Command of the Littorals—Insights from Mahan

The Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps recently signed a new concept document called Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment. The concept is intended to drive wargaming, experimentation, analysis, and investment toward ensuring American naval dominance in littoral waters and the open ocean. The effort comes none too soon, as the proliferation of advanced weaponry to various adversaries threatens to erode the U.S. Navy’s littoral warfighting capabilities and even restrict American access to certain waters. But the rapidly-changing character of naval warfare presages no revolutionary change in its nature: a contest for command of the sea and the exploitation thereof. As the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps effort to modernize littoral operations proceeds, leaders in both services would do well to return to the insights of famed naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Command of the Sea

Mahan identified control of the sea as the key to naval strategy, and the key to achieving control of the sea was the defeat of the opponent’s fleet at sea (as opposed to targeting merchant vessels at their points of departure or arrival). Consequently, many focus on the application of that idea to so-called blue water naval strategy (i.e., fleet-versus-fleet battles on the open ocean). Although Mahan never used the phrase command of the sea, his description of the essence of naval warfare nonetheless describes it:

Alfred Thayer Mahan (Wikimedia)

“ is not the taking of individual ships or convoys, be they few or many, that strikes down the money power of a nation; it is the possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves to and from the enemy’s shores.”[1]

When it came to fleet actions during the age of sail and steam, control of the sea tended to go to the nation with the navy that could win a fleet-on-fleet engagement. In Mahan’s time, this meant the fleet with the most battleships. Later in the 20th Century, aircraft carriers replaced battleships. Contrary to popular belief, however, Mahan viewed a balanced fleet as one that could gain and maintain control at sea and also in the littorals. Mahan viewed key littoral regions as decisive for many reasons, but primarily because they were the site of many advanced naval bases, essential to naval campaigns, but also because they were connected with maritime commerce.[2] Both of these reasons remain in force today.

Writing on such regions in 1902, Mahan stated, “The belligerent who, for any disadvantage of numbers, or from inferiority of strength as contrasted with the combined numbers and position of his opponent, cannot sustain his dominant hold there is already worsted.”[3] Mahan went on to cite the balanced fleet of British Admiral Horatio Nelson at Cadiz to demonstrate controlling littoral regions during a conflict, describing the use of smaller vessels such as frigates and cutters to control the inshore waters while larger ships operated in safety further offshore.[4]

Mahan certainly preferred the concentration of battleships as a means to defeat the enemy’s battleship fleet (at least, in comparison to commerce raiding by smaller, faster ships), although he did not believe the principle of concentration had to be adhered to in all naval conflicts.[5] However, geography does not always allow such a method. Mahan, who made geography a major component of his theory, certainly understood this. In his day, however, control of littoral regions, where battleships could not be easily concentrated, could not be achieved by smaller ships; there was no way to place enough firepower on small craft for them to take on even an outnumbered battleship. The size of the ship determined the power of its punch.

Today, however, that is no longer true. Naval tactics are dominated more by the ability of vessels to detect and target each other (and then employ missiles or aircraft) than by the size of their cannons and sheer volume of cannon fire. Missiles have become the primary weapon, and those missiles are getting smaller all the time. Therefore, the size of a ship is no longer the sole determinant of its power.[6]

This is not to say Mahan misunderstood littoral operations. Indeed, his analysis of the War of 1812, specifically actions around the Great Lakes region, demonstrate the opposite. That analysis recognizes choke points as decisive terrain, in that case Detroit and Mackinac in the west and Montreal in the east. Mahan describes how Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie secured control for the American side via a victory on the water, but he also said American forces should have held Detroit and Mackinac and taken Montreal.[7] This reciprocal relationship between land and sea is the key to sea control in littoral waters, and Mahan knew it.

"Battle of Lake Erie" by William Henry Powell (Wikimedia)

In the 21st century, however, it is becoming easier and easier to contest control of the littoral regions where geography creates choke points through which ships must pass. A number of factors, such as the proliferation of precision-guided munitions and other advanced technology, have enabled a variety of naval actors. Now, even non-state actors can contest control of the sea or exploit insufficient control of the sea. In 2008, ten terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba used inflatable speed boats to reach and attack the city of Mumbai, India.[8] Al-Shabaab used small boats in 2016 to launch a surprise amphibious assault to seize the port of Garad in Somalia.[9] And terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have obtained anti-ship missiles and used them to attack both military and commercial vessels.[10] Although the character of naval conflict may have changed since Mahan’s time, the essence of his work—command of the sea—has not.

The Maritime Environment Today

Increasingly, achieving Mahan’s goal of control of the sea will mean controlling the seas just offshore: the littoral region, or green water, as well as on the open ocean. This is so because it’s the only place where states and navies can reasonably contest control without building a modern fleet. The U.S. Navy is so dominant on the high seas, the most frequent place American sailors will face challenges is elsewhere. While, globally, the U.S. Navy is the dominant maritime force at sea, and will be so for the foreseeable future, it is rapidly losing its dominance in littoral regions. The fleet is tilted too far towards blue water without a commensurate littoral capability.[11] This means the U.S. Navy is ill-equipped to contest the fight in the littorals, let alone to win it. The vast majority of its ships are designed for the blue water fight for control of the seas. This is not necessarily a bad thing; if the U.S. Navy ever needs to fight a peer-competitor navy for control of the sea, America will really need such a fleet to win and win decisively. However, the U. S. Navy must still address the imbalance.

In recent years, the U.S. Navy has acquired the Littoral Combat Ship, a vessel designed to address this imbalance, but the program is still in dire straits. The ship was intended to fill a variety of roles through mission modules installed before deployment, but not all of the modules were produced. The Littoral Combat Ship community is in the midst of a complete reorganization, so it is difficult to say if the vessel will be a successful addition to the fleet. Even if, or when, the fleet of Littoral Combat Ships is fully integrated with the fleet, there is far more to sea control in the littorals than the they alone can address.

The littoral combat ships USS Independence and USS Coronado (U.S. Navy Photo/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith DeVinney)

Additionally, the amphibious fleet, the so-called Gator Navy, is subject to the same threats as other large capital ships, namely shore-based anti-ship missile systems. Until shore-based threats are sufficiently mitigated to allow amphibious ships and even the Littoral Combat Ship to approach hostile coasts, the joint force will require platforms able to operate within the range of shore-based threats, surviving in a contested environment because they are small, swift, and stealthy. Once a littoral combat capability mitigates these threats, larger ships can then move in to support forces ashore. In Mahan’s day, frigates and cruisers were the ideal littoral ships. Today, because of the advent of cheap and readily-available precision-guided munitions, the U.S. Navy will need small, cheap, versatile hulls of corvette size or smaller to control the littorals.

Such ships would be useful in more than just small wars, irregular conflicts, and low-intensity contingencies. During World War II, both the Japanese and the American navies used a variety of small combatant craft for littoral and amphibious operations. The U.S. Navy even converted obsolete destroyers into Assault Transport Ships that could carry a company-sized element of Marines in addition to its Navy crew.[12]

Littoral Operations Require Amphibious Operations

The need to the control littoral waters, and the ease with which opponents can contest that control, is what makes amphibious operations key to 21st century conflict in a way they were not in Mahan’s time. Mahan disliked amphibious operations because they risked sea control without contributing to it.[13] This was an understandable position at the time, despite recognizing the need for effective cooperation between land and sea forces during riverine and littoral operations.[14] During Mahan’s early career, at least, it was true that controlling the land did little to help with controlling the sea. This is no longer true today. Controlling land can now contribute to controlling the sea in myriad ways, from providing logistics and sustainment, aircraft and missile platforms, fire support, and supporting Maritime Interdiction Operations.

Whither the Coast Guard?

Since World War II, American ships of such small size have been operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, which historically operated as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation unless activated by the Department of the Navy, but now falls under the Department of Homeland Security.

In light of the new importance of coastal operations, recent attempts to drastically reduce the Coast Guard’s budget are ill-advised. Given a stationary or even an increased budget, should the Coast Guard take on more duties internationally as the coastal force of the United States? In a recent Proceedings article, Coast Guard Captain David Ramassini argued the Coast Guard is uniquely suited to the task but is currently too small for the job.[15]

Perhaps. The Coast Guard can contribute to the control of littoral waters abroad. The point of sea control is the exploitation thereof, however, and it takes the Navy to exploit sea control. The projection of force ashore is a key task for the Navy, and whether that force projection is in the form of Tomahawk missiles, naval aviation, or Marine boots on the ground, gaining control of littoral waters is a strict prerequisite. Achieving that control is too much in the nation’s military interest to delegate it to the Coast Guard.


Regaining an advantage in littoral operations is a critical effort for the Navy, not only to protect and support its large surface combatants, as Nelson did, but also to project force ashore. Sea control is a necessary prerequisite for both (another Mahanian idea).[16] The typical answer, buy more amphibious ships to support Marine Corps operations, is no longer sufficient, although more amphibious assault ships to meet the insatiable Combatant Commander demand for them and to act as light carriers where needed certainly wouldn’t be bad. The threat of shore-based precision-guided anti-ship missiles means amphibious assault ships will have to stay further offshore than they have historically more survivable littoral capabilities/vessels mitigate those threats. In some situations, the distance required would detract from the ability of sea-based platforms to respond in kind. One possible solution is to invest in smaller combatant craft that can perform a variety of functions, amphibious operations included. An example of this is the UK Royal Navy’s Black Swan sloop-of-war concept. Another option is to invest in long-range but survivable ship-to-shore connectors to augment the existing inventory. The Navy is about to replace its venerable fleet of Landing Craft, Utility (LCU) connectors with new craft that offer no significant advantages over the old ones. Instead, the Navy should invest in a more modern solution such as the LCU-F, a far more capable craft. Both options expand the flexibility of U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps forces in any type of conflict, as well as offering greater opportunities for the Navy and Marine Corps to support Special Operations Forces around the world.

British sloop HMS Black Swan (Royal Navy Photo/Wikimedia)


Mahan’s brilliance was his recognition that national power, global economics, and maritime power all interact and that such interaction has wide-ranging implications for maritime warfare. None of the conditions Mahan identified have disappeared. In fact, globalization magnifies them. It is no surprise then that Chinese policymakers appear to be reading Mahan. Whether they are or are not, they’re certainly implementing his ideas, even in littoral sea control.

For all the changes in naval warfare—from non-state actors to precision-guided missiles to the inevitable small, autonomous, unmanned craft tactics—the maritime world is exactly how Alfred Thayer Mahan described it a century ago. This doesn’t mean naval tactics, and therefore naval warfare, will be the same as described in his works. That won’t be the case. Whatever character littoral naval warfare takes on in the future, its north star will always be sea control.

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 espressed 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.

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Header Image: NATO Response Force (NRF) Exercise Steadfast Jaguar in the Cape Verde Islands (NATO)


[1] Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1987. Page 138.

[2] Armstrong, Benjamin F. ed. 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. Page 54.

[3] Armstrong, 55.

[4] Armstrong, 63.

[5] Sumida, Jon Tetsuro. Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic WOrks of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997. Page 76.

[6] Rubel, Robert C. “Think Outside the Hull,” Proceedings. June 2017. Volume 143/6/1,372.

[7] Wescott, Allan ed. Mahan on Naval Warfare. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999. Pages 234-235.

[8] Moreau, Ron. “India-Pakistan Tensions Grow in Wake of Attacks,” Newsweek. 26 November 2008. Accessed 22 May 2017.

[9] Hassan, Abdiqani. “Somali militants seize small port in Puntland region,” Reuters. 15 March 2016. Accessed 22 May 2017.

[10] Stuster, J. Dana. “Why Hezbollah’s New Missiles Are A Problem for Israel,” Foreign Policy. 3 January 2015. and LaGrone, Sam. “USS Mason ‘Appears to Have Come Under Attack’,” USNI News. 15 October 2016.

[11] Armstrong, Benjamin. “Hard to Lee: New Naval Priorities for a Multipolar World,” Proceedings. April 2017. Volume 143/4/1,370.

[12] Dunn, Brian J. “Bring Back the Dragon Swarms,” Proceedings. August 2017. Volume 143/8/1,374.

[13] Sumida, 45.

[14] Sumida, 58.

[15] Ramassini, David. “Too Small to Answer the Call,” Proceedings. May 2017 Vol. 143/5/1,371.

[16] Armstrong, 72