Marines: Appearances Count


August 3, 2019: Since it happened back in January 2016, the U.S. Navy has sought to learn from an incident where two American coastal patrol boats and ten sailors manning them were seized by armed Iranian patrol boats in the Persian Gulf. The Americans were accused of being in Iranian territorial waters. The American boats and sailors were released a day later but the U.S. Navy kept quiet about the investigation into how this improbable event actually took place and what they were doing about it. Eventually, it became clear that the navy made the most of the opportunity to carry out needed reforms. These were mostly about the new (since 2006) NECC (Naval Expeditionary Combat Command).

The initial investigation of the 2016 incident resulted in charges of various errors and poor performance against nine officers and enlisted sailors that had led to the capture of the two boats. Six were found guilty and received various punishments, most often an official reprimand that became a permanent part of their personnel file. That made it more difficult to get promoted. One of those punished, the executive officer of Coastal Riverine Squadron 3, lost his job but managed to stay in the navy. The executive officer was mostly responsible for the many mistakes his two boats made. These included getting lost, multiple equipment failures, saying embarrassing things to Iranian cameramen and so on. There followed more than a year of effort to fix the problems within NECC that made it possible for NECC sailors to get into trouble.

The main problems were leadership and training, which were made worse by inadequate equipment and poor awareness of the threats they faced in the Persian Gulf. This is a common pattern in military history and in this case, the navy fixed it rather than just covering it up and hoping no one noticed. The U.S. Navy has a tradition of learning from its mistakes, which is common for navies that spend a lot of time at sea. Their ships face plenty of risky situations because that’s what comes from being at sea a lot. You either learn to cope or suffer heavy losses from making the same mistakes over and over again. This results in losing a lot of ships, seeing morale plummet and being forced to stay in port most of the time. This is an ancient pattern and it is one reason why navies that keep a lot of ships at sea successfully do so by learning from their mistakes and acting on what they learn.

NECC saw a lot of action in Iraq in the few years that it was there but by 2012 Iraq was no longer in need of a lot of American troops. NECC quickly lost its edge and that became obvious by early 2016 when the Iranians seized two NECC patrol boats and ten sailors.

Back then senior navy commanders failed to realize this could happen after American forces were withdrawn from Iraq at the end of 2011. The navy had to decide what to do with its new "brown water navy" when there were no combat zones in need of NECC. In particular NECC had three Riverine Squadrons that suddenly had no overseas assignment and the belief was that it might be a long time before NECC saw combat again. Initially, the navy decided to assign the NECC squadrons to coastal and river patrol duties around American naval bases. By 2012 the riverine force had been reduced to 2,500 active duty and 2,000 reserve sailors. It was believed there would still be opportunities for training with riverine forces of other countries, particularly in the Americas. But it wasn’t long before the situation in the Persian Gulf warmed up again and NECC squadrons ended up there in what was, for the Iranians, a war zone. The NECC commanders did not understand that and the result was a riverine force that underestimated just what sort of challenges they faced.

Organized for service in Iraq, the three riverine squadrons were rotated in and out of Iraq from 2007 to 2011. Before first arriving in Iraq the riverine sailors received lots of infantry and amphibious training, much of it provided by U.S. Marine Corps instructors. Until 2007, the army and marines had been providing most of the riverine units in Iraq. There were some sailors there as well but not as organized riverine units. That changed in 2005 when the navy established Riverine Group One, which eventually had three squadrons, each with 230 sailors and twelve 12.5 meter (40 foot) boats. With headquarters and support troops, the group had 900 personnel and 36 armed boats. Each boat has a crew of sixteen and is armed with machine-guns and automatic grenade launchers. That proved to be inadequate when confronted by the better armed and more aggressive Iranian patrol forces. Someone should have noted and handled that in 2012.

Initially, the NECC riverine forces eliminated terrorist movements along, and across, the main rivers in Iraq. This was similar to the successful riverine campaign the navy waged in Vietnam during the 1960s, using 16 meter (50 foot) "Swift" boats. The 2005 riverine force was part of a larger navy effort. After 2005 NECC quickly reached a peak size of 40,000 sailors, all of whom were 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 were plenty of sailors (over 20,000) who had served ashore in Iraq and Afghanistan. These included construction troops (Seabees), medical and other support personnel, plus advisors to the revived Iraqi navy. But the navy knew it could do more and wanted 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 that always operates closely with the navy.

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 steamships 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 came up with one new idea after another that kept them in business.

For example, 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). American troops were in demand to deal with civil disorder. During World War I Marines 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 a lot of 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 the fourth service. Over the next half-century, it basically achieved that goal. But in doing that the navy lost control of its ground troops.

The navy still wanted and needed land forces. So, having lost control of the USMC, the navy has created NECC. This organization contains 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. NECC served in Iraq, and down the road, the navy saw similar situations showing up. So, since the admirals could no longer send in the marines whenever they needed to, NECC provided naval infantry, that would hop to when an admiral needs some grunts on the ground.

The problem was that the navy failed to recognize that those marines had, early on, established a tradition of hard training, good leadership and readiness to handle difficult situations. Marines made mistakes but had developed a tradition of quickly learning from that. NECC did require some of that early on in Iraq but failed to institutionalize those practical attitudes. After the 2016 incident, there was some serious attitude adjustment within NECC. The problem from now on is maintaining that edge during periods when you have ample opportunity to lose it.

One lesson NECC learned in 2016 was the usefulness of coastal patrol boats that can operate in coastal waters, not just along rivers. This was first realized early on because in 2005 the Navy had few available and began ordering various new and existing models. One of the more successful has been the Mk VI patrol boats. The Navy planned to obtain 48 of these fifty ton craft and ordered the first dozen in 2012 for testing and use in actual work situations. The Mk VI has proved capable in all it was tasked to do but so far only twelve have been obtained. One of the recent successful tests was its ability to move long (up to 1,100 kilometers) across open ocean. In late 2018 the navy had several Mk VIs operating in and around the Western Pacific island of Guam. This is the largest (550 square kilometers) of the Marianas Islands and an American territory that serves as a military base and support center for the many smaller islands nearby. In October 2018, in the aftermath of yet another typhoon (hurricane type storms that are common in the Marianas) some nearby (about 800 kilometers distant) islands needed some help and it was decided to send two Mk VIs with the required technical personnel and supplies. The two boats traveled nearly 800 kilometers over open ocean at 45 kilometers an hour in about 20 hours without any problem. The Mark VI is also heavily armed and has better sensors and navigation than riverine craft require. This was essential for places like the Persian Gulf.

The 26 meter (85 foot) Mk VI have a top speed of over 80 kilometers an hour and a max range of 1,400 kilometers (at 40-45 kilometer cruise speed) Armed with two 25mm remotely controlled autocannon and mounts for six 12.7mm machine-guns, these ships cost about $6 million each. There is a crew of ten plus room for eight passengers and some cargo in the main cabin and aft (rear) deck. The Mk VI can be transported overseas by navy amphibious ships, such as the well deck of an LPD. The Mk VI has lightweight (bulletproof) armor over key sections (engine, fuel, control deck) and shockproof seats for the sailors operating the boat. There is also a shower and small kitchen. The Mk VI can stay at sea up to 36 hours but usually goes out for 8-24 hours at a time. If NECC had some Mark Vis in 2005 the Iranian incident would have turned out differently even if the sailors and their officers were not any different. Appearances count.


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