Farsi Island: Surface Warfare’s Wake-Up Call

By Alan Cummings

LT Daniel Hancock wrote an article in 2008 titled “The Navy’s Not Serious About Riverine Warfare.” The U.S. Navy had ample opportunity to prove him wrong, right up until 2012 when the Riverine Force was subsumed under the Mobile Expeditionary Security Force (MESF) to create the present-day Coastal Riverine Force (CRF). Four years later, an incident like Farsi Island was the inevitable outcome of this ill-conceived and poorly executed merger. Both Farsi Island and the infamous merger were the manifestations of a culture that has lost its warrior spirit and has adopted an attitude to “man the equipment” rather than “equip the man.”

In the Beginning, There Were Riverines

The Navy re-established a Riverine Force in 2006 to pick up the mission from the Marine Corps’ Small Craft Company, who in turn traced its lineage through the Special Boat Teams back to the Navy PBR squadrons of Vietnam. These predecessor units proved themselves well in combat, with Sailors like BMC James E. Williams and HM2 Juan Rubio exemplifying the warrior spirit of small combat units.

Combat experienced SEALs, SWCCs, EOD techs, and Marines who were intimately familiar with the requirements of close combat guided the SWOs who were tapped to command the 2006 re-establishment. Riverine training requirements were not only relevant, they were tough and they were enforced. Sailors attended a minimum of four months of training (1 month for Riverine Combat Skills plus 3 months of Riverine Craft Crewman, Riverine Security Team, or Riverine Unit Level Leaders) before being assigned to a detachment that stayed together through the training cycle.

That training cycle was intensely busy but it was focused, repeatable across the squadrons, and offered a predictable sequence of development. Months were dedicated to training boat crews to work together on their individual craft, then with a buddy boat, and finally as a multi-boat patrol. Tactics were matured from live fire training at a static range ashore through underway maneuver with blank cartridges, and culminated in numerous live fire underway exercises where crews were engaging targets within 50m of troops being extracted from shore. It was challenging, dangerous, and realistic.

A “moto video” illustrating the live fire culmination exercises required of every Riverine detachment prior to the 2012 merger. (RIVRON THREE)

While the tactics themselves were important, greater value came from the emphasis on teamwork and discipline mandated by operating under these legitimately dangerous conditions of simulated combat. There was no room, nor tolerance, for a coxswain who failed to follow the orders of the boat captain or patrol officer (USN Investigation into Farsi Island Incident, Para IV.H.59). Such strenuous demands developed a sense of professionalism, ownership, and esprit de corps in each Riverine squadron. E-4 and E-5 Sailors who would have been given the barest of responsibility elsewhere in the conventional Navy were accountable for the men, performance, and tactics of their craft. Instead of being a grey-hull navigator in charge of 5 quartermasters, Junior Officers were detachment OICs and AOICs with 30-50 men, $4 million worth of equipment, and enough firepower to make Chesty Puller blush. The professional growth spurred by these responsibilities cannot be understated.

Death by Merger

The merger of the Riverine community into the MESF was a fundamental mistake driven by budgetary, rather than operational, considerations. The MESF provided a needed service to the Navy, but did so with a vastly different culture that bore the traditional defensive and risk-averse hallmarks of Surface Warfare, Inc.

First, the decision to disperse riverine capability across multiple commands complicated the manning, training, and logistics requirements later cited as contributing factors to the Farsi Island incident. The realities of budget constraints are unavoidable, but a reduction from three RIVRONs to one squadron would have met similar force reduction goals while maintaining standards and capabilities. The Navy decided against recommendations to consolidate the force around Riverine Squadron THREE in Yorktown, VA where it could have taken advantage of more than $3 million of purpose-built facilities, easy access to the York and James river systems, as well as a wealth of training support spanning from Camp Lejeune, NC to Fort A.P. Hill, VA, and Fort Knox, KY.

A 34' SeaArk assigned to CRS ONE escorts USS DE WERT (FFG 45) as she gets underway from Djibouti in September 2013. Credit: USAF Photo by SSgt Chad Warren.
A 34′ SeaArk assigned to CRS ONE escorts USS DE WERT (FFG 45) as she gets underway from Djibouti in September 2013. (USAF Photo by SSgt Chad Warren)

Second, a doctrinal comparison of the post-merger CRF Required Operational Capabilities and Projected Operational Environment (ROC&POE) to that of the pre-merger Riverine Force reveals a striking deletion of numerous warfare requirements, including:

  • AMW 14.3/14.4: Conduct: direct/indirect fires.
  • AMW 23.1/23.2: Plan/conduct/direct: advance force operations for amphibious assault.
  • AMW 23.3/23.4: Plan/conduct/direct: direct action amphibious raids.
  • AMW 35.1/35.2: Plan/conduct/direct: limited objective night attacks.
  • INT 3.3: Conduct: clandestine surveillance and reconnaissance operations.

These warfare requirements defined the essence of the Riverine community. Their deletion is clearly indicative of a climate averse to combat missions, and an intention to relegate the CRF to the MESF-style defensive missions.

A member of the CRF provide embarked security to USNS SPEARHEAD as it gets underway from Cameroon in February 2016. Credit: MC1 Amanda Dunford, USN
A member of the CRF stands watch as embarked security aboard USNS SPEARHEAD as it gets underway from Cameroon in February 2016. (MC1 Amanda Dunford, USN)

Finally, consider the following merger-era anecdotes illustrating the nature of the MESF community that assumed responsibility for Riverine operations:

  • May 2012: While discussing tactics, Riverine detachment leaders asked MESF personnel about the particular behavior of their 25ft escort craft while conducting live fire drills. The MESF personnel responded that they had never fired weapons off those boats, despite routinely deploying them to operational settings.
  • March 2013: During a company formation with personnel from a disestablished Riverine unit, the CO of the now-merged CRS tells them, “Stop looking for work. The Navy doesn’t need Riverines anymore.”
  • April 2013: The CORIVGRU ONE N7, a civilian with minimal expeditionary experience, instructs squadron training team members that the primary reason for using blank cartridges was to catch negligent discharges. He categorically dismisses points of opposition that blanks provided enhanced realism for the trainee (sound, flash, reloads, malfunctions, etc).
  • May 2013: CRS THREE (the parent unit of the captured RCBs) damaged a Riverine Patrol Boat (RPB) while returning from a static display in San Diego. The craft was damaged when personnel failed to lower its arches for overpass clearance. No personnel stationed in San Diego during this time were qualified on RPBs, but they chose to take it out despite objections of the qualified personnel in Yorktown.
  • April – December 2013: Three Sailors from CRS TWO commit suicide, with 14 more admitting suicide-related behavior. According to the Virginia Pilot’s review of the investigation, “Sailors told [investigators] the stresses of the merger were enormous, exacerbated by poor communication down the chain of command and junior sailors’ mistrust of their commanding officer.” The departed were all members of the pre-merger MESF unit and under unacceptable leadership.
  • April 2014: The CRF publishes a ROC&POE that misidentifies Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) as the non-existent ‘Joint Tactical Area Communication Systems’ and the Foreign Internal Defense (FID) mission as Fleet Intelligence Detachment. These typos illustrate a fundamental failure of CRF doctrine writers to understand the context in which their forces operate.

Don’t Just Man the Equipment, Equip the Man

The unwritten theme weaved through the post-incident investigation is that Sailors up and down the chain of command failed to take their mission seriously. They failed to train adequately before deployment. They failed to operate professionally in theater. In the face of the enemy, they failed to act.

These systemic failures and the willful neglect of higher echelons are indicative of a culture that sees program management and certification as ends to themselves, rather than the means by which we prepare for combat. This is a culture that raises personnel to be technicians and managers first, leaders second.

Indeed, the officer in this situation “lacked basic mentorship and development from his entire chain of command. Left to his own devices, he emulated the poor leadership traits he witnessed first-hand…” (Para VI.K.6). The Farsi Island incident and the case study of the Riverine-MESF merger must be wake-up calls to the surface community. It is not enough just to man the equipment. We must equip the men and women who lead our fleet.

These leaders must be raised from the beginning of their careers, whether enlisted or officer, and enough responsibility must be delegated down the chain of command to enable this development. A combat mindset requires time and hard work, not budgets. Cultivating that mindset will require generational change, and a fundamental pivot away from our business and technology-centered force to one that embraces the concept of Sailor as Warrior.

Petty Officers 3rd Class Raymond Delossantos (left) and 2nd Class Jeremy Milford (right) of Riverine Squadron 3 instruct Paraguayan Marines on establishing security after debarking riverine craft during UNITAS 2012. Credit: Cpl Tyler Thornhill, USMC
Petty Officers 3rd Class Raymond Delossantos (left) and 2nd Class Jeremy Milford (right) of Riverine Squadron 3 instruct Paraguayan Marines on establishing security after debarking riverine craft during UNITAS 2012. (Cpl Tyler Thornhill, USMC)

But there is hope. There are Officers and Sailors out there who harbor the warrior spirit, ones who can serve as the example for others. For instance, the anonymous “RCB 805 Gunner #2” was the sole member of the captured crews to receive praise for “activating an emergency beacon while kneeling, bound, and guarded at Iranian gunpoint, at risk to her own safety.” Of those involved in this incident, she alone is worthy of the title Riverine.

Alan Cummings is a 2007 graduate of Jacksonville University. He served previously as a surface warfare officer aboard a destroyer, embedded with a USMC infantry battalion, and as a Riverine Detachment OIC. The views expressed here are his own and in no way reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy. 

Featured image: Patrol craft belonging to the USN CRF are held captive by Iran in 2016, one of which displays the blue flag of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps- Navy. (IRIB News Agency via AP)

20 thoughts on “Farsi Island: Surface Warfare’s Wake-Up Call”

  1. Alan, excellent work. This needed to be written – thank you so much, brother, for taking this on and saying what we’ve all been thinking. Very proud of you. Raiders Never Rest!

    Jay Boyles, RR3, 2011-2013

  2. When mead was first established we fought for training and had receive some of the same but as time moved on surface officers who were placed in charge had other ideas. The riverine force was receive training we all wanted. The problem is when they decided to cut training and go completely electronic nav instead of tried and true navigation. Plus to rush quals to have fully manned crews. And evaluations phase that people manipulate the outcome and evaluators just walking away saying your fucked. I have been on Botha sides of the fence and new it was only time before this would be the outcome. MESF came from the same place but the priority was defense but some where they went soft. In today’s work it lets not cause a problem we are here to be seen only. This is the issue.

  3. Really wish I could write a longer response to this piece but its mostly spot on. I used to be part of the group and I was in the room for the majority of the discussions of the merger and the story behind it is a bit different than you might think. The only sway that any of the capability was going to salvaged was to have what happened happen.

  4. Thanks all for taking the time to read and comment! I have no doubt that there are MESF, CRF, and Fleet Sailors who would make excellent warriors given the right training and environment. My contention is that we must collectively work to provide them with the environment that nurtures such development.

  5. Alan, great article! I was in the room next to you when the N7 said those comments about blanks. I sat in on many discussions about the merger and it was doomed from the get go. They never thought of it as a merger. It was an annexation of equipment and personnel. I don’t know how many times I heard someone say, “but we don’t do direct action.” I was excited when I heard we would get this capability and the potential to be apart of it was possible, but I knew it was a bad thing overall. The mindset was established that the Riverines were coming under the purview of MESF, not that there was an addition of capabilities. You are spot on with the mentality that prevails within the MESF force. I was at a CORIVRON for 3 years and there were many good people there, but the mentality was off. They had no combat mindset, they were more worried about how much perdiem they were going to get or lose out on while on deployment then focusing on the job. Most of the officers were more worried about their careers than anything else and that rubbed off on the enlisted personnel as well. Weapons shoots were conducted on land and only the bare minimum was accomplished. People would step up to the line to qualify on a weapon without any prior experience. Ya they did the PQS and handled the weapons at the armory the day before, but leaders (both officers and enlisted) just focused on the requirement of getting people to pass the qual course. I don’t know how many times I heard officers, chiefs, and first class say, “it doesn’t matter they’ll never fire an M4 on deployment anyway.”

    1. Yeah, that conversation about blanks was infuriating! Many thanks for sharing the perspective held by the MESF during the merger- it confirms many of the suspicions we held in the Riverine units (all of which were at the time, of course, dismissed as inaccurate). You’re spot on though that there were good Sailors, warriors, on both sides of the merger. For many of us, the difference between Riverine and MESF orders was only a matter of timing. I.e., the raw input from the fleet was the same in terms of personnel. The difference was how the two communities developed their Sailors once they checked in. To me, that means hope is not lost for moving the CRF back towards the fighting shape the Riverine units were in.

  6. Proud to have served with you Sir. Your article has saved me countless hours of frustrating discussion, now I just say “here read this”.

  7. I’ll be passing this well wrote article to everyone I know.
    The Navy ruined An AWESOME community that looked forward to a deployment that the MEN worked hard for. We received about $3.00 a day in Iraq while MESF personnel were bringing in $120.00 and sometimes more in per diem. That didn’t matter to the RIVERINES as we were paid by deploying to hostile locations and supporting combat operations with guys I wouldn’t trade for the world.
    When the merger took place standards instantly dropped. The list is to long to go into detail of everything. How about guys can’t operate in the ICW at night because the crew can’t tell the difference between green and red while under night vision.
    To this day most of us keep in contact and will always stick together. The RIVERINES would never have been captured much less let the Iranians to board our boat. The NAVCENT AOR would have had another reef.

    1. Be careful of your statements without additional back up. I commanded a MSRON and know my Sailors got nothing more than the lower amount while serving in Kuwait. Per diem is not what we were there for. We were there to perform a mission of protecting every piece of equipment, ammunition and any other stores going to Iraq and Afghanistan through Ash Shuwayba and Kuwait Naval Base. Additionally, we provided all point defense for the OPLATS, waterborne and on the platform during my tenure as CTG56.5. Money wasn’t the driver, and per diem wasn’t available.

      As for the merger, yes, it had its problems. I wanted my MSRON Sailors to have the best training available, and we got some very good training. It wasn’t the “direct action” you speak of the RIVRONs got. I wish it were. We pursued all we could get for our Sailors and worked our butts off to put them in the mindset of being a Warrior as opposed to being a “per diem Sailor.” I think we did well, and the record would show that exceedingly.

      I continually worked on providing latitude and creativity space to create a Warrior mindset and attitude while in command. This included my instructions to my boat crews at the oplats that they would not be taken captive (a little over a year after the Brits enjoyed the Iranian hospitality) without fighting. And I rode the demarcation line with them whenever I could, usually about every three weeks I got out to the oplats, and rode with them for one purpose or another.

      I extended help through my squadron while in Kuwait to one of the RIVRON’s who was in Iraq to help them with some material issues and shipping of an 11-meter RHIB back to the states when they ran out of resources to get it done. In my mind it was a complete team, and I had some venues they didn’t have just by being where I was geographically.

      I feel the esprit de corps within the MESF was what you made of it, like any other organization, and MSRON 5 during my tenure, and my relief’s tenure, were well set and ready to do more without a lot of the training we wished we had. I’m sorry to see how the merger went, and the possible degradation of capabilities. However, leadership can overcome many things, many times without the dollars to properly support, but it becomes difficult , and sometimes impossible.

      1. Sir, I’m glad you shared these things and thank you for taking the time to do it. From what it sounds like, the MESF needed more senior officers with your attitude. Something as simple as getting out on the boats with the dets goes a long way for both standards and morale- all three of which the recent investigation cited as lacking.

        Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that the command slating to a RIVRON or MSRON was luck of the draw from PERS? I.e., any RIVRON or MSRON CO could have found himself in the opposite community. If so, I think that speaks to the need to develop a warrior spirit across surface warfare so that it doesn’t depend on development post-arrival. This is especially so at the triad level. While it’s never to late to start, I believe we owe it to our COs/XOs/SELs to put them in those positions able and ready to drive actions that expand the warrior spirit.

  8. You assume that the best and brightest in the Navy want the title of “Riverine.” I would argue it is barely a title at all like “Marine” because it does not convey any sense of history, espirit de corps, or competence that the USMC have earned.

    Do the best JO’s choose to go into Riverine? Or is it a backwater for the mediocre and incompetent?

    1. I’m glad you asked these questions, because I believe they illustrate the lack of community understanding on what it means to be a Riverine. Our lineage goes back directly to Viet Nam, the same era that the SEAL community traces their inception to, and further back into the unconventional units of previous wars. This is a lineage that the CRF could, and should, embrace as their own considering that Operation SEA LORD combined Ops MARKET TIME and GAME WARDEN to execute what the CRF should be doing today. In fact, the three stars atop our small craft pins symbolize these three operations.

      As for the JOs (and Sailors) entering the Riverine force, we were not a universal collection of hot runners- and that’s ok, because that’s not the point. As one of my Chiefs said, the Riverines required “not the best Sailors, but the best from its Sailors.” For many of us, the difference between Riverine and MESF orders was only a matter of timing. I.e., the raw input from the fleet was the same in terms of personnel. The difference was how the two communities developed their Sailors once they checked in.

  9. OK I spoke a little on this before but since this discussion is still going I am going to go ahead and give my full three cents worth of opinion. First thing to understand is that I think some in the riverines felt at the time and even today that the merger was some kind of hostile takeover by MESF, however that couldn’t of been further from the truth of what happened. I would like to hit the rewind button to 2007ish when the riverines first stood up and NECC was established. While this was lauded at the time and covered by military.com and all the rest there were many inside the SWO community that saw the small “high speed” community as a danger to SWOdom. Shortly after there was a push to establish a full NECC officer community compete with its own designator. The SWO higher ups went into a panic mode, SWO moral sucks in general for several reason and they saw the ability to jump to NECC as a threat because they were already bleeding talent to other communities. The NECC community designated officers died but NECC lived on, fast forward to 2011.
    The Iraq war is now all but over and the riverines are coming up on their last deployments in country and the community was trying to figure out what was next. At the same time the Pentagon was looking for war “efficiencies” where money could be saved, and the old SWO villain came back to the forefront. The original plan that comes down from the Pentagon was to kill the Riverines completely and just fold the billets into other commands some outside of NECC. NECC of course push back hard on that idea (which honestly I think was expected from the beginning). This begins a lengthy negotiation process that would culminate into what would eventually become the MESF and Riverine merger. Both the MESF and Riverine leaderships worked hard to keep as much made the Riverines so good at what they did intact. In fact one plan had the riverines becoming one mega squadron und the MESF leadership, but that was rejected by higher. The end result was essentially a squadron inside of a squadron concept while also moving MESF into a more riverine like footing. However after the initial plan came out come budget cuts came out and the SWOs went to their favorite budget cut well and sliced off the Delta companies which was to hold the bulk of the riverine personnel and experience. In the end the original concept was never fully implanted. While working in the Pentagon I actually heard one high ranking individual say “I don’t want to hear about any more Fucking Riverines”, it got so far that the idea was floated of changing the name from costal riverine force (CRF) to costal protection force (CPF) simply so that NECC wouldn’t have the riverine in any of its documentation.
    My point is this isn’t about Per Diem or any of that stuff; this community was a causality of faulty higher up thinking that doesn’t understand the problem. I could go further but I think it is best if I leave it here. The fact of the matter is that no one on either side wanted this and they tried to manage it as best they could, I am hopeful that eventually the better angels will win out and the Navy will let the riverines come back into the fore where they belong.

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