An Introduction to Amphibious Warfare
Amphibious warfare consists of battle strategies encompassing both land and sea operations. Sea craft transport troops and equipment across water to a designated landing spot, where attack of a hostile area then takes place by land and air. The tactic has existed in some fashion for hundreds of years, as a way to establish a base or to stop an enemy’s progress. As practiced today, with multiple, specialized military forces involved, it constitutes a deeply complex operation and involves many moving parts that must be coordinated to achieve success.
How and Why Militaries Use Amphibious Warfare
The complexity of amphibious warfare makes it a daunting challenge. Particularly now, when military forces are trained to specialize in land, sea, or air battle, combining two or even three of these specialties into a single operation can be fraught with peril. Nevertheless, it has achieved powerful results when managed well. When an opposing force is gaining ground and reinforcements do not have land access to stop its momentum, finding a way to bring troops and equipment to where they are needed reaches paramount importance.
To achieve this, the United States military has developed a fleet of amphibious assault vehicles, all equipped to transport personnel and weaponry to land. These range from large amphibious assault ships capable of transporting over 1,000 troops, down to much smaller landing crafts that carry small, targeted squads. The vehicles are equipped with their own protective weaponry, but their primary purpose is transporting fighters and weapons to land.
Because transport and transfer constitute the crucial elements of amphibious warfare, planning and coordination are critical. A landing location must be scouted carefully, and must remain secure during the landing operation. Any faulty intelligence or new problems can mean the whole operation fails. The transition from sea to land, and from one specialization to the other, can often make or break the operation.
Early Examples of Amphibious Warfare
Even so, the importance of providing or reinforcing troops for battle or for an extended ground campaign leaves little choice. Amphibious warfare has led to some of the great military successes in world history.
Perhaps the earliest example came around 1,200 B.C. during the Trojan War, as depicted in Homer’s The Iliad. The Greek army had to cross the Aegean Sea to gain land access to Troy, and used ships to move their troops to land.
In 490 B.C., Persian invaders used similar tactics to invade Greece at the Battle of Marathon. Highlighting some of the difficulties of this kind of warfare, though, the Persian army gained a foothold on land but was then defeated by the Greeks.
In 1066, the Norman Conquest of England involved amphibious warfare as well, as thousands of Norman troops were transported by ship to England. This example is literally woven into history, depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. The ability to move large groups of personnel and land at Kent led to the Normans’ victory at the Battle of Hastings.
Famous Modern Examples of Amphibious Warfare
During World War I, the Allied forces attempted an amphibious landing at Gallipoli, in Turkey, seeking to take the Dardanelles. Unfortunately, Turkish forces were ready, and attacked as troops were coming ashore. Of 489,000 troops committed for this invasion, over 252,000 were killed. The failure here again reveals some of the transitional difficulties if the entry point of an amphibious assault is not protected carefully.
Perhaps the best known example of these tactics came with the D-Day landing at Normandy. On June 6, 1944, the American and British armies secured beachheads in Normandy. This success was achieved through a combination of ingenuity and enemy error, as Germany did not take seriously the threat in that location. Over time, the U.S. moved over 850,000 troops to Normandy, a key component to winning the land war against Hitler’s forces.
Similarly, in 1945, the United States landed in Okinawa, achieving landfall on beaches abandoned by the Japanese. General Dwight Eisenhower was able to move 70,000 troops into Japan as a result of this assault.
In 1950, during the Korean War, North Korea had penetrated into Seoul, South Korea, pushing American troops deep south. However, the United States held the coast, which was critical to their ability to land troops at Inchon, Korea. This amphibious assault served effectively to separate North Korean troops from North Korea itself. This turned the tide, and allowed U.S. and South Korean troops to push the Communist forces back up above the 38th parallel.
Present and Future
The future of amphibious warfare for the United States is unclear. Many of the largest ships have been decommissioned. However, with military concerns in the Asian Pacific as well as in Eastern Europe, a role for this kind of warfare continues to loom. Key to success, as shown in historical examples, will be the combination of accurate intelligence and the ability to gain and maintain strength in key landing spaces. As the military moves to smaller, targeted forces, the intelligence aspect becomes even more critical.
Amphibious Operations History