On Contested Shores: The Evolving Role of Amphibious Operations in the History of Warfare

  • Published

On Contested Shores: The Evolving Role of Amphibious Operations in the History of Warfare edited by Timothy Heck and B. A. Friedman. Marine Corps University Press, 2020, 395 pp.

With the threat of near-peer warfare becoming closer and closer, there has never been a better time to reexamine the importance and nature of amphibious warfare. Timothy Heck and B. A. Friedman answered the call, editing inputs from 20 authors to the anthology: On Contested Shores: The Evolving Role of Amphibious Operations in the History of Warfare.

Heck brings the practitioner’s experience as a former artillery officer and Friedman the theorist steeped in research. Friedman holds a master’s in security and strategic studies from the US Naval War College. Together, the editors’ detailed collection is accessible to the war fighter.

The book leads the reader through amphibious operations from sixteenth century Tuscany to the Information Age and even future amphibious operations. Similar recent publications include Strategic Water: Iraq and Security Planning in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin and Raging Waters: China, India, Bangladesh, and Brahmaputra River Politics. While these works address amphibious operations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, respectfully, the text in this review focuses on the role of amphibious warfare from a Western perspective.

Heck and Friedman posit that the nature of amphibious warfare has changed throughout history, yet its importance has persisted. Despite some critics’ claim that amphibious operations are facing imminent death, the authors argue that these operations are approaching a period of heightened significance.

Where most historical texts focus on landmark battles such as Normandy and Gallipoli, this book seeks to illuminate often overlooked events. Each chapter is written by a different author, a strategy that allows efforts to be highly concentrated. Illustrations throughout the book are given to orient the reader to the tactical level movement in the context of the strategic and operational environment.

Dividing the text into distinct time periods supports both elements of the thesis. It shows the reader the extent to which amphibious warfare changes by creating clear separations between ops in different time period. This organization also shows that amphibious operations have been crucial throughout the majority Western history.

The reader can make a host of profound implications by pairing this book with other works in the field. First is the changing nature of the Marine Corps. The Force Design 2030 depicts an experimental future Marine Corps. The author challenges the force to gather intelligence, adjust resources and execute simultaneously. As shown in the book, amphibious victories predominantly came as a result of the victor outwitting the enemy. FD 2030 is the Marine’s methodology for maintaining this advantage in the twenty-first century.

Second is the changing nature of military operations in general. Heck and Friedman explain that amphibious operations are inherently joint. Thus, it stands that all services will adopt methodologies to make them nimbler while staying connected. The Air Force has championed this goal, as evidenced by the coveted Joint All-Domain Command and Control and new mission command structure: centralized command, distributed control; and decentralized execution.

The third implication is a rise in frequency of amphibious operations. The authors cite increased sea lines of communications as a result of climate change. This is occurring in concert with the increased threat of Russian and/or Chinese aggression. Since both adversaries are unlikely to attempt a conventional war, skirmishes will most likely occur on third party islands. The US increased funding and mobilization to arctic areas in preparation for this contingency.

The authors support the thesis in a detailed manner, yet the book could be more impactful if the battles included amphibious warfare in Eastern countries. The intent is stated to “give historians, theorists and practitioners an opportunity to... find out what it takes to win on contested shores.”

China is one of, potential the one, highest contested shore the United States may face in the near future. The diverse author corps does not seem to include many specializing in Western vs Eastern warfare. A historic Sino-Western naval battle would lend the reader to understand China’s amphibious operations in the context of their different culture. For example, the Battle of Lake Poyang in China shows how a significantly outnumbered rebel force succeeded by burning the incumbent emperor’s ships filled with gunpowder. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is analogous to the ancient Silk Road. It is feasible that future Sino military tactics may mimic historical naval victories.

This book is crucial for historians, theorists, and practitioners. It should be mandatory reading for all service members participating in joint intermediate developmental education assignment. Personally, it is the clearest depiction of how strategic and political goals led to tactics I have seen. Many of the illustrations are organized in a manner not unlike a conventional mission planning cell.

The authors do an excellent job translating the host of acronyms involved with amphibious warfare. There is a dedicated acronym page before the introduction. This text would be invaluable for any field grade officer looking to participate in, or along with, amphibious operations. It may serve as an excellent historical textbook to help students see that amphibious warfare transcends singular time periods.

Captain Gregory Search, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."