Brown water seems to muddy up everybody’s memory. In Vietnam, we learned little from the experience of the French assault divisions, below, that mauled the Viet Minh on the Bassac and Mekong rivers from 1946 to 1954. Nothing new there. Americans also failed to learn much from the experiences of the Cairo, facing page, and other Civil War river ironclads.
A nation’s rivers are its territorial arteries, carrying the lifeblood of commerce and communication to peoples and regions throughout the land. Moreover, many internal waterways tie inland areas to the sea, transforming them into major international highways. In addition, virtually all are potential natural barriers of the first order. Thus, from a military standpoint, the control of an adversary’s inland waterways can be a multifaceted weapon of immense strategic importance. Indeed, history is replete with examples of the critical role which capably trained riverine forces played in time of war. Yet despite its undeniable significance, the doctrine of riverine warfare has traditionally been neglected oy the United States. As a consequence, American soldiers and sailors have consistently been forced to learn and relearn the more or less timeless lessons of riverine combat under the press of battle. While these tragic trial-and-error episodes of the past cannot be undone, they certainly need not be repeated ln the future.
Put simply, riverine warfare consists of combat operations carried out from restricted inland waters against a surrounding countryside either wholly or partially hostile to the waterborne forces involved. As such, it entails the use of both afloat and ground elements operating in unusually close liaison and depending upon fundamentally important mutual support. The phenomenon is hardly new. In fact, the riverine heritage of the United States dates back to the Second Seminole Indian War of the 1840s. By the close of the American Civil War, some two decades later, large-scale and sophisticated riverine forces had convincingly proven their worth in the struggle to preserve the Union. Later, ad hoc versions of those same Civil War units played an important role in the turn-of-the-century battles of the Philippine Insurrection and later still in several Pacific campaigns of World War II. Nevertheless, in each instance, the riverine forces concerned labored in almost total ignorance of the lessons learned by their counterparts in past struggles. None had the benefit of implementing a time-tested and comprehensive doctrine of riverine force organization and operation. Each simply learned its specialized craft from scratch.
That the past lessons of riverine warfare had not been retained, refined, and applied to subsequent conflicts was largely a product of organizational dynamics within the American military hierarchy. To be sure, neither the Army nor the Navy was ever made wholly responsible for the prosecution of combat from inland waters. Instead, for more than 100 years, the riverine forces of the United States consisted of bastard units composed of elements from both services acting under a succession of joint command structures. As a result, neither organization was ever able to view riverine warfare as a specialty reserved for itself. Instead, both saw the phenomenon as at least partially the province of the other branch and so generally ignored it. This institutional inertia virtually guaranteed that American riverine combat expertise would never be able to survive any peacetime period.
Unfortunately, the wartime record of riverine command was also less than perfect. In fact, at one point in the early days of the Civil War, the naval commander of the Mississippi riverine forces had “come to the decision to obey no more orders issuing from Army officers.”1 On another occasion, General U. S. Grant ordered the Navy’s riverine vessels into action without so much as advising their operational commander that the squadron was being used. As it was, the startled naval officer first learned of his command’s participation in the undertaking when he received the after-action reports of his subordinates.2 Yet the most convincing evidence of the weaknesses inherent in joint riverine command structures was probably that provided by the comparison of the overall effectiveness of such organizations with that of the autonomous Mississippi Marine Brigade, a specially trained and outfitted riverine combat team made up of vessels, troops, and support elements placed under a single, homogeneous command. For two years, the brigade operated against Confederate guerrillas on a number of western rivers, consistently demonstrating that its innovative single command concept was far and away the most operationally effective formula for riverine force organization in any theater. That same elemental truth was further borne out some 80 years later by the storied Dinassauts of the French Navy in Indochina. Consisting of afloat and infantry components under a single operational command, these French units successfully battled the Viet Minh for nearly a decade (1946-1954) on the Bassac and Mekong rivers of the region. Indeed, American military analysts were so taken by the notion of this “unique” force that it was heralded as being “one of the most productive developments of [that] counterinsurgency campaign.”3
As a matter of fact, it was the end of the Dinassaut period that ushered in the most recent U. S. bout with the challenges of riverine warfare. And it was at this same point that American riverine amnesia once again took hold. Relying upon U. S. organizational manuals which simply had no provision for the kind of homogeneous riverine command represented by the Dinassauts of the French, American naval advisors quickly saw to it that the infant South Vietnamese Navy abandoned the troublesome structures in favor of more traditional river assault groups (RAGs).4 Essentially an emasculated version of their French predecessors, the RAGs consisted solely of afloat elements without the critical presence of an organic ground force to round out the riverine equation. Moreover, the RAGs were all but officially under the operational control of a Vietnamese Army which could neither appreciate their problems nor their potential.5 As a result, the RAGs gradually lost their combat effectiveness and ultimately yielded large segments of their Mekong Delta operating area to the control of the Viet Cong.
By late 1965, American military planners had decided that a fresh organizational approach was necessary to regain control of the Mekong Delta. Additionally, it was determined that this new undertaking should be carried out by American servicemen instead of the increasingly ineffective riverine units of the Vietnamese Navy. What resulted was the creation of Task Force 116. Code-named “Game Warden,” the all-Navy force was charged with the protection of local commerce and communication on the labyrinthine waters of the region, a chore it performed admirably throughout the term of its existence. Yet Task Force 116 was simply not enough, and the reason was as simple as the solution: aggressive and successful riverine combat is carried out from the water and not merely on it. As such, the Game Warden units were seriously hamstrung by the absence of an organic ground force capable of carrying the battle to the enemy ashore. Thus, in the latter half of 1966, the Mobile Riverine Force was taken from the Pentagon’s drawing boards and made into a reality.
In its design, the Mobile Riverine Force brought together a sophisticated assortment of established riverine hardware and concepts. Put simply, a new, assault-oriented Navy river task force would be joined to a brigade-sized body of ground troops specially trained for and dedicated to riverine operations. Both would operate as a single tactical entity, supported by highly mobile bases afloat and assisted by a limited organic air component. Such a force would at last be able to arm the most successful concepts of homogeneous riverine force structure with the latest in 20th century military technology.
Given this country’s wealth of experience in river combat, the Mobile Riverine Force should have emerged as nothing less than the ultimate American riverine creation, an example of riverine organizational doctrine at its very best. Instead, the old bogeys of institutional amnesia and simple historical ignorance conspired to make the force a disappointing “next best" alternative from the outset. To begin with, the prior commitment of the Marine Corps’ infantry in the I Corps region of South Vietnam meant that the attractive option of a battle-tested Navy-Marine amphibious force command structure would be abandoned in favor of still another ad hoc Army-Navy joint command arrangement. In fact, while the Mobile Riverine Force’s bases were placed firmly under the operational control of the senior Army officer embarked, actual operations saw the force’s afloat elements fall under Navy control and the ground troops answering to a separate Army hierarchy. Needless to say, such a structure could become dangerously strained in the heat of combat in a mobile environment.
This basic organizational dilemma of the Mobile Riverine Force is clearly borne out by former Army Major Josiah Bunting in his fictionalized account of his own experiences in Vietnam. In The Lionheads, Bunting points out that:
“There was some doubt, even, as to which embarked commander—the Army Brigade Commander or the Navy Task Force Commander . . . was really the senior authority. In the directive which initially prescribed command relationships theirs was to be one of ‘cooperation and coordination.’ It was a hedging, equivocal arrangement, entirely at the mercy of those assigned to the two jobs. Disagreements as to strategy and tactics were resolved by compromise, which kept all concerned quite happy, especially the VC.”6
That the Mobile Riverine Force was largely able to overcome this fundamental flaw and acquit itself with distinction on numerous occasions is a credit to all who served with the organization. Yet, the simple fact of the matter is that such a herculean internal effort should never have been demanded from individuals already preoccupied with the deadly business of fighting a guerrilla war in a foreign land. Once again, the most elementary of riverine organizational lessons had been painfully learned from scratch.
On 25 August 1969, the Mobile Riverine Force was officially inactivated and its equipment transferred to the South Vietnamese Navy. From that day forward, this nation’s institutionally unattractive expertise in riverine warfare once again began a predictable and steady decline. At present, the only active U. S. riverine resources are the men and boats of the Navy’s two Special Warfare Groups. No dedicated riverine ground force or air element is assigned, and the floating units themselves are oriented mainly toward the support of commando- style SEAL raids and Game Warden-type surface patrols. In short, no trained force capable of carrying out sustained riverine operations against an enemy ashore exists today. What is more, unless the characteristic process of peacetime riverine decay can be reversed, American capabilities in the area will continue to deteriorate until the topic of riverine warfare is relegated to the realm of forgotten volumes on dusty shelves for yet another time.
The key to just such a reversal of the age-old cycle of American riverine experience lies in the assignment of the specialty to a single military organization capable of both maintaining its study in peace and single-handedly carrying out its precepts in war. The obvious choice for this particular mission is the U. S. Marine Corps. After all, no other service can begin to match the Corps’ extensive level of experience in the area of combat operations carried out from the water. At the same time, the Marine Corps is more than institutionally schooled in the workings of the sort of flexible single command structure demanded in a riverine environment. The service also boasts its own air arm, a new riverine component which both the Army and the Navy have concluded is “essential to effective riverine operations.”7 Indeed, the Marine Corps already possesses virtually every basic prerequisite required of a viable riverine combat team. Only the transfer of afloat units currently under Navy command would be necessary to complete the initial organizational process.
Within the Corps, the specialty could be assigned to a minimally staffed “Riverine Warfare Command” which, in turn, would be further subdivided into a “Riverine Systems Command” and a “Riverine Combat Command.” The systems command would be responsible for the continued development of specialized riverine materiel, while the combat command would be charged with the training and maintenance of a small cadre of riverine operational specialists. The latter organization would also maintain a “Riverine Assault Force” immediately ready for limited combat operations. All three of the larger commands would be skeleton structures essentially serving as institutional caretakers in peacetime, but capable of being fleshed out to whatever extent might prove necessary in time of war.
The alternative to the above proposal is an almost certain return to this country’s pattern of recurrent riverine amnesia. And while such continued inaction may save money and avoid the imposition of an additional administrative burden in the short run, it can only lead to the courting of unnecessary military difficulties in the future. History has shown that riverine warfare is far too specialized a discipline to leave unnoticed until it is suddenly needed. Instead, positive institutional action must be taken and diligently pursued by the military planners of the United States. The future riverine success of this nation depends on nothing less.
Lieutenant (junior grade) Abel is a 1979 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy. From graduation until the summer of 1981, he served on board the USCGC Reliance (WTR-615) as deck watch officer and ship’s communication officer. He is now commanding officer of the USCGC Point Warde (WPB-82368), home ported in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He is the author of two previous Proceedings articles, “A Breach in the Ramparts” in July 1980 and "Fish Stories” in December 1980.
1 James Hoppin, Life of Andrew Hull Foote (New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1874), p. 251.
2 John Dillon, “The Role of Riverine Warfare in the Civil War,” Naval War College Review, March-April 1973, p. 68.
3 Andrew Nelson and Norman Mosher, ‘‘Proposed: A Counter-Insurgency Task Force," Proceedings, June 1966, p. 40.
4 Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled, Vol. II (New York: Frederick Praeger, Publishers, 1967), p. 1048.
5 R. L. Schreadley, “The Naval War in Vietnam, 1950-1970,” Proceedings, May 1971, p. 184.
6 Josiah Bunting, The Lionheads (New York: George Braziller, 1972), p. 75.
7 William Fulton, Riverine Operations (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, Department of the Army, 1973), p. 64, and S. A. Swartztrauber, “River Patrol Relearned,” Proceedings, May 1970, p. 138.