Reviewing Combined Operations

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Combined Operations: A Global History of Amphibious and Airborne Warfare. Lanham, MD: Jeremy Black. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017.

A major power confronts another across a wide expanse of ocean. Neither opponent is able to significantly threaten the other’s mainland without mastering and crossing the waves. But the vast distances involved are daunting even for the opposing navies. One side then executes an east-to-west island hopping campaign, using the possession of islands to control the sea and project force far beyond the capacities of lesser powers. 

Two campaigns fitting the above description act as bookends to Western naval history: the Persian invasions of Greece from 492-479 BC and World War II from 1941-1945. Everything before the Persian invasions is lost to the sands of time. Everything after the world-spanning amphibious campaigns of World War II is judged in their shadow. Between those two events, however, the exploitation of sea control to project power ashore by landing troops is intimately connected with the story of civilization itself. From the Punic Wars to the Viking invasions of the 8th Century, the Norman Invasion of England in 1066, the Mongol invasions of Japan in the Thirteenth Century, the 1453 fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the establishment of colonies in the New World, the Battle of Trafalgar where Nelson sunk Napoleon’s dreams of invading England, the Anaconda Plan that strangled the nascent Confederate States of America, and on the shores of Gallipoli where the future Ataturk shattered England’s attempt to take Constantinople, civilizations rise and fall on the tides of seapower.       

Jeremy Black has been one of the world’s premier military historians for years, so it’s no surprise that he’s the one to finally pull the thread through that long and bloody history and produce a landmark text on the subject. Moreover, Black includes airborne operations along with amphibious operations under the subject of Combined Operations. This may seem like an odd fit, but both types of operations involve the use of troops that cross from one domain to another; either from the sea to the land or from the air to the land. This is a connection Nate Finney, Jon Klug, and myself have made in the past. Amphibious and Airborne operations present unique and challenging problems to military units as they are inherently cross-domain from inception to execution. As the U.S. Army embraces Multi-Domain Battle, they would do well to seek first the lessons long-known by the the Airborne community and the United States Marine Corps. Indeed, there are a number of campaigns covered in this book where land, sea, and air forces were employed in concert; Winston Churchill called these types of operations “triphibious” and they presaged the multi-domain character of modern warfare.


Good writing, especially historical writing, is not only about what you write, it’s also about what you leave out. Black is masterful when it comes to leaving things out. A comprehensive history of combined operations could easily have been triple the size of this volume, but Black kept this one digestible by relegating many less important operations to mere mentions while focusing on others that demonstrate points or lessons. The campaigns he did focus on are well-chosen and offer lessons for today. His gems include Roman naval innovations to control coastal and inland waters, which could inform the Navy/Marine Corps Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment Concept. Another is the Vikings’ use of islands as advance bases to support inland power projection, which has direct relevance for the nascent Expeditionary Advance Base Operations Concept.

Naval strategists and military analysts will find that the most relevant chapters are those covering the Cold War and post-1990. Black directly addresses the common misperception that amphibious and airborne operations are obsolete by describing the dozens of instances that have occurred since World War II. Battles like Normandy and Iwo Jima crystallized a certain image of combined operations, and Black correctly states that the tactics and methods of that era are obsolete. However, critics that argue that combined operations as a whole are similarly obsolete are based solely on those crystallized images and not familiarity with more modern cases.

British forces in the Falklands, 1982.

Of particular interest for modern readers is the Falklands campaign which featured both Argentinian and British forces confronting the challenge of launching and sustaining simultaneous naval, amphibious, air, and special operations across vast distances. The decisive factor in success was not just the ability to do so, but to support those actions across domains: naval forces supporting air and amphibious forces, air forces supporting amphibious and special operations, and so on. British actions across domains were coordinated in a way never achieved by Argentina’s forces. Black’s survey makes these trends stand out in a way that is sometimes lost in detailed operational histories of specific campaigns. Black highlights where lessons learned were carried forward and where they were not, such as during Operation Overlord where USMC and Army lessons learned from the Pacific were ignored.

The one drawback to the book is that it does not grapple with the difference between amphibious (or airborne) operations in support of a land campaign and those in support of a naval campaign. To be fair, the difference is not even clearly elucidated in current U.S. doctrinal publications like JP 3-02 Amphibious Operations. However, there are different planning considerations preparing for an amphibious assault to initiate a land campaign (like Operation Overlord) and when orchestrating an n amphibious assault to support a naval campaign (like the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific Theater of Operations), especially when it comes to logistics. Considering that one is usually the province of armies and the other of corps of marines or naval infantry, the distinction is key.


It is easy to see this book becoming required reading for Marine and Airborne communities, but it would be a shame if this book simply languished on the bookshelves of war college professors. As littoral warfare expands and intensifies, islands in the Pacific become more geo-strategically critical (and numerous), and the Joint Force seeks to exploit more domains in battle, Black’s book will serve as a valuable primer for anyone seeking insights into joint warfare and combined warfare as a whole. Black repeatedly makes the case that interservice cooperation across domains is the key to success. For a joint force, that is a lesson that applies to any operation brought into sharp contrast through lucid writing.

Brett A. Friedman is a wargame analyst, an officer in the United States Marine Corps Reserve, and an Associate Editor for The Strategy Bridge. He is the editor of 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy and the author of On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge

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