• William Toti

Sea-Air-Land Battle Doctrine

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

At the time of this article's publication in September 1992, the world was changing rapidly. The Cold War had just been declared over, the United States had just completed a 100-hour ground war liberating Kuwait, and the Navy was looking for it's new raison d'etre. A lot of whacky ideas were emerging, this being just one of them. But this article was my attempt to start from "first principles" in determining what the Navy needed to do and be in the post-Cold War period.


The demise of the Soviet Union requires drastic changes in the way the United States Navy must think and operate as a strategic force. In the past, we have necessarily been geared for massive War at Sea against the Soviet Union. Training for this overwhelming contingency stretched us to the limits of our capability. As a result, we were unable to prepare properly for other areas of warfare that required naval support-like major land operations where control of the sea has already been assured. The threat from the former Soviet Navy has now diminished by any standard, so we are at liberty to shift our focus back to other areas of naval warfare.

This is more than an exercise in intellectual freedom. No nation on earth has a Navy that can challenge ours, now or in the foreseeable future. It is therefore an article of faith that our traditional concept of War at Sea is irrelevant to today's world. During times of peace, the Navy will still be the most visible deterrent force in the US military. If the Navy wishes to remain relevant during time of war, it must shift its thinking about how it trains and operates. It must realize that the Navy, like the Air Force, will primarily support major military campaigns-not run them. And it must learn how to excel in that supporting role. This requires a better understanding of our customers-including the Army-than we have had in the past. The time for sneering is over; the time for learning has begun.

Sea-Air-Land Battle doctrine is an attempt to articulate a proposed basic fighting doctrine for American naval forces in support of the land campaign, not just to improve their performance in combat, but also as a tool to enhance coordination with our sister services and allies. It is a complete refocusing of the way we think about the Navy as a military force, a testimony to the primacy of land operations during times of war. Because Sea-Air-Land Battle doctrine emphasizes naval operations in support of land forces, including land-based air forces, it is a proposed doctrine from which a "Post-Maritime Strategy" can be developed. The United States Navy has always considered it a matter of pride that we didn't have or want an explicitly stated doctrine. In times when we primarily operated by ourselves, this was a reasonable conceit. But since it is difficult to imagine a circumstance when Navy forces are likely to operate independently in future large-scale operations, articulation of this new doctrine becomes inherently more important.



The essence of war has been described by many classical theorists, particularly Clausewitz, Sun-Tzu, and Jomeni. But when all these definitions are distilled, war can be fundamentally described as a conflict over land, resources, or populations. For example, a war for control of the seas is in fact nothing more than a war over the ability to pass resources over them. The seas themselves have historically had little intrinsic value. Few wars, for instance, have been fought over fishing rights. Thus, in a classical sense, victory in war has always been signified by the ability to occupy terrain. This leads to the first Axiom of Sea-Air-Land Battle doctrine:

Axiom 1: Naval operations exist to support land campaign objectives.

This was true even in the age of classic sea battles but has become intensified by the evolution of a monopolar naval world. It does not mean that large-scale naval battles, engagements, and campaigns exclusively for control of the seas are beyond the realm of possibility. Rather, it implies that according to our refocused doctrine, we should neither plan nor conduct a naval operation unless it directly supports a specific land campaign objective. Any other naval activity is irrelevant to the grand scheme or strategy. This fact results in a corollary that is in direct conflict with the training and mindset of most naval officers:

Corollary 1: Enemy naval forces are assessed according to their threat to the theater commander.

Since most nations do not possess naval forces that could threaten our land campaign, they constitute more of a direct threat to friendly naval forces (including logistic forces) than to the established land battle. This implies that if the enemy navy can be killed economically, that is an appropriate early defensive measure. Otherwise, the concept of economy of force dictates that they should be bottled up, and then ignored to the extent possible. We cannot take out the enemy's Navy "because it's there," when less risky alternatives, such as defensive mining or submarine activity, are at our disposal.

So how does a naval planner relate his forces to land campaign objectives? The obvious answer is that he must understand the doctrine of the forces he supports almost as well as he understands his own doctrine. This results in our second axiom:

Axiom 2: Naval operations in support of the land campaign cannot be successfully planned without adequate consideration of the doctrine of maneuver warfare.

That is, to properly support the customer, naval planners must become familiar with the doctrine of maneuver warfare. The Army calls their operational art "AirLand Battle doctrine." Although based on classical theories of land warfare, most of which are more than a century old, AirLand Battle is a distillation of the best that classical theory has to offer, combined with the synergistic effects of modern technology. Navy planners would do well to understand it.

The Army's AirLand Battle doctrine and the Marine Corps' maneuver warfare from the sea must become standard wardroom training topics. This is perhaps a bit much to ask of a Navy where community boundaries are seldom crossed. The different Services might as well be different nations, considering the familiarity most naval officers possess about them. Nevertheless, naval planners must understand which land warfare options are reasonable and which are not. They must understand enemy centers of gravity1 and how to engage them. They must do whatever they can to prevent friendly attacking forces from reaching culminating points, while assisting the ·enemy in reaching his. In short, the most effective and efficient way for naval forces to be used in support of land battle is to craft a doctrine of naval operational art that conforms to and supports Army and Marine Corps

maneuver warfare doctrine.


Naval theorists are often accused of leaping from the discussion of strategy directly into a discussion of the tactical use of specific platforms, transcending other important tactical considerations such as the mission, the enemy, time, and the environment. But in order to make this short essay as directly illustrative as possible, it is now necessary to begin our Sea-Air-Land Battle Doctrine discussion on the use of specific naval platforms in support of land battle. Thus, brevity requires us to cut to the quick.

At the tactical level of war, naval forces have historically supported (and will continue to support) land battle in the following ways:

Interdiction. Naval forces have been used to interdict (engage and destroy) enemy forces or logistic assets both at sea, in the air, and ashore. An example of this would be an attack on enemy aircraft, either in flight or on the ground.

Strike. Naval forces have been used to destroy key military targets and strategic centers of gravity.

Expeditionary Forces. Naval forces are often the first allied forces on the scene. In absence of secure air or sea ports, it is up to naval forces to conduct initial expeditionary operations that would enable heavier land forces to follow.

Fixing Forces. Naval forces have been used to engage an enemy to keep his head down or to disrupt his maneuver plan while other assets, primarily land-based, conducted a coordinated attack or defense.3

Reconnaissance. Because naval forces often arrive before other forces and are free to operate in areas other forces do not, they have an excellent opportunity to engage in reconnaissance.

Logistics. Because land forces cannot operate without massive logistic support from the sea, naval forces are obligated to provide and protect this kind of assistance.

The missions assigned to specific platforms in Sea-Air-Land Battle doctrine have been modified to account for the focus on land operations and the weaker expected enemy naval presence. We begin with the platform that is usually the least understood when it comes to its utility in support of a land campaign.


In land warfare, cavalry is used to conduct reconnaissance, screening, covering, and some special warfare operations. In Sea-Air-Land Battle, this role is provided by submarines.

Axiom 3: As naval cavalry, submarines should normally lead other naval forces into the area of operations.

Once in the area, submarines can:

Conduct suppressive strikes.

Serve as a fixing force for the enemy Navy. A single SSN could probably bottle up most enemy fleets, freeing a carrier battle group for operations more suitable to the campaign.

Recon the beach.

Conduct initial surveillance of naval and electronic warfare activity.

Surveil mining activity, documenting associated violations of international law, and interdicting mining vessels at the first indication that international law is being violated.

Conduct defensive and offensive mining.

Conduct special warfare missions.

While other platforms could perform these missions, submarines possess the following advantages that make them the platform of choice:

They are non-provocative lead-in forces. If the National Command Authority (NCA) chooses not to announce their presence, nobody knows there are US forces operating in the area, so the likelihood of escalation is reduced.

Conversely, if the NCA chooses to announce their presence, they have the ability to provide a powerful form of presence, referred to here as virtual presence. As the British learned during the Falklands campaign, a single submarine operating off an enemy coast can be as effective a deterrent as a carrier battle group. Further, the belief that a submarine is present can be as effective a deterrent as actual submarine presence, hence the "virtual" in "virtual presence." The submarine doesn't even have to be present to gain this advantage.

They are secure. Submarines can conduct these operations with much less risk to life than other forces.


While submarines can be considered naval cavalry, surface forces are needed to "hold territory." They have obvious advantages over submarines in their firepower and their ability to maintain an up-to-date tactical picture.

Axiom 4: As naval artillery, surface forces should quickly follow submarines into the area of operations.

Once there, surface forces are available to:

Conduct cruise missile strikes.

Conduct mine countermeasures.

Perform naval gunfire support.

Protect expeditionary and sea logistic "forces (sea control).

Engage in limited special warfare missions.

Conduct theater missile defense, once those systems have been developed.

Despite the advantages surface forces bring to the theater commander, during the prehostility phase they may bring some disadvantages. As evidenced by the 1988 USS Vincennes incident, they are more vulnerable to attack than other forces, and in responding to a perceived attack, may inadvertently make the situation worse. This factor should be considered before bringing surface warships into an area of operations. But if hostilities are planned, surface forces should be brought into the theater without delay, since the area may require preparation before ground operations can commence.


Naval aviation will often be the first US air asset on the scene when a crisis erupts and is therefore sometimes able to affect the crisis in its early stages. As an independent force, naval aviation is vital in its ability to conduct effective small- to medium-scale strikes.

Axiom 5: Naval electronic warfare and attack aircraft should be integrated with cruise missiles strikes to generate audacity and to overwhelm defenses.

Although a vital element of Sea-Air-Land Battle doctrine, naval aviation is no longer the sole centerpiece of naval warfare. Cruise missile strikes may in fact be sufficient to accomplish the tactical mission, but cruise missiles are expensive, lack flexibility, and should be used only in situations when aviators will face unacceptable risk. Naval air forces are much more flexible and should be considered for the following missions:

Battlefield interdiction to stop the advancing army.

Small- to intem1ediate-scale strikes.

Close air support.

Suppression of enemy air defenses.

Offensive counter-air.

Pursuit of infom1ation superiority within the theater of operations.

As part of a joint operation in support of a land campaign, Navy air has some historical hurdles to overcome. These obstacles to efficiency should be corrected in the near term, but in the meantime must be factored into the calculus of naval operational planning:

They have not routinely trained in units larger than a single-carrier battle group. As a result, they have been inefficient at planning and conducting coordinated large-scale strike operations (greater than two squadrons) within the same airspace.

They are not organized to facilitate airspace management of many aircraft and cruise missiles operating simultaneously. In operation DESERT STORM, naval aviators relied on the Air Force to work out airspace management problems. If the Navy had been called on to take charge of this process, there is some doubt whether they could have done it.

They possess unwieldy reconnaissance systems. Significant delays are incurred before collected information is available to the theater planners.

All of these shortcomings can be improved by modifying tactical training and by developing improved battle management systems. Until then, certain roles may need to continue to be assigned to Air Force units.


Expeditionary forces are self-sustaining, rapidly deployable, non-protrusive, and rapidly assembled. By definition, expeditionary forces do not need support from other assets for basing, overflight, or logistics. Naval expeditionary forces (Marines) are primarily transitional forces. They are heavier than the very light airborne or air mobile forces that may proceed them, but not heavy enough to assure victory against an armored adversary unless they are task organized for that purpose with augmentation by Army or allied forces. Each naval expeditionary unit contains four elements: command, ground, aviation, and combat service support, all under a single unit commander. These Marine Air Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) come in various sizes:

• Special purpose forces with a small ground element (usually less than a battalion).

• Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), with a battalion-sized ground element and an aviation element of helicopters and perhaps fixed-wing aircraft. A MEU is usually deployed as part of an amphibious ready group. Although a MEU is not capable of an assault, it can engage in raids and some special operations.

• Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB). A MEB has a regimental-sized ground element, a Marine aircraft group, and a brigade service support group. A MEB can also be deployed afloat, as it was during the Persian Gulf War. Although a MEB is capable of conducting forcible entry, there is only enough amphibious shipping in the US arsenal to land two MEBs simultaneously.

• Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). A MEF is a force normally comprised of one or more Marine divisions, a Marine Air Wing, and a force service support group.

Axiom 6: Naval expeditionary forces will often be the first ground forces into a theater, but once established, should be rapidly reinforced by heavier Army forces if required. Except for noncombatant evacuation operations, a MEB will always be the smallest unit considered to have the capability to conduct sustained ground operations.

If air-landing operations are available, then Army light forces can be quickly brought into the theater. But if air-landing operations are not an option, an airborne assault, seizure of an airport, or an amphibious assault are the only alternatives for forcible entry. Rangers have a capability for rapid and violent surgical operations like the seizure of airports, but they have no capability for sustainment. Similarly, airborne forces may be able to insert into an unsecured area, but at very high cost in lives.


Before the command and control infrastructure has been established ashore, a naval command ship probably constitutes the best capability for keeping in touch with the "battlefield." But once significant forces have established themselves ashore, the at-sea naval commander runs the risk of being out of touch with the customer, and his quality of service may suffer accordingly.

Axiom 7: The command of naval forces in support of land battle is best conducted ashore.

Ashore is where the intricacies of integrating cruise missile strikes with aircraft strikes can best be understood. It is also the best way to ensure continuity of communications with the theater commander. This will not be easy for the naval commander to get used to, but it is perhaps the most important organizational decision that he can make to ensure success.


The final area to address in Sea-Air-Land Battle doctrine is training. Simply put:

Axiom 8: Training should be coordinated and focused on specific Sea-Air-Land battle objectives. Joint training should be the rule, rather than the exception.

Training should consider representative land battle objectives, and should be weighted to account for this revision in priorities. For example, if an SSN is spending more than half his training on ASW, he is probably not responding to the revised threat. Similarly, if naval aviators have not worked extensively with Army forces in the last year, the training plan cannot be right.


Sea-Air-Land Battle doctrine is a prescription for refocusing priorities in naval warfare to respond to a changing world. When properly implemented, it promises to integrate the Navy more fully into joint and combined theater operations. Although many issues remain for discussion, 5 including (but not limited to) communications procedures, command structures, fire control, and operational objectives, the immediate goal of this essay was to stimulate thought among all naval officers (including Marines). The ultimate hope, of course, is that this evolving doctrine may serve to increase the synergy of naval operations in support of land battles. The alternative is for the Navy to operate far short of its recognized potential.

1Clausewitz defined the Center of Gravity as "the hub of all power and movement," but it can be thought of as the source of strength or balance. There are strategic centers of gravity, like the national will to enter a war, and there are tactical centers of gravity, like a key command center. Both strategic and tactical centers of gravity are subject to engagement during war.

2Army FM 100-5, "Operations," describes culminating points as follows: "Unless strategically decisive, every offen sive operation will sooner or later reach a point where the strength of the attacker no longer significantly exceeds that of the defender." That point is the culminating point. When we are attacking, we want to do all we can to see we never reach that point. When we are defending, we want to ensure the enemy reaches that point expeditiously.

3For example, a sixteen-inch round from a battleship may have a very low probability of killing a dug-in enemy infantry company. Nevertheless, the gun may still be useful since it may cause the enemy to keep his head down long enough for friendly maneuver units to have a better chance of either attacking or escaping.

4Naval aviation forces should be used to deny the enemy information on friendly forces while enhancing our own tactical picture. Interdicting enemy facilities or conducting electronic warfare will deny the enemy information, while reconnaissance and battle damage assessment will enhance our own.

5The author has dealt more completely with this topic in a manual he is preparing, titled, not surprisingly, "Sea-Air-Land Battle Doctrine."

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