Using existing ports is unsurprisingly the preferred option for any ship to shore logistics activity.
Existing ports have berthing for many ships at the same time, facilities for specialist cargo such as fuel, cranes and materials handling equipment in abundance, hard standings and covered warehousing, connection to road and rail routes and in some cases, a ready supply of labour.
With all these benefits why would you go to the trouble of trying to recreate them over a beach where none of these will be available and the invading force will need to bring all those things with them or develop them after landing.
Case Study Review
Going back to the four case studies of D Day, the Falkland Islands, Iraq and Haiti there are many common factors; the need for extensive survey and demining, civilian expertise and capability, the need for simple command and control arrangements and the obvious need for lots of mechanical handling equipment.
Another fact that unites them all in one way or another is existing ports.
The shear breath-taking audacity of the thought process that says no ports, OK, we will bring our own still amazes. A mixture of Mulberry harbours, DUKW’s, Rhino pontoons and various landing craft at an unimaginable scale proved that a large amphibious invasion could be supported by over a bare beach. D Day, therefore, might not be a good example with which to demonstrate the need for existing ports.
The original plan was to make use of a number of small ports in the area as soon as possible, Grandcamp-les-Bains, Isigny, St. Vaast-la-Hougue, Barfleur, Granville and St. Malo in Brittany. These were shallow draft and tidal, unable to be navigated during low water and so they were not central to the planned post D Day offload. St Vaast and Bartfleur were much more promising and luckily, not heavy damaged by the German defenders. Proximity to Cherbourg was a key factor in the invasion site selection. it was expected to be much higher capacity than the minor ports. Unfortunately the Germans had other plans and together with Nantes, Brest and St Malo would be problematical to say the least.
The destruction at Cherbourg was complete, a fine job having been performed by the German combat engineers but after a superb reconstruction and rehabilitation effort by US forces it commenced operations in mid July. Continued construction work would continually improve throughput, especially the deep water berths. As the breakout continued Le Havre and Rouen would also play a significant part in the supply effort.
The build up of combat and logistics strength at the Normandy lodgement was the key to victory but it was not the key to ultimate victory and it was the Dutch ports that were the logistics prize.
Due to the speed of the British advance, the efforts of the Dutch resistance and no small helping of luck Ghent and Antwerp were captured. Their huge combined capacity (over 30,000 tones per day) enabled the final drive into Germany to take place and ultimate victory achieved.
The 5 beaches of D Day were no doubt the high point of over the shore logistics but this was from nations completely mobilised for war, were every resource was made available for the war effort.
Since then, operations have been at a distance and with much more limited objectives and resources.
This is unlikely to change in the future so the other case studies provide a more balanced view.
The Falkland Islands
Another classic over the shore operation so what has it to do with existing ports? During the initial assault operation absolutely nothing but in the aftermath, consolidating, building up forces, reinforcing fixed defences and air facilities and rotating units back to the UK the facilities at Port Stanley would be critical and in dire need of augmentation.
Even the relatively austere facilities at port Stanley with a little augmentation achieved a much higher throughput than at San Carlos. Admittedly, there were no Skyhawk’s dropping bombs at post war Port Stanley but the difference was stark.
Fast forward to when FIPASS arrived and the difference was even more marked. On its first day of operation at Port Stanley 500 tonnes and 60 ISO containers were offloaded in a little over 24 hours. The same lift took 21 days using Mexeflotes.
Operating in Iraq in 2003 and in particular those in the South demonstrated that amphibious raiding remains a useful capability but the real heavy lifting in a logistics sense means a port, Umm Qasr in this example.
With 22 large deep water berths and a range of specialist handling facilities there was no way it was going to be recreated on a beach anywhere any time soon.
Vital to the success of the wider operation was getting Umm Qasr back up to capacity for humanitarian and stabilisation purposes.
Mine clearance, working with the local workforce, aids to navigation repair, wreck removal, dredging and rail connectivity were all key aspects of the rehabilitation effort. As detailed in the case study post improving offload facilities in Kuwait would also play a small but important role.
Worth noting is the logistics effort for operations in 1991 where by augmenting existing ports over 3 million tonnes of stores and 6 million tonnes of fuel were moved into theatre.
Despite the deployment of the full range of JLOTS resources (except ELCAS-M and the fuel elements) the operation in Haiti proved the utility of improving or repairing an existing port in comparison with operating over a beach.
The handling equipment, personnel and storage facilities at the main port allowed the materials that were offloaded to be rapidly cleared and moved outside of the port, an important factor often overlooked when considering ship to shore logistics.
Despite the efforts of the US Navy and others (including civilian shipping organisations) the game changers for Port au Prince cargo throughput came from two things, debris removal and a surrogate pier in the form of the two Crowley barges, APN Blue and Red.
When the first pier/crane barge was in place it increased throughput by a factor of between two and three (depending on the day) and when the second was installed, JLOTS was only used for military cargo.
There is no reason why the port clearance and barge installation could not have come sooner if their need was recognised in advance.
One could argue that had the largely civilian delivered port rehabilitation activity been available as an option sooner it would have done much more than the collection of military JLOTS deployed, hindsight is of course never there when you need it and this is in no way a criticism of those involved but the fact remains that JLOTS was made redundant by clearing debris and floating in and spudding two large barges, both relatively simple and easy to accomplish tasks once the military and coastguard had completed their surveys.
There are a number of geopolitical trends that might also inform our deliberations.
Population and Land Use
The Future Character of Conflict and numerous other studies have predicted a number of distinct trends. First is an increasing population that will place stress on the worlds ability to sustain. That population will be increasingly urbanised. These newly created and expanded urban sprawls will be coastal, or littoral, in character.
Migration to coastal regions is common in both developed and developing nations and population density is observed being higher in coastal cities than in other areas.
If the current trends in population growth, urbanisation and migration continue over three quarters of the worlds population will be living within 150km of the coast.
By 2030 it is predicted that the coastline between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro will be a single urban sprawl housing 40 million people. In South East Asia 75% of all cities with a population in excess of 2.5million are on the coast. Closer to home, the Mediterranean basin has one of the highest population densities anywhere.
This recent video from RUSI of David Kilcullen is well worth the time to watch
Population growth results in an increased level of coastal land development, dredging, land reclamation, pipelines, port development, marinas, storage facilities, fisheries and mines. Sea walls are built, flood defences built and in general, nice, easy to access coastline becomes increasingly under threat.
In the developing world, the lack of effective governance and land management means land development generally wins over beach preservation. Where beaches, coral reefs and mangrove swamps are retained it is because they are valuable to local economies but they will be under constant pressure.
Coastal terrain is incredibly varied, a marina, deep water port, beach, mangrove swamp, mudflat, industrial facility, rocks and cliffs and a load more. Existing amphibious capabilities are generally limited to beaches.
What this will result in is a shortage of areas in which amphibious forces can approach objectives will reduce and continue to reduce. If the objective is to capture a port then the chance of accessible coastline being within practical reach of that port becomes increasingly low. The point of access to the objective becomes a very long ruler which compounds the logistics problem.
In short, as the worlds population grows, urbanises and concentrates in coastal regions amphibious operations become very complicated as terrain that can be accessed by existing system reduces in availability.
If course, I am not saying the worlds beaches are an endangered species but that options are reducing and will reduce further as these trends continue.
Shipping and Ports
Increasing population and globalisation means increasing trade.
Increasing trade means increasing shipping activity.
This does not necessarily mean more ports and ships, it has generally meant bigger ships (New Post Panamax and Malacca Max for example) and fewer ports, supply and demand driving the need for greater efficiency, automation and fewer ‘platforms’
Infrastructure needed for different types of cargo (bulk, liquieds, RORO and containers) has also resulted in port specialisation. Felixstowe for example has no RORO, bulk or liquid cargo facilities whatsoever. Increasingly large and specialist ports act as hubs and more numerous feeder ports collect and distribute on short sea routes, typical hub and spoke configurations being the norm.
There are about 500 container ports worldwide able to handle more than a thousand TEU’s per year with the largest able to handle container capacity in the millions per year but it is noteworthy that less than 20% of worldwide ports handle containers in any meaningful manner despite the high penetration of containerised traffic which means container handling equipment is not as widespread as might be imagined.
The smaller ports (and inland ports) tend to be multipurpose and in order to meet the demands that results from consolidation in mega ports they are both being developed and becoming more numerous.
So more and better ports at the smaller scale but fewer ports and high levels of automation in the mega ports.
If we believe that future operations in Africa may be more likely than less port trends in Africa are important to consider. Here we find that port density compared to coastline is low and large areas do remain undeveloped. There are many small and medium sized ports approaching capacity, quality of aids to navigation, machinery availability and dredging consistency also plagues many African ports.
As ships get larger so do their draughts and this is often a limiting factor.
This means if a ship absolutely needs to access a port it can either offload to lighters or arrive at less than capacity so decrease their draughts, none are ideal.
One survey found that in order to access ports in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield the average utilisation of US sealift ships was a mere 23% of their maximum capacity, the implications of which should be obvious to all.
During Operation Restore Hope in Somalia the first three US propositioning ships to arrive at Mogadishu had to turn around and go elsewhere or back to Diego Garcia because it was too shallow.
Ports or Beaches Then?
Whichever way you look at it, ports will always be needed and any objective analysis of the last several decades of operations would confirm that.
Going over a beach on the other hand, has been essential in only a very small number of operations and yet when we look at this subject and examine our capabilities the focus is on beaches not ports.
Now I know we don’t tend to measure a capabilities usefulness by when it was last used, torpedoes would only be found in museums if that were the case, it is nonsense, but, and it is a big, but, we should still ask the questions.
If we accept that the preferred option is offloading at a port, despite issues with depth, facilities and machinery available the only practical alternative is offloading over a beach.
The limitations of moving large volumes of personnel, stores and vehicles over an unprepared beach are many.
Physical Access; If the beach has a shallow slope the location to offload to a pier could be several hundred metres meaning a long construction time. Offloading to lighters does provide some freedom from this constraint but that is inefficient and dangerous. Rocks are a no no, soil conditions have to be right and there must be enough room for lighters to approach, offload and turn around. In the previous post I looked at the ELCAS-M pier/causeway but as good as it is it is limited by build times measured in weeks not days.
Weather and Sea State; this is probably the single largest constraint on offloading to a beach, no matter what method is used moving containers, break bulk cargo and vehicles from large ships to lighters, either over the side or using RORO transfer platforms, it is dangerous and generally impossible above Sea State 2 because of the relative motions between cargo ship and lighter. Load pendulation when moving cargo via crane also creates very dangerous conditions. Construction of piers and causeways is difficult or impossible in a similar sea state range because beaches are not generally protected by breakwaters or natural means of wave attenuation.
Handling Efficiency; the problem with going over the beach using lighters to shuttle material from large ships to the shore means every single piece has to handled multiple times, inherently inefficient. Once ashore any handling equipment must be soft surface capable, specialised and generally, more expensive than what is probably available at an existing port. The rule of thimb is the more you touch the cargo the less efficient the overall operation is.
Getting Off the Beach: it is all well and good getting ‘stuff’ onto the beach but it has to go somewhere for it to have an effect and setting up shop, your Beach Support Area, in any location will most likely not have convenient access to main supply routes like a port would. This means construction which means more materials being transferred over the very same beach, time and labour requirements. The US JLOTS capability devotes a large proportion of personnel and stores to roadways and hard standing for vehicles, stores and materials handling equipment. As I mentioned above, bare beaches suitable for over the beach logistics at scale will be under pressure from urbanisation and population growth so the the beaches that do remain in these areas will do so because the economics of putting infrastructure works against them. Tracked armoured vehicles can get off a landing ship but beyond that are range constrained without transporters and these transporters are generally not best in poor road conditions, so, that’s more combat engineering.
In general, because a beach operation has to bring everything with it, from handling equipment to roadway materials, for a given sealift capacity there will be less available for combat operations as the very equipment needed for beach operations will displace ammunitions, combat vehicles, artillery and other ‘combat’ related items.
A small fishing village with selected augmentation would most likely need fewer resources and have a greater throughput than a beach.
Logistics over a bare beach are therefore the worst option so the simplistic answer would simply be to drop the idea and do something else.
The problem with looking at the issue through a logistics only lens though is that it ignores the wider requirements of the force commander. Operation Corporate would simply not have been possible without an over the beach component, capturing a port or finding one where the enemy either was not or could not be within short order was a viable option.
From a logistics perspective expanding and enhancing port augmentation and rehabilitation is a no brainer and yet for the UK, USA and allies logistics over the beach has a powerful draw, there must be a good reason for this.
Of course the reason is very simple and can be summed up in two words, Operation Jubilee, the raid on Dieppe in WWII in which the losses were severe.
Despite the limitations, amphibious operations over a beach still have much military validity but only at a modest scale and it must be self supporting with organic sea lift, in the UK’s case, this means landing craft, Mexeflotes and Bay class LSD(A) shipping.
Therefore, if both are needed and no force exists in a world of unlimited budgets, any decision on a new or expanded capability would result in a series of trade offs, preferences and educated guesses about the future.
This lead me to conclude that unless we want to spend significant money developing new techniques for high sea state over the beach logistics capabilities the greatest opportunity to provide a significant utility to joint operations is not sea basing, it is not over the beach and it is not over the horizon STOM but it is simply, port augmentation and enablement.
The answer to the question in the post title is both but in a world of finite resources I believe the greatest ‘return on investment’ will be found in port augmentation and enablement because;
- Historically, operations requiring port augmentation are much more numerous than those requiring over the beach transfer at scale and whilst the past is no guarantee of the future it is a reasonable indicator
- Global population increase, coastal land use and urbanisation will result in a significant development of coasts and the coastal hinterland increasing the number of attractive and accessible locations with access to connecting roads and hard standings that would otherwise have to be built from scratch with materials carried on ships
- Developing high sea state over the beach capabilities will require significant investment against a low probability of use or we will need to carry on accepting the sea state limitations of existing methods
- Sea basing and as envisaged STOM/OMFTS at scale and pace is not affordable for the UK in the short to medium term, and probably long term as well!
- Multi use feeder and small ports will continue to proliferate which increases available locations for use
Retaining existing capabilities is a hedge against uncertainty and a reliable and effective means of conducting amphibious raiding and self sustaining operations not requiring full logistics support in order to secure suitable locations for enablement (these locations may not actually be a port in the traditional sense)
The net result would be an emphasis in investment for port repair and augmentations and a reduction in development funding for traditional logistics over a bare beach.
Sources and Further Reading
Other Posts in the Series
Ship to Shore Logistics – 21 (Expeditionary Port Access – Concept 2 – Requirements and Components)
Ship to Shore Logistics – 22 (Expeditionary Port Access – Concept 2 – Pier Head and Material Handling)
Ship to Shore Logistics – 23 (Expeditionary Port Access – Concept 2 – Causeway)
Ship to Shore Logistics – 24 (Expeditionary Port Access – Concept 2 – Wave Attenuation)
Ship to Shore Logistics – 25 (Expeditionary Port Access – Concept 2 – Deployment and Funding)
Ship to Shore Logistics – 26 (Summary)