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Navy Will Shift Military Might to Shallower Waters

Updated versions of Vietnam War-era Swift boats are heading to the Euphrates in Iraq in an effort to stop insurgents where big ships can't go.

July 06, 2006|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Swift boats own a small but tortured part of Navy history. The shallow-water craft crewed by armed sailors patrolled the rivers of Vietnam, one of the most dangerous missions in the Navy.

In the 2004 presidential campaign, the boats emerged as part of a bitter debate over whether Navy veteran John F. Kerry, the skipper of one of the 50-foot vessels, was a slacker or a hero.

Now, 30 years after Swift boats were mothballed, the Navy has decided they are just what's needed in Iraq and beyond.

Next year, the Navy will deploy a squadron of 220 sailors to patrol Iraq's Euphrates River on 39-foot versions of the boats. Starting with a dozen vessels which can carry 16 sailors each, their goal will be to stop shipments of weapons, bombs and fighters from Syria to Baghdad.

The deployment represents a departure from the Navy's emphasis on ships that dominate the "blue water" of the ocean and reflects a move to commit more resources to fighting insurgencies. After the Navy spent decades preparing for big wars by building aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, its new Naval Expeditionary Combat Command is building small boats that specialize in fighting where the big ships cannot go -- harbors, coastlines and rivers, or what sailors call the "green" and "brown" water.

Rear Adm. Donald Bullard, leader of the Expeditionary Combat Command, argues that existing U.S. military capabilities have gaps that terrorists and insurgents can exploit. The Navy's cruisers, destroyers and aircraft carriers dominate the open ocean, but are vulnerable in port. And the military for decades has not had a dedicated force for controlling coasts, rivers and delta areas.

"We are extending that maritime space. We need to be able to control the maritime environment where terrorists can operate, to deny them freedom of movement, to deny them sanctuary," Bullard says.

In the short term, the new Navy mission is an attempt to relieve some of the weight of Iraq from the Marine Corps. Iraq has been tough on the Marines, who have been deployed to the most violent areas of Iraq and been involved in some of the war's bloodiest battles. The Marine Corps currently operates a small number of boats on the Euphrates, which courses through contentious Anbar Province and the cities of Fallouja, Ramadi and Haditha. By taking over river patrol duties, the Navy is able to assume at least one responsibility.

The Navy wants $48 million to train its new river forces through next year. But some members of Congress have looked skeptically at the new program, suggesting the new command, created in January, duplicates other services and veers from the Navy's traditional role.

But Navy officers are adamant the new command will offer something different. Special operations forces use small boats to silently insert and extract SEAL teams. The new Navy force wants to be anything but stealthy.

"Our forces are in the water and in the daylight," says Capt. Michael Jordan, commander of the river force.

The mission of the new "riverine" force differs in some respects from the Swift boats of old. Swift boats at first were used only on the coastlines. But in 1968, then-Vice Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., as commander of naval forces in Vietnam, changed their mission with the launch of Operation Sealords. Zumwalt began sending the boats upriver to break up guerrilla networks. The boats moved to fight insurgents close in, with intense battles the frequent result.

By contrast, the focus of the modern riverine force is supposed to be interdiction, not close combat.

"We are not building a force for major combat operations," Jordan says. "We are trying to stop the illegal traffic, the movement of weapons and supplies."

After the U.S. effort in Vietnam ended in failure, naval warfare scholars questioned whether the Navy activities were effective, or if they were worth the risk to sailors. But in a reassessment, naval historians now contend that the river force was effective at stopping the Viet Cong guerrillas and pacifying the Mekong Delta.

Nevertheless, after Vietnam, the Navy wanted no more of the fight. The service's leaders thought their duty lay in preparing for big wars.

"After Vietnam, did we play down counterinsurgency and play up the Soviet Union? Absolutely," says Wayne Hughes of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and author of the influential book "Fleet Tactics."

"As soon as the Vietnam War was over, we wanted to step back to what it was like in the '50s. The Army and Navy are big elephants."

So the river forces were pushed out of the conventional Navy and left largely to special operations forces. The small coastal patrol boats went into the reserves, because commanders thought they would not be needed regularly.

But the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in 2000 and war in Iraq in 2003 forced Navy commanders to rethink their likely foes.

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