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Littoral Naval Operations: Australia’s Experiences

24 March 2024 | Jennifer Parker and Peter Jones

Once again, as the current Houthi-attacks on merchant shipping in the confines of the Red Sea show, navies must be able to effectively operate in littoral waters. Late last year two former Royal Australian Navy officers Commander Jen Parker and Vice Admiral Peter Jones wrote an Occasional Paper for the Australian Naval Institute on the RAN’s experience in the littoral and what lessons can be drawn from it. Here is a précis of that paper.

Littoral operations are invariably complex and are the most challenging for navies. The unique challenges of the littoral can constrain naval forces and increase their vulnerability to ever more lethal offensive capabilities such as land-based maritime strike, uncrewed surface vessels, uncrewed underwater vessels, and uncrewed aerial vehicles. Littoral operations not only demand a prominent level of Combined and Joint interoperability, but also stress the need for an integrated approach to operations.

The development of missile and uncrewed technologies are not only increasing the complexity of littoral operations, but they are also extending the range of what would traditionally have been considered the littoral. This has been notable in the Ukrainian employment of explosive uncrewed surface vessels in the Black Sea against Russian vessels throughout 2023, where the ranges of the capabilities employed are extending the influence of the shore into the sea, and subsequently the range at which surface vessels can be held at risk by land based on land launched threats.

Despite the technological developments expanding the complexity and range of the littorals, there is much to be learned from analysing historical experiences in littoral operations.

Australia’s experiences in the littoral are extensive. They began with its first amphibious operation in German New Guinea in 1914. In World War II its ships operated on the Tobruk Ferry Run with the British Mediterranean Fleet and then with the US 7th Fleet in a series of amphibious operations in the western Pacific. The RAN also operated in the littoral in the Korean and Vietnam wars and more recently with the US 5th Fleet in the Middle East. These operations yielded five key lessons.

The first is that naval forces must become attuned to the littoral environment they are operating in. One aspect of this is situational awareness. The littoral is complex. The number of contacts to detect, track and most importantly identify can be overwhelming. This is asset intensive to do. Likewise, learning the patterns of movement and trade takes time in theatre. Another aspect is environmental. Ships, aircraft, and their crews all take time to adjust to the prevalent weather conditions.

The second factor falling out of that is that commanders must be prepared to adjust or even develop new doctrine and tactics for the specific operation. Some additional equipment may also be needed. Back home, Defence Departments must also expect this to occur and be agile enough to support the added demands of their deployed forces.

Third, is the importance of weapons and sensors being developed with littoral operations in mind. As mentioned, due to the proximity of land, shallowness of water and reduced reaction times, the demands on systems and their operators is at its the most intense.

Fourth, is the importance of force cohesion. Littoral operations often see a disparate mix of air, sea and land elements being brought to the fight. There is an imperative to work seamlessly together to maximise combat power. The insertion of liaison officers into the command organizations often acts as the oil to reduce friction. Regarding naval task groups, it is highly desirably to develop a cohesion and team ethos to gain a synergistic effect of its combined capabilities.

The ultimate point is one that is often lost. It is the importance of unit training and professionalism. The internal organisation of ships can come under stress, and it is vital for a ship’s company to be well prepared and led. This of course harks back to the 1938 observation of Captain Francis Pridham RN who wrote, “A ship is either efficient, smart, clean and happy, or none of these things. They go hand in hand, or not at all.”

A focus on these five factors provides the key ingredients for effective operations in the littoral.

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