Over the past seven years, the riverine- and maritime-security squadrons have demonstrated the utility and versatility of a well-trained, combat-oriented small-craft unit on both inland and coastal waterways. In Iraq, the riverines took over for the battle-proven Marine Corps small-craft companies and spent five years defending vital Iraqi inland waterways. The maritime-security squadrons defended major Iraqi oil terminals while aggressively employing surface and helicopter visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) units. Both types of units took on the challenge of coastal warfare and, based afloat and ashore, patrolled the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. While boat detachments conducted such operations, small riverine training teams traveled as far as Bangladesh and East Africa to provide subject-matter expertise to budding allied river and coastal units. And most recently, the riverines have begun to engage in training and partnership operations on both coastal and inland waterways with the nations of Latin America.
The 4th Fleet area of responsibility (AOR) has the most to gain from further engagement of small-craft units. Conventional small-craft detachments such as those provided by coastal riverine squadrons (CRSs) are ideal for 4th Fleet operations because they are tactically suited for the region’s complex counter-transnational organized crime missions, uniquely able to engage with Latin American small-craft fleets, and more cost effective than traditional blue-water vessels. As the independent riverine- and maritime-security squadrons fade into the past, the U.S. Navy must ensure that the new coastal riverine squadrons continue to provide well-trained, aggressive, and combat-oriented small-craft units to support U.S. interests in the region.
The Current State of Affairs
As the maritime component for SOUTHCOM, 4th Fleet’s AOR is the major theater of America’s war on drugs. Ninety-five percent of all cocaine that enters the United States originates in South America.1 Drugs are most cheaply and securely shipped via maritime trade routes. Over 80 percent of all cocaine smuggled to the United States from Latin America at some point travels by ship or boat.2 Such transits occur on both inland and coastal waterways. Small boats, “go-fasts,” and indigenously built semisubmersible water craft embark contraband from hidden production or assembly locations up rivers like the Rio Patuca in Honduras, or the Rio Magdalena in Colombia. A given load of illicit cargo might travel up a river, speed up the coast, slip into another river in a country farther north to evade capture, and then speed back up to a predesignated offload point before being broken up and carried over the U.S. land border.
The geography, environment, and demography of Latin America are ideal for such trafficking. Many coastal regions are extraordinarily isolated from centers of governmental power. The Mosquito Coast of Honduras, a sprawling jungle covering the eastern third of the country, is a case in point. It is sparsely populated and, due to mountain chains, jungles, and swamps that run through the country’s interior, no major roads link it to the centers of power, such as Tegucigalpa. No major airports or seaports exist, meaning most communication between the region and the rest of the country occurs through small aircraft or small coastal craft. Most transport occurs along major river systems. Coastal villages provide safe havens to cartels and traffickers. Such topography makes the region extremely difficult to govern.
The financial shortfalls of many Latin American nations compound the problem. Honduras is expected to control its long coastline and nearly inaccessible interior on a total military budget of $185 million. Nicaragua, even larger, has a budget of only $44 million. Belize, despite growing into a major center of narcotics trafficking, must defend itself with a mere $17 million budget for all pay, equipment, benefits, and training.3 Many of these militaries are expected not only to police isolated regions but also pacify cities where police forces have been bought or overwhelmed.4 Alternatively, traffickers enjoy quite a different financial situation. One single drug shipment captured off of Honduras in 2011 was valued at over $180 million, while the U.N. estimates the total value of cocaine trafficking in 2012 at $85 billion.5 Meanwhile, U.S. deployments to the region are being curtailed due to fiscal austerity.6 Against these sorts of odds, it is not surprising that such large quantities of drugs flow into the United States.
Enter the U.S. conventional small-boat community. If properly trained and equipped, the Navy’s coastal riverine squadrons could provide a tactically suited littoral and riverine force uniquely able to engage with allied militaries and produce a high return on a relatively small financial investment.
Tactically, no conventional-warfare unit is better suited to pursue an enemy in the littorals and rivers. First, the new CRSs are equipped with boats, weaponry, and sensors designed for many operations in the green- and brown-water areas. The riverine squadrons that were absorbed into the new coastal riverine squadrons brought nimble river craft such as the riverine assault boat (RAB), riverine patrol boat (RPB), and combat rubberraiding craft with them. These have proven effective on rivers ranging from the Euphrates in Iraq to the Rio Hondo in Belize and to the swamps of the Philippines.7 They also brought the riverine command boat (RCB). This modified Swedish coastal boat can transition from littoral waters to river waters and has proven capable of sustaining operations throughout the Persian Gulf despite high sea states. These craft can interoperate with the former maritime-security force’s SeaArk boats in the littorals.8 For a pure coastal fast-patrol ship, the Navy is introducing the Mk-VI patrol boat. Designed with an offshore capable hull, berthing space, and high speeds, this craft is specifically designed to patrol coastal waterways rather than rivers.9 All of these craft can be armed with a wide array of crew-served weapons.
More important, the coastal riverine squadrons are manned with experienced sailors trained to aggressively pursue enemies on both coastal waterways and rivers. Though the former maritime-security squadrons were primarily force-protection assets, they have long participated in noncompliant VBSS programs using boats and helicopters to take down vessels.10 The former riverine squadrons were designed for offensive action, and such mission sets as insertion and extraction of combat troops, fire support, river patrol, and river interdiction required a high level of training and an aggressive mindset. These sailors have been integrated into the coastal riverine squadrons and are trained to operate independently in an expeditionary environment, make timely decisions, and fight tenaciously when required. A CRS has specialists such as joint tactical air controllers trained to call in and direct airstrikes; unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operators able to launch, control, and recover surveillance aircraft; and security teams trained to operate on the ground or on interdicted vessels.11 No other military unit outside of Naval Special Warfare can match these capabilities.
Such equipment and personnel provide the unrivaled flexibility required for operations in remote environments such as those found in Latin America. First, commanders can base and supply these detachments with relative ease. Small craft can operate using mother ships like an afloat forward staging-base vessel to provide safe havens and life-support requirements. Riverine units have operated coastal riverine command boats off of mobile support afloat staging bases in the Persian Gulf and traditional riverine craft from MSC ships such as the high speed vessel Swift (HSV-2).12 If equipped with a well deck or heavy-duty davit crane, such ships can provide strategic mobility and deliver small craft to trafficking choke points such as isolated river deltas. The new class of joint high-speed vessels deserve particular attention due to their high speed, low cost, shallow draft, and cargo space.
Small craft can also base out of most host-nation locations. Though often devoid of reliable deep-draft ports, many towns in Latin America have boat ramps or marina facilities suitable for small craft. Several options exist beyond ships when transporting small craft to these locations. C-5 Galaxy aircraft can transport the large RCB, and the C-130 Hercules can transport RPBs and RABs.13 Perhaps most useful, CRS units are equipped with rugged trailers and medium tactical vehicle-replacement (MTVR) trucks that can and have hauled boats and equipment hundreds of miles over rough roads through diverse locales ranging from the deserts of Iraq to the mountainous jungles of Belize. With the right planning, contractor support, and supply system, these units become some of the most flexible in the Navy’s arsenal.
This versatile mixture of equipment and personnel allows such units to conduct several critical missions in green and brown waters. To comply with posse comitatus requirements, the small-boat detachments could team up with Coast Guard law-enforcement detachments (LEDETs) in much the same way Navy ships and blue-water boarding teams do when executing counter-smuggling operations. Given permission from a host nation to conduct operations, RCBs and Mk-VI patrol craft could provide daily coastal patrols oriented towards observing and, if necessary, intercepting suspected coastal drug vessels.14
Though unable to outrun many smuggling boats, the Navy boats will be able to call in aircraft or alert units farther along the route toward the United States. Equipped with UAVs and night-vision optics, such Navy small craft can operate at night to pursue smugglers. In the rivers, RPBs and RABs can control the waterways smugglers use to transport contraband from inland to the open ocean. Such riverine craft can also bring host-nation infantry or Marines to these centers and disrupt the smugglers at the source. Finally, together brown and green watercraft can dominate choke points. For example, river craft can hide near the delta of a highly trafficked river while such deeper-draft vessels as the Mk-VI patrol the coasts. If the Mk-VI pursues a smuggler who then seeks shelter in a shallow river, the river craft can spring a trap. If the craft identify a smuggler departing the river, they could alert the heavily armed Mk-VI to intercept it at sea. Such aggressive coordinated tactics could seriously disrupt some of the world’s most used drug-smuggling routes.15
A New, Friendlier ‘Gunboat Diplomacy’
Diplomatically, small craft present an excellent opportunity for engagement in South and Central America. They are familiar to smaller navies. As such, they are uniquely suited to helping train host nations to take on counter-smuggling burdens themselves.
A look at South and Central American navies’ order of battle is instructive. Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize do not have blue-water fleets. Instead they rely on antiquated patrol boats, converted civilian speedboats, flat-bottomed river jet boats, and confiscated outboard-engine smuggling boats. Only the larger countries such as Brazil possess a significant number of oceangoing vessels. Due to the mission sets in the Latin American littorals, larger nations also rely on small craft for both coastal and river operations.
Such Latin American navy boats possess capabilities comparable to U.S. coastal riverine craft. While much more heavily armed and armored, an Mk-VI patrol boat or SeaArk force-protection craft fills a similar littoral role as the 40-foot Boston Whalers favored by many Latin American units. Though a converted fiberglass riverboat lacks an RPB’s heavy armament, both can carry out riverine missions such as insertion, extraction, and patrol. By some metrics, these nations have boats that exceed U.S. capabilities.
A 40-foot Boston Whaler with three Mercury 250 horsepower outboard engines can outpace more heavily- armored U.S. boats. A Belizean ReconCraft jet boat drafts a full foot less than an RPB or RAB, allowing it access to small rivers that the U.S. boats cannot navigate. What matters is that such differences are differences in degree, not in kind. U.S. coastal riverine units are comparable with their host-nation counterparts, and both sides have much to learn from one another.
While Naval Special Warfare is fully capable of such missions, the community is heavily burdened with other responsibilities. SEALs and special warfare combatant-craft crewmen are constantly deploying to hot spots around the world to support critical combat operations, leaving little time for such missions in Latin America. In addition, the community operates largely out of the media spotlight, which the nature of its high-risk, clandestine missions demands. This detracts from the potential partnership-building benefits of highly publicized U.S.-allied joint training.16
Coastal riverine squadrons can meet allied navies at the same tactical level and provide excellent training. Due to the similarity of the craft, weapons, and mission sets between U.S. and allied forces, CRS sailors can teach tested tactics, techniques, and procedures throughout the region. They also know how to cover one boat with a buddy boat during an at-sea interdiction. These sailors know how to integrate with infantry units for insertions and extractions, how to control formations at 35 knots, and how to read the rivers and coastal shoals from a shallow-draft vessel. They know small-boat diesel engines, small arms, crew-served weapons, combat-casualty control, as well as how to navigate by chart, how to navigate by military-grid system maps, and how to talk via radio to both ground and naval units. CRS units can provide training on casualty control, tow procedures, river characteristics, and waterborne gunnery to host-nation units who experience immediate benefits.
Such tangible benefits may provide an incentive for host nations to agree to allow U.S. small-boat detachments with Coast Guard LEDETs to conduct operations alongside the host-nation force—the friendlier they are to U.S. action in their home countries, the more likely they are to receive training, fuel, and supplies. The benefits are by no means one-way. Host-nation media can cover their participation in joint training and operations to enhance the United States’ image in the region. Additionally, host-nation navies have fought traffickers for decades and have hard-earned lessons on their adversaries’ combat tactics, meaning they can teach how smugglers signal each other, stash goods, and avoid patrols. Both sides have much to learn from the other.
CRS units are also well suited to integrate with the host-nation forces. Due to the similarities of equipment and tactics, once a host nation is trained, its forces could be integrated into patrols with U.S. boats.17 Given host-nation permission, the two units might even be able to actively patrol and intercept smugglers on the waterways together. Such patrols could build relationships, combat trafficking, and give U.S. forces unprecedented access to inland regions of highly trafficked host nations.
U.S. small-craft units have the advantage of cohabitation. Due to their small footprint and flexibility, they can build tent cities and live on host-nation military bases. This provides an excellent opportunity to engage in everything from combined operations to after-hours soccer matches. It demonstrates that U.S. forces are willing to live in the same conditions, face the same hardships, and work the same hours as their allies. It also gives the U.S. Navy a glimpse into how its allies operate, which allows resources to flow to the right places. For example, by operating out of a host-nation base, a U.S. small-craft unit must use the same fueling facilities, berthing spaces, boat ramps, laydown areas, and life-support facilities such as heads. Often, allies do not want to admit they lack sufficient facilities or resources. But as cohabitated U.S. forces face challenges such as poorly constructed boat ramps, boggy roads, or insufficient berthing, they discover possible projects for U.S. investment or Seabee deployments. Such improvements can significantly improve the health and good will of our allies.
Small craft deployments are also remarkably cheap. They require much less fuel than an oceangoing ship. While a destroyer might take on 100,000 gallons of fuel after a week of steaming, an entire squadron of small boats is not likely to go through that during a six-month deployment. Food and water can be cheaply contracted through local vendors, spurring the local economy and improving the U.S. image. Base-X tents can be used rather than hotels. Trucks and rented vans provide cheap transportation. Repair parts for small craft are generally cheap, available, and small enough to ship easily to even remote host-nation locations. Compared to ocean-going vessels, a small-craft unit packs many potential benefits into a cost-effective package.
Even if embarked in a well deck, such deployments are more cost-effective. A small-boat detachment would only be a part of the total expeditionary mission package, leaving room for Marines, medical/veterinarian services, or other partnership-building capabilities. The detachment could disembark for several weeks at a time, leaving the ship to conduct other missions elsewhere, as was successfully demonstrated during Southern Partnership Station 13. Small-boat detachment deployments can provide quality, cost-effective results.
A Proven Approach
In February of 2013, the authors of this article deployed with the Swift to Central America and proved the practicality of this small-craft deployment model. Riverine Squadron 2 Detachment 2 teamed up with the Swift, Seabees, and the U.S. Marine Corps to travel to Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, with three riverine patrol boats, three MTVR trucks, and all supporting gear. Together, these forces conducted Southern Partnership Station 2013.
The deployment trained and operated with hundreds of host-nation sailors, marines, and special-forces soldiers. The riverine patrol boats navigated across hundreds of miles of coastline and down four major river systems. Overland convoys allowed forces to deploy several hundred miles from the deep-water ports accessible by the Swift, enhancing training and operational opportunities. Riverine, Marine, and Seabee personnel spent 90 percent of the deployment living in Base-X tents alongside their host-nation counterparts. The allied forces built friendships over games of soccer, dominoes, and cards. Host-nation leadership took notice. For example, the Honduran Commandant of the Marine Corps and Secretary of Defense attended the graduation of the riverine-trained Honduran “Rivereños” Marines. All of this was accomplished at a remarkably low cost to the U.S. government. The total deployment was budgeted at less than $10 million for four months.
The Navy has proven willing to continue investing in host-nation allies through such missions. During Southern Partnership Station 2014, Coastal Riverine Squadron 2 deployed to some of the same countries to provide training to the same host-nation units.18 The Navy has also announced that it intends to send Seabee units to construct small boat ramps during Southern Partnership Station 2015.19 This sort of support for host-nation small-craft units may be evolving into a normal part of U.S. Navy engagement with its Central and South American allies.
What is needed now is continuous engagement by well-trained U.S. small-craft units. The coastal riverine squadrons must not allow the standards established by their predecessor squadrons to fall by the wayside. Since the merger, the coastal riverine force has begun to orient away from aggressive, offensive river and coastal operations toward defensive coastal and escort missions. This should stop, and the force should continue to emphasize its core offensive competencies to ensure it is ready to fulfill small-craft missions to such vital areas as Central and South America. They must continue to provide well-trained, aggressive, and mission-oriented detachments capable of conducting conventional river and coastal operations in far-flung locations. Deployments of full detachments with boats should continue. Ten-man “riverine training teams” should periodically be flown in to provide training using host-nation equipment. U.S. military liaisons living in the host nation should maintain continuous contact with the host-nation units being trained. This low-cost investment can pay huge dividends to the United States and would do much to shore up existing relationships in the theater.
1. “Cocaine Smuggling in 2010,”White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, January 2012, www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/international-partnerships-content/20_january_cocaine_smuggling_in_2010_for_posting_on_ondcp_webpage_2.pdf.
2. Ashley Milburn, “The Evolution of Maritime Drug Trafficking Technology,” Maritime Security Challenges Conference, 22 June 2012, http://mscconference.wordpress.com/2012/06/22/the-evolution-of-maritime-drug-trafficking-technology/.
3. U.S. State Department, “World Military Expenditures and Transfers” 2012, www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/wmeat/.
4. Carrie Kahn, “Honduras Claims Unwanted Title of World’s Murder Capital,” National Public Radio Online, 12 June 2013, www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2013/06/13/190683502/honduras-claims-unwanted-title-of-worlds-murder-capital.
5. Nina Mandell, “Major Coke Bust Off of the Coast of Honduras Nets $180 Million Worth of Cocaine,” New York Daily News, 1 August 2011, www.nydailynews.com/news/national/major-coke-bust-coast-honduras-nets-180-million-worth-cocaine-article-1.949371. “United Nations World Drug Report 2012”, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, June 2012, www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/WDR2012/WDR_2012_web_small.pdf.
6. MAJ GEN John F. Kelly, USMC,“2013 Posture Statement to Congress,” United States Southern Command, 20 March 2013, www.southcom.mil/newsroom/Pages/2013-Posture-Statement-to-Congress.aspx.
7. 1st LT Lawton King, USMC, “Riverine Unit Patrols Euphrates,” U.S. Marine Corps, press release, 1 February 2008, www.1stmardiv.marines.mil/News/NewsArticleDisplay/tabid/8585/Article/541133/riverine-unit-patrols-euphrates.aspx. Donna Miles, “Southern Partnership Station Confronts Transnational Crime,” U.S. Department of Defense, 18 March 2013, www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=119550. Sam LaGrone, “US Gives Philippine Marines Six Riverine Boats for Counter Terrorism Missions,” USNI News, 26 September 2013, http://news.usni.org/2013/09/26/u-s-gives-philippine-marines-six-riverine-boats-counter-terrorism-missions.
8. SN Kay Savarese, “Riverines Return Home,” Dvids.com, www.dvidshub.net/news/90705/riverines-return-home#.Ukhi_47il8s.
9. Anthony Wallis, “Mark VI Patrol Boat,” AUSN.com, 20 May 2013, www.ausn.org/Advocacy/AdvocacyNewsInformation/tabid/2153/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/26405/Mark-VI-Patrol-Boat.aspx.
10. MC1 Jennifer Crenshaw, USN, “NECC Introduces Next Level VBSS Capability,” U.S. Navy press release, 12 September 2007, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=31798.
11. “Apaches at Sea,” InformationDissemination.com, 6 September 2013, www.informationdissemination.net/2013/09/apaches-at-sea.html.
12. John Reed, “Ponce Not Quite Floating SPECOPS Base,” DefenseTech.org, 31 January 2013, http://defensetech.org/2012/01/31/ponce-not-quite-floating-spec-ops-base/. Miles, “Southern Partnership.”
13. U.S. Navy photo of onload of RCB onto C-5 Galaxy, press release, www.navy.mil/view_image.asp?id=116340.
14.“Mk VI Patrol Boat,” NAVSEA Team Ships, www.navsea.navy.mil/teamships/PEOS_BoatsandCraft/SS_MK_VI.aspx.
15. SBT-20 Public Affairs, “Special Boat Team Warriors Return from Iraq,” Navy.mil, 21 April 2003, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=6986.
16. Lincoln Eiley, “Seabees Mission in Corozal,” Corozal.bz, 27 February 2013, http://corozal.bz/daily/y2013/d0228 (note the author confuses Seabees with riverines).
17. Donna Miles, “Southern Partnership Station Confronts Transnational Crime,” U.S. Department of Defense press release, 18 March 2013, www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=119550.
18. “CORIRON TWO Completes Training with SBU during SPS 2015,” 17 July 2014, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=82239.
19. “Plans Take Shape for Next Southern Partnership Station,” U.S. Navy prese release 12 December 2014, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=84861.