The Navy's Not Serious About Riverine Warfare

By Lieutenant Daniel A. Hancock, U.S. Navy

The American experience with riverine warfare began during the Revolutionary War and has continued intermittently through the Seminole Wars, the Civil War, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Colombian drug wars, and operations today in Iraq. Throughout the U.S. Navy's existence, its riverine force has consistently disappeared as a force capability in times of peace. The need for a riverine force is the subject of great deliberation among naval strategists and leaders. Strategic banter became policy with the 2004 Request for Forces from Central Command and publication of the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) that called for the creation of a riverine force.

As the Navy fights to ensure its relevance in the war on terrorism, it is paramount that officers fully understand the tacit and imbedded impetuses that drive their organization's policies. 1

Why a Riverine Force?

As former Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Vern Clark left his post in 2005, he clearly delineated several areas that could "expand the Navy's capabilities to prosecute the Global War on Terror [GWOT]." Included in these remarks was the concept of a new riverine force. 2 Admiral Mike Mullen, Clark's successor, was quick to adopt this concept. He reaffirmed Clark's position, stating:

We need a fleet that can operate at the other end of the spectrum. . . . We need a green water capability and a brown water capability. . . . I want a balanced force in every sense of the word. . . . I believe our Navy is missing a great opportunity to influence events by not having a riverine force. We're going to have one. 3

The CNO plainly stated that he wanted a balanced force to meet the diverse post-9/11 threats. This meant broadening the definition of sea power to include the littorals, rivers, and the high seas.

U.S. Navy riverine operations have a distinguished history, but despite that experience, the service has never regarded such operations as fundamental to its core "tradition, identity, and ethos." 4 They have always competed for resources with pre-existing programs and missions. 5 Even in its most successful era, the Vietnam War, riverine warfare was never seen as career-enhancing. Instead, the blue-water Navy has viewed it as an aberration. 6 Furthermore, the up-and-down nature of the riverine force limits its immediate impact on any emergent combat scenario. Not one strategic document—from the Vietnam War until the 2006 QDR—alludes to it.

The Worthington Study

From the end of the Vietnam War until Operation Iraqi Freedom, the only time Big Navy touched the subject of riverine warfare was in August 1990. The Navy/Marine Corps Board asked the Commander of Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM), Rear Admiral George Worthington, to assess the Navy's riverine capability and develop a concept of operations for a riverine force to be drawn from existing U.S. Navy forces.

When Admiral Worthington completed his study in December 1990, his report called for a battalion-size riverine force, joint Navy and Marine Corps training, and joint operations. His force structure called for an extensive command element, a Marine air-ground task force, and a riverine assault group. The command element would also be augmented by organic combat service support elements.

All this would require 3,000 personnel and more than 75 watercraft. Because of the budget restraints of the 1990s and the extensive DOD drawdown in forces, no one ever acted on Worthington's study. 7 The funding requirement for his proposed force was simply too much for the post-Cold War Navy.

Aside from feigned interest in the report, the Navy has completely ignored riverine warfare strategy, doctrine, tactics, and training in the years leading to the war in Iraq. Instead, it has been content to let U.S. Special Operations Command (led by NAVSPECWARCOM) and the Marine Corps develop their own riverine doctrine, tactics, and skills, which naturally focused on special operations.

Where Is the Riverine Threat?

The Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) performed an exhaustive survey of all countries in the world that have river systems within 175 miles of an accessible coastline. It codified each country according to its potential for military operations and its ability to facilitate riverine operations.

Countries were labeled "functioning Core" or "non-integrated Gap." The CNA defined Core as "countries that embrace globalization . . . they accept the content flow and possess normative rule sets that bind countries together in mutually assured dependence associated with integrating one's national economy to the global economy." All other countries are non-integrated Gap states. 8 Stated succinctly, the most likely threat to the United States will come from these Gap countries.

In 2005, military leaders identified the rivers of Iraq as one area in which the Navy could make a more substantive in-country contribution. The Navy responded by proposing the current riverine force, which falls under the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC). Led by Rear Admiral Donald K. Bullard, an aviator, the NECC encompasses 40,000 personnel, specializing in naval coastal warfare, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), mobile diving and salvage, naval expeditionary logistics support, naval construction, naval security, and other specialized Navy forces. 9

Within the NECC, the Riverine Group comprises the riverine capability of the U.S. Navy. This includes a headquarters element and three squadrons. The first squadron, Riverine Squadron ONE, just returned from initial deployment to Iraq. Riverine Squadron TWO is in Iraq now, and Riverine Squadron THREE is scheduled to deploy this spring. Each squadron has 12 riverine craft, broken down into three detachments of four boats. According to its concept of operations, each boat team will be designated alpha—delta and will be manned by two five-man crews to allow port and starboard rotation during high operational tempo surge operations. 10  

Capability and Capability Gaps of Riverine Forces

The Navy has created a riverine force out of necessity, with the intention of contributing in-country in four major types of operations: security assistance, counter-insurgency (COIN), the war on terrorism, and major combat operations (MCO). However, significant gaps show in the Navy's current riverine force to wage war across the Joint Requirements Oversight Committee's range of military operations.

When the first squadron deployed in Fiscal Year 2007, the Navy had substantial capability to execute humanitarian assistance, counter-drug operations, or security assistance, but severely lacked in other critical areas like major COIN, the war on terrorism, and MCO. Even with three deployable squadrons, the Navy's riverine force will only marginally improve across the board, still lacking sustained capability in those three areas.

Security assistance is one area the proposed riverine force will have no problem addressing immediately. The NECC/Riverine Group ONE is capable of providing anti-terrorism/COIN area security. The Center for Naval Analyses estimates this will obligate 60 percent of the initial squadron's boats on any single facility, however. To conduct river control, only one boat detachment would be available if the riverine squadron also must perform area security. The FY 07 riverine force will have only four boats to control a river.

This is 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. In other words, the riverine force is incapable of sustaining itself down range. The logistical train to support a riverine squadron must leach off other theater assets.

Boats Fall Short

The boats being used have physical limitations, too. The small unit riverine craft lacks stabilized gun mounts, making it difficult to effectively lay down fields of fire. 11 Furthermore, rapid wear on the boats prohibited continuous operations during the first squadron's maiden deployment. As the Navy takes the watch on the rivers of Iraq, it is painfully clear that while the concept is sound, funding and credibility are lacking. The riverine squadron concept is capable, but only skin-deep.

Major combat operations constitute river assault, direct-action raids, and potentially mine countermeasure and countermobility operations. MCOs require the same level of effort and investment as they did in the Vietnam War. 12 Unfortunately, the initial riverine squadron has a mere 200 Sailors. MCOs will not be possible with that level of manning and only 12 boats. Even with three operational squadrons totaling 700 sailors and 36 boats, the Navy riverine force will still fall woefully short of achieving limited, much less sustained, MCO capability.

In Vietnam, the Navy conducted MCO along 17,700 kilometers of inland waterways and 93,700 square kilometers of the Mekong Delta. The number of personnel involved is staggering. At its peak in the late 1960s, some 4,500 personnel manned 450 riverine craft. Furthermore, 500 boats (and ships) and 9,000 Sailors were in direct support of the operations in the rivers. Beyond these numbers, another 22,645 served in indirect support of riverine operations. 13 The current Riverine Group force structure is handicapped from the start.

To ask a riverine squadron to duplicate such an effort in Iraq or elsewhere is unrealistic. The Navy wants to be viewed as contributing to the war on terrorism, but the numbers tell a different story in this case. Careful analysis of the Riverine Group shows a tacit unwillingness from the Navy to fully commit to the concept.

Optimally, the Riverine Group will be able to support battalion-size Army and Marine operations. 14 This pales in comparison to the level of output in Vietnam. The group's ability to dominate a combat operation or break the will of an insurgency is limited, at best. A total of 22 Gap 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. 15 This undermines the Navy's assertion that it wants a viable brown-water Navy.

In short, the facts do not match the rhetoric of Admirals Mullen and Clark. While both may have had the imagination and desire to field a competent riverine force, the bureaucracy of the Navy organization is not allowing it. The riverine force contradicts the ideological convictions that all Navy officers are taught throughout their training. The Navy is about expensive programs. Whether it is conscious of it or not, its members have on some level successfully subverted the riverine vision of Admiral Mullen.

Riverine Officers?

According to Andrew Scutro, writing in Navy Times , "If Navy Expeditionary Combat Command continues to grow as it has, it may soon have its own community of specialized officers. As the newest type command, joining aviation, surface, and submarine, the force will begin developing its own brand of officers. That could bring an officer expeditionary warfare qualification program and pin." 16

Not likely. This is not a priority for the Navy.

At their core, surface warfare officers (SWOs) are meant to be blue-water, preferably Aegis, tactical action officers. Division officers must qualify as SWOs and complete a first tour before spending 18 months on a second-tour riverine job. This is hardly building a core cadre of riverine officers. Looking at the NECC hierarchy, it seems obvious that Big Navy is not serious about the long-term viability of the NECC when it places an aviator in charge.

As a department head, a SWO can only be billeted to a riverine job after completing one tour on a conventional surface combatant and qualifying as a tactical action officer. The idea of the Navy developing a specialized cadre of riverine officers is absurd, despite no shortage of willing officers currently serving in these billets. The aim of a SWO is to command a ship-of-the-line, a cruiser, or maybe a sleek guided-missile destroyer. Most of the officers in the Riverine Group are SWOs. The others are EOD/special operations officers.

The SWOs, both those on division-officer tours and those serving during their department years, serve 18 months at most. Considering that the initial proposed pipeline of training for a riverine squadron to deploy is more than six months long, it hardly seems feasible that any substantial expertise in riverine warfare is being developed among the officer corps when it is not a closed-loop community.

The institution is throwing a few officers at the Riverine Group in begrudging fashion to comply with the CNO's vision, but this hardly qualifies as developing riverine officers. As quickly as possible, the Navy will ship its specialized riverine officers back out to sea to fulfill traditional SWO billets on conventional surface ships. From Riverine Squadron ONE's initial combat deployment, only the executive officer will still be with the squadron when it redeploys to Iraq next year.

An Identity Crisis

Some see the Navy in the war on terrorism as in the periphery. Many experts view the Navy's budget as the most susceptible to cuts in the next 20 years. As Grace Jean explains in National Defense : "The Navy does not have a coherent message explaining what its role is, in the long war." 17 The Navy is having an identity crisis right now. It is terribly uncomfortable being pushed into green- and brown-water operations, but it sees this as a last resort to remain relevant and to keep the dollars flowing its way. The former chiefs of naval operations articulated a clear vision, but the Navy is dragging its feet in implementing that vision.

The Navy worships tradition. In The Masks of War, Carl Builder expounds:

The reverence for tradition in the Navy has continued right to present, not just in pomp or display, but in almost every action from fighting to eating—from tooth to fang. In tradition, the Navy finds a secure anchor for the institution against the dangers it must face. If in doubt, or if confronted with a changing environment, the Navy looks to its tradition to keep it safe. 18

The truth is that the Navy is leaving as light a footprint as possible in the littorals. If the conflict in Iraq begins to wind down, the Navy hopes to be able to quickly and forcefully redirect its energy to blue-water operations. That is Navy tradition. This is reality for an institution facing a changing environment and looking for a secure anchor. Ergo, the littoral combat ship grows costlier, plans for the DDG-1000 and CG(X) go forward, and the riverine force remains woefully light-loaded financially and in personnel.

In Essence of Decision, authors Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow lay out their Organizational Behavior Model (Model II), which argues that government behavior is best understood as outputs of large organizations within them rather than as logical or rational decisions made by a single unitary actor. 19 For any given instance, a government organization's output will reflect a set of standard operating procedures established prior to that event. 20 The Navy is not capable of refashioning its traditions and core beliefs on the fly and under pressure in the metaphorical "War on Terror."

In The Masks of War , Builder explains this succinctly: The Navy loves tradition. Thus, its flexibility of response to the war is limited. Each organization responds to a problem in terms of the impact of the problem (threat and opportunity) on the organization. This is no different for the Navy.

No Shift in the Rudder

Despite the rhetoric and pomp surrounding the new NECC and riverine force, metric data contradict the idea that the Navy is shifting its strategic rudder toward a serious realignment into the littorals. The bottom line is that Big Navy is paying the riverine concept only the attention required to keep the service relevant. The reality is that the riverine force is underfunded, undermanned, and organized in such a manner that it cannot achieve success across the full span of operations in Iraq, much less in other potential riverine environments.

Riverine Squadron ONE completed a successful deployment to Iraq recently. However, its success is largely because of the tactical innovation of its officers in charge and leadership as well as the rich logistical provisions that sustained it in that specific area of operations. The riverine model will not sustain itself as successfully in a less mature theater on its own. Ultimately, the latest iteration of a Navy riverine force is a forced product of survival rather than any substantive strategic diversion from a traditional blue-water, high-value-unit-centered Navy.


1. Author used Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow's Model II, or organizational behavior model for analysis in Essence of Decision, one of the seminal contributions to the field of political science.

2. Director, Navy Staff Memorandum, "Implementation of Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Guidance-Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) Capabilities (U),"unclassified Navy Staff Memorandum,

3. Chief of Naval Operations, "Remarks delivered to the Naval War College," Unclassified,

4. Robert Benbow et al., Renewal of Navy's Riverine Capability: A Preliminary Examination of Past, Current and Future Capabilities , (Alexandria, VA: The Center for Naval Analyses, 2006), p. 98.

5. Ibid, p. 21.

6. Iris Gonzales, The Colombian Riverine Program: A Case Study of Naval International Programs and National Strategy , (Washington: CRM 94-182, 1995).

7. Stephen Trimble, "The US Navy's Riverine Revival-Riverine revival," Jane's Defence Weekly , 14 February 2007, (accessed through NPS DKL portal account).

8. Benbow et al., p. 42.

9. Ibid, p. 8.

10. Ibid, p. 8.

11. Ibid, p. 74.

12. Ibid, p. 74.

13. Ibid, pp. 7, 75.

14. Ibid, p. 76.

15. Ibid, p. 77.

16. Andrew Scutro, "New NECC officers, new pin?" Navy Times , 28 August 2006, Legacy section.

17. Grace Jean, "Identity Crisis," National Defense No. 636 (2006): p. 24.

18. Carl Builder, The Masks of War (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989), p. 18.

19. Allison and Zelikow, p. 143.

20. Ibid, pp. 143-4.

Lieutenant Hancock is stationed at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, completing an MA in National Security Affairs with a specialization in Middle East Studies. On graduation in March 2008, he will attend the Defense Language Institute to study Arabic. A native of Augusta, Georgia, Lieutenant Hancock is a 2002 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. A qualified surface warfare officer, he has completed several deployments in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.




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