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- June 2022 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
On Contested Shores. The Evolving Role of Amphibious Operations in the History of Warfare.
This large paperback of 452 pages edited by Timothy Heck and B. A. Friedman was published by the Marine Corps University Press, Quantico, Virginia in 2020. Importantly it can be downloaded as a freely available PDF. Generously illustrated, this book comes highly recommended.
At first impression, On Contested Shores appears to be another weighty tome aiming to describe the complexity of conducting large scale and essentially contemporary amphibious operations from a primarily American or, more specifically, a United States Marine Corps (USMC) perspective. However, it soon becomes refreshingly apparent to the reader that this volume is something quite different. Significantly, the editors have endeavoured to provide an engaging examination of multi-national amphibious operations both large and small, from the mid-1500s to the present day. As evinced throughout the selected essays contained in this volume, it is especially thought-provoking to recognise that whilst the tools of the trade have changed significantly over the past 500+ years, the core nature of amphibious warfare has effectively remained constant across the centuries. That core nature being ‘the projection of combat power from sea to the shore and beyond’. Moreover, the efficacy of those nations seeking a credible military power projection capability maintaining amphibious warfare proficiency remains as relevant today as ever.
To an Australian reader, On Contested Shores provides the added bonus of a comprehensive, albeit non-traditional, examination of the failures of the 1915 Gallipoli campaign and the wide-reaching effect the study of Gallipoli had on USMC amphibious tactics, techniques and procedures throughout the 1930s and beyond. I must admit that the chapter heading of The U.S. Marine Corps and Gallipoli took me somewhat by surprise, and prior to reading this essay I was not fully aware of the extent to which the USMC had studied Gallipoli, nor how much these studies informed the US Pacific war strategy in WWII. Furthermore, whilst it is unusual to read professional criticism of Australia’s official war historian Charles Bean, it is instructive to realise that his and other contemporary accounts of the Gallipoli campaign were viewed with some scepticism by inter-war USMC officers. Whether or not this scepticism was warranted is always open to debate, but the fact that lessons learned from Gallipoli in 1915, not least of which included the essential need for an effective logistics train for mission success, contributed to ultimate US victory in the costly amphibious assaults on Tarawa in 1943 and Iwo Jima in 1945 is food for thought for amphibious warfare historians and practitioners alike.
The analysis of some less well known (at least to this reader) historical European amphibious operations in this volume significantly adds to its appeal. By straying from a simple re-analysis of the more familiar and generally large-scale 20th century amphibious assaults, On Contested Shores becomes a truly global examination of the evolution of the ‘amphibious art’ beyond D-Day, Inchon or indeed Gallipoli. Furthermore, appropriate segues between the chapters offer an insightful assessment of how the evolution of warfighting technological advances has impacted amphibious doctrine and activities throughout the ages. Similarly, a common thread throughout the book’s chapters is that irrespective of nationality, amphibious mission success is highly reliant on all operational planners and practitioners having a coherent understanding of amphibious doctrine.
One interesting example of this less well travelled analysis of the historical contribution of amphibious operations to the prosecution of wider war objectives is the examination of Estonian Amphibious Operations in the Eastern Baltic, 1918–1920 in Chapter 8. This chapter ably demonstrates that an amphibious capability is not just the province of great powers. Rather, middle and smaller powers can similarly exploit the strategic and tactical benefits to be gained from the proficient prosecution of amphibious operations – particularly the amphibious raid. Even though the Estonians only possessed rudimentary amphibious capabilities (and indeed, doctrine), the fact that these operations were successfully conducted against a numerically superior foe also remains a compelling lesson for military strategists today.
Whilst by necessity On Contested Shores concentrates heavily on historical analysis, the editors have chosen not to only remain in the past. Several chapters delve into both the present and the future and the continued relevance of amphibious operations in modern warfare. Suitable emphasis is therefore placed on the technologically driven evolution of amphibious doctrine. To this end, current amphibious practitioners will no doubt welcome the discussions on Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2/AD), the constant development of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and the impact of an increased shore-based missile threat in the littoral. Interestingly, since this book has been written and whilst not an amphibious operation per se, the Russian Federation Navy has recently experienced the adverse impact of warships operating in the littoral within range of shore based anti-ship missiles.
One of the stated aims of the editors of this book was to ‘dispel some of the assumptions that have attached themselves to amphibious warfare’ over time, not least of which is the misguided belief that the sole exemplar of amphibious operations is the large-scale amphibious assault. Moreover, that the archetypical assault is only conducted on the magnitude of the 1944 D-Day invasion or Inchon Korea in 1950. Consequently, there is a school of thought that such amphibious operations (assaults) have been rendered obsolete in modern warfare. In my opinion, the editors have more than effectively countered this assumption. Furthermore, they have contended that whilst large scale amphibious assaults against well defended shores are unlikely to be seen in the future, smaller scale amphibious raids and amphibious support to crisis responses remain highly viable options to modern military strategists throughout the world. The current and projected force structures of a number of middle powers (including Australia) seem to reinforce this contention.
Noting the significant investment in and integration of amphibious capabilities over the past two decades by the Australian Defence Force (ADF), On Contested Shores is a particularly timely and worthwhile publication for an Australian audience. Especially for those entrusted with the continued development of, and justification for, these complex and expensive capabilities. Similarly, this comprehensive and engaging publication is highly deserving of any military historian’s attention or indeed anyone with a deep interest in the evolution, prosecution and continued relevance of amphibious operations within the spectrum of modern warfare.
Reviewed by: Nick Bramwell