Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.
“Whether [working] against COVID, transnational criminal organizations, the predatory actions of China, the malign influence of Russia, or natural disasters, there’s nothing we cannot overcome or achieve through an integrated response with our interagency allies and partners.” –General Laura J. Richardson, Commander, U.S. Southern Command
When thinking about navies, there is a natural tendency to focus on operations in the open sea and the role of carriers, frigates, and submarines. However, aside from protecting their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones, South American navies have another equally important theater of operation: inland water bodies like lakes and rivers.
The recently concluded riverine exercises ACRUX X and BRACOLPER and even last year’s UNITAS 2021 demonstrate the importance that regional navies place on inland bodies of water and riverine populations. Activities carried out by local navies, not to mention other armed services, including defense/security operations, combating crimes (illegal mining and smuggling are significant problems in the region), search and rescue, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations. In South America, the armed forces help extend the reach of the state to areas where civilian agencies do not operate; navies utilize rivers as a system of complex highways via which they can move and operate just as efficiently as in the open sea.
Inland Water Bodies in South America
South America is home to many rivers like the Amazon, Orinoco, Parana, and Uruguay, not to mention lakes like Lake Titicaca. In several areas where roads are non-existent, rivers are vital for the movement of people and goods. Landlocked nations Bolivia and Paraguay also have navies tasked with protecting their rivers and lakes.
Given the dense web of rivers and tributaries blanketing South America, it is unsurprising that these bodies of water are used to determine borders between countries. For example, the Putumayo River creates a natural border between Colombia and Peru; the Uruguay River separates Argentina and Uruguay; while Parana and Iguazu Rivers make the famous “Triple Border” that unites Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Finally, Lake Titicaca is shared between Bolivia and Peru.
In an interview with the author, Rear-Admiral (ret.) Máximo Pérez-León-Barreto, from the Argentine Navy, and current Director of Strategic Affairs for Fundación Argentina Global, explained how the maritime highway created by the Paraguay, Parana, and Uruguay rivers are a “free area of travel” along the border between Argentina and its neighbors. “For Argentina, this area is a prime source of resources [including water], a source of electricity, and where a significant part of our population lives.” Similarly, Andrea Resende, an Associate Professor at the University Center of Belo Horizonte (UNIBH) and Ph.D. candidate at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais (PUC MINAS), explained to CIMSEC that in Brazil, there is about 60,000 km of waterways with 12 different drainage basins.
Like gold, oil, or land, waterways were previously a reason to go to war. In the case of Brazil, “the waterways were so important that the Imperial Brazilian Navy sent gunboats by the Paraná River to fight in the Paraguayan War (1864 – 1870), which resulted in the Riachuelo Battle (1865),” Resende explained. Anecdotally, the battle lends its name to Brazil’s first domestically manufactured submarine, the Riachuelo (S-40). While the Brazilian Navy is much more focused on its blue water capabilities these days, under its “Blue Amazon” initiative, rivers and lakes should not be overlooked by strategic planners. Resende noted that “with the publication of the White Book of Defense (2012) and the Navy’s Strategic Plan for 2040 (PEM 2040), released in 2020, the waterways have regained relevance in the strategic thought.”
Operations across Rivers and Lakes
Listing all recent operations that South American navies have performed would be problematic due to space considerations. In recent months, several activities demonstrate the plethora of activities navies carry out across these inland bodies of water. For example, the Peruvian Navy, alongside the Army, Air Force, and Police, are combating illegal mining in the Madre de Dios region.
To crack down on crimes along the border with Brazil, the Bolivian Navy has deployed its special task force Diablos Azules (Blue Devils), including riverine ships Cf. Adrian Cuellar Claure (TM-247) and Ing. Alfonso Gumucio (TM-341), in addition to smaller craft. The platforms patrol the Ibare, Mamoré, Iténez, Machupo, and Blanco Rivers, routinely stopping and searching vessels on said rivers to locate potential contraband.
Similarly, Resende explains that “all kinds of illegal trafficking are present in the Brazilian Rivers,” including the trafficking of drugs, animals, people, illegal fishing, illegal logging, and illegal mining (gold, ore, and other minerals). In recent months there have been reports of illegal logging in the North of the country. “This is not a surprise since official reports from the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment (IMAZON), which coordinates programs to surveil the Amazon rain forest, claims that the illegal logging in the region is the highest in 15 years,” the Brazilian academic explained.
Navies are also involved in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations. The Brazilian and Peruvian navies regularly deploy hospital ships across their rivers (and Lake Titicaca, in the case of Peru) to reach isolated coastal communities and provide medical services. The Bolivian Navy also has a hospital ship utilized for similar purposes.
Resende also added the vital work the Brazilian Navy has carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic. “They continuously delivered food, health care, and educational support for [riverine] communities. When the city of Manaus, capital of the Amazonia state, suffered an oxygen crisis in the middle of the pandemic… the Navy quickly established a mission to bring oxygen cylinders to the city with the help of the Air Force.” The service also took the lead in delivering vaccines when they became available across the country. A similar situation has occurred in Argentina; as Rear Admiral Pérez-León-Barreto explained, the Argentine Navy assists “communities that have limited connectivity [to the rest of the country] due to the geography, via sanitation campaigns” in coordination with other agencies.
Rivers can be used to transport equipment for social activities too. For example, the Colombian Navy’s riverine gunboat ARC Leticia recently concluded a trip through the Amazon River; the goal was to set up a portable projector to show a movie to the children of Puerto Narino municipality. This social initiative is called “Cine 90.”
Brazil, Colombia, and Peru border each other, with the Amazon River crossing them all. Their navies carry out BRACOLPER, one of the oldest joint multinational exercises in the region, dating back to 1974.
This exercise is a critical confidence-building mechanism by which vessels from the three countries travel the Amazon, crossing international borders, providing medical assistance to local inhabitants, and carrying out joint maneuvers and security operations. BRACOLPER 2022 lasted 35 days, according to Brazilian Vice Admiral Thadeu Marcos Orosco Coelho Lobo, commander of the Navy’s 9th Naval District. He explained “annually we cover around five thousand kilometers, across the Maranõn, Negro, and Solimões Rivers [and we perform] tactical naval exercises for riverine operations, with a focus on command, control, and communications.”
The 2022 maneuvers were divided into three phases: phases I and II along the Maranõn River in Peru between Leticia (Colombia) and Iquitos (Peru), while phase III occurred in Amazonas (Brazil) along the Negro and Solimões Rivers. Around 400 military personnel from the three countries participated, including Brazil’s riverine patrol ships Raposo Tavares, Rondonia, and the hospital ship Oswaldo Cruz. Peru deployed the riverine vessel BAPClavero (CF-15).
The other major riverine exercise in South America is ACRUX. Its latest iteration took place along the Uruguay River, which separates Argentina and Uruguay, with Montevideo hosting the exercises, which lasted from 16-24 August 2022. Around 500 military personnel and naval and aerial platforms participated from Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, while Bolivia and Paraguay sent observers.
According to information provided to the author, the platforms deployed included three Uruguayan ships, Río Negro (ROU 11), scientific vessel Maldonado (ROU 23), and support vessel Banco Ortiz (ROU 27); two Argentine ships, multipurpose ship ARA Ciudad de Zárate (Q-61) and patrol vessel Río Santiago (P-66), and two Brazilian platforms, the riverine patrol ship Parnaíba (U 17) and riverine support vessel Pontengi (G 17). As for aerial platforms, Brazil sent one Ecureuil/Esquilo helicopter, while Uruguay deployed one Bell 412 helicopter and four fixed-wing aircraft from its naval aviation: two Beechcraft B-200 Super King Air, one Cessna O-2 Skymaster, and one Beechcraft T-34 Mentor.
The exercises took place in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. They included marine traffic control, in which the naval command from the three nations, plus assets in the water, worked together during simulated emergency alerts, issuing meteorological bulletins, and classifying vessels that passed through the River, among other activities.
Rear Adm Pérez-León-Barreto stressed the importance of riverine exercises like ACRUX, “they allow [navies] to maintain a high degree of coordination to understand risks, prevent them and mitigate the effects” of potential disasters or other incidents. Resende had a similar opinion about the importance of BRACOLPER and ACRUX, adding, “those exercises are an essential part not only of the Brazilian Navy but expresses the sentiment of the whole continent: cooperation is always the key.”
The United States military understands the importance of riverine operations for its South American partners. Case in point, in 2021, the famous multinational exercise UNITAS included an Amazon phase for the first time. UNITAS LXII-Amazon included naval personnel from Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, the United States, and Peru, which hosted the exercises. The Amazon phase took place in the Peruvian Amazon, close to Iquitos. It included fast rope insertion from helicopters, riverine patrols, river-crossing in improvised craft, and insertion and extraction on riverine combat craft, among other maneuvers.
Lakes and rivers across South America require the same protection that navies provide to the open ocean, as riverine crimes are vast. The recent exercises BRACOLPER, ACRUX, and UNITAS-Amazon 2021 highlight how South America’s militaries, particularly the navies, train to patrol and defend inland water bodies.
Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. He is the President of the new consulting firm Second Floor Strategies. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez
Featured Image: A Peruvian MI-8T conducts fastrope operations to the BAP Clavero during BRACOLPER2022. Photo credit: Peruvian Navy.
This post first appeared on the Small Wars Journal and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.
By Rick Chersicla
An American Infantryman, laden with equipment and weaponry, steps off the ramp of a specially modified landing craft. He is not storming the beaches of Normandy or moving ashore on Guadalcanal – in fact, he is not even landing from the open ocean or a sea. Instead, this is the scene of a member of the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF), a joint Army-Navy venture formed during the Vietnam War. In an often-overlooked part of the war, soldiers and sailors worked together in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam to dominate the fluvial local terrain in the region—rivers, streams, and swampy rice paddies. Using World War II era equipment and creating tactics and techniques while under fire, the men of the MRF wrote the modern chapter on riverine warfare for the U.S. Army.
While preparing for riverine warfare is not a common task, it is not a new challenge for the U.S. Army. Since its inception, the Army has dealt with the tactical challenges caused by rivers – from New Orleans to Vicksburg, and from the Philippine Insurrection to the Rhine. Despite the fact that the Army’s experience with riverine warfare peaked with the MRF of the Vietnam War, the concept is not outdated.
This topic is relevant for modern strategists for the simple reason that while new technologies and global politics rapidly change and influence the way we fight war, terrain is an enduring aspect of war. Simply put, geography will continue to contribute to how the Army fights its wars. Furthermore, with the increasing focus on operations in littoral regions, riverine operations are a natural outgrowth from littoral concerns if the military is serious about projecting power. In this paper, I seek to explore what could be considered a capability gap in the field of riverine warfare. Using a case study of the MRF as an example, I hope to discern lessons learned in order to guide the possible formation and training of a future joint force similar to the MRF.
Origins of the Mobile Riverine Force
While the MRF was a joint Army-Navy venture, it was established on the bedrock of experience that the Navy had accumulated in South Vietnam. In 1959, naval advisors were approved to accompany the South Vietnamese Navy on operational missions, provided that they did not engage in actual combat. The primary focus of the naval advisors had been to build the interdiction capabilities of the South Vietnamese Navy along the coast. By 1961, as the number of advisors increased, the mission itself was expanded to include the task “patrol the inland waterways.” The early Naval advisors faced significant equipment challenges due to the lack of coastal or riverine crafts in the Navy’s inventory.
In addition to the dearth of equipment, there was a surprising lack of doctrine given the history of “brown water” warfare, as river fighting has occasionally been referred to. The Navy looked to the earlier experience of the French for inspiration. The French involvement in Southeast Asia provided a more immediate blueprint for the basis of American riverine operations in Vietnam. Between 1945 and 1954, the French developed river flotillas, the navales d’assault (naval assault divisions), better know as the Dinnassauts. Organized by the French Army for transportation and patrolling, the flotillas could support roughly a battalion-sized element. The Dinnassauts were comprised of a variety of types of landing craft, generally manned by the French Navy. The composition of the American MRF would mirror some aspects of the French organization, but more importantly, would seek to avoid some of the weaknesses of the French Dinnassauts.
The French Dinnassauts did not have a large landing force organically assigned to it, a point that was rectified by Military Assistance Command- Vietnam (MACV) planners for the United States. One of the strengths of the MRF was its joint relationship between the Army and the Navy – the Army units of the MRF did not rotate out to other commands or locations, as had happened during the French experience.
Similarly, the lack of organic infantry posed a challenge for the French with regards to the base defense for the Dinnassauts. The MRF would solve issue a decade later by rotating organic forces through security duty while conducting operations. When reflecting on their riverine experience in Vietnam, the French concluded that two of the key improvements that would have increased efficiency were increased armament, and the permanent joining of Army and Navy forces for riverine operations. These lessons learned would influence the formation of the riverine forces during the American experience in Vietnam, and directly contributed to the MRF’s joint nature and extensive firepower.
With the departure of the French, American military personnel stepped in to advise the military of South Vietnam. U.S. Naval advisors were the first Americans to operate in any appreciable number in the Mekong Delta, where the MRF would eventually conduct combat operations. The Navy gained experience operating in the rivers and off the coast of the Mekong Delta with Task Force 115 (code named MARKET TIME) and Task Force 116 (code named GAME WARDEN). The sailors of MARKET TIME had the key task of interdicting any infiltration attempts along the coast, while the GAME WARDEN sailors focused on interdicting enemy lines of communications along the Delta’s river ways. While there were both tactical and operational successes in both MARKET TIME and GAME WARDEN, the exclusively naval force did not have the ability to project combat power onto the riverbanks and shore line.
By 1966, General William Westmoreland began to see the importance of the Mekong Delta to the overall strategy of the Viet Cong. By this time, there was enough evidence that the Viet Cong sought to control the Delta’s Route 4 (the only real overland link between Saigon and the southernmost regions of the country) in addition to using the area to infiltrate supplies and manpower. The Mekong Delta was essentially the breadbasket of South Vietnam, providing the majority of the food and livestock for the rest of the country, and to lose control of the Delta would be a critical blow to the regime in Saigon.
While MARKET TIME and GAME WARDEN were disrupting the enemy’s logistics, it would take a significant number of ground forces to truly project combat power and clear the Viet Cong from the Mekong Delta. With the United States Marine Corps (USMC) elements in country fully committed to the northern portion of South Vietnam, the assault infantry element of the force would have to be provided by the United States Army. General Westmoreland accepted the proposal to create specialized units that could maximize the watery terrain of the Delta to seek out and destroy the Viet Cong, and the concept for the Mobile Riverine Force was born.
Much of the organization for what became known as the MRF sprang from a MACV study entitled Mekong Delta Mobile Afloat Force Concept and Requirements, published on 7 March 1966. While there would be some adjustments made to the initial recommendations, the key element articulated in the plan and later implemented was the utilization of naval ships for the basing of the MRF. Had the Army seized a portion of what little dry land was available in the Delta, it would have provided the Viet Cong with a propaganda coup in the heavily agricultural region – that the imperialist Americans were seizing the land of the farmers.
As a result, the base at Dong Tam, which would serve as the home base for the MRF, was created entirely by dredging sand from the My Tho River. In this way, the Army Corps of Engineers and Navy’s Seabees established a foothold from which the MRF could conduct operations in the Delta by literally creating one. This was an important departure from the French, whose riverine units had operated off of fixed land bases.
The Old Reliables Arrive
Providing the combat power of the MRF was the 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division. The 9th Infantry Division had been activated at Fort Riley, Kansas, on 9 February 1966, the only Army division specifically stood up for service in Vietnam. Colonel William Fulton, the commander of the 2nd Brigade, participated in what became to be known as the “Coronado Conference” in Coronado, California.
It was at the Coronado Conference that the leaders of each component of the soon to be joint venture, Captain Wade Wells for the Navy and Colonel Fulton, met to discuss the organization and command structure of the MRF. Neither Captain Wells or Colonel Fulton were named as overall commander of the MRF, instead, each officer would follow his own service’s command structure, with General Westmoreland himself being the first common command element. This unusual command relationship would prove to be surprisingly harmonious, with cooperation superseding service rivalries, and each element focusing on working together to accomplish the mission.
The MRF consisted of approximately 5,000 total sailors and soldiers. The Army compliment included the brigade headquarters, three infantry battalions, a field artillery battalion, and support troops, to include engineers. Due to the accumulation of surface water in the area of operations, elements of the MRF lobbied to increase the number of rifle companies per battalion from three to four, in order to allow the units to rotate their troops out of the Delta’s rice paddies. This change allowed for a drying-out period for those infantrymen who had been operating in the paddies inundated with water, without losing the operational tempo that was seen as a key to success by the senior leadership.
Naval ships served as the transportation and logistics element of the joint undertaking of the MRF. At its core, four World War II LSTs serve as barracks ships, equipped with helipads and modified for riverine operations. Additional means of support included a repair ship and an LST that could carry ammunition for 10 days of operations, and food for 30 days of operations.
These support elements as a whole were referred to as the Mobile Riverine Base (MRB), and were capable of moving up to 150 kilometers in a 24-hour period. Perhaps most importantly, elements could launch on day or night operations after only 30 minutes at anchor. The ability to move a force that was tailored to the environment such extreme distances and launch operations so quickly gave the joint force the reach needed to bring the fight to the Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta.
Several types of small craft provided the mobility and firepower components of the Navy’s contribution to the MRF, referred to by the Navy as River Assault Flotilla No. 1. The Armored Troop Carrier (ATC) was a modified LCM-6, a World War II era landing craft. The ATC had significant upgrades to the simple troop carrying variant of the 1940s, carrying twin 20mm guns, two .50-caliber machine guns, seven .30-caliber machine guns, and two 40-mm grenade launchers providing a significant punch in addition to its physical payload of up to 40 troops.
For situations that require even more firepower, the Monitor served in a “support by fire” capacity. The Monitors were essentially “the battleships of the force,” loaded with a 105-mm turret forward and an 81-mm naval mortar amidships, with .50-caliber and 20-mm guns on the aft portion of the craft. The last small craft that served a vital role with the MRF was the Assault Support Patrol Boat (ASPB), a radar equipped, double-hulled minesweeper. During movement, the assault support patrol boats provided reconnaissance and security to the force.
A striking shortfall of the formation and deployment of the MRF was the lack of dedicated riverine training. While Colonel Fulton had been relatively certain that his brigade would be designated as the brigade afloat for the MRF, the short period of time allotted for training led to a focus on counterinsurgency training. The training that the 2nd Brigade and the rest of the 9th Division underwent focused on lessons learned thus far by Army units in Vietnam, as well as current standard operating procedures for units already in combat. Additionally, Colonel Fulton felt that his brigade had to master “basic operational essentials” before moving on to the little-studied field of riverine operations. For some of the infantrymen of the 2nd Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division, their introduction to riverine training was their assignment to the USS Benewah upon arriving in the Delta.
While the bulk of the infantrymen in the 2nd Brigade did not receive riverine training, the brigade leadership and that of the subordinate battalions did participate in a ten-day course at the Naval Amphibious School in Coronado, California. While short in duration, the course (which had been set up at the request of Colonel Fulton) gave the Vietnam-bound command teams and their staffs the chance to focus exclusively on the challenge of riverine operations for the first time. This short course took place at the end of November 1966, and the bulk of the Coronado-trained officers arrived in Vietnam on 15 January 1967, serving as an advance party. Over the course of 31 January and 1 February 1967, the main body of the 2nd Brigade disembarked at Vting Tau in South Vietnam.
By late January 1967, efforts were underway for the men of the 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division to receive riverine training “in-country.” The lack of time available for training at Fort Riley had prevented the unit from conducting a brigade-level training event in riverine operations, so a dedicated effort was made to provide at least a ten-day period of training. The 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment however, was only able to complete three days or the requisite training before enemy actions resulted in the assignment of a mission in the Rung Sat special zone. The resulting mission was referred to as RIVER RAIDER 1, and was the first joint operation by U.S. Army and U.S. Navy units that would constitute the MRF.
As a result of the lack of dedicated riverine training and the dearth of accepted riverine doctrine (or at least joint doctrine), innovation played a key role in the operations of the MRF. To support medical evacuation and resupply efforts, another form of technology was needed to compliment the river-borne units. The soldiers and sailors of the MRF created what the brigade commander referred to as an “aircraft carrier (light)” when a helideck was added to an armored troop carrier.
This practice spread, and most of the armored troop carriers eventually sported a one-ship landing zone that could support a light observation helicopter. The men of the MRF also had to innovate when it came to employing indirect fire assets. The original plan called for separate barges to carry an artillery piece, and the prime mover (truck) required to tow it off the barge, up the riverbank, and into a firing position. When operations began, however, it became evident that not only were most of the banks of the rivers too steep and slippery for this practice to be put into effect, but that there was a lack of dry firing points other than the scant number of roads.
The 3rd Battalion, 34th Field Artillery Battalion experimented with the Navy and eventually called for six riverine artillery barges to be built in Cam Ranh Bay and sent to the MRF. The final product could carry two 105-mm howitzers and troop housing as well as up to 1,500 rounds for the howitzers, with the LCM-8 that towed the barge carrying additional ammunition. These artillery barges would travel at night and anchor offshore to supply close-in artillery support during operations. Colonel Fulton, the senior Army officer in the MRF, believed that the “floating” field artillery riverine battalion was the single greatest contribution to riverine warfare by the MRF.
The presence of the MRF is credited with turning the tide of the war in the northern Mekong Delta in the favor of the United States and South Vietnam during 1967 and 1968. Until 1967, enemy Main Force and Viet Cong units had moved virtually unhindered through the Dong Tam area. The enemy’s freedom of maneuver was greatly reduced, two Viet Cong battalions were pushed from the more populated areas, and the overall security in the city of My Tho was improved.
Most importantly, with Viet Cong effectiveness reduced, Highway 4 was reopened in 1967 and produce from the agricultural heart of Vietnam was able to flow to market along the Delta’s main ground route, for both domestic use and export. Overall, the MRF contributed to the overall counterinsurgency effort of the United States by pursuing the Viet Cong into what had long been uncontested sanctuaries, and supporting the local economy by the attrition of the Viet Cong who had closed down Highway 4. Colonel (later Major General) Fulton, credited the organization and mobility of the MRF for its success, writing that “the Mobile Riverine Force, because of its mobility, strength of numbers, and Army-Navy co-operation, was capable of sustained operations along a water line of communications that permitted a concentration of force against widely separate enemy base areas.
With the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War ended, interest from both the Army and Navy in riverine operations waned. The task of training in coastal riverine operations fell to Navy’s Coastal Riverine Squadrons (CRS) until 1978, when they shifted focus to exclusively support special operations. The Marines retained a small number of craft for riverine operations, but neither the boats nor the units were intended or capable of executing large unit operations.
Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was a limited resurgence in riverine operations as first Marine and then Naval units conducted security patrols around dams and other key infrastructure. The Navy embraced the “brown water” concept in 2006 by establishing Riverine Group One (RIVGRU 1), which grew to become three Riverine Squadrons (RIVRONs). However, even this change was fleeting, and by 2012 the Riverine Groups had been consolidated with the Marine Expeditionary Security Squadrons (MISRONs), and reflagged as the Coastal Riverine Groups (CRG). One CRG is located on each coast of the United States, but with only one riverine company per squadron, the focus is overwhelmingly on maritime security.
While the CRGs conduct a variety of important missions, ranging from port defense and harbor security to small unit insertion/extraction and tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, they lack the power projection that was available to the MRF of the Vietnam era. The Mark VI Patrol Boat, the most recently acquired craft for the CRF, contains a bevy of advanced systems and weaponry, and will surely provide security to littoral areas. However, with a capacity to support only an eight-man team, the Mark VI provides more of a sharp jab than a knockout punch when it comes to force. Most importantly, the emphasis for both the Mark VI and the CRF that owns it is on coastal, not riverine operations.
Riverine Operations in the 21st Century
There are several reasons why riverine operations deserve more consideration by the Army. Simply put, joint operations can be a complicated affair, one in which “on the job training” can be costly in both lives and resources. As Lester Grau points out, the coordination and “commingling of forces” in a situation such as riverine operations would happen at a fairly low tactical level, among organizations that tend to have the least amount of experience with joint operations. A more detailed study of riverine operations in the context of the current operating environment could mitigate friction and prevent growing pains in the future.
A 2014 research paper from the Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Center of Excellence (CJOSCOE) identified capability gaps in NATO doctrine related to riverine operations. While the paper was commissioned at the request of the French, its authors believe that the trends identified within it could be useful to other countries as well. The most relevant finding to any future U.S. joint riverine force is the conclusion that these types of organizations work best when they are joint.
A joint force, unified under a single commander, would allow that commander to extend influence beyond the riverine environment itself. For example, while a purely naval force would be limited to the rivers themselves, a force that included a conventional infantry platoon or company could be disembarked to move overland or transported up minor waterways and strike at enemy locations. This finding is concurrent with the success the MRF enjoyed as a true joint organization.
Riverine operations in the 21st century may not always be as simple as an infantry squad in a small craft conducting security patrols near a dam. Rivers could provide the mobility for a unit to interdict enemy lines of communication, patrol unit boundaries and move supplies, in addition to move larger strike forces as was seen with the MRF in Vietnam. With the wide array of security challenges facing the United States, there are multiple locations that could feasibly host operations comparable to those of the MRF between 1967-1969, from the Niger River in West Africa, to the Yellow River in China.
Riverine operations follows logically after the Navy’s newest planning consideration, that of littoral operations. Several of the largest maritime threats of the 21st century, including terrorism and piracy, occur in coastal areas as opposed to the open ocean. Accordingly, the Navy dedicated significant time and money into developing the appropriate capabilities to handle threats in shallow, littoral areas. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has been lauded as the answer to these shallow water threats, possessing the ability to move quickly and with more agility than larger craft. The LCS in many ways has replaced the frigates that have historically operated along coastlines.
The recent Sealift Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise (SEDRE) conduct in April 2016 by a brigade from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division gives further credence to the argument for this capability. The first SEDRE conducted since the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began over fifteen years ago, it challenged the Army elements involved, as they have not been common practice. The Army brigade worked with the Navy’s Military Sealift Command to load and unload almost 900 pieces of equipment. This SEDRE demonstrates that the Army and the Navy have given at least some thought to larger scale joint operations, and as the lessons learned from this SEDRE are disseminated, more serious thought can be given to developing a MRB concept for the 21st century.
While the Navy has had the prescience to move away from strictly “blue water,” open ocean warfare and expand its field of view with regards to future threats, it is not enough. The focus on littorals, as evidenced by the development of the LCS, is only half of the equation. To be truly effective, the United States has to be able to project power everywhere, and the LCS is too big to navigate most rivers. A modern riverine force would be the logical extension of this littoral focus, and the answer to this problem should mirror many aspects of the Vietnam-era MRF. The LCS fleet being fielded by the Navy could probably serve in a role similar to the MRB of the Mekong Delta. The key is fielding an element that can move platoon and company sized formation, with the option of massing an even conducting battalion sized riverine operations. If this theoretical next step was taken, the biggest challenges would be finding the most appropriate modern craft to recreate the role of the ATCs and Monitors of the MRF.
The focus on larger ships for littoral operations, and the trend of riverine operations being within the domain of Special Operations Forces (SOF), means that one of the largest gaps for potential riverine operations is in existing U.S. Naval hardware. There are several possible contenders for the type of craft that could comprise the fleet of a future MRF. The current workhorse the United States Marine Corps should be a logical option, but the venerable Marine AAV-7 is too small and provides too little by way of firepower to serve as a new ATC. The AAV-7 carries 21 combat loaded Marines, and is armed with a .50 caliber machine gun and 40-mm grenade launcher. While it is tracked, which means it can move from water to land seamlessly, it would not meet the necessary requirements. What a modern MRF would need is something closer to the ATC of the late 1960s, a craft that carry closer to 40 troops and boast a more formidable armament.
The Royal Navy of the United Kingdom has two variants of landing craft that could serve as a good example upon which to improve. The LCVP MK5 can carry thirty-five fully equipped commandos (or vehicles and equipment), and their Landing Craft Utility Mk10 can carry up to 120 fully laden commandos. While these two options are improvements over the AAV-7, they both still lack firepower. Additionally, none of these craft boast the helipads the ATCs of the MRF came to employ.
The most likely course of action would have to be a dedicated effort to either build specific craft for platoon and company size riverine operations in the 21st century, or to significantly modify existing watercraft. The British LCVP MK5 is not very different than the existing American LCUs, but they both lack the protection and firepower to fulfill the role of an ATC. The modifications made to the LCUs of the 1960s that resulted in the ATCs were the results of lessons learned from the French and early American river operations. They key to successful riverine operations in the 21st century is the design and adoption of these boats now, so doctrine and tactics can be developed before the threats are ready.
In addition to protection and firepower concerns, a 21st century MRF would have several planning considerations that the Vietnam-era MRF did not. The modern military relies so heavily on tactical satellite (TACSAT) and other advanced communications that there would be a significant increase in the amount of electronics aboard the river craft. Additional steps would probably have to be taken to water proof and safeguard our current systems.
The increase in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the past two decades has changed, and continues to change, the face of war. To be relevant, any modern MRF would have to incorporate drone and possibly counter drone measures into operations. Another key different between 2016 and 1967 is the weight and size of the aircraft being used for medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) purposes. The UH-60, the current primary MEDEVAC helicopter, is significantly larger and heavier than the Vietnam-era UH-1s, a consideration that would impact the design and practicality of an onboard landing zone.
Training Recommendations and Conclusions
There are ways to explore this operational concept in a budget-constrained environment. While simultaneously codifying doctrine, acquiring equipment and developing tactics, techniques and procedures would have to be refined before any form of modern MRF could be deployed. While the capability gap exists, acquiring funding for a new initiative or type of unit can be a herculean effort. To train on this task while not creating a large specialized unit in a resource-constrained environment, one solution could be the creation of an equipment set similar in concept to the European Activity Set.
The European Activity Set includes 12,000 pieces of equipment, including approximately 250 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs) and self-propelled howitzers. There are currently elements of the European Activity Set in Germany, Lithuania, Romania, and Bulgaria. Using that concept, units could rotate to a location, familiarize and train on the riverine craft as needed. An additional benefit to this model is that riverine training could be conducted by U.S. Army Reserve or National Guard units conducting Annual Training (AT), as well as Active Duty (AD) troops since none of them would normally own the requisite equipment. The naval component of this possible force could maintain the watercraft and become the repository of knowledge for the joint riverine concept.
While not advocating any modern gunboat diplomacy, the hard truth is that by not having the capability- the equipment, doctrine, training- the Army is providing an exploitable weakness to any potential enemies. In acknowledging that rivers are not “simply obstacles to be crossed,” but terrain that can be controlled, the argument for another look at riverine operations for the U.S. Army becomes more urgent. The U.S. faces a long list of global threats, from Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs) to increasingly belligerent states seeking to become near-peer competitors such as China or a resurgent Russia. The U.S. must make hard choices in assessing threats and determining how to resource its national security objectives.
While the MRB was a necessity given the fluvial environment of the Delta, it also provided the MRF with mobility, and a semblance of security. The potential benefits of the ability to influence land operations while not appearing overbearing on the local population cannot be overstated. While that idea may run contrary to population-centric COIN, the lack of a physical footprint could be helpful for a mission set consisting of surgical strikes and raids, or for training missions in which the local population is very concerned with Western influence.
Using Nigeria as an example, an overt presence of larger American units could play into the narrative of the local Islamist group, Boko Haram. Operating from a new-generation MRB would be one way to circumvent the jihadist narrative, while still providing train and assist capabilities, or conducting more kinetic, joint operations. Regardless of any altruistic intentions, the U.S. assumes the moniker of “imperialist” in the eyes of those opposed to U.S. involvement the moment a boot touches foreign soil, and operating on rivers may provide an alternative narrative.
History has shown that riverine warfare is an enduring part of warfare, and an acquired skillset. Given both the history of its occurrence, and the possibility of littoral operations in the future, it would behoove the Army to look more closely at riverine operations and pursue in some capacity a joint riverine organization. The situation may arise that more than a rifle squad or SOF team is needed to effectively project power. If a strong, joint riverine element can be developed, the U.S. can bypass the traditional practice of building up a beachhead, and the “ship to shore” way of moving combat power can truly shift to one of power projection from the littoral, “upriver,” to population centers.
The views expressed in his articles are those of the author, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.
Rick Chersicla is an active duty Infantry Officer in the United States Army. He is currently pursuing a M.A. in Security Studies at Georgetown University.
 The CJOSCOE study cited later in this paper defines fluvial in accordance with Joint Test Publication 3-06, describing the fluvial environment as terrain where “navigable waterways exist and roads do not, or where forces are required to use waterways, an effective program to control the waterways and/or indirect hostile movement becomes paramount.” This rarely used term is ideal when describing riverine operations.
 Lester W. Grau and Leroy W. Denniston, “When a River Runs Through It: Riverine Operations in Contemporary Conflict,” Infantry, July-September 2014, 31.
 Thomas J. Cutler, “Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam”,(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 19.
 Cutler, Brown Water, 21.
 Cutler, Brown Water, 24.
 Cutler, Brown Water, 44.
 Department of the Army, Major General William B. Fulton, Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969, (Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1985), 10. MG Fulton, given his experience as the former Brigade Commander of the Army element in the MRF, has authored a comprehensive study of the formation and tactics of the MRF.
 Fulton, Vietnam Studies, 10.
 Ibid, 11
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 16.
 Ibid, 24.
 Ibid, 24.
 Ibid, 24
Featured Image: A Patrol Boat Riverine (PBR) MkII conducts operations during the Vietnam War, 1968. (U.S. Army Transportation Museum)
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.
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.
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.
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)
Thanks to the @Cimsec Twitter feed, earlier this week I was alerted to an announcement that Colombia was creating a new “Naval Force of the East,” a new addition to its geographically-oriented naval commands in the Caribbean, Pacific, and South of the country.
The actual press release on the Colombian Navy’s (Armada Nacional de la República de Colombia) website stated that this new command would be responsible for security of the various rivers of the Orinoco basin along Colombia’s border with Venezuela. Commanded by a naval officer, the new command will incorporate several Colombian Marine Corps units (COLMAR, Infantería de Marina Colombiana). This development shines a light on the Colombian Marine Corps and one the world’s most robust riverine capabilities.
According to the 2013 edition of Jane’s World Navies, types of Colombian riverine units include River Infantry Brigades (Brigada Fluvial de Infantería de Marina, BRIFLIM), River Battalions (Batallón Fluvial de Infantería de Marina, BAFLIM) and River Assault Marine Battalions (Batallón de Asalto Fluvial de Infantería de Marina, BASFLIM). Forces from the 1st River Marine Infantry Brigade (BRIFLIM1) are located near Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The 2nd River Marine Brigade (BRIFILIM2) is located on the Pacific coast with its headquarters in Buenaventura. The 3rd River Marine Brigade (BRIFLIM3) is headquartered in Puerto Leguizamo and is responsible for forces operating along the borders with Ecuador and Peru. Forces from the 4th River Marine Brigade (BRIFLIM4) operate in regions near Colombia’s Pacific coast and border with Ecuador. The Marine force assigned to the new Naval Force East is a regular Marine Infantry Brigade (BRIM5).
Colombia’s state-run shipbuilder COTECMAR has built a variety of modern command platforms and assault craft for use by COLMAR’s riverine forces. COLMAR now has ten ships of the Patrullera de Apoyo Fluvial Pesada class (Riverine Support Patrol Craft or PAF, more commonly referred to as the Nodriza, the Spanish term for “wet nurse” or “nursemaid”). These ships are jet-propelled, heavily armored, and can embark a helicopter and 72 Marines. A newer mother-ship concept is the PAF-L (Riverine Support Patrol Craft-Light), about half the size of the Nodrizas and capable of operating in extremely low draft environments. The motherships are supported by smallerLPR-classships (Lanchas Patrulleras Rapidas or Fast Patrol Boats).
The precise reason for this announcement and the expansion of riverine combat power along Colombia’s border with Venezuela is unclear. According to the Colombian Navy’s press release (translation courtesy of Google), “with this new National Navy the Navy affirms its commitment to the security of the country and will continue in a decisive offensive operations ahead in order to neutralize the illegal structures that offend in eastern Colombia.” It is unclear whether this move represents signalling of Colombian strength to Venezuela’s post-Hugo Chavez leadership, although it should be noted that, according to Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment, published in May 2013, BRIM5 was already in place in Puerto Carreno, along Colombia’s southeast border with Venezuela, well before this announcement. The Presidents of Colombia and Venezuela met in nearby Puerto Ayacucho, across the river in Venezuela, on 22 July.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and onboard USS Essex (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. You can follow him on Twitter @markbmunson.