The Official Publication of the
Navy League of the United States
VOL. 49, NUMBER 2
10 River War
Navy Riverines are in demand in Iraq to deny insurgents’ use of rivers as transport routes, avenues of escape
By AMY KLAMPER, Seapower Correspondent
The Navy Riverine units to be created this year will face a tough and dangerous task in Iraq, where insurgents increasingly rely on inland waterways to transport people and weapons. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which cut through the Iraqi heartland, also are vital avenues of escape for insurgents who strike in urban areas and slither away to avoid counterattacking American units.
The only maritime capability now addressing the river-borne insurgents comprises little more than 100 Marine Corps reservists and fewer than 20 boats, according to Navy and Marine Corps officials. And those units are being disbanded.
“Every commander that has rivers in their area of operation wants to have this capability,” said Marine Col. Ronald J. Johnson, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) that returned from Iraq last February. “There is never enough. It’s a valuable resource.”
Johnson, whose area of responsibility south of Baghdad included a stretch of the Euphrates River, used Riverine Assault Craft (RAC) to thwart terrorist use of Iraq’s shallow waterways as critical lines of communication. He said the small river craft were in great demand by both Marine and Army troops.
“The Army units that operated on my flank, that had the Tigris, also requested this capability,” Johnson said.
The boats and their crew were assigned to Small Craft Company, part of the 2nd Marine Division based at Camp Lejeune and attached to the 24th at various times during the unit’s seven months in Iraq.
“Insurgents move things up and down the rivers, go back and forth, because it’s more convenient,” said Johnson, who used six RAC at a time for raids and quick surprise attacks on insurgents hiding among the local population along the river’s shore.
Coalition efforts to drive insurgent cells out of Iraq’s cities in 2004 led them to seek shelter in towns on the Euphrates along the route from the Syrian border to Baghdad, according to defense analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Insurgents also took refuge in the largely Sunni towns and cities along the Tigris from Mosul to Baghdad, he noted in a December 2005 working draft report dubbed “Iraq’s Evolving Insurgency.”
“There are a lot of houses on the banks of the Euphrates, and on the Tigris,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of like a premier residential area with a lot of population there.”
Marine Riverines attached to the 24th MEU conducted a river raid in late November near the village of Hard Duwaish, about 20 miles upriver from Fallujah, according to a Nov. 28 report in The New York Times. The Marine units were deployed earlier in November during the battle of Fallujah to cut off a possible escape route for insurgents after U.S. troops had encircled the city.
Though the need for fast-moving Riverines continues in Iraq, the Marines’ Small Craft Company was disbanded as a result of “resource constraints” since Johnson’s last tour, he said.
Navy Riverine units played a large role in the Vietnam War. The Navy’s nascent effort to re-create a Riverine capability remains in the concept and development phase, but it plans a force far larger than the 100 Marines deployed to Iraq. The Navy’s initial plan is to build three 12-boat squadrons with a total of about 700 sailors. A portion of that force will patrol the Euphrates and Tigris corridors.
These high-profile units will be part of the new Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) that will include the Seabees, explosive ordnance demolition units, the Naval Expeditionary Logistics Support Force and Navy prison guards at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Vice Adm. Albert T. Church, then-director of the Navy Staff, said in July that the Riverines are part of a larger Navy effort to take some of the strain off heavily taxed Marine and Army expeditionary forces. The Navy will take over some transport duties in Iraq, for example, and relieve Marines stationed in Djibouti and Cuba.
Rear Adm. Donald K. Bullard, commander of the NECC, said that while the Riverines will prove critical to coalition control of Iraq’s waterways, they will be in demand in other theaters as well. In places such as Africa and South America — as well as Iraq — the Riverines will be a tool for helping partners in the war on terrorism, he said, exercising with and learning from many nations that do not have, or want, a blue-water navy.
“Many other countries only have a very small navy that is coastal,” Bullard said. “For us to get in and train in areas of security interdiction, customs and law enforcement means we increase their efforts in the war on terrorism.”
Although the idea of sailors guiding small river patrol craft in the shallows harks back to Vietnam, the concept is actually much older, dating to the ironclad monitors of the Civil War. Bullard noted that while there are some tactical lessons to be learned from the swift boats of the Mekong Delta, the battlespace has changed dramatically in terms of technology.
“Vietnam was more of a force-on-force type war,” he said. But in the war on terror, today’s Riverines will have not only an offensive capability but will be trained for interdiction, customs and law enforcement, boarding, search and seizure, and more.
“As we reviewed the war on terrorism and the lines of communications around the world, we realized there are areas where there is potential for terrorist movement of weapons, people and arms, and other things on the rivers, because in many areas there may not be land lines of communication,” Bullard said. “We’ve got to make an impact and perform maritime security ops in that environment.”
Navy river patrols are a logical extension of the service’s maritime domain between blue and brown water, Bullard said.
“We’re working very closely with the Marine Corps, working the concept of operations for how they would train with us,” he said.
The first squadron training will begin in June, with full operational capability sometime in the first half of 2007, Bullard said.
“Once we get the first squadron it will evolve as we work the [concept of operations],” he added.
Another Navy official noted that Marines would be on some Navy Riverine boats “to pursue objectives.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, chief of naval operations, told an audience at the Naval War College in August that the Navy “is missing a great opportunity to influence events by not having a Riverine force” that can push the front lines of battle as far forward as possible.
“A naval force floating off the continental shelf with no impact onshore is not decisive,” he said. “Think of the vast areas of the world covered by shallow water — those connected to the oceans by rivers and harbors and rugged shorelines. These are the decisive strips of sea that make all the difference, and we need to be there,” Mullen said, noting that nearly 30 percent of the North Persian Gulf is inaccessible by ships with drafts of more than 20 feet.