The Navy expects to deploy three riverine squadrons in 2007. The units will relieve Marines who currently are conducting maritime security operations in the ports and inland waterways of Iraq.
According to preliminary plans presented at a conference in Panama City, Fla., the force would have a fleet of 36 armed and armored combatant craft, with 12 boats per squadron, and would be able to transport the equivalent of one Marine Corps rifle company. Two crews would be assigned to each craft for round-the-clock operations.
Though the force would be deployed to Iraq initially, the idea is that these river commandos could be employed around the world, in hotspots where terrorists have developed niches along inland waterways-places such as the Niger delta, Colombia, Indonesia and the Philippines, said Rear Adm. Donald K. Bullard, commander of the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command.
The organization and training of these units will fall under the purview of the NECC.
The riverine crews' missions will include interdiction of arms or terrorist smugglers, barricade operations to stop inflow to a certain area, training other countries' law enforcement and visual and electronic surveillance of particular enemy activities, said Bullard.
"It's not any different if you take a look at what we do in the littoral," said Bullard. "We're just extending those normal, long-time naval capabilities out from the littoral and into the inland waterway."
The three units will be manned by 700 sailors drawn from across the entire Navy.
"We understand boats," he said. "Currently, we don't have a riverine force, but we operate, in the Navy, 38 different types of boats." For example, special operations forces operate high-speed craft and sailors also operate port security boats.
These riverine forces will train alongside the Marines using the Corps' current equipment, which includes the 38-foot small unit riverine craft and the 38-foot riverine assault craft.
"Right now, the equipment that the Marines have, as we relieve them, is sufficient for the Iraq mission," said Bullard.
The Navy will study options for possibly buying new boats in the future.
"It may be not a single boat," he said. Riverine missions may require a variety of boats. A high-speed craft, for instance, would be needed for security and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance interdiction functions. Another type of boat may be needed to move a rifle company.
The procurement of new hardware is tied to high-level budget deliberations currently underway at the Pentagon. Because the command is still evaluating requirements, Bullard declined to name any specific boats under consideration.
Military leaders, at home and abroad, have voiced the need for a riverine force.
"Two things happened last year," Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Gordon Nash, director of the Navy's expeditionary warfare division, told conference attendees. The chief of operations from the Peruvian Navy visited Adm. Vernon Clark, then U.S. Navy chief, and informed him he had found 14,000 miles of navigable river mostly between Peru and Colombia. That area, Nash noted, is providing refuge to Colombian terrorists, and the Peruvian Navy was seeking help from the United States in monitoring that long stretch of water.
Then in November, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Army Gen. John Abizaid, insisted he needed a riverine capability, Nash said. The Marines had decided to stand down their units, and Abizaid feared he would not have enough help patrolling the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Speaking at the same conference, Lt. Gen. James M. Mattis, commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said the enemy in Iraq has exploited the lack of U.S. dominance in inland-waterway warfare.
"The enemy is definitely going to frown when they hear the U.S. Navy is going into the brown and green water. They are not going to like that," he said.
The Navy already has a riverine capability embedded in its special operations forces.
"But they're at capacity. So we're trying to increase capacity" with the new riverine force, said Bullard.
In a written response to questions from National Defense, a Naval Special Warfare Command spokesman said that the riverine force will cover more conventional types of operations, but that the riverine and special operations forces will train and fight together.
Likewise, the two commands will coordinate tactics, techniques and procedures, identify gaps and seams, work material solutions-such as boats, weapons, gear and ammunition-and coordinate the use of training ranges.
Going up the rivers is not a new concept for the Navy. As Bullard pointed out, the service has been conducting inland waterway operations for 230 years. But a fully equipped and trained riverine command squadron has not existed since the Vietnam War, when the enemy employed rivers to communicate and to transport people and arms.
"The Navy had to go into that battle space to interdict the enemy. And if you take a look, our riverine forces in Vietnam did very brave and very good things, just like this one will," said Bullard.