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The Worst of Both Worlds: An analysis of urban littoral combat

The worst of both worlds
22 April 2018
Dr Dayton McCarthy


With respect to their cities, later on, at an era of increased facilities of navigation and a greater supply of capital, we find the shores becoming the site of walled cities, and the isthmuses being occupied for the purposes of commerce and defence against a neighbour.[i]

Thus wrote the Athenian, Thucydides, some two thousand years ago. Describing the geography, the demography and military status quo before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, he noted the particular situation of urbanisation along coastlines and the ramifications this had for the conduct of land and maritime operations. Indeed, Thucydides’ history remains a wealth of information on diplomacy, the nature of warfare and the conduct of operations. He described the utility of naval power for force projection; it was ‘the means by which the islands were reached and reduced.’[ii] He also noted the manpower-intensive nature of fighting in and around cities; ‘summer and winter the Athenians were worn out by having to keep guard on the fortifications, during the day by turns, by night all together.’[iii]

As the Peloponnesian Wars demonstrated, the projection of power onto mainland coastlines or islands is not a new concept. This type of operation combining land forces launched from the sea would later be codified and developed into the concept of amphibious operations. Likewise, the need to besiege, capture or reduce cities has long been a staple of warfare, as cities were recognised as prized hubs of wealth, population or political prestige. Yet, if the political and strategic benefits of both types of operations were recognised by strategists and decision-makers, the associated difficulties and costs in planning and executing such operations were also recognised by those tasked to conduct them. Hence, through military history, two  truisms have come to the fore: that amphibious operations are the most complicated operations to resource and plan and that urban operations are meat grinder affairs exacting a terrible toll in time, blood and treasure. Many military thinkers suggest that amphibious operations, difficult at the best of times, are no longer feasible in the modern age, while others have long warned that fighting in the cities must be avoided at all cost.

Background and context of the problem

This is a paper about fighting in cities on coastlines – the contemporary topic of the combat in the ‘urban littoral’. This paper argues that urban littoral combat is the ‘worst of both worlds’ and brings together two of the most difficult forms of warfare – urban and amphibious operations. As Thucydides demonstrated, the idea of the ‘urban-littoral’ – that is cities or conurbations able to be influenced or controlled by seaborne forces, is not new. However, the modern world is somewhat different to the Greek mainland and Aegean islands of 430 BC. Eighty per cent of all countries border the sea and ninety per cent of the world’s population lives within one thousand kilometres of a coast. Perhaps more importantly, sixty per cent of the world’s politically significant urban areas sit within one hundred kilometres of the coast. All seaborne trade starts and ends on a coast and the seas remain the primary conduit of international trade. Ninety-five per cent of international communications are transmitted by submarine cable. Indeed one scholar has noted that ‘the importance of the world’s oceans and seas to the economic well-being and security of nations and to the projection of power has perhaps never been greater than it is today.[iv]

Why is this topical and worthy of study to Australian military professionals? There is a certain urgency to understand the urban-littoral and more importantly to understand what the military ramifications are to project, manoeuvre and sustain a force in such an environment. Historically these forms of combat were avoided wherever and when ever possible; in the future, it is unlikely that Western militaries will have such a luxury.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has committed to developing an amphibious capability as the keystone of a wider but as yet largely undeveloped Australian maritime strategy. For an island nation enmeshed in the world of global trade facilitated by free access to the region’s oceans, Australia is perhaps unusually late in undertaking this intellectual journey to understand, refine and implement a maritime strategy. There is much  to be done to translate this nascent Australian amphibious concept – built largely around the acquisition of specific naval platforms – into a cogent, joint, combined arms and robust capability that nests with an Australian maritime strategy.

Similarly, the Army is also grappling with the ramifications of its role in any future maritime strategy. On a basic level, this is first a question of integrating a battalion group onto these new amphibious platforms and then determining how it conducts operations ashore. But subsequently, Army will also have to think about the wider question of projecting land power from the sea, including the difficulties of logistics, the deployment of follow-on forces and the command and control of land forces from a variety of platforms, into various environments, all while integrating with joint and allied organisations.

For the Army to answer these questions, it must first understand the future operating environment of the Indo-Pacific region. This includes understanding the identified mega and meta-trends and how they will affect the region in which the Australian maritime strategy will be conducted, and in which the amphibious capability would most likely operate. The Army must also understand the nature of conventional and non-conventional urban operations and the nature of amphibious operations. These will be the operations most likely to be conducted as part of a maritime strategy in the future operating environment.

There is a large body of work to date that has examined aspects of this same problem. These include works on maritime strategy, histories and case studies of amphibious operations, analyses of urban operations, papers on Australia’s historical and aspirational involvement in maritime and amphibious operations and analyses of future warfare and the future operating environment. This paper aims to add to the body of work and seeks to provide a coherent understanding of the future operating environment within the urban littoral. From here, a working précis of the military ramifications of this environment will be developed. From this précis we may seek some ‘rules of thumb’, constants and friction points for military operations in this environment.

This paper is a primer on urban littoral combat. It will conduct a descriptive and comparative analysis of amphibious and urban combat to glean lessons from the past that provide insights for the future. It is not designed to critique  every aspect of the current Australian amphibious capability, nor will it exhaustively list and detail technical aspects of the main platforms. Instead it is hoped that the insights gained from the study will assist the Army and the ADF to develop the capabilities required to support a rational yet nascent Australian maritime strategy. In particular the paper seeks to inform the Army and the ADF enough, to ensure that its amphibious capability – indeed the entirety of war-fighting capabilities – are configured to operate in the future operating environment within the urban littoral.

This paper will include three chapters. Chapter 1 seeks to define and understand the urban littoral through an analysis of urban trends, geographic realities and other societal influences. Chapter 2 grapples with the concept of urban littoral combat. In large part, this will be done through studying historical examples of urban and amphibious operations, seeking trends and constants. The question will be asked as to whether urban-littoral combat is a complex system and whether non-linear effects are present. Chapter 3 thinks about the future. Australia has made, and will continue to make, truly far-reaching strategic decisions in relation to developing an amphibious capability to operate in the Asia-Pacific region. As such, the future cannot be the proverbial ‘foreign land’; military professionals must have ideas and tools to take the ‘long view’. Chapter 3 aims to conceptualise future urban littoral combat and in doing so discuss ramifications for strategists and decisionmakers, ADF war-fighting capabilities and the wider Australian population.


This paper is based on a number of propositions. The first is that understanding the meta-trends that will influence the future operating environment is fundamental. The five meta-trends defined in the 2014 Future Land Warfare Report of crowded, connected, collective, constrained and lethal, pithily synthesise the effects of geography, demography, technology and other influences on future warfare.[v] Based on the analysis conducted for this report, Chapter 1 will recommend that a sixth meta-trend of constant be added to better illustrate the future operating environment and capture a key influence that will impact the conduct of military operations abroad and the maintenance of public support at home.

The second proposition is that the Clausewitzian prism still remains the best means through which to study war and warfare. Clausewitz’s greatest  contributions have been to reinforce the need to link military action to an overarching political objective and, conversely, to stress that military actions have political consequences. This may seem self-evident; but equally there have been many recent examples of nations embarking on military ventures without a clearly defined strategy or defined political end state. The importance of this point will be made clearer in the paper.

The third proposition – also Clausewitzian – relates to that of character. Each war’s character will evolve based on unique variations of social, political and economic conditions. Contributing to each war’s unique character are the war’s participants themselves. The way in which a society fields military forces and wages war is a reflection of that society. Australia is no different; it has traditionally sought to provide land forces to augment a powerful ally for operations away from the Australian mainland. These operations have been expeditionary in nature – in the sense of being conducted from a staging point into a foreign theatre – but Australian forces have never been configured to project power from the Australian mainland into another country. This distinction will be examined more closely in Chapter 3.

The fourth proposition is also attributable to Clausewitz but was popularised by Alan Beyerchen. It deals with the non-linear nature of war and warfare. Linearity is where the inputs and outputs are proportional; in line with this is the concept that the whole is simply the sum of its component parts. Instead, the ‘real world and real war are characterized by the unforeseeable effects generated through the nonlinearity of interaction’.[vi] As with warfare generally, this paper proposes that the relationship between the urban and littoral spaces is not linear. Therefore this paper will argue that the military ramifications of the urban littoral (ie amphibious operations into conurbations) are not simply the military ramifications (MR) of urban operations (UO) overlaid with those amphibious operations in the littoral (L) or:

MR(UO) + MR (L) ≠ MR (UOL)

Instead this paper argues that there is an amplifying effect and that operations in the urban littoral are much more than the sum of its parts. To this end, this paper reflects this proposition and argues that future urban-littoral environment represents ‘the worst of both worlds’.

[i] Robert B. Strassler, The Landmark Thucydides. A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, New York: Free Press, 1996, p. 7.

[ii] Ibid, p. 2.

[iii] Ibid, p. 443.

[iv] Milan Vego, ‘On Littoral Warfare’, Naval War College Review, Spring 2015, Volume 68, Number 2, p. 31.

[v] Directorate of Future Land Warfare, 2014 Future Land Warfare Report Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2014.

[vi] Alan Beyerchen, ‘Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War’, International Security, Volume 17, Number 3, Winter 1992-1993, p. 76.

Last updated
22 April 2018
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