Wednesday 24 April 2024

Naval War College Lecture: Fulfilling Outcome 5 by "Drawing lessons for the conduct of future amphibious operations by the Nigerian Navy"

While technologies change the logic remains the same.” 

- Dr. Toshi Yoshihara

Reflecting on the Bonny Operation.

Preparation & Operational issues. 

Primacy of the mission

. Everything including casualties is secondary to achieving the goals of the mission.


. Gaining effective intelligence on the enemy remains a paramount task. It is always important to assess the strength of the opposition.

. Also obtaining accurate information on the physical format of the selected landing site along with tidal information is extremely crucial.

Determining the appropriate level of force to use

. Prior to the Bonny operation the Navy needed to calibrate the amount of firepower which would need to be brought to bear on the enemy from the sea while in support of advancing Nigerian troops.

Getting logistics right

. It is no good having the cleverest plan in the world and well-trained personnel if they lack adequate fuel, ammunition and food. These issues serve as constraints on planning. Logistics drives the tactical plans.

Assessing vulnerabilities

. Don’t risk your big ships as you will not get an equivalent amount of military value from it. NNS Nigeria was not risked but provided effective support. Commander James Rawe noted that Nigeria had a high freeboard which made it difficult for it to depress its guns low enough to engage in close up fighting. Its size also meant that it could not navigate shallower or more confined waters in a way that NNS Ogoga, a corvette, and NNS Benin and NNS Enugu, SDBs could.

Train as you expect to fight

. The old mantra of “train like you fight, fight like you train” was evident in the pre-landing preparations undertaken by the Nigerian Navy and the Nigerian Army. 

. Tarkwa Bay provided a good training location. It could be easily sealed from the public to achieve secrecy.


Learn and adjust during operations

. For instance, during the Bonny Operation, the Nigerian Navy learned from experience that it was best for ships patrolling Bonny River to operate in pairs in order to counter helicopter attacks. 

Commander Rawe and his crew were caught unawares by a bomb dropped by a Biafran helicopter piloted by French mercenaries while investigating the wreck of BNS Ibadan. When they got to NNS Penelope, the helicopter pursued them while dropping bombs. The helicopter nestled itself directly above Penelope so that the vessel's guns were unable to target it. Penelope zig-zagged its way out of trouble while Rawe fired at it with his FN FAL rifle to keep it at a higher distance.


. The importance of patrolling to maintain gains i.e. maintain control of the Bonny theatre. The Navy needed to have been more aggressive in its patrolling of the Bonny River after the taking of Bonny Island. This flaw gave confidence to the Biafran side which launched raids on Bonny (mainly at night) and which almost overwhelmed the admittedly understaffed and under resourced Nigerian Army battalion at Bonny and the company-sized deployment at Peterside.

Communication between Navy and Army

. Interpersonal relations between officers of the same armed force and other forces. There was a good relationship between Commander Rawe and Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Adekunle but not between Captain Nelson Soroh and Adekunle. 

. Needless to say, the inter-service and intra-service relations between officers embarked upon combined missions is a crucial factor in achieving success.

Technical co-ordination 

. Navy and Army co-operation also encompasses the technical.

. The use of pyrotechnic flares were used as signals to signify the beginning or ending of specific manoeuvres, as well as to indicate the position of troops so as to prevent deaths and injuries from friendly fire.

For instance, NNS Lokoja was expected to fire skywards what was described in naval jargon as "one red Very light in the final stage of her beaching run, while the troops of the Third Infantry Division engaging the enemy in Bonny were expected to indicate their position to naval vessels by firing "one green Very light" in order to indicate their most southerly position so as to permit relevant naval vessels to fire ahead of them. It would in effect indicate the dividing line between "friendly troops" and "enemy troops."

Today, senior officers in a situation room and even soldiers or marines on the battlefield will be able to construct digital maps which increase situational awareness. Ascertaining the location of friendly and hostile forces can also be aided by the use of drones and communication can be facilitated by utilising military encrypted phones.

. Difficulties can arise even within the most established armed forces. For instance, it is interesting to note that during the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in the early 1980s, it was discovered that the Royal Navy and the British Army did not have compatible (integrated) joint communications systems. According to Rear Admiral Chris Parry, if the navy needed to talk to the army, they had to “send a helicopter up with an army radio set in the back to talk to them.”

Psychological issues

. Be prepared for death. Field medical assistance was non-existent at Bonny. Commander Rawe recalled that Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle went around dying Nigerian soldiers laid across a deck lifting them by the heads and giving them a tot of brandy saying, "there is nothing that we can do for you” but inviting them to have a drink before they left.

. Also, some corpses of Federal soldiers who died during the landing floated around Bonny River with vultures sitting on their heads because their life jackets kept them afloat.

Both issues did not help morale.

Adherence to the Laws of War

. Evidence of this can be garnered from the Bonny operation order in which ship commanders were instructed not to fire from north of their position in “Area Tango” unless necessary to prevent stray shells from landing in the high-density part of Bonny Town designated as “Sector Foxtrot.”

Some wider issues

Operating armed forces in a nation lacking an industrial base

. Nigeria lacked an industrial base in 1967 and still lacks an industrial base. Operational planning will be constricted when a nation lacks an indigenous "military industrial complex".

The need for established military-orientated institutions of higher education

. In other words, the necessity of Nigeria possessing an indigenous "military intellectual complex" through the efforts of maritime specialist academics and naval officers in laying down and developing the theoretical foundations of Nigerian sea power.

Are amphibious operations obsolete?

Some military figures believe that large scale amphibious assaults are now an obsolete aspect of warfare because shore-based missile technology is able to knock out warships (carriers, battleships and landing craft) from a great distance and that a relatively modest expenditure of ordnance would destroy a formidable amphibious landing force approaching a hostile littoral.

As General David Berger, a U.S. Marine Commandant argued in the Marine Corps Gazette edition of June 2020:

“a maritime power and a nuclear power eliminates entirely the salience of large-scale forcible entry operations followed by sustained operations ashore.” 

See: The Case For Change: Meeting the Physical Challenges Facing the Corps

BUT the following book disputes this:

On Contested Shores: The Evolving Role of Amphibious Operations in the History of Warfare (VOLUME 2) edited by Timothy Heck, B. A. Friedman, and Walker D. Mills. 

See: Warfighting from Ship to Shore and Beyond: Why Amphibious Operations Still Matter - Modern War Institute.

Application of amphibious landings by the Nigerian Navy today

The old principles would remain the same for an Amphibious Support Operation

. Staging a landing to help another country in regard to disaster relief.

For amphibious assault

. The Nigeria Navy ships would need to be protected by a missile shield so as to protect vessels from shore based missiles and drones. Important to note that ships would be extremely vulnerable to hypersonic missiles.

. Secret preparations of a type such as undertaken prior to the Bonny Landing would need, in this day, to be accompanied by elaborate deception tactics i.e. a Nigerian form of Russian Maskirovka.

. Using modern technology in place of pyrotechnic flares to keep abreast of the location of friendly and hostile troops while the navy supports landed troops by providing covering fire.

. Accurate information in regard to the physical geography of the landing site and of tidal information remains a crucial component in planning an amphibious operation.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2024).

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