What does it take to win in the littoral? Start with knowledge.
Naval warfare in littoral waters is very different from open ocean operations. The U.S. Navy is dominant in “blue water” scenarios, but less so in the littoral, naval experts say.
“We are good at blue water operations, but we are not that skilled in fighting and operating in the littoral waters in places like the South China, the Baltic and Black Seas as well as the Persian Gulf,” said Prof. Wayne Hughes, a retired U.S. Navy captain who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, Calif., and author of Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, published by the Naval Institute Press.
NPS has established a new Littoral Operations Center (LOC) to focus on the global littorals and facilitate the U.S. Navy’s transition to security and combat missions in the “green water.”
“The LOC will conduct and promote the study of U.S. Navy and allied partner nation policy, strategy and technology necessary to deal with conventional, irregular and criminal threats in these crowded and cluttered coastal waters and their adjacent lands,” said LOC Director, NPS Senior Lecturer Dr. Kalev Sepp.
According to Sepp, the littoral is where hydrography, geography, commerce, fishing, mining, political boundaries and claims and military maneuver and sustainment issues converge, to complicate both the offense and the defense, and to place exceptional demands on naval, aerial and land forces that must operate, fight and influence events there.
The U.S. Navy is not only acquiring a large number of the reconfigurable focused mission littoral combat ships (LCS), but also the DDG 1000 guided missile destroyer, which is also optimized to operate in the littoral.
To gain that expertise, Hughes said the U.S. Navy needs to learn from those with the experience, like the Swedish navy.
“Driven by the small size of their armed forces and the extent and intricacy of their coastline, the Swedes have integrated all their services in a comprehensive littoral anti-access system,” Sepp said. “They have achieved a degree of jointness that, given our force reductions, we would do well to closely examine.”
“The Swedes have a very different view of the near-shore or littoral zone. The U.S. Navy looks at it as an area that we travel through quickly to get Marines on shore. The Swedes do not draw hard dark lines between the land and the water in the manner that the U.S. Navy tends to … they see it in an integrated way, how they got to that and managed that integration is something that we want to be able to draw upon,” said Sepp.
“The U.S. and Swedish approaches to littoral warfare present two unique yet coupled perspectives … The U.S. has been primarily concerned with access via the global commons for brief periods of time, such as during an amphibious assault,” said retired Swedish Naval Capt. Bo Wallander. “The Swedish Navy, while increasingly active in coalition forces around the world, has been primarily concerned with its national existence while operating adjacent to the overwhelming threat of the Soviet Union for decades.”
According to the Swedish Navy Commander of the Third Naval Flotilla, Captain Magnus Jönsson, the littoral environment can mean several things. “It is the archipelago around Stockholm, and it is the Baltic, and it is the waters on the west coast of Sweden. These are all littoral environments—as opposed to the blue oceans like the Atlantic—but they are not the same. When we talk about littoral warfare, the Baltic is the open sea from our perspective. The more extreme littoral would be the archipelago, starting, more or less, at the beaches.”
The littoral waters of the Baltic and Sweden’s west coast are challenging. There are 100,000 islands. Salinity and temperature vary greatly. “We have different layers, with currents in one direction on the surface, and three meters down, there’s a totally different direction of the current. The situation underneath the surface is strange and it’s hard to operate in the Baltic. Our experience is working in these kinds of waters. There are not many other nations in the world that deals with these kinds of waters as their natural habitat,” said Jönsson.
“Our littoral operations involve complex traffic situations and waters close to land where a lot of different threats can occur in a very rapid manner. You don’t have much time to think about things – you have to react and react the right way to stay alive,” says Swedish Navy’s Chief of Staff Rear Adm. Jan Thörnqvist.
The LOC will hold its inaugural war game planning conference on 25th, followed by an LCS innovation workshop, in Monterey.
Thörnqvist is encouraged by the establishment of the LOC. “I think it’s very important there is a place with skilled people that can do war gaming in the littoral environment, and who are adding the right inputs to a game like that. You can do gaming anywhere, but if you don’t have skilled people with knowledge of that kind of environment, the result would be useless.”
“We have limited resources to have people studying about what we can expect 30 years from now. That’s pretty demanding for a small navy. If you’re bringing together a lot of competence from other parts of the world to study naval operations in the littoral, many nations can gain from that, as well,” added Thörnqvist. “It would be useful to influence the development of new war fighting tactics and techniques; to evaluate what we are doing; to be able to game on it; and then have something brought back again so we can be better and better all the time and adjust to new differences.”
Sepp said the Singaporeans, Norwegians, Australians, and many other allies also have extensive practice in “shallow-water” operations. “We can learn from all of them.”
According to Sepp, the NPS Littoral Operations Center will enhance the U.S. Navy’s integration of air, land, sea and undersea operations along the world’s coastlines, through interdisciplinary research and development involving all the departments and schools at NPS.