A Riverine Force

Sailors volunteer to dive into high-risk mission, but money, materials fall short of the mark

By Andrew Scutro
NavyTimes staff writer
April 10, 2006 Issue

By this time next year, the Navy's first squadron of river warfare sailors should be on the water, deep inside Iraq. But today, the riverine force has no boats of its own and limited funding for two of its planned three squadrons. The riverine concept of operations was only just approved by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen on March 29.

And war awaits. Despite a much ballyhooed July 2005 announcement that the Navy would reinvent its riverine capability, the force has existed only as a slow-moving idea while Marines handle the riverine mission in Iraq – which they will do until next spring. The 224 sailors assigned to the first squadron have just begun reporting for duty at riverine group headquarters in Little Creek, Va. After enduring Marine Corps infantry school this summer, they will train at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on seven boats borrowed from the Corps.

The new brown-water sailors will replace a Marine unit in Iraq that's protecting the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River, a keystone in the country's infrastructure. To do the job, the sailors will borrow 10 more boats from the Marine Corps in Iraq. There are sailors on the ground in Iraq today, but not on the rivers. Instead, the country's inland waterways are patrolled not only by a provisional Marine company, but also by resourceful Army engineers.

Since early in the war, soldiers have driven boats normally used to build pontoon bridges to patrol and move infantry on the Euphrates River. The Navy says it wants to fight – or at least be able to operate – on the world's rivers. Plans call for the Navy to rotate three squadrons through Iraq as needed.

But that's just the beginning. Navy officials have projected missions for the riverine force long after the U.S. is out of Iraq, hinting at operations in contested river deltas and v ital waterways of Africa and South America. The mission push comes from the top. Mullen has placed a high priority on forming a "Brown Water Navy," as the riverine force was called during the Vietnam War. We cannot sit out in the deep blue, waiting for the enemy to come to us. He will not. We must go to him.

"I want the ability to go close-in and stay there," Mullen said in a speech at the Naval War College in August 2005, shortly after becoming CNO. "I believe our Navy is missing a great opportunity to influence events by not having a riverine force. We're going to have one." But for all the talk about the Brown Water Navy, the service has been slow to put boats in the water.

And it's been noticed. In mid-March, Congress denied a Navy request for $69 million to equip the second and third riverine warfare squadrons with something better than borrowed Marine gear. (Some $28 million has been budgeted for 2007 to get the initial effort underway.) Despite its top billing in the Quadrennial Defense Review – next to special operations and foreign-language training – lawmakers did not deem the Navy's riverine force worth funding with wartime supplemental money.

The Navy wanted the cash to buy 24 riverine warfare boats, communications gear, tactical vehicles, weapons, ammunition and spare parts for the second and third riverine squadrons. A key reason for the congressional slap-down was the Navy's inability to produce a "concept of operations" for the new force. A congressional report accompanying the March 16 funding denial said, "While endorsed by the recent Quadrennial Defense Review, the concept of operations is still under development, and equipment requirements, including force-protection equipment, have not been specified or validated."

At the time the House Appropriations Committee denied the funds, the concept of operations had not made it to Mullen's desk from Adm. John Nathman's Fleet Forces Command, which oversees the riverine squadron. A spokesman at Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., referred questions on riverine funding, and the concept of operations, to the CNO's office.Some say internal Navy politics may have played a role in the foot-dragging.

A retired senior Navy officer familiar with the situation said some in "Big Navy" are not enthusiastic about taking on the riverine mission because of the potential drain on manpower, funding and effort. Bob Work, a defense analyst with expertise on naval forces, agrees. Work said there's much internal debate as to whether the Navy should do the riverine mission, despite the relatively low cost of creating such a force.

The $69 million request, for example, carries the same price tag as an MV-22 Osprey aircraft. "This is a cultural battle between Big Navy and Little Navy," Work said. "The cultural preference of Big Navy is to prepare for possible competition with China with priority on [high-priced future warships] DD(X) and CG(X). Any diversion away from those systems is deemed not to be good." Work believes Mullen means what he says when he talks about building a capability across the spectrum of blue, green and brown water.

A riverine force, Work's "Little Navy," also fits in Mullen's initiative to build a 1,000-ship navy for maritime vigilance among like-minded nations."There's more rationale for a Little Navy now than at any time since Vietnam," Work said. "Given the emphasis CNO has put on this, I don't see how he can walk away from it."

Can't wait to train While bureaucratic machinations at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill continue, the job of getting sailors on the river in Iraq falls to Capt. Michael Jordan, commodore of the Riverine Group, based in Little Creek, Va. A qualified surface warfare officer, Jordan has a background in explosive ordnance disposal.His office has the feel of a pl ace newly occupied, and his staff is new on the job. Jordan's command master chief is Master Chief Boatswain's Mate (SW) John Hansbarger, a sailor for 25 years.

His operations officer is Lt. Chris Farricker, and his assistant operations officer is Lt. John John, also the officer in charge of the first squadron.The riverine mission has evolved somewhat from the force of gung-ho quasi-Marines first presented a year ago. In July, when the idea of an expeditionary combat command was floated to the press, a Navy official said, "We need to create a sailor with a bayonet in his teeth, ready to go ashore and mix it up."

Now, Navy officials familiar with the concept of operations characterize it less as a riverine assault force and more of a maritime security, ready-to-cooperate-with-friendly nations force. Now, lacking the full funding the Navy wanted to rapidly train and deploy the force, Jordan characterizes the first squadron as an "in-lieu-of" force meant to fill a gap until specifically trained and equipped forces are created.

The group will focus on getting the first squadron operational and then start a rotation with the second and third squadrons, Jordan said during an interview at his Little Creek headquarters.How that will evolve just became clear. "The CNO has approved the concept of operations for the riverine force. It has not yet been signed and promulgated, but it has been approved," Mullen's spokesman, Cmdr. John Kirby, said March 30. Jordan said the mission of safely transporting ground forces is a given, but the extent of river-control missions – as the Navy did in Vietnam – may require further calibration.

"I think that's certainly part of riverine warfare," Jordan said. "We just need to decide how much of that the CNO wants to do." While the intent may have been watered down, the stand-up has been rapid. "It's one of the fastest things I've seen the Navy do in manning a unit," he said. "We started in December and had guys showing up in February and March." His ops officer, Farricker, came off a deployment on the destroyer Oscar Austin to join riverine before the ship returned to Norfolk on March 9.

"I've been very impressed with how motivated sailors are to come to something they know is inherently dangerous and doesn't exist, but they want to be part of it," Jordan said. "They want to go get in the fight. They really do. It's refreshing to see that." Reaction from the fleet has been vocal and animated. Sailors, especially junior officers, appear excited about the prospects for a new job and early leadership opportunities in the global war on terrorism. That motivation will help.

The riverine sailors already selected will begin eight months of training in June when they proceed to the Marine Corps School of Infantry as a unit. Some riverine sailors will undergo additional machine-gun training; others will learn to be boat captains.

The force will also get extensive schooling in ground convoys and boarding vessels, as well as training at the Coast Guard's special-mission school at Camp Lejeune. It's an opportunity some sailors are leaping at. Hansbarger said he gets several calls and e-mails a day from interested sailors.

To be selected, sailors must qualify for a secret clearance, must pass a Class 2 swim test and be physically fit. "I get calls from guys who came into the Navy because of 9/11," Hansbarger said. "They say – I came in the Navy and they put me on a warship, and [then] I found out about this. I want to get off the ship and get involved. How do I get there?" Riverine manpower requirements call for a spectrum of ratings.

"We've got a few that have some special boat-operations training, but the majority of them are coming straight from the fleet," Hansbarger said. "Some of our corpsmen are coming from the [Fleet Marine Force], so that's a big plus for us, because they know how to operate with the Marine Corps already." That means fitness will be critical. Lt. John established a twice-daily exercise regimen so sailors can hack Marine infantry school. John served with the 4th Marine Regiment as a fire-support coordinator.

"Obviously, there are some physical-training issues," he said. "We want to make sure we're acclimating our kids correctly and doing the right things prior to them going down there and strapping on all that gear they're not used to for training with Marines." As the operations officer, Farricker has been sorting through gear requirements, among other tasks. "We've been given the direction to get what we need to get."

And we've been ordering that. Weapons and personal gear are en route, but without quick access to wartime funds, the Navy will have to hold off on selecting from three types of boats.The Marine Corps uses Small Unit Riverine Craft, essentially modified rigid- hull inflatable boats each with three gun mounts and armor. It will be the first boat used by Navy riverine forces.

The other boats under consideration are the Special Operations Craft, Riverine, a fast boat bristling with ordnance used by the Navy's Special Boat Team 22, and a boat known as a Dauntless, a type of which is used by coastal-warfare units.But in time, Jordan said, the force may design its own boat. "There's no one craft that does it all out there," he said. "It's got to be fast, it's got to be able to shoot, and we'll certainly put armor on all these craft."

For now, Farricker and Jordan have been gathering weapons and personal gear such as body armor – particularly buoyant body armor that won't sink a sailor. "This is happening so quick," Farricker said. "Everyone is providing good support because they know it's a tight timeline." Once the squadron forms and sailors learn how to run the boats, they will do a major exercise with the Marine Expeditionary Force, the unit they will join for deployment to Iraq.Jordan has already been to Haditha Dam to survey Marine operations there.

As he starts getting his force on the water, he's keeping an open mind. He doesn't profess to be an expert on riverine warfare and will listen to good ideas. "We'll talk to anyone we can and learn as much as we can from anybody out there," he said. For now, he has to get his first squadron to Iraq primarily to deny insurgents the use of waterways as lines of communication and a means to bypass land forces.

"In the end, these guys [have] got to go do a job, and we're going to make sure they have the right equipment to do it – and the best training to do it," he said. "It's still a risky job. But you just don't back away from it because it's hard."

Related Stories:


  Home | About Us | Black Beret | Chapters | Forum | Links | Medals & Ribbons
Photo Gallery | Poems & Stories | Reunion Information | Ship's Store
Unit Memorial | Email Us