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Naval Transformation, Ground Forces, and the Expeditionary Impulse: The Sea-Basing Debate

Authored by Professor Geoffrey Till. | December 2006

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The end of the Cold War has ushered in a period in which Western military forces have engaged primarily in expeditionary operations. These have turned out to be much more complex politically than first thought and have required naval planners to focus on delivering effects from the sea rather than at sea. Accordingly, navies around the world are going through a time of transition and transformation in which questions are being asked about their priorities, the relative importance of their contributions to joint and combined campaigns, and how these best might be provided.

Because of the understandably widespread fixation on the warfighting phase of the expeditionary operation, current conceptions of the naval contribution, even in the United States, do not pay sufficient regard to the less obvious aspects of the naval contribution to campaigns which mostly are by their nature maritime. It is easy, for example, to neglect the importance of the diplomatic activity which acts as a kind of beforeand-after-sales service to the main warfighting event. Naval diplomacy, of course, may reduce the necessity for high-intensity expeditionary operations in the first place. But even when it does not, a naval diplomatic campaign to win friends and influence people and to deter potential malefactors should be designed to create the optimum political context within which the expeditionary campaign may be fought. The same can be said for the naval effort to assure maritime security by maintaining good order at sea against those that threaten it (such as waterborne terrorists, pirates, smugglers, arms suppliers, and the like). Even navies with their institutional and budgetary priorities for the requirements of high-intensity capabilities have a tendency to neglect these less visible low-intensity tasks that often are crucial to the winning and, as important, the sustaining of victory in the land campaign.

While the U.S. Navy may be taking the lead in developing capabilities of direct value to the prosecution of expeditionary operations, many other navies are doing so as well, if on a smaller and less ambitious scale, although this widespread effort may be predicated on assumptions about ?an expeditionary future? which, in the end, may not be obtained. There are three maritime requirements of expeditionary warfare. First is the capacity to maintain sea control on the open ocean and in the littorals to protect the force and enable it to engage in missions against the land. Second is the projection of power ashore, and third is the provision of sea-based logistical support for maritime forces at sea and land forces ashore. These are interrelated in complex ways and should not be considered as separate and discrete.

The maintenance of sea control raises issues about the difference and relative priority between operations in the littoral and on the open ocean, and provides a set of significant technological challenges to today?s naval planners and force developers. The effectiveness of the response of these planners to these sometimes novel challenges will have significant implications for those involved in the land campaign because of their military and political reliance on high degrees of sea control. Political constraints of the sort revealed in the Iraq war of 2003 also have emphasized the advantages of maritime power projection.

The apparently newest aspect of the maritime contribution to the joint expeditionary campaign, however, has been the emergence of the concept of sea-basing, which generally is regarded as the most ?transformational? aspect of the issue. Its advocates consider it a sea change in the extent to which maritime forces can support land and air forces ashore, emphasize the extent to which recent operational experience has high-lighted its political and military advantages, and consider it a thoroughly ?joint? asset. But, since future performance will be determined by the extent to which many of these anticipated capabilities can be delivered technologically, definitions and expectations remain ambiguous.

A brief review of the military experience of the 20th century shows that the notion that navies can base military power at sea and can support forces ashore directly is by no means new, and a close study of the realities of the Normandy campaign of 1944, in particular, will reveal its historical strengths and weaknesses. Since that time, however, the demands of expeditionary operations have both grown and become more complex. Military conditions have become more difficult because of the increased distance from the home base, the unfamiliar and difficult terrain in which such operations may need to be conducted, and because of the growing sophistication of the adversary. On top of that, the political necessities of rebuilding the peace in fractured societies have placed an additional set of logistical burdens on any sea-based system intended to support the process.

Navies around the world, therefore, are busily reviewing their sea-basing policies in order to cope with these increasing demands. Solutions will depend on industry?s capacity to provide technical solutions to the many detailed requirements that are being identified and on the political and military establishment?s ability to resolve key procedural difficulties. The first is largely a military-technical matter of producing the requisite platforms and capacities; the second, though, depends absolutely on service agreement, on a holistic approach to the entire sea-basing issue, and on government?s willingness to give sea-basing the financial and political support that it needs.

For the time being, the expeditionary impulse will continue, and a quiet naval revolution is taking place in order to support it. But the extent to which these developments really will prove ?transformational,? and whether practice confirms theory, remain to be seen. Much will depend on the political consequence of current events and on how well thought-out the project proves to be.


Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Iraq have brought an increasing focus on the requirements of intervention, stabilization, and the subse- quent transformation of fractured societies around the world. Experience shows that military victory on its own is not enough. For this to be translated into strategic success, the forces of intervention have to transform themselves from straightforward battle-winners into reconstruction forces. Such forces must be capable of providing and maintaining sufficient internal security, while helping provide all the services necessary to a settled society. ?To conquer,? said Napoleon, ?is easy; to rule is difficult.?

Recent experience suggests that the lessons learned with such difficulty by the allies when they confronted the chaos ensuing from the sudden collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945 were major casualties of the Cold War.1 In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States and its allies are being reminded painfully that stabilization and reconstruction require larger numbers of troops on the ground for much longer than preintervention planners might have thought necessary, and that the soldiers in question need much more than ?mere? warfighting skills. To relearn these lessons will likely require a shift in the organizational cultures of the armed services.2

Navies and air forces around the world have drawn from this experience the obvious conclusion that future defense priorities in countries with similar interventionist aspirations are likely to reflect a growing relative emphasis on the provision of intelligently trained and responsive ?boots on the ground.? With resources being finite, defense expenditure on those aspects of air and naval forces whose function seems less than wholly related to this central aim seem likely to be limited.3

Accordingly, naval planners are changing their emphasis from power at sea to power from the sea. The traditional demands of bluewater sea control which have dominated naval spending for centuries have dropped way down the priority list. The Royal Netherlands Navy, for example, has emphasized,

The increasing importance of supporting land operations from the sea, the increase in tasks at the lower end of the spectrum of force, and the reduced scale of the traditional sea control and sea denial tasks. . . . Although these tasks, and the maritime supremacy of the West, continue to be important, they require fewer resources than was the case during the Cold War.4

Accordingly, the Dutch Navy currently is engaged in a major rebalancing of its capabilities, including a reduction in the number of bluewater M class frigates, the acquisition of additional smaller patrol vessels optimized for littoral operations, improved capacity for countering diesel submarines and mine warfare, development of an enhanced support vessel, the expansion and modernization of the Marine Corps, equipping their air defense and command frigates with tactical Tomahawks, and a theater ballistic missile defense upgrade.5

This policy reflects a great deal of original and innovative thinking about what the Dutch Navy needs to deliver in an expeditionary age?helping ?resolve security problems within and outside Europe, even those that are at a considerable distance away.?6

These ambitions are entertained among navies all around the world, to a greater or lesser extent. The question arises: Does this amount to a real transformation in the roles of navies and the support they can offer ground forces engaged in expeditionary operations?


1. See, for example, Omar White, Conqueror?s Road: An Eyewitness Report of Germany 1945, Cambidge: Cambridge University Press, reprinted 1996, pp. 35, 104, 120, for some startling parallels with Iraq 2003-06. These arguments are summarized conveniently in Joseph J. Collins, ?Planning Lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq,? Joint Forces Quarterly, No. 41, April-June 2006, pp. 10-14.

2. Discussions with senior Royal Naval personnel, Ministry of Defence, London, May 2, 2006.

3. Naval Study 2005 to Parliament, October 14, 2005, official English translation, p. 2.

4. ?Tomahawk Buy Cleared by Dutch Parliament,? Jane?s Defence Weekly, December 7, 2005.

5.Netherlands Defence Doctine, The Hague: Ministry of Defence, 2005, p. 36.

6.U.S. Naval thinking is summarized conveneintly in Admiral Vern Clark, ?Seapower 21: Projecting Decisive Joint Capabilities,? Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, October 2002, pp. 33-41.