July 12, 2007:
The U.S. Navy has just created
Riverine Squadron Three. Meanwhile Riverine Squadron One has been in Iraq for
three months now, the first U.S. Navy riverine unit to see combat since the
Vietnam war in the 1960s. Riverine Squadron Two is undergoing training.
Riverine Squadron One was supposed to have
gone to Iraq last year. But there were the usual delays, the main one being the
perceived need to provide some intense training for the sailors who would be
manning the boats, and doing the fighting. So the first riverine units got more
infantry and amphibious training, much of it provided by U.S. Marine Corps
instructors. Until now, the army and marines have been providing most of the
riverine units in Iraq. There are some sailors there as well, but not as
organized riverine units. Riverine Group
One, now has three squadrons (each with 230 sailors and twelve 39 foot boats).
With headquarters and support troops, the group has 900 personnel and 36 armed
boats. Each boat has a crew of sixteen
and is armed with machine-guns and automatic grenade launchers.
The navy is attempting to eliminate terrorist
movements along, and across, the main rivers in Iraq. This is similar to the
successful riverine campaign the navy waged in Vietnam four decades ago, using
50 foot "Swift" boats.
The navy officially established its "Naval
Expeditionary Combat Command" (NECC) in 2005. This organization will eventually
grow to contain 40,000 sailors, all of whom will be trained to work, and fight,
on land. The U.S. Marine Corps has mixed feelings about this, for the marines
have long been the navy's ground combat troops.
But in the meantime, there are plenty of
sailors (about 10,000) who have served ashore in Iraq and Afghanistan. These
include construction troops (Seabees), medical and other support personnel,
plus advisors to the revived Iraqi navy. But the navy knows it can do more, and
wants to do it with sailors, not marines.
Why not continue just using marines for this?
Well, the marines do not belong to the navy, contrary to what many people
think. Both the navy and marines are part of the Department of the Navy (the
Department of the Army and Department of the Air Force each have only one
component.) The marines used to be part of the navy, but over the years, the
marines obtained more and more autonomy. They are now, for all practical
purposes, a separate service.
While the U.S. Marine Corps began, over two
centuries ago, as sailors who were trained and equipped to fight as infantry,
they were very much part of the navy, and part of ship crews. This changed
radically in the late 19th century, when all-metal steam ships replaced wooden
sailing ships. The new "iron ships" really didn't need marines, and there were
proposals to eliminate them. The American marines got organized and fought
The marines performed very well as "State
Department Troops" in Latin America for half a century (late 19th century to
just before World War II), where American troops were needed to deal with civil disorder. During World War I,
they provided a brigade for ground combat in Europe, where they demonstrated
exceptional combat skills. As World War II approached, the U.S. Marine Corps
really ran with the ball when the navy realized they would have to use
amphibious assaults to take heavily fortified Japanese islands. During World
War II, the marines formed their first division size units, and ended the war
with six divisions. The Marine Corps was no longer just a minor part of the
navy, but on its way to being a fourth service. Over the next half century, it
basically achieved that goal. But in doing that, the navy lost control of its
The navy still wanted and needed land forces.
So, having lost control of the USMC, the navy has created NECC. This
organization will contain sailors trained and equipped for land operations the
navy believes it should be involved in. Some of these are still on the water,
like riverine operations (small gunboats and troop carriers to control rivers
and coastal waters against irregulars), and naval infantry to defend navy land
bases in hostile territory. There's a need right now in Iraq, and down the
road, the navy sees similar situations showing up. So, since the admirals can
no longer send in the marines whenever they want to, NECC provides naval
infantry, that will hop to when an admiral needs some grunts on the ground.