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What is Littoral Manoeuvre? – Part Two

In part one, this Post examined the concept of littoral manoeuvre including its reference within the 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR), the definition of the relevant terms and the capability of platforms used in the littoral domain. The article proposed that littoral manoeuvre should be a concept that represents the holistic capability of littoral manoeuvre vessels transporting land capabilities. As such, littoral manoeuvre is the use of the littoral to achieve positional advantage to influence the maritime domain from the land, as well as projecting and sustaining force ashore.

Historical Analysis – Southwest Pacific Operations during the Second World War

Building on the previous arguments, this Land Power Forum post will review how similar vessels have operated in the past, and will include a short section on historical analysis. The Beacheads campaign in Papua New Guinea at the start of the Second World War is highly relevant. First of all, it is a campaign fought in our immediate region. The geography is mostly still the same. Second it was campaign fought alongside US forces, which was once again emphasised as important in the DSR. Also, it was fought at the start of the Pacific campaign when resources were tight. Finally, it was a high threat environment with the Imperial Japanese Army still contesting control of the air. This series of battles can teach us a great deal about littoral manoeuvre.

Ships have a great deal more carrying capacity than aircraft. Transport aircraft in sufficient numbers were available to allies to move sufficient forces into the Buna–Gona–Sanananda area of Papua New Guinea. The challenges were bringing to bear armour and artillery (combat weight) to help the infantry get sufficiently close to destroy the Imperial Japanese Army’s extensive defensive positions. In December 1942, with the campaign at Buna in jeopardy, the former train ferry Karsik was pressed into service as an emergency tank landing ship. It carried four M-3 Stuart tanks of the Australian 2/6th Armoured Regiment to Oro Bay. This convoy (imaginatively named Operation Karsik) was a great success, and the tanks played a decisive role in the fighting.

Formerly the German Soneck, and impounded in the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) when war began, in May 1940, the 2,191ton steamer SS Karsik (as it was renamed) was used as a train ferry at Batavia until the Japanese invasion.
The 2,191ton steamer SS Karsik was used as a train ferry at Batavia until the Japanese invasion. In December 1942, she brought tanks from Milne Bay to Oro Bay for use in the assault on Buna from December 1942 to June 1943 (Source: AWM 303479).

These operations were not without risk. During the previous month on 16 November 1942, four luggers and a barge nearing Hariko were attacked by Japanese fighters. The vessels were carrying Major General Harding, Commander of the US 32nd Infantry Division and his staff, two 25-pounder field guns and gunners of the 2/5th Field Regiment, and supplies. Lacking aerial cover and lightly armed, all five vessels were sunk. The general was among those who made the half-mile swim to shore.  Twenty-three US and Australian personnel were killed and approximately 100 personnel were wounded.

Biamu, Oro Bay, New Guinea. 1942-11-11. Gunners of the 2/5th Field Regiment unloading their 25 pounder gun at Biamu Village. This gun is being unloaded from a Japanese barge which was captured during the abortive landing attempt at Milne Bay during 1942-08/07. Source: Australian War Memorial
Gunners of the 2/5th Field Regiment AIF unload a 25-pounder field gun at Oro Bay from a captured Japanese barge operated by the 1st Water Transport Group, Royal Australian Engineers (Source: AWM 069260)

Gunners of the 2/5th Field Regiment AIF unload a 25-pounder field gun at Oro Bay from a captured Japanese barge operated by the 1st Water Transport Group, Royal Australian Engineers (source: AWM 069260)

From this short case study, it is evident that vessels operating close to the coast can transport the heavier elements of Army’s combined arms system and, in cooperation with infantry, the land forces can be decisive. At the same time, these vessels are vulnerable to air attack. In conflict a commander will either need to tolerate the high risk of loss (as they did in the Second World War) or treat the risk with support from air or naval forces.

Historical Analysis – Riverine Operations during the Vietnam War

Vietnam Studies Riverine Operations 1966-1969 published by the US Department of the Army is an excellent resource for learning more about the contemporary use of Army and Naval capabilities for operations on the waterways of Vietnam. There were good historic reasons for the US forces raising a riverine force. These included past American success in riverine operations during the American Civil War, the success more recently achieved by the French during the Indochina War and the situation in the Mekong Delta that seemed ripe for exploitation by a riverine force.

At the time of the Indochina War, the French estimated that 90 per cent of all traffic in North Vietnam was by inland waterways. A US study recommended that the force contain a US Army reinforced brigade consisting of three infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, and other combat and combat service support. The force would be based aboard US Navy ships that would include five self-propelled barracks ships, two Landing Ship Tugs, two large harbor tugs and two landing craft repair ships. In addition, two US Navy river assault groups would provide tactical water mobility. Each assault group would be capable of lifting the combat elements of one reinforced infantry battalion.

USS Benewah (APB-35) in Vietnam, 1968. Source: Mr Tom Sparkman
The US Naval Ship, Benewah, is used by the Mobile Riverine Force (MRP) as a troop ship. The Benewah is equipped with a helicopter landing pad and floating piers. (Source: Albert Moore and Don Blankenship; photo by Tom Sparkman).

In the conclusion of the study, the most significant organisational aspect of the Mobile Afloat Force concept was the integration of Army and Navy units and the mobility of this force. The force was capable of moving from 100 to 200 kilometres in a 24-hour period. It could then launch a day or night operation within 30 minutes of anchoring. This description of riverine operations seems to resonate with imagery of a recent exercise conducted by 1 Brigade.

The Australian Army does not have the same historical connection as the US Army with warfare and riverine operations. Our Army does have extensive experience with the use of watercraft by Regional Force Surveillance Units from the 2nd Division for domestic operations. These forces provide a persistent screen in northern Australia supported by enabling assets such as the LCM-8, including Royal Australian Navy ships, medical teams, remote command-and-control nodes and Australian Border Force assets to enhance the effectiveness of the screen as part of Operation Resolute. The mobility and ability to access remote areas as demonstrated by the Vietnam historical analysis is clearly extremely important to protecting our homeland.


This article has outlined the logic that underpins littoral manoeuvre as a concept. This logic is important given the future of littoral manoeuvre within Defence and the Australian Army in particular. The acquisition of future platforms, combined with current doctrine, suggests that the term littoral manoeuvre accurately describes Army’s aspirations. Littoral reflects the importance of Army projecting force from the sea to the land, which in turn allows land capabilities, such as long-range strike, to influence events at sea. The use of the term manoeuvre, to achieve a position of advantage in respect to the adversary, does depend on the enemy threat and the risk the commander is willing to tolerate. But it will nevertheless be an important aspect of future army operations. I propose that a potential revised definition of littoral manoeuvre is ‘the use of the littoral to achieve positional advantage to influence the maritime domain from the land, as well as projecting and sustaining force ashore’.

The vessels associated with littoral manoeuvre are for transport and will be vital to projecting Army’s long-range strike platforms to a position of advantage, or to sustain Australia’s forward partnerships that defend our immediate region in competition. They are vulnerable to attack from the air or sea in conflict. Thus, mitigating a higher threat is based on their employment. If littoral manoeuvre vessels are part of the Australian Amphibious Force, as the current suit of Army watercraft are, this force will provide air, surface and sub-surface protection in conflict.

If we look to history to help us bring these new vessels into effective service, the Second World War in the Pacific theatre is especially worthy of further study. This is because of the geography, our close working relationship with US forces, and the fact that it was fought when resources were tight and there was a high threat environment. These similarities make historic combat operations in the Pacific theatre a salient point of reference for examining future littoral manoeuvre operations in the Australian Army.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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