Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Operational Factors but Were Afraid to Ask

'Nuf said

‘Nuf said

The reduced frequency of posts by your humble blogger is primarily because his writing is directed toward other ends these days. But now that the current course’s first paper has been submitted, graded and returned, it is provided here for your perusal and amusement (perusement?). I added hyperlinks to the historical references that might be more obscure to the layman, and arranged the type for web display, but otherwise it is presented as it was written for the War College. So now if any friends challenge you to a debate over the relative merits of operational factors on land or at sea, you’ll know what to do.

Without further ado:

* * *

Military operations across all domains share certain characteristics, such as the objective of eliminating the enemy’s means or will to resist.  However, intrinsic differences between the land and maritime domains mean that ways of meeting these operational goals differ, primarily through their innate characteristics of movement and ability to control territory.

Before discussing the operational conduct of war, it is worth stating the obvious; namely, people live on land but only do business at sea.  All the world’s capitals and population centers are on land.  The sea merely provides natural resources and Mahan’s “great highway”[i] for trade between landward inhabitants, not living space valuable in and of itself.  As Vego states, this means that maritime objectives “are prerequisites for the accomplishment of the main or principal objective on land or ashore” (emphasis added).[ii]  Forces at sea “play a supporting role because the outcome in a war is ultimately decided on land,” he notes.[iii]

Operational Factors – Space

The nature of space in the land and maritime domains is the first and most obvious factor to account for at the operational level – on land, ground is relatively static, whereas the sea is dynamic.  A topographic map can be reliable for many years at a time; in contrast, while coastlines may remain relatively constant, the underwater terrain, such as the locations of channels and shoal water, is subject to radical change from storms, and ambient conditions such as tide, temperature and salinity are in daily flux.  Failing to account for the latest conditions can erase any prospect of success, particularly for amphibious or antisubmarine operations.  Nature does not present this volume of time-sensitive variables ashore.

A second important spatial consideration is the difference in scale to be considered in land versus maritime warfare. To use another World War I example, the entire Western Front stretched approximately 440 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea.  If we shift our gaze to potential East Asian hot spots, however, we see Manila is more than 1,000 miles across the South China Sea from Hanoi, and Singapore 1,500 miles from Manila – and this is just one theater in a military confrontation with China, which is itself approximately 5,000 miles from Hawaii.  These vast distances have many impacts, including long response times, porous surveillance, and inherent challenges to sustainment.  And yet, planning for such distances in a maritime theater is routine, something that cannot often be said on land.

Operational Factors – Time

Space naturally impacts time in military operations, both for better and worse. Naturally, it takes longer to travel a long distance than a short one.  Distances traversed at sea are generally longer than those ashore.  However, land forces must contend with terrain, poor roads and other sources of Clausewitzian friction not found at sea[iv].  Maritime forces can bypass many of these operational headaches, and respond to events across a theater faster than any force on land, even if their route is more circuitous than on land.  Arriving in theater from a home base, however, may be quite time-consuming, especially if entire oceans must be crossed.

Operational Factors – Force

The nature of military force ashore and afloat is tied to the domain in which it operates.  Land warfare is dominated by infantry – essentially, men carrying light weapons on foot, equipped and trained with relative ease for millennia.  Infantry represent dispersed firepower that can be spread over a wide area.  The loss of a single infantryman or vehicle has a marginal impact on the operations of a land force.  In contrast, a ship is a significant capital investment that intrinsically represents concentrated firepower.  Its entire highly-trained crew rides within its hull, the loss of any one of which represents an enormous blow to the maritime combat force of its owner.  No less a document recognizes this disparity in relative investment than the U.S. Constitution, in which Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress to “raise and support” armies for short terms, but “provide and maintain” a navy indefinitely[v].  This plays out operationally when a ground commander may control dozens of units each executing a small part of the mission, while a naval commander may have only five or six units upon which the entire effort rests.

The Intersection of Factors

Accounting for all three forces shows that the sea lends itself to movement; land lends itself to control.  Maritime forces have the ability to move anywhere with deep water.  This allows ships to operate anywhere in a theater, providing opportunities to surprise and unbalance the enemy, with the landings at Inchon as the textbook example.  Ground forces lack this capability for rapid movement, but have the advantage of being able to take ownership of ground.  They can dig in to defend a position and even provide civil administration of a resident population, if necessary.  As such, control on land is fundamentally defensive. A defensible position, such as the Korean Demilitarized Zone, can stretch uninterrupted for hundreds of miles, with defenders simply lying in wait for someone to try crossing it.

In contrast, control at sea, even when strategically defensive, is operationally offensive[vi] – denying an enemy a position at sea requires finding and stopping him.  But sustaining such an effort is difficult.  The sea is porous.  Ships and aircraft can only see so far, and unauthorized traffic can usually penetrate a broad sea frontier – this is how the USS Hornet approached Japan close enough to launch the Doolittle Raid.  Surveillance coverage and response forces cast over a wide sea area will inevitably have holes in space and time.  Even minefields can be penetrated by shrewd (and lucky) navigators.  Solid lines possible on land do not exist in the water.

As a result of the difficulty of controlling sea area, maritime forces must focus on geographic chokepoints more than land forces do.  Narrow passages ashore do exist in military history, such as the Fulda Gap or Thermopylae, but alternatives can often be found by enterprising planners and leaders such as Hannibal.  At sea, alternate routes either do not exist or are lengthy enough to be useless.  The Strait of Hormuz, for example, has no substitute.  The Suez Canal can be avoided by sailing around Africa, but Russia’s Baltic Fleet was slaughtered at Tsushima after months of hard travel when it did so.  By controlling choke points, maritime forces can take de facto control of the wider area beyond, while conveniently massing their own forces in a location where the enemy must pass.

Objectives

Factors discussed above impact how objectives for military operations are identified.  Vego notes that “in land warfare, an operational objective might be a large city or industrial basin,” while “in war at sea, the operational objective is usually… control of a certain sea or ocean area,” destruction of a fleet, or control of maritime trade.[vii]  This goes to the notion that certain sites on land have intrinsic value to humans, whereas the sea is but a highway.  In fact, the nature of sea control is less ownership than “‘making it secure’ for everyone but the enemies of the system,” according to Till – keep the “road” open and traffic flowing.[viii]  Destroying enemy fleets (or degrading their ability to influence the maritime space from ashore) allows one’s own control of a sea area, which permits the enforcement of one’s own maritime trade policies, which permits economic ends to be met.

This hints at the role of lines of communication, their value as a military objective, and characteristics at sea and on land.  As previously noted, the sea is a natural highway, the key component of communication.  Such movement at sea can be disrupted but never truly stopped, and such disruption requires constant aggressive pressure, such as a minefield or submarine patrols.  In contrast, the land offers innumerable barriers to communication, which are bridged – often literally – by human effort.  Roads, built at great cost, offer speedy transport but only along a single narrow passage.  Thus, a single, targeted strike on an enemy’s bridge or railroad can sever an entire land communication route.  Keeping the road open in the face of such targeted strikes represents an ongoing effort.  This disparity in effort for closing or keeping open routes will guide the selection of objectives for both sides in either environment.

The nature of land and maritime forces themselves also affects their own status as military objectives.  Destruction of a land force may be an operational objective, but its defeat may not affect the disposition of other more distant forces or the ability of a country to continue a war.  For example, the British Expeditionary Force was defeated in 1940, but, nevertheless, Germany could not defeat the United Kingdom.  The destruction of an enemy fleet, however, will be immediately consequential.  The elimination of such highly mobile enemy assets opens vast areas to one’s own exploitation.  Commerce can be raided and beaches invaded, and the fleet-less state can no longer project its own power.  For this reason, only Admiral Jellicoe, not Field Marshal Haig, could lose the Great War for Britain in a day.

Conclusion

Fluid and solid environments – the sea and the land – naturally call for different tools and procedures merely to survive, much less conduct military operations.  The factors of space, time and force produce radically different effects relative to military forces’ mobility and ability to control their surroundings.  The capable commander will understand how to use both.

Notes

[i] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890, repr., Project Gutenberg, 2007), chap. 1, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13529/13529-h/13529-h.htm.

[ii] Milan Vego, Joint Operational Warfare, Theory and Practice, (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2009), II-8.

[iii] Milan Vego, Introduction to Naval Warfare (Newport, RI: Naval War College, January 2011), 1.

[iv] Ibid., 4.

[v] Constitution of the United States of America, art. 1, sec. 8, accessed 5 November 2016, http://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript.

[vi] Milan Vego, Introduction to Naval Warfare (Newport, RI: Naval War College, January 2011), 18

[vii] Milan Vego, Joint Operational Warfare, Theory and Practice, (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2009), II-5.

[viii] Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide to the Twenty-First Century, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 8.

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