Friday, May 25, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Coastal Riverine Force

Even the smallest economy-of-force programs aren’t immune to Navy budget cuts and accordingly, numerous reductions to NECC force structure were submitted for POM 13. The Navy’s Riverine and Maritime Expeditionary Security Force (MESF) units make up a significant and important part of this community, and comprise the majority of the Navy’s combatant craft outside of Naval Special Warfare. Following the decommissioning of six MSRONs over the next few years, the resulting force structure will consolidate to seven combined Coastal/Riverine Squadrons (CRF) Squadrons for a total of about 4,400 active and reserve Sailors. “The primary mission of CRF is to conduct maritime security operations across all phases of military operations by defending high value assets, critical maritime infrastructure, ports and harbors both inland and on coastal waterways against enemies and when commanded conduct offensive combat operations.” As these changes are enacted, it’s worthwhile to look at where this leaner expeditionary force has come from and where it might go in the future.

A Bit of History

Fighting in inland and coastal waters has been a regular occurrence throughout the U.S. Navy’s history, with notable campaigns in North America, China, and of course, Vietnam. Following the Vietnam War, the navy’s riverine force was largely disestablished and by the 1990s, the sole capability remained in one NSW unit.  The 21st Century riverine force, assembled a few years after the Navy Staff realized that Operation Iraqi Freedom wasn’t just a ground war, now consists of three squadrons of highly trained Sailors with boats and kit sufficient to conduct their missions globally. During OIF, the RIVRONs protected the Haditha Dam and performed hundreds of combat patrols in support of ground forces along Iraqi rivers. The RIVRONs also were equipped with the RCB, a very capable troop carrying boat based on the Swedish CB-90. These boats have been recently used for coastal missions, but are not optimized for extended operations in heavier seas.

 RPBs and RCB in USS Oak Hill (LSD 51) U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication
Specialist 2nd Class Michael R. Hinchcliffe
The arguably less well known Maritime Expeditionary Security Force originated out of the Inshore Undersea Warfare units that defended harbors and other inshore areas against Viet Cong sappers. In the 1970s, the IUW community reverted to the reserve force, added new equipment and missions such as electronic and acoustic surveillance. MIUWs and IBUs performed landward and seaward security roles for amphibious and JLOTs operations, with some units mobilized for Operation Desert Storm. Following the October 2000 attack on USS COLE, the then-called Naval Coastal Warfare community gradually shifted to a boat-centric force, added active force structure, and changed its name to MESF, to reflect the increased emphasis on anti-terrorism/force protection. Throughout the last decade,  thousands of MSRON Sailors have deployed globally to austere locations and successfully deterred new terrorist attacks on critical maritime infrastructure. They have escorted thousands of naval and civilian ships, defended dozens of different ports, and lived for months at a time on Iraq’s rusty OPLATS – all thankless, but vitally important missions.  Interestingly, the new CRF is not the first time that the Navy has combined coastal and riverine units.

On boats

The MK VI will be the newest addition to NECC’s fleet (see Chuck Hill’s post here) and provide a much needed augmentation to the smaller MESF and RIVRON craft. There is room to debate whether the MK VI will be the right vessel for coastal NECC missions. Certainly, the ability to embark a boarding team and better sea-keeping and endurance will make the MK VI a tremendously more capable platform than the MESF’s current 34’ PBs. But one the thing to keep in mind is that combatant craft are small, inexpensive relative to every other surface (and air) platform, and designed to have a short life span. Therefore, if the initial buy of six vessels doesn’t prove ideal for CRF, then OPNAV shouldn’t dwell on what amounts to rounding errors in the larger acquisition budget and move quickly to another design.

That said, it should be understood that the MK VI does not meet the requirement for a green water Cyclone PC replacement which would be more properly classified as an offshore patrol vessel or offshore support craft. The MK VI just doesn’t have the legs and payload for that mission set and requires either a near-by land base or sea-basing as seen in the above photo of well deck testing last year. Ostensibly, LCS was going to take on the offshore patrol role, along with the missions for apparently every other ship class smaller than a DDG. Time will tell how that idea works out.

Some Future Opportunities

Along with continuing to conduct NECC’s mainstay riverine, force protection, and security force assistance missions, the CRF has the opportunity to expand into new mission sets. As the combined CRF stands up next week, it’s heartening to hear one of the MESG Commodores recognize the offensive potential of these units. “Although Coastal Riverine Force will predominantly perform force protection type missions, when required it will be capable of conducting offensive operations which will enhance mission effectiveness throughout the force.”  These operations will require new equipment, training, and tactics.

Although the MK VI is not heavily armed or armored, it does appear to have a remotely operated MK 38 Mod 2 (25mm) on the bow. The Israelis have similar mounts on their fast attack craft that include coaxial Spike ER laser guided missiles (8 km range). One hopes that NAVSEA CCD is planning on installing at least an equivalent capability on the MK VI to add to CRF’s offensive punch. I recently was aboard a similar sized vessel capable of carrying 16 griffin missiles in a VLS-type launcher, so this sort of firepower not out of the question for 20-30 meter fast attack craft. Furthermore, by becoming targeting nodes in a distributed naval fires network, these small vessels could fight above their weight class.

MIUWU 114 Mobile Operations Center on Khawr Abd Allah River
Iraq, April 2003 (author’s photo)
 Similarly, the MESF’s land-based sensor detachments have the potential to improve targeting in the littorals. A primarily defensive force since COLE, MESF’s 90s-era equipment is in need of a radical facelift, with the addition of lighter and more numerous fixed, mobile, and disposable sensors. In the IUW era, the MIUWUs routinely deployed and listened to sonobuoys in support of coastal ASW.  Today, a myriad of air and sea droppable sensor packages with various combinations of EO, signals, acoustic, and METOC collection capabilities are readily available. These smaller, smarter, and cheaper sensors can rapidly disseminate their data globally via a number of means, and along with small tactical UAVs, should become a staple of the CRF.

The Navy must sustain traditional brown and green water MSO missions, but new technology will also make it possible for NECC units to become an integral component of distributed maritime operations in higher intensity warfare.

Thanks to Lee Wahler, a frequent commenter on ID, and other hard core boat guys for helping with ideas and research on this article.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.

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