To be successful in combat, naval expeditionary force members must possess weapons proficiency, a combat mind-set, physical fitness, and determination. Unlike the larger surface warfare community, the most recent incarnation of the Navy’s coastal riverine expeditionary force is designed to do battle at a small-unit level, detached from a larger support force and potentially under the tactical control of a senior petty officer. Manning for this force needs to be far more selective and targeted to the specific functional skills it entails and the combat environment it likely will face. While some operational shortcomings will not be known until actual combat occurs, better screening and manning processes will minimize them.
Since its birth, the Navy has had an expeditionary mission with a need for sailors trained to fight ashore. While historically this was filled mostly by the Marines, there always has been a requirement for a Navy quick-response force that operates on inland waters, the littorals, and immediately landward. The Navy must retain the capability beyond that possessed by special forces units to protect noncombatant merchant marine and strategic sealift ships and execute limited direct-fire engagements in defense of harbor and river areas. These missions took on greater importance after 9/11, and even during the recent strategic shift toward great power conflict there is a need to combat irregular warfare tactics with a naval expeditionary security force. Today, three primary naval expeditionary forces fall under the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command in Little Creek, Virginia—the Seabees, the coastal riverine force, and the explosive ordnance disposal community. Of these, only the coastal riverine force lacks a dedicated training pipeline and “closed-looped” manning model.
Specialized Skills and a Combat Mind-Set
Considering the unique tasks of the coastal riverine force, the need to develop and retain specialized knowledge and skills in the most motivated sailors is clear. Any military occupation whose personnel could be placed in close-in, small-unit, tactical combat situations should be permitted to screen personnel into its ranks. The coastal riverine force should consider only volunteers who meet select standards of mental and physical fitness. This would ensure a baseline of combat-ready personnel with the right mind-set and physical fitness level—crucial elements in a dangerous job, where one may be exposed to the elements for long periods of time.
Further, this community requires warfighting and leadership skills in areas vastly different from what is needed in the conventional surface navy—a higher degree of weapons proficiency, physical readiness, tactical planning knowledge, and small-unit leadership to support missions such as convoy operations, expeditionary security, and small boat operations. Sending sailors to specialized schools to fill these roles, only to have these same sailors eventually leave the community, perhaps never to return, is money wasted.
Every specialized force needs a core of personnel with foundational knowledge on its discrete set of missions. This does not currently exist in the coastal riverine force. Without closed-loop manning, in which sailors with unique coastal riverine Navy Enlisted Classification (NEC) subspecialties are kept in the force for most or all of their careers, sailors will continue taking a hiatus from the force for several years before returning, causing proficiency to diminish. Worse, mid-career personnel from elsewhere in the Navy will continue to be detailed to the force with no experience and little understanding of what the community does at a tactical level—not an optimal situation for a force with a high operational tempo and limited time to train and certify prior to deployment.
In addition, for a force that traces its lineage back to inshore, coastal, and riverine units in Vietnam, the opportunity to generate a combat force with espirit de corps and camaraderie is squandered by flooding it with sailors who do not want—or deserve—to be in it in the first place. Contrast this to the Seabees, who have a celebrated and storied history they use to instill pride and professionalism in their sailors.
Steps to Professionalize
To professionalize the coastal riverine force, the Navy must either create a new enlisted rating for landward and maritime expeditionary security or make it a closed-loop manning community with a minimum service time requirement before a sailor could transfer out to another part of the Navy (a ten-year obligation following completion of a lengthy training pipeline would be a good target). The Navy also must implement a stricter screening process to weed out those not suited for riverine operations. This process need not be as intensive as screenings for Navy warrior challenge programs (such as for the special warfare community), but it should demonstrate that candidates want to be in the program and are physically ready to perform tasks associated with the field. Finally, the force would need to restructure to have a sustainable sea/shore billet balance.
The threats that justify a coastal riverine force are persistent and evolving. The Navy is designing and testing new capabilities for its expeditionary security missions. A more professional, properly manned, trained, and equipped force demands sailors suited for expeditionary operations—not ones making an intermediate stop in their careers and often against their desires. If the Navy does not better screen and control the flow of personnel into the coastal riverine community, it will suffer poor mission outcomes.