In 2013, I published a series of posts on Ship to Shore Logistics that examined doctrine and four case studies, reviewed existing UK and US capabilities and proposed a series of improvements (Concept 1 and 2) on a sliding scale of capability v cost. The underlying theme of the series was that the capabilities in support of sustainment phase of an amphibious operation had been neglected in order to concentrate resource on the amphibious combat aspects, yet it was capabilities for logistic sustainment that contributed more across a wider spectrum of operation types and amphibious assault at scale seldom used.
One of the case studies was a Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief (HADR) operation, Haiti. This was designed to highlight the dual role of this type of capability.
I also made the point that our doctrinal eyes are bigger than our reality belly, whilst we may aspire to full spectrum over the shore operations at scale, the reality is quite different. I asked, but did not answer, the question about relative resource investment between ‘logistics’ and ‘combat’, should the UK invest less in amphibious combat and more in amphibious logistics.
During the series, there were some great comments, discussion and challenges to my thinking.
This article is a refresh and update of the original series.
Moving a force from one shore to another, and on to objectives further inland, requires some form of a ship to shore method, commonly referred to as an amphibious assault capability.
This allows a force to be landed, potentially in a hazardous environment, from ships onto any part of an objective coast, sustained, supported and potentially, withdrawn from the same area, using ships. This can range from small scale ‘commando raids’ to operations at extreme scale, such as the D-Day landings in France during WWII. Conceptually, there is a distinction between what might be termed the assault phase and the sustainment phase, the former usually creating the conditions for the latter.
An armed force goes ashore and makes and area safe for the bulk of the follow force and its logistic tail. The shore might be a beach or a more developed area like an existing port. Traditionally, this meant the amphibious force would land on a beach, create a lodgement area where the materials could be gradually built up and additional forces landed, then the combined force would push inland 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 the realisation that enemy precision and long range weapons would put this slow building lodgement area and the shipping taking part in the build-up process under significant risk. Seabasing and ship to objective manoeuvre concepts evolved to counter this by ignoring the beach, projecting 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.
The concept also 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. Traditionally this was the familiar landing craft but 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 by nor anchored 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.
What about ports?
The conventional wisdom is that ports are too easy to defence and, therefore, too hard to attack. The 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.
You can, of course, bring your port with you but even the most ambitious mobile port, the Mulberry of D-Day fame, was no match for Cherbourg and other French and Dutch ports. The amphibious assault has benefited from significant investment and development activity but the equipment used in the vital logistics follow on has not, even the ambitious US JLOTS mobile jetty and associated equipment would not look out of place on Omaha Beach. This has shaped actual amphibious capability available to be one characterised by short sharp jabs, lacking in sustainability and mass.
The ability to make use of existing ports or create new ones have been ignored for far too long. There is also another issue that puts the existing arrangements under threat, coastlines are changing. The rapid urbanisation and development of coast environments mean that beaches with optimal gradient and soil conditions combined with undeveloped near inshore areas are becoming fewer in number. 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. Another mostly ignored issue is that landing stores and vehicles from ship to shore does not always have to be in the context of an assault.
Simply establishing forces in an adjacent country or conducting a humanitarian mission may require existing ports to be improved or repaired. If we look at most recent operations we see that port augmentation and repair is much more likely than going over a beach and yet, again, this is a capability that has seen little investment.
Taken together, these factors point to a need to establish and/or improve our ability to make use of existing ports as the first priority and optionally, develop our ‘ports for use on beaches’ capability.
The world has moved on since D-Day, offshore energy engineering has seen many advances, and these advances should be exploited for military and humanitarian use.
In this document, I will examine a number of case studies, existing capabilities, and develop ideas for improving our ability to exploit existing ports and creating port like facilities in undeveloped areas.
Ports have been ignored for too long.
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