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september 17, 2019

From ship to shore and beyond: addressing C2 challenges in amphibious warfare


Amphibious warfare presents arguably the biggest C2 challenge and is a truly Joint endeavour. The complex, multi-faceted nature of these missions requires a cohesive command structure and success depends heavily on effective planning and coordination.

Providing situational awareness during the landing phase of operations is a difficult task. (US Department of Defense*)

In the post-Cold War era the importance of amphibious warfare in Western military doctrine waned, as the maritime environment was largely considered to be uncontested. This continued for many years and much of the focus of recent operations has been placed on long-running counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare, for which large-scale amphibious operations have not taken place. However, as 40 per cent of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the coast the likelihood of such capabilities being employed is high.

The emergence of peer and near-peer threats has placed a renewed emphasis on littoral warfare capabilities. Indeed, despite significant commitments to COIN operations, militaries have been ramping up training for amphibious warfare, with large-scale exercises such as ‘Bold Alligator’ and ‘Talisman Sabre’ established in the training calendar.

It has long been understood that amphibious operations are likely to take place in environments where anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities exist. As these threats have improved, the littoral zone has extended and would likely require forces to be delivered from over the horizon and for support to be provided at greater distances in land. Furthermore, as witnessed in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, anti-ship missiles have proliferated to even non-state actors.

The collaboration and planning required to undertake this form of warfare necessitates a joined-up approach across the task force. While the different components – naval, aviation, and amphibious forces – have some overlapping goals and requirements, each must be cognisant of the others’ individual aims if they are to be able to react quickly to changes in the area of operations and anticipate how the course of action will develop.    

As an example, fire support can stem from a variety of sources, both organic to the amphibious force – largely mortars and light artillery – and from those ‘owned’ by other elements, such as close air support and naval gunfire. For the amphibious commander ashore, real-time awareness of which assets are available and what their capabilities are can greatly assist the decision-making process and speed of manoeuvre. Save for the US Marine Corps – which possesses comprehensive fires capabilities – amphibious operations will rely on the cross-service coordination of assets.

Knowledge of available assets is just one element that can be crucial to mission success and any system that can provide timely, accurate information has the potential to be a force multiplier in contemporary and future warfare in the littoral domain.

Amphibious operations often see forces inserted into environments where manoeuvre is challenging. (US DoD).

The orchestration of multiple force elements makes planning for amphibious operations especially challenging. They typically require operations to achieve battlespace dominance ahead of any attempted landings and have numerous planning and preparation phases. These must consider transit to the area of operations (and the associated force protection requirements), amphibious or other reconnaissance, pre-landing rehearsal and disembarkation (which can include aviation assets), beach landings, consolidation of the beachhead, and the subsequent inland operations, among others.

History has shown that well-coordinated logistics, communications, fires, and CAS are determining factors in the success of an amphibious operation. As A2/AD capabilities have increased across the spectrum, effective planning, real-time C2, and comprehensive SA are essential, as is the ability to present the different component commanders with a common operating picture (COP) and the recognized maritime picture (RMP).

While C2 systems for the different aspects of the mission have typically been stovepiped to each component – often resulting in a ‘swivel chair’ approach to information sharing and planning, and updates and requests made via voice – modern warfare necessitates far greater speed and integration, arguably to the extent that a common C2 capability is required.

SitaWare Headquarters is one such system that features the functionality to meet the individual and shared planning, C2, and SA requirements of naval and amphibious force commanders, not least because of the comprehensive COP and RMP that the system is able to provide to users.

Inherent in SitaWare are advanced 3-D mapping and force tracking capabilities, and the system is capable of plotting both blue and red forces; in the case of the latter this can include range rings around identified threats and marking the location of mines - an important feature for force protection.

With regards to planning, SitaWare accommodates multiple layers and the wide range of tools enable commanders to clearly draw-up plans. The ability to include meteorological and Sea State information, for example, can be critical for force protection, landings, and resupply. Meanwhile, real-time access to information on the status of units and holdings enables commanders to optimise the delivery of supplies and forces as situations develop.

One of the most significant challenges that must be overcome in amphibious warfare is how to address the ‘data gap’ that is often created in the period from the embarkation of the amphibious component and establishing a command post (CP) ashore that has the necessary communications infrastructure.

By their nature, amphibious forces typically travel ‘light’, as such, the communications capabilities that they deploy with offer limited bandwidth and range. Transferring all of the data compiled in the planning stages of an operation is not possible and often tactical communications systems only have the capacity for a fraction of this. One existing approach to providing the elements ashore with all the data is to physically transport a hard drive and download information into the infrastructure established in the CP, obviously this can cause latency, a loss in SA, and a lack of awareness of any changes that have occurred since the operation commenced.  

Through the SitaWare Headquarters Communications (SHC) protocols, information managers can determine which is the most important information to receive once ashore and set the system to prioritise these as soon as the bandwidth becomes available, information that is determined to be of lower importance is then downloaded and synced when possible. SitaWare Headquarters also builds its planning layers in very small sizes – down to kilobytes even – this enables information to be transferred in restricted operating conditions and via HF communications if necessary. The ability to operate in C2 disrupted or degraded environments (C2D2E) has been recognised as a priority by many militaries, as they have to consider how they will function when satellite communications or other high bandwidth systems may be unavailable or jammed.

Indeed, preparing for operations in conditions where communications will be limited should be a priority, especially for those militaries who have been focused on COIN missions for some time. There, extensive communications infrastructure with large bandwidth capacity and extended ranges exist, nor is there the threat of interference by an enemy, this may not be the case going forward – certainly not in the amphibious warfare domain – and CONOPS must be updated to reflect this.  

Air assets are typically a component of all phases of operations. (US DoD).

With few militaries conducting large-scale operations independently, it will likely be the case that interoperability is required in the amphibious warfare domain. In this regard further utility can be brought by using Systematic’s IRIS Forms messaging system in conjunction with SitaWare Headquarters. The IRIS messaging system is combat proven and has become the de-facto standard in NATO member countries for interoperability and military messaging using agreed international MTF standards.

The content contained within the message can automatically be extracted into the C2 system, where the plan and associated graphical elements – such as map overlays – are generated. If the recipient of the message operates IRIS Forms but not SitaWare, then the information is readily at hand and in an easy to extract format, and even if they do not have the Forms solution the data contained in the message will be available in the traditional text format. The IRIS Forms interface also enables quick and accurate changes to be made to a plan, as the relevant components are easily identifiable and accessible for editing.

Changes made within SitaWare can also be exported to the IRIS MTF and disseminated through the usual means. New orders can easily be introduced into the SitaWare C2 system without the need to load a completely new plan, the user simply receives a notification of the changes – for example as a chat message – and then imports the information with a few clicks.

At a time when peer and near-peer threats are a concern, shortening the command cycle can make the difference between success and failure - automatically transferring information contained in an MTF into a C2 system can bring a step change in capability for commanders.

An easy to overlook operational requirement that is set to become of increasing importance is that of providing SA to landing craft and amphibious vehicles. Traditionally these have had only rudimentary SA, largely coming from voice and visual commands. With the likelihood that delivery distances – and therefore times – are going to increase, the need for organic SA for these assets is apparent. While they will not need extensive C2 functionality, providing chat capabilities and most importantly force tracking and SA could be very beneficial – the ability for mines in the surf zone to be marked up when identified, for example, could be a boon.

The needs of the naval component commander must be of high priority throughout the mission, even after the disembarkation of the landing forces, as their role extends beyond the safe transit and delivery of the amphibious element.

Amphibious operations can extend far in-land and require the coordination of multiple assets for tasks such as close air support. (US DoD).

Providing the recognized ground picture to the naval commander can greatly benefit the mission as a whole. If the naval commander is aware of the disposition of forces ashore, for example, they can determine how to best position fire support elements and manage aviation assets to optimise CAS, resupply, and medical evacuation capabilities. The naval commander also has the ongoing concern of fleet protection, as this will likely not disappear after the amphibious aspects of a mission are complete. Submarines and mines, for example, can pose a significant risk to a task force operating in a fixed area off the coast or disrupt operations simply by their presence in the AO. Features such as marking-up minefields and creating guard zones around them, can enhance force protection.

The increasing complexity of the littoral environment and the sophistication of threats therein, is driving the development of various technologies and new CONOPS. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in the US, for example, is exploring the greater use of unmanned systems to undertake a number of the tasks required in amphibious operations. Vehicles for clearing the surf zone of mines, reconnoitring and preparing landing areas, and delivering supplies are under examination, among many others.

The C2 challenge with regards to these new systems centres on how to best integrate them within the wider operational picture and it is here that open architectures are essential - SitaWare has been developed with this in mind. The system’s design enables the growth of C2 capabilities to be customer-driven, rather than stovepiped, and in addition to company-developed apps the SitaWare software development kit supports customers and third parties in developing their own.

That amphibious forces have not been employed at a large-scale for some time does not undermine their usefulness. The flexibility and scalability that they offer allows commanders to task them for a range of missions, and not just those that require kinetic effect. For example, amphibious forces have frequently been employed for humanitarian and disaster relief missions, where the broad range of capabilities that they possess – from engineering, to communications, to medical – are of paramount importance.


*The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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