Moving a force from one shore to another, and on to objectives further inland, requires some form of a ship to shore capability. It allows a force to be landed, potentially in a hazardous environment, from ships onto any part of an objective coast, sustained, supported and withdrawn from the same area, using ships.
The recent deployment of British forces to Estonia could hardly be more different from those arriving off the beaches of Normandy, but conceptually, they are the same.
Ship to shore movements exist on a sliding scale of volume and combat intensity.
Theatre Entry and the Strike Brigade Concept
In a more conventional amphibious operation, an armed force goes ashore over the beach and makes an area safe for the bulk of the follow force and its logistic tail.
Traditionally, this meant the amphibious force would land on a beach, create a lodgement area where materials could be gradually built up and additional forces landed, then the combined force would push inland, out of the lodgement area, and onto the main objective. The advent of the helicopter meant that the beach could be bypassed to some extent but it was always acknowledged that for any operation at scale there was no avoiding having to create a lodgement area.
Then came a realisation that enemy precision capabilities and long range weapons would put this slow building lodgement area, and the shipping taking part in the build-up process close inshore, under significant risk. Seabasing and other ‘ship to objective manoeuvre’ concepts evolved to counter this by ignoring the beach, projecting and sustaining the manoeuvre force to its inland objective directly from a seabase, or collection of logistic support vessels anchored far enough offshore to be relatively safe.
This is a logical counter to anti-access technologies such as precision weapons and advanced mines, but it places a great deal of emphasis on aircraft and other extremely expensive equipment.
Is this sustainable, perhaps only to the very well trousered, but even then, it was eventually acknowledged that for the sheer weight and volume of stores needed to sustain a modern force and the requirements of heavy armour there was simply no alternative to transitioning from a ship to the shore via some form of surface craft.
These may now take the form of a variety of designs such as hovercraft and fast landing craft using novel hull forms and propulsion systems. Speed was emphasised because of the need to travel much further distances between the shore and the far offshore sea base.
In order to establish and maintain momentum, forces have to be landed at pace, this is impossible with a 10-knot landing craft plodding along through 65 nautical mile long safe lanes to the sea base, i.e. a collection of logistics ships.
Speed is never free, it generally decreases payload and drives up cost and maintenance, again, driving up the cost of approaching the land from far offshore.
The simple problem is that amphibious operations with landing craft require certain favourable terrain, beaches with suitable gradients for example. Look at the images above, and in the context of increasingly urbanised and developed coastlines, with more ports, those suitable locations may be harder to find.
A smaller number of potential landing beaches means a smaller number of likely landing beaches that need to be watched and defended, with the obvious implications thereof.
Aha I hear you say, if there are more ports, why not sail our landing craft into them?
The conventional wisdom is that ports are too easy to defend and, therefore, too costly to attack.
Amphibious doctrine has developed to settle on the position that an amphibious assault occurs generally speaking, where the enemy is not, gets ashore fast enough and in enough mass to avoid falling victim to an enemy counter-attack, and then secures a port from the land side. Once secured, the port is then used for follow-on forces because simply put, there is no comparison between the offload rates of an established port and a beach.
This theory rests on the port in question being close enough to manoeuvre to from the beach lodgement area, heavy forces that can invest a large port generally speaking are logistics heavy and somewhat difficult to move across large distances, especially if being logistically supported from the seabase across a beach.
With increasingly long range precision munitions, persistent surveillance and pervasive media connectivity the distance from a relatively safe beach and objective becomes increasingly larger.
One then arrives at a conclusion that extending the distance between entry point and objective, together with increasingly inaccessible coastline and increasingly common smaller ports, means that going over a beach at a safe distance is more trouble than going into a small port at the same safe distance.
It also results in a problem for manoeuvre forces, they need to move over much longer distances, beach or small port.
This is exactly where the British Army’s Strike Brigade concept comes in.
Able to transit longer distances, it can conduct theatre entry at distances much greater than traditional heavy forces going slowly over the beach.
With distance, comes a reduction in risk and the potential to exploit small to medium sized ports.
However, even with increasing numbers of small ports at distance from the objective, it might not be enough.
Coastal terrain is incredibly varied, a marina, deep water port, beach, mangrove swamp, mudflat, industrial facility, rocks and cliffs and many more. Existing amphibious capabilities are generally limited to beaches.
This may seem somewhat contradictory compared to much of the above, but it is a recognition that not all is black and white. The same rule of distance would still apply, but having the ability to go over the shore outside of a port environment would still be extremely useful.
The Estonia deployment briefly mentioned above is a good example where a deployment is routine and into a friendly environment.
Normally, the port of entry would be selected for a wide number of reasons but there is a potential to require some temporary augmentation of the port in question.
Conflict Reduction, Overseas Development and Disaster Relief
In a disaster relief context, many of the same arguments apply except in general, beaches tend to be sited away from population centres and finding suitable ports near affected populations should in theory, be somewhat easier.
As was seen from the response to the Haiti earthquake, over the shore was the single most effective means of providing relief to those affected but once the port was re-established, it doubled and then tripled the throughput of the over the beach capabilities deployed.
The same is also true for other disaster relief operations, beaches might be OK for small quantities and isolated communities but the big numbers need ports.
The final piece of context for this proposal one of a more developmental nature, and to illustrate, a project called Sandy Bottom.
Improving counter people trafficking/narcotics smuggling capabilities, illegal fishing enforcement and general maritime security are a proven means of increasing a nation’s wealth and security. These would be valid investments for overseas development aid.
Patrol ships need ports.
Which brings me to the Royal Bahamas Defence Force and Project Sandy Bottom.
The project was designed to completely recapitalise the RBDF patrol and enforcement capabilities by delivering a range of vessels, and importantly, new port facilities.
This new port facilities cost approximately $75 million.
Working with Damen and Van Ord, the RBDF have seen significant returns on their investment.
Small port development is an important part of this overall proposal.
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