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04-10-06, 08:31 AM #1
New Riverine force will take fight upriver in Iraq
New Riverine force will take fight upriver in Iraq
By LOUIS HANSEN, The Virginian-Pilot
© April 10, 2006
Last updated: 11:37 PM
At this time next year, about 200 sailors will fill up small boats, man .50-caliber machine guns and watch for trouble along the waterways of Baghdad.
T here’s a catch, though: A t the moment, these sailors have no boats, no manuals and no past missions to call their own. Riverine Group 1 of the Navy’s new river combat force based at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base is starting from scratch.
They still are recruiting men and writing a fresh chapter on how to prepare for river fighting.
“We’ve got sailors lining up at the door,” Capt. Michael L. Jordan, commodore of the riverine force, said during an interview at his half-finished headquarters. “The problem is, we’ve got no experience to draw from.”
The Navy has not seen this type of action since the Vietnam War, so it is calling river veterans, the Marine Corps and the special warfare community for advice. The chosen sailors will undergo eight months of training, including combat first aid and grunt infantry at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
It’s a brave new world – and in one year, they’ll be in Iraq.
The riverine force is part of the Navy’s effort to become a bigger player in global efforts against terrorists and insurgents. Policing and protecting the shallow brown and green waters in hot spots now is the responsibility of the Marine Corps and special forces.
That will change quickly.
For several months, the Navy riverine force has been little more than a progression of planning sessions, think-tank reports and endorsements from top brass. Now, ideas are becoming action.
Late last year, the sea service established the 40,000-sailor Navy Expeditionary Combat Command at Little Creek. The unit, led by Rear Adm. Donald Bullard, has wide-ranging responsibilities for sailors working primarily on the ground, including Seabees, ordnance teams, logistics and cargo handlers.
In January, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael G. Mullen cited the development of a riverine force as a key goal this year. The riverine force falls under the new command.
The riverine group will consist of three squadrons and roughly 900 sailors, including the 200 initially deployed, and support staff. Each unit will have 16 boats, most likely 30- to 40-foot crafts capable of cruising as fast as 40 knots. The craft will be similar to those used by Marines and special forces.
The Navy’s last widespread riverine force patrolled during the Vietnam War along the Mekong Delta and its rivers and canals. The hastily assembled riverine corps came together in 1965.
The Navy shelved its squadrons after the war, turning many boats over to allies and the mission over to the Marines.
Robert Work, a senior defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the return of the brown- and green-water Navy will benefit the service in the long term.
Since the Cold War, t he Navy has projected its force miles away from the coastlines.
“It was all about putting missiles on the shore,” said Work, a retired Marine colonel. A s the Soviet Union disintegrated, however, threats from small stateless insurgents and terrorists grew.
The Navy has felt the blow from terrorists several times. The Norfolk-based destroyer Cole was attacked and 17 sailors were killed in 2000 while at port in Yemen. In 2004, two sailors and a Coast Guardsman died when they confronted terrorists during a patrol around the Iraqi oil terminals in the Persian Gulf.
A few Navy leaders pushed to re-establish a riverine force, Work said.
Those arguments were bolstered by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq war.
“The global war on terror has a gravitational pull over time,” he said.
Although the Navy’s core strength will remain its aircraft carriers, more of its leaders are willing to move toward brown- and green-water operations, Work said.
“I really believe the Navy has made the cultural shift,” he said.
To meet the new mission, the Navy has to draw up a set of needs for training, equipment and expertise. It is a work in progress.
“Standing up in six months is a daunting task,” Jordan said. “We want to get it right.”
As Jordan worked through the details of creating a command, he found himself posing questions most sailors do not get to ask:
What should our boats look like? What kind of flak jacket should a sailor wear? What type of training and physical fitness regime should he run his sailors through?
Jordan has travel ed to Iraq and across the United States to learn about training and equipment for his new force. He has turned to the Marines and Navy special warfare units for advice.
The Navy also faces intra service rivalries with the Marines, who have felt uneasy about the possibility of a new naval infantry. The Marines, a part of the Department of Navy, have served as the sea services’ infantry throughout their history.
So Jordan also is building bridges to the Marines Corps.
“We’re training sailors to operate on a small craft. … Their job is on the boat,” he said. He added what has become a mantra from the Navy: “We’re not developing a naval infantry.”
Marine Lt. Col. Ray McFall, a liaison officer with the Marine Corps Forces Command in Norfolk, has been helping the Navy form its new command.
McFall has arranged special sessions for Group 1 sailors at Camp Lejeune. They will undergo basic infantry training, much like foot soldiers learning the building blocks of combat and weaponry.
“The Navy’s trying to step up,” he said. “The Marine Corps is very supportive of this.”
However , he sai d, it’s still a sensitive area within the two services.
“We’re not training them into Marines,” he said.
Work said riverine work is difficult for the Marine Corps to keep in the long term. Skilled positions, particularly boat drivers, are lost as Marines advance their careers back into the infantry, he said.
With the Navy ready to assume the new role, he said, sailors with small-boat experience will have skills and a career path more valuable to the Navy. “This is the way it should be,” Work said.
Jordan is encouraged by the response from sailors. The Navy has identified about 90 percent of the personnel needed to fill the three squadrons.
Brown-water veterans from Vietnam say they are not surprised by the steady stream of volunteers.
Larry Weatherall of Virginia Beach conducted about 220 missions in patrol boats from 1967 to 1968 . He said the assignment was the highlight of many sailors’ careers.
“For most of us, that was the time of our lives,” he said. “We never had more freedom. We never had more responsibility.” Weatherall, 58, is president of the regional chapter of the Gamewardens of Vietnam, an association of brown-water veterans .
The riverine fleet acted as a beat cop on the water: checking small boats, getting to know the local fishermen and traders, and, at night, setting up ambushes on enemy craft. Weatherall estimates that his four-man crew engaged in about 40 fire fights.
Jordan has invited the veterans to conferences, and other officers in the expeditionary command have sought guidance on equipment and tactics. The veterans and active duty officers conferred again at a Riverine Warfare conference last week at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
A bout one out of five sailors have reached Little Creek to start their new duties. More arrive every week, along with equipment and support personnel. Eventually, the sailors will deploy to Iraq and replace a Marine force guarding Haditha Dam near Baghdad.
Lt. John John served as a liaison officer with Marine Corps forces in Okinawa, Japan. When he heard about the riverine force, he requested a spot and moved half way across the world to join and lead a new squadron.
He also passed on the shore duty he was owed next year.
“I wanted to be a part of history,” John said. “I’ve rationalized this by saying I’ll be on the shore in Iraq.”
Reach Louis Hansen at (757) 446-2322 or email@example.com.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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