Magazine article National Defense

Controlling the WATERWAYS

Magazine article National Defense

Controlling the WATERWAYS

Article excerpt

Brown-water navy begins hunt for new riverine combat craft

To patrol Iraq's Euphrates River - which is peppered with 79 islands that offer hideouts for insurgents and weapons caches - the Navy is relying on a squadron of small boats that used to belong to the Marines.

The small craft turned out to be valuable in Iraq, said Marine Corps Maj. Dan Wittnam, former commander of a small craft company. They helped the Marines covertly evade the enemy and uncover mortars among the numerous islands, Wittnam told National Defense.

"We took [weapon] contact 60 different times and only one person died," said Wittnam, who served in Iraq from September 2004 to April 2005.

The Marines' experience in Iraq offers useful insight to Navy operators who are now taking over river patrol duties. The Navy's first riverine squadron - stood up in spring 2006 - deployed to Iraq last month.

Some time after 2010, the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command plans to buy a new small boat that will be tailored to specific Navy needs. But for the foreseeable future, they will continue to operate the Marines' boats, which are called small unit riverine craft, or SURC, said Capt. David Balk, assistant chief of staff for science and technology at the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command.

This will ensure "commonality of training," he said, allowing all three planned riverine squadrons to become familiar with it.

Balk said the riverines will get 12 additional SURQ in the next few years because the Marine boat program was "terminated before all craft were bought," he said. The Navy requested funding in its 2008 emergency war budget for two command and control craft that will cost $858,000 each. The service also wants two multi-mission craft - priced at $960,000 - for transport and patrol. It wants eight assault boats - pegged at $858,000 each - for armed fire coverage. Once the Navy receives them, the riverine fleet will have 36 boats, 12 for each squadron.

The Navy will then request funding for the new craft in the fiscal year 2010 budget. "There are two pots of money, one to finish out the SURC buys and one in the out year budget for the new platform," Balk explained.

He hopes to get the new boat at "die end of the useful life of the SURQ," estimated to be eight years.

The future craft will meet unique Navy needs because the service will have an expanded mission. Balk said that it will be a larger force than the Marine small craft unit, will patrol further upland and will have multiple boat detachments.

Wittnam said the sailors will have the same skills as the Marines, but an important difference is that the Navy has access to different technology.

"They have unmanned aerial vehicles that can be launched from aircraft and unmanned boats," a useful capability for that mission, Wittnam explained. It would have been helpful to have those platforms to see approaching insurgents or to fly over head and find out where weapons caches were hidden, Wittnam said. He explained that the enemy hid ordnance among the 79 islands.

"The Navy is also adding a better command and control structure," Wittnam remarked. He felt that his team could have benefited from better C2 and satellite communications.

The riverines are going to receive better armor protection on the bows of the current fleet to fix a problem the Marines experienced. "We grabbed a lot of humvee armor and put it on the front because there were a number of hits," Wittnam said.

When asked what he would suggest for the new boat, Wittnam pointed to an acoustic radar antenna that can capture and magnify shots to make a positive identification of a weapon. …

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