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Expeditionary warfare is a military invasion of a foreign territory, especially away from established bases. Expeditionary forces were in part the antecedent of the modern concept of rapid deployment forces. Traditionally, expeditionary forces were essentially self-sustaining with an organic logistics capability and with a full array of supporting arms.

In the ancient world

Alexander the Great fighting in India

The earliest examples of expeditionary warfare come from the Sea Peoples, a term used for a confederation of seafaring raiders of the second millennium BC who sailed into the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, caused political unrest, and attempted to enter or control Egyptian territory during the late 19th dynasty, and especially during Year 8 of Ramesses III of the 20th dynasty.

Empire of Alexander the Great

The raiding tactics were expanded into the more complex expeditionary warfare operations by Alexander the Great who used naval vessels for both troop transporting and logistics in his campaigns against the Persian Empire.

The next exponents of expeditionary warfare in the ancient world of the Mediterranean Basin were the Carthaginians who introduced two entirely new dimensions to the use of naval forces by staging not only operations that combined naval and land troops, but also eventuated in combining strategic multi-national forces during the land phase of the operation when Hannibal in his most famous achievement at the outbreak of the Second Punic War marched an army, which included war elephants, from Iberia over the Pyrenees and the Alps into Northern Italy.

Following on the example of Carthage, the Romans used expeditionary operations extensively to expand their Empire and influence in the Mediterranean and beyond, including the Roman conquest of Britain which was not only a limited expeditionary operation, but one conceived to include long-term occupation and Roman settlement of the territories.

Han campaigns against the Xiongnu, shown in red

The Han dynasty of ancient China also famously used expeditionary warfare to deal with the nomadic Xiongnu people during the Han–Xiongnu War. Under the orders of Emperor Wu of Han, the Han launched numerous long-distance raids deep into Xiongnu territory. The exploits of famed Han generals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing were of particular note, with both recording multiple successful expeditions between the years 127 and 119 BC, eventually annexing the Hexi Corridor and expelling the Xiongnu from the Qilian Mountains. The expeditionary Han forces were primarily made up of cavalry and were typically arrayed in columns. They also frequently crossed vast distances–Huo Qubing is said to have travelled 2,000 li, roughly 620 miles, during one of his raids.

In the Middle Ages

Shortly after the collapse of the Roman empire in Italy, the European Middle Ages began with an expedition of imperial Byzantine general Belisarius against the Vandals. But as that empire dwindled, its warfare became more defensive.

The most prominent development of expeditionary warfare during the Middle Ages came from the environmental pressures in the Scandinavian region during the Middle Ages, and the emergence of the Viking migrations that combined raiding, longer term inland operations, occupation and settlement. These operations were conducted as sea, coastal and riverine operations, and sometimes were strategic in nature, reaching as far as Constantinople.

Expeditionary warfare in East Asia began very much in the same way it had in the Mediterranean with short-term raids by Japanese pirates. Because the wokou were weakly resisted by the Ming dynasty, the raiding eventually developed into fully-fledged expeditionary warfare with the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598).

During the Crusades

The development in expeditionary operations reached a new level when during the Crusades the element of political alliance as an influence on the military strategy was introduced, for example in the Sixth Crusade (AD 1228.)

The rise of European colonial empires

"Yermak's conquest of Siberia", a painting by Russian artist Vasily Surikov depicting the Russian conquest of Siberia.

Although all expeditionary warfare until the invention of the combustion engine was largely dependent on sailing vessels, it was with the creation of sophisticated rigging systems of the European Renaissance that the Age of Sail allowed a significant expansion in expeditionary warfare, notably by the European colonial empires. Some have argued that this was the first revolution in military affairs that changed national strategies, operational methods, and tactics both at sea and on the land. One notable example of this evolution was the French invasion of Egypt (1798).

Though a significantly expanded expeditionary operation, the Crimean War was the first example of a planned expeditionary campaign that was directed as part of a multinational coalition strategy. It was also the first modern expeditionary operation that used steam-powered warships and telegraph communications.

The next development in the evolution of the expeditionary warfare was made during the expansion of the western European empires and the era of colonialism that also led to the inclusion of the expeditionary methods into the direct expression of national strategies to avoid full-scale conflicts in the shape of the gunboat diplomacy approach. It was at this time that naval troops previously used almost exclusively for defence of vessels or minor beach operations were expanded to enable extended littoral operations. The colonial experience, though largely confined to the period before the First World War, persisted well into the 20th century.

The World Wars

First World War

The period of the First World War and its aftermath in the 1920s saw expeditionary warfare established as a systematic and planned type of operations with larger scope than simple transportations of troops to the theatre, such as the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, Russian Expeditionary Force in 1916, and the American Expeditionary Forces in 1917, and the beginnings of development in true combined operations at strategic, operational and tactical levels with the unsuccessful amphibious landing at Gallipoli. Not only did this operation combine the elements of overall war planning context, multinational deployment of forces as part of the same operation, and use of troops prepared for the landings (as opposed to disembarkation), as well as naval gunfire support that was limited during the era of sailing ships, but also included extensive use of combat engineering in support of the infantry. One of the most extensive and complex of expeditionary operations that followed the war was the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War that saw forces deployed in the Baltic region, the Arctic region, along the Black Sea coast, and in the Russian Far East.

A squadron of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force off New Britain in September 1914

Other expeditionary forces during WWI included:

Second World War

Coldstream Guards of the British Expeditionary Force arrive in Cherbourg, France, 1939
Brazilian soldiers of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force greet civilians in Massarosa, Italy, September 1944.


Further information: Power projection

European Union


United Kingdom

Royal Air Force Typhoons from No. 121 Expeditionary Air Wing

United States

Carrier Strike Group
Expeditionary Strike Group

See also