Brownwater Sailors

Article excerpt

Training with the new Navy Expeditionary Combat Command.

TERRORISTS HIDE, TRAIN, AND OPERATE wherever they think they're out of reach. In the caves of Afghanistan we routed them out with a new weapon. The thermoharic bomb was designed to kill terrorists hidden deep inside caves and to burn up whatever chemical or biological weapons that might be with them. But on the backwaters of Africa, the waterways of the Middle East, and wherever bays, swamps, and rivers divide the land from the sea, terrorists-such as the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka-gather and use the sanctuary of the inland waters to smuggle weapons and money, and to hide when they're not engaged in piracy. This problem isn't new. Our "riverine" forces fought this battle in the muddy waters of inland Vietnam. Faced with that problem-and more-the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command is combining new thinking with some old ideas.

It's the Navy equivalent of a tool box, a conglomeration of brownwater warriors, construction battalions, explosive ordnance disposal, and just about everything you might need to secure a port, interdict terrorist pirates, or do the myriad other jobs the Navy has to do that won't be done by big ships, fast aircraft, infantry, or special forces.

As NECC commander Adm. Don Bullard explained, "We need to go in every environment the terrorists operate to win this war." He said, "If we need to go into rivers and jungles to do that now, we will. We want to take away the sanctuaries and take away terrorists' ability to operate on waterways to traffic in arms and weapons of mass destruction." Right now, NECC is gathering its pieces and parts, growing to its authorized strength in the neighborhood of 40,000 sailors. Admiral Bullard said NECC is "the ugly baby everyone wants to kiss."

One part of the baby is the brownwater Navy, meant to go wherever inland waterways may take it. Since the "riverine" Navy of the Vietnam era, there hasn't been a lot of attention paid to the littoral area. NECC is taking part of the Navy back to the future.

Combat Cox

AFTER BEING, KNOCKEN AROUND the open rear deck of his boat for most of an hour, 1 dragged my battered carcass into the cabin of the 34-foot "SeaArk" to sit behind Leading Petty Officer Thomas Contant. Born in Virginia and raised in Scotland, "Scottie" Contant is one ot'only about a dozen certified combat coxswains in the Navy. Instead of driving an admiral's boat in the dignified manner of a fleet cox, Contant drives the SeaArk like Dale Earnhart, Jr., might drive a Porsche. "If you're not getting beat up," he said, "you're not driving properly." Scottie drives very properly.

A combat cox has a lot of responsibility. On a SeaArk (and other armed NECC boats) the coxswain has the authority to open fire. The combat cox has to know everything about his boat and the rules of engagement and how to command the maneuvers of several boats close together. He has to have the situational awareness of a fighter pilot, the judgment of a senior officer, and be able to think and issue and execute orders in a lot less time than it took you to read this sentence. Scottie has to be able to order several boats to make tight turns at high speed-maybe at night-with boats only a few feet apart. It's the seaborne version of dogfighting. Contant said it takes about 18 months to train a combat cox. Though few in number now, many more are being trained and tested, and will soon be joining the force.

The SeaArk has three machine guns: two sidemounted M-60 7.62 mm guns and a forward-mounted .50 caliber. None is protected by armor. I asked one of the side gunners about the fact he has to stand at his gun without the protection of an armor shield. He said you have to rely on your cox to turn the boat again and again so you can fire and then be screened from incoming fire.

The guys who are serving in Scottie's unit-Naval Coastal Warfare Group 4-have a level of morale that is sky-high. …