Some military expeditions require the combined skills and resources of two or more armed services to achieve an objective. Amphibious operations use armies to seize overseas objectives and the navy to get them there. In the past, the commanding general and admiral shared command, “each supreme in his own sphere.” Kings and governments expected them to work together to obtain victory, though cooperation could not be guaranteed.
Joint operations challenged leaders because generals and admirals did not understand their partner’s capabilities and limitations. In his book, The Influence of Seapower Upon History: 1660-1783, Alfred Thayer Mahan characterized such misunderstandings.
“The army thought that the navy might have beaten down stone ramparts ten feet thick; and the navy wondered why the army had not walked up the same ramparts, which were thirty feet perpendicular.”
Failed Joint Operations - Santiago de Cuba
In my book, Disaster on the Spanish Main, I discuss the inept command structure of the British attempt to capture Santiago de Cuba in 1741. A massive British expeditionary force had just returned to Jamaica from their failed siege of Cartagena. The two commanders Vice Adm. Edward Vernon and Maj. Gen. Thomas Wentworth then set their sights on Santiago. Wentworth wanted the navy to blast its way past Castillo San Pedro de la Rocha and land his troops inside the harbor. Vernon refused to risk his ships in the narrow channel under the castillo’s guns.
Without consulting the army, Vernon landed the troops at Guantanamo Bay, fifty miles east of Santiago. He expected the army to march across enemy territory, over forest trails with no draft animals then assault a castle. Once the general saw the terrain and the distance to be marched, he refused to budge. Instead of working through their differences, both commanders became obstinate and accused the other of sabotaging the operation. After the mission was abandoned some of the army officers sent a proposal to London. They begged that in future amphibious operations, “the chief command of the whole should be lodg’d in a single person.”
Tragic Joint Operations - Operation Cobra
In World War II, General Eisenhower managed to get unified command of the three combatant arms for the Normandy landings. Eisenhower, a big proponent of joint operations, once said, “When you put sea, ground and air power together, the result you get is not the sum of their separate powers. You multiply their powers, rather than add.” Under a single commander, Allied forces worked together more effectively but still had issues sorting out combined missions.
To achieve a breakout in Normandy Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley planned to bomb part of the German defensive front. He wanted to drive into a void created by heavy bombing. Bradley plotted a “target box” just beyond a highway to be saturated by British and American strategic bombers.
During a planning session the general and air staffs disagreed about the direction of the air attack. Bradley wanted a parallel approach to the target box, so the bombers would not fly over his troops. The air commanders opposed the parallel approach because it jammed the planes into a narrow corridor. They argued for a perpendicular flight path that posed less risk for their crews. The meeting broke up without a clear understanding of how the bombers would make their runs. Without consulting Bradley, the air commanders later decided to attack the target box at a right angle to the front.
Operation Cobra achieved mixed results. The strategic bombers inflicted serious destruction, though not total, on the German defense. The benefit of the carpet bombing got offset by numerous short bomb loads dropped on friendly troops. The units making the attack suffered confusion and the loss of over 100 killed and nearly 500 wounded. Bradley’s penetration succeeded in breaking through but he swore off using strategic bombers ever again.
Successful Joint Operations - Fort Fisher
There have been notable examples of successful joint operations. During the Civil War the Confederates fortified the point of land at the entrance to the Cape Fear River. This fortification, Fort Fisher, had kept the vital port of Wilmington open to blockade runners. After an abortive attempt on Fort Fisher in December 1864, the Union organized a second attack in January.
Rear Adm. David Porter and Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry coordinated an amphibious landing north of the fort. The navy provided massive fire support against Confederate positions while Union troops came ashore on January 13. The ships shifted their fire to the fort as the army cut off the peninsula and made its approach. After a continual bombardment the army and a supporting force of marines assaulted the fort’s northern face. The troops penetrated the fort while communicating their progress with the navy. The ships kept shifting their fire ahead of the advance until the Confederates surrendered. Careful planning and communication produced a decisive Union victory against a formidable defensive position.
In sum, joint operations depend on each armed service understanding the resources, tactics and shortcomings of the others. The operational plan demands input from each service to involve joint assets to their fullest capability. A single unified commander should settle disputes and disagreements between services. During execution, all services must overcome systems incompatibilities to inter-communicate and keep the battle properly coordinated. When joint planning, communication and control come together the results can achieve the multiplicative effect Eisenhower described.