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Riverine success in Iraq shows need for naval quick-reaction force

Seaman Edward Brand, a gunner's mate assigned to Riverine Squadron 1, fires a GAU-17A gun system from the bow of a riverine patrol boat during a live-fire exercise on May 8, 2012, in Knox, Ky.

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — When the U.S. Navy’s Riverine forces were resurrected six years ago to secure Iraq’s rivers and coastal waterways, they functioned much as the highly decorated river rats of the Mekong Delta did in Vietnam. Their success has given new life to the unit and the strategy.

In Iraq, Riverine forces became a quick reaction force — capable of search-and-seizure, insertion or extraction — on swift, agile boats with heavy-caliber weaponry. Between March 2007 and October 2011, the Riverines carried out more than 2,000 missions, trained Iraqi River Police, screened detainees and discovered weapons caches while flying 667 unmanned aerial vehicle hours.

Army and Navy river units were dismantled after the Vietnam War ended in 1975 and the Riverines’s future was in limbo when the Iraq war wound down last year. The Navy, however, has decided it has an enduring need for these quick and lethal small boat fighters.

``Just because you don’t need a tool right this second, why would you throw it away?’’ asked Chief Petty Officer William Squires, who is training to command one of the boats. ``It gives us capability to dominate inland waterways… It’s mind-boggling what we can do with four boat patrols and the weaponry we have.’’

The Navy has decided to merge the more offensive Riverine Group 1 and the more defensive Maritime Expeditionary Security Force to form the Coastal Riverine Force. The hybrid command is designed to operate in rivers, coastal waterways and possibly even in open ocean, bridging the gap between land-based forces and the Navy ships that operate off the coast.

The 5,000-strong force should be up and running initially this month, a Navy statement said, although it is not expected to be fully merged and operational for two years.

It will be broken up into two groups. Coastal Riverine Group 1 will be based at Imperial Beach, Calif., with a squadron at the Naval Amphibious Base in San Diego. Coastal Riverine Group 2 will have its headquarters in Portsmouth, Va., with additional squadrons in Bahrain, Rhode Island and Florida.

Each squadron will feature a headquarters element and four distinct companies, three of which will handle security operations, to include protecting ships and shore facilities, carrying out search-and seizure-operations and providing security for aircraft.

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The fourth, Delta company, will specialize in traditional Riverine duties, such as insertions and extractions, boardings on rivers and other inland waters, intelligence collection and more offensive combat operations, said Capt. James Hamblet, Coastal Riverine Group 2’s commander.

The new force will focus primarily in the Navy’s 5th Fleet area of operations, which includes the Persian Gulf and waterways, Navy Expeditionary Combat Command skipper Rear Adm. Michael Tillotson said at the establishment ceremony for Coastal Riverine Group 2 in June. But, he expects that focus to shift to the Pacific over time.

“We will work with partners along the areas known as Oceana, which includes Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Malaysia; we’ll work in the areas and help build relationships with those countries in order to provide security in those areas,” Tillotson said. “The challenges are out there.”

The force features a mix of maritime expeditionary security and Riverine gear and apparatus, with plans to obtain more advanced craft in the future. The Coastal Riverines now operate 113 boats, ranging from rubber combat raiding crafts to 53-foot command boats that can carry up to 26 personnel. The force has 2,657 active and 2,507 Reserve personnel, Navy Expeditionary Combat Command spokeswoman Barbara Wilcox wrote to Stars and Stripes.

The force’s future is the MK-VI patrol boat, which will allow Coastal Riverine sailors the ability to operate farther off the coast and will improve boarding capabilities as it is brought into service, Hamblet said. The 78-foot boat is capable of speeds in excess 30 knots with twin diesel engines and water jets. It has a range of 600 nautical miles.

“It’s an exciting time to be in this force,” Hamblet said. “We do boardings now, but the MK-VI will expand and improve that capability.”

Plus, sailors can coordinate airstrikes and utilize unmanned aerial vehicles, Hamblet added.

“They are a great command-and-control tool for gaining situational awareness,” he said of their use of UAVs. “We continue to train and deploy with them when we can.”

Sailors from various walks of coastal riverine life said they will be trained by an all-encompassing training and evaluation unit.

They also are attracted to the Riverine force because it offers leadership opportunities at a young age — much like the Vietnam-era Riverines — and the sailors love the “fast boats and big guns,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Shaun Cox, from the Virginia-based Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story’s training and evaluation unit.

Chief Petty Officer Patrick Wheeler, who did three tours in Iraq with Riverine Squadron 1, is now in Little Creek, helping train the newest members of the storied force.

“I love it,” said Wheeler, of Charlottesville, Va. “If I had my way, I would do this for the remainder of my time in the Navy.”

During his first assignment in Iraq, the Riverines collected intelligence, took photographs and reported on all boats, passengers, cargo, and even their destinations, completely controlling the waterways, Wheeler said.

“Nobody ever approached us, we approached them,” he said. “We would make sure [the boats] weren’t transporting weapons from one shore to the other, which was something they liked to do.”

His second deployment focused on training Iraqis and converting some old fishing boats into their local Riverine craft.

By the time of his third deployment, the Iraqis had all new boats and few mechanical or funding issues.

“They were pretty much self-sufficient by the time we left in November 2010,” Wheeler said.

John Darrell Sherwood, a historian with the Navy History and Command Center, said in his forthcoming book ``War in the Shallows,’’ that Riverines and the Navy established themselves early on as a force to be reckoned in Vietnam by carrying out campaigns in surveillance, stopping infiltrators and arms to the south and later to undertaking full-scale combat operations in the Mekong Delta.

“Most volunteered for duty in Vietnam despite being warned that such assignments might not be career enhancing,” Sherwood wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. “When the enemy exposed itself in large numbers, as was the case during Tet ‘68, the ability of the riverine forces (especially the Mobile Riverine Force) to rapidly project massive force against just about any major town in the Delta proved instrumental in recapturing cities and inflicting a severe blow on the enemy in the process.”

That history has not been lost on today’s Riverine force.

“[The Vietnam Riverine veterans] have a hand in this, they have an important hand in this, and we are forever in debt to them and we appreciate all you have done over time,” Tillotson said in June as he recognized veterans in the audience.

burkem@pstripes.osd.mil

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