In the Weeds with Littorals
Our guest columnist for this edition of “The Emperor’s New Concept” is once again Commander Keith “Powder” Patton, USN. A frequent Navalist contributor, CDR Patton was deputy chairman for the U.S. Naval War College’s Strategic and Operational Research (SORD) Department and now serves in another capacity at the Naval War College. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.
The US maritime team of the Navy and Marine Corps has been exploring the concept of littoral warfare in depth. The USN continues to build Littoral Combat Ships. The USMC just released its new Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) concept, which explores “how naval forces could be organized, trained and equipped to enhance their ability to operate in a contested littoral environment.” It further refines contested to mean “both uncertain and hostile environments.” But what is littoral?
Merriam-Webster defines littoral as “of, relating to, or situated or growing on or near a shore especially of the sea,” which isn’t a very useful military definition. The Navy’s supplement to DoD Dictionary defines littoral as: “In naval operations, that portion of the world’s land masses adjacent to the oceans within direct control of and vulnerable to the striking power of sea-based forces.” That is slightly different than the US Joint definition of “1. Seaward: the area from the open ocean to the shore, which must be controlled to support operations ashore. 2. Landward: the area inland from the shore that can be supported and defended directly from the sea.”
So, the Navy / Marine Corps team is refining its abilities to operate in uncertain or hostile environments that are not open ocean but must be protected from hostile control, and landward area vulnerable to strikes by naval forces. This leads down two parallel paths:
1) Seaward Control: What constitutes control and how far does it extend?
2) Landward Projection: How far ashore can be supported and defended, or attacked by naval forces?
Sir Julian S. Corbett insisted the purpose of naval warfare was to gain command of the sea, or at least prevent the enemy’s command of it. This was to protect the lines of economic and military communications that we would now define as sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Command of the sea required a situation in which the “enemy can no longer attack one’s lines of passage [SLOCs] and communications effectively, and that he cannot use or defend as his own.” However, in the concept of littoral operations, “open ocean to the shore” is critical. The DoD defines open ocean as beyond 12m, so littoral operations involve controlling the SLOCs in the last 12nm before reaching land. A complex coastline, outlying islands, or archipelagos would expand this sea space significantly, but all would remain close to shore. Thus, when using official US military definitions, littoral operations on the water are very geographically limited.
However, protecting SLOCs within littorals from enemy attack requires control over a far larger geographic area. Fast Attack Craft and Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FAC/FIAC) could race in from areas outside the littorals, or fire missiles from much farther away than 12nm. Aircraft and anti-ship ballistic missiles based far outside the littorals could also be a direct threat to operations within them.
The landward definition of littoral is more nebulous. What constitutes being “supported and defended directly from the sea” or “vulnerable to the striking power of sea-based forces”?
Support from the sea implies logistics operations, the SLOCs terminating in ports and turning into Ground Lines of Communications (GLOCs). Since GLOCs would connect the land forces to the sea, including support in the definition of littoral would seem to include all land areas up to the ground forces engaged. In this sense, Afghanistan and Iraq were littoral, both receiving supplies from sea that then traversed over land to support the troops. Thus, defined broadly, all land is a military littoral for the US (other than US territory).
What about being vulnerable to sea-based strikes? To take this to an extreme, no point on Earth is outside the range of a Trident SLBM, and the US has tested delivery vehicles simulating conventional warheads for land-based ICBMs. Ship-based Tomahawk cruise missiles can reach 700 to 1350 nautical miles. The continental poles of inaccessibility (the point on land furthest from any ocean) mostly lie within a Tomahawk’s range. Only the Eurasian one, located in central Asia, lies around 1390 nm from the Indian and Arctic Oceans. Even at the low end of the Tomahawk range spectrum, only very remote and unpopulated areas of Eurasia are out of range, assuming the US is willing to have weapons overfly other countries. Current US carrier air wings’ unrefueled strike range is about 500nm, but much further with tanking. The USMC requirement for Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) is 200nm, which allows ships to provide support fire deep inland. In Operation Enduring Freedom, USMC and special operations helicopters based on warships staged attacks and ferried Marines to secure Camp Rhino (initially seized by Army Ranger paratroopers) over 375nm from the ships operating areas. The MV-22 Osprey can deliver combat ready Marines 230nm from ships, unrefueled, and in operations has ferried Marines 510nm from ship to shore. Thus, the landward portion of the littorals could be far greater than the sea portion, since sea-based forces can strike deep inland and US forces overseas are always supported from the sea.
Focusing on the Littorals
As Captain (ret) Wayne P. Hughes noted in his book Fleet Tactics, naval operations are always undertaken for a higher goal: “The seat of purpose is on the land.” All the great sea battles have been connected to events on land: landing a force, covering a force, escorting logistics ships, or trying to disrupt an opponent doing the same. Littoral warfare is not some dramatic new concept. All naval warfare is connected to land. However, repackaging a concept and placing renewed emphasis on studying it is not a bad thing. This is especially true when political and technological developments have made US freedom to operate in the maritime environment less assured. The littorals are contested, but the US naval services need to ensure the contest is won by the US.