you are coming but cannot do anything about it. Surprise can also be related to the use of operational deception by amphibious forces or simply the potential to land those forces in a number of possible locations. This enables the unified commander to deliver a crushing defeat-think momentum-before the enemy has time to galvanize his forces or public support.

* A few years ago we heard a lot about competitive strategies or pitting ones’s strengths against an adversary’s weakness. Amphibious forces, by nature of being light and mobile, depend on this concept for success. In the context of maneuver warfare, amphibious forces may employ to multiple sites and rapidly shift forces to exploit enemy weaknesses. This enables the unified commander to outwit the enemy rather than outmuscle him. Moreover, amphibious forces can capitalize on technology and fight asymmetrical battles where dissimilar forces are matched; for example, large numbers of small, mobile antitank weapons systems against heavy tanks. In many situations a light mechanized force has almost the ideal balance of mass and tempo needed for extreme flexibility.

* Finally, amphibious forces can be used for deep raids. The goal of such operations is to break cohesion and shatter enemy morale. For raids, the concepts of tempo and momentum are critical. Amphibious forces with their organic aviation capability can deliver and support raid elements with appropriate mobility and mass to create significant leverage. These deep raids can attack vulnerable rear areas and shape or influence subsequent battles. For the unified commander, such a force is an invaluable tool.


Because of geostrategic positioning, demographic changes, and economic inequities, the most likely conflicts for the foreseeable future will involve Third World nations. These regional power bases possess sophisticated weapons with the ability to wage intense, lethal, small wars. These conflicts will, in many instances, be fought on or near a littoral and often will require simultaneously coping with sea, air, and land warfare. Amphibious forces are uniquely suited for such situations.

The revival of operational art is encouraging, but should not be so rigidly interpreted as to imply that only large, continental formations, fighting for extended periods of time, are participants. The operative words in understanding operational art are the ability to accomplish strategic goals. In this regard, amphibious forces, which provide anything from crisis management to forcible entry, can contribute at the operational level and respond effectively to national needs.

The inherent strength of amphibious forces is synonymous with the fundamentals of operational art: mobility; combined arms; surprise; increased reach; extension of the culminating point; ability to concentrate or disperse; ability to strike the enemy’s center of gravity; ability to generate momentum, increase tempo and exert leverage; and maintenance of the initiative. Moreover, operational art requires the commander to conceptualize his campaign plan by determining what military conditions will lead to achievement of strategic aims; how those conditions will be phased or sequenced; and how the necessary resource will be applied. Amphibious forces can help answer those questions and provide the unified commander with the combat striking power and, equally important, the sustainability to win.