by DAVID AXE
“Our assessment of security trends points strongly to the conclusion that the future mix of missions facing U.S. forces will call for greater flexibility and agility to operate among populations, with a wide variety of partners, and in a variety of operating environments.”
That was the conclusion of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, released earlier this month. For the U.S. Navy, this increased emphasis on population-centric warfare — also known as “counter-insurgency” — means adding forces suited to operating in coastal and riverine environments, where some 60 percent of the world’s population lives. “Beginning in [fiscal year 2011], the Navy will add a fourth riverine squadron to its force structure,” the QDR posited.
In the U.S. Navy, a riverine squadron includes around 200 sailors manning a dozen assault boats armed with machine guns. After a long period without dedicated riverine forces, the Navy stood up three riverine squadrons beginning in 2006. Starting in 2007, the squadrons took turns deploying to Iraq to patrol around the vital Haditha dam in the western part of the country. Today, a squadron patrols the swampy border zone between Iraq and Iran. During initial deployments, the squadrons managed to field just four boats.
The Navy had a huge riverine force during the Vietnam War, but disbanded it following the end of that conflict. The need for new riverine forces was highlighted in the middle years of the current Iraq war. In 2005, the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division, deployed around the city of Mosul, struggled to intercept smugglers and insurgents traveling on the Tigris River. The Army improvised its own riverine force, piling heavily-armed soldiers into engineering boats. It was a stop-gap solution, at best.
The Navy’s riverine sailors fall under Naval Expeditionary Combat Command headquartered in Little Creek, Virginia. NECC was established in 2006 to oversee the Navy’s “other” forces, including construction troops, port-security sailors, bomb squads and other specialists. With the QDR’s mandate for a fourth riverine unit, NECC is studying how to stand up the squadron and what exactly the unit will do.
While the existing three units are combat-oriented, NECC is considering assigning the fourth squadron to an overseas training role, working to improve the riverine forces of allied militaries — this according to NECC commander Rear Admiral Carol Pottenger. “We’re excited about the added capability,” she says.
But even a fourth squadron would result in a riverine organization that pales in comparison to the Vietnam-era force. During that conflict, more than 30,000 sailors and nearly a thousand boats were dedicated to river operations, compared to fewer than a thousand people and just 36 boats today.
The difference led one critic to declare that “the Navy isn’t serious about riverine warfare.” Navy Lieutenant Daniel Hancock, writing in the Proceedings professional journal, called the river troops “window dressing.” “It is naive to think that a major riverine environment can be controlled with four boats. In addition, river control and area security are undermined by one critical shortcoming — no organic combat service-support element.”
“The group’s ability to dominate a combat operation or break the will of an insurgency is limited, at best,” Hancock continued. “A total of 22 [developing] countries will be out of the projected range of Navy riverine force capabilities, including hot spots like Burma, Colombia, Iraq, North Korea, Nigeria, Venezuela and Vietnam.”
Pottenger admits that the riverine squadrons — and all NECC forces, for that matter — lack sustained budgetary support. This could limit their expansion and development. Since its founding, NECC has been funded by so-called “contingency” funds that are not included in the normal defense budget. Pottenger says she is working to get NECC included in the base budget.
Part of the problem is the larger Navy’s continued ignorance of riverine forces’ utility. Pottenger says she sees the Navy culture shifting in coming years, as officers who’ve done stints with NECC move on to other positions within the sea service. Already, the former commanding officer of a riverine squadron has joined the Navy’s Surface Warfare Officer school as an instructor.