NAVAL AMPHIBIOUS BASE LITTLE CREEK, Va. – The Navy is sailing ahead with plans to get its new Expeditionary Combat Command up and running as quickly as possible, despite congressional concerns that it may be acting too quickly.
The command’s units currently include mobile security detachments for in-port operations, coastal warfare squadrons to protect harbors around the world, explosive ordnance disposal units, diving and salvage teams, construction “Seabees” battalions, and logistics support teams.
Increasingly, disaster relief is seen as an important part of the command’s effort to help win friends for the United States in troubled parts of the world. The organization’s most dangerous work, however, is taking place in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
In August, for example, an EOD technician died while attempting to defuse a bomb in Iraq’s Anbar Province. Previously, he had disabled more than 40 such devices. In May, five Seabees received Purple Heart medals for injuries sustained in and around Al Asad, also in Iraq. In 2004, three members of a mobile security detachment, including a Coast Guardsman, were killed while fending off an attack on an Iraqi oil terminal in the Gulf.
Sailors are taught to fire a wide range of weapons, including M17 rifles, 9 mm pistols, 12 gauge shotguns, and both light and heavy machine guns. They use both simulated and live ammunition. They also learn such combat skills as how to maneuver under fire, conduct patrols, search buildings and perform basic first aid.
The Navy in July approved the establishment of two additional Seabee units –- a regiment, consisting of two or more battalions, and separate battalion. Both will be based in Gulfport, Miss.
The command’s EOD community also is looking for additional technicians. But standards are high. Sailors must achieve qualifying scores on the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, fitness and pressure tests, security clearance and dive physical. And they must have no black marks on their personnel records. Once accepted, they must endure lengthy training in diving, ordnance disposal and parachuting.
In coming months, the command will add more units to expand its capabilities even further, explained Cmdr. Dan Schultz, a warfare requirements and resources officer, at an industry briefing.
A training unit will work with the Marines, Coast Guard, Special Forces and other U.S. military organizations to teach troops from friendly nations how to conduct security skills operations.
A combat readiness center will train, equip and deploy sailors when they are assigned to understaffed Army organizations. Approximately 11,000 sailors now are serving on the ground in the Central Command area of responsibility, including 4,000 in Iraq. Currently, before they deploy, they receive two weeks of combat training at Fort Jackson, S.C.
A security force will combine existing mobile detachments and coastal warfare units into a single organization with enhanced ship-boarding and intelligence-exploitation teams.
A maritime civil affairs group will augment efforts by the U.S. Special Operations Command.
The first of three riverine squadrons is scheduled to deploy to Iraq sometime early in 2007.
The deployment will mark the first time since Vietnam’s swift-boat era that the Navy has patrolled inland waterways. In Iraq, until now, that mission has been performed largely by Marines, but the leathernecks are needed more urgently for ground combat.
Each squadron, when it stands up, will consist of about 220 officers, petty officers and enlisted sailors and 12 boats. Their mission will include making ports more secure and cutting the lines of communications for terrorists, pirates and drug smugglers.
For the time being, they are being trained by Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., because the Navy command currently doesn’t have either a suitable training center or the right kinds of boats.
In September, 60 sailors from Riverine Squadron One, preparing for deployment, completed a seven-week coxswain course, learning the basics of maneuvering small, armed boats on narrow waterways.
Five-man crews, consisting of a captain, coxswain, an aft and bow gunners with .50 caliber machines guns and two mid-ship gunners with 7.62 mm machine guns, learn to operate their craft at speeds exceeding 35 knots.
Sailors train on two types of boats. The small unit riverine craft is 38-feet long, and can carry up to 16 combat-loaded troops. The riverine assault craft is 34 feet, 11 inches in length and can carry up to 15 passengers. Both have a range of about 250 nautical miles. They can fit into a C-130 transport aircraft for rapid deployment.
Critics on Capitol Hill are worried about the speed with which all of this is happening. The House Armed Services Committee, in its report on the 2007 defense authorization bill earlier this year, said it “remains concerned with the maturity of the operational concept” of the unit “and has reservations about the rapid pace of its development.”
The committee urged the Navy to develop its operational requirements for the command more fully. It also encouraged the service to investigate options for advanced composite hulls for the specialized missions that the unit will be required to perform.
Such hulls, the committee said, could provide the Navy with the technology for critical capabilities in speed, weight, draft, stability, wake and g-force reduction. The committee recommended a $10 million increase in funding to develop and build a prototype advanced composite riverine craft.
Retired Capt. Pete Frothingham, director of warfare requirements, programs and plans, conceded the Navy could have done a better job in explaining what these units would do and why they are needed. “One of the pitfalls in standing up a command very quickly was that we didn’t get out early on and explain it as clearly as we should,” he said. “That’s now understood. We’ve been doing a lot of show-and-tell.”
As for an advanced composite riverine craft, the Navy is investigating that possibility, Frothingham said. One candidate that the service is eyeing closely is called Stiletto. It is a high-speed, carbon fiber-reinforced craft that the command is testing.
Made by M Ship Co. of San Diego, Calif., Stiletto is an 88-by-44 foot rectangular box, with one panel of windows and few protruding antennas, which makes it hard to detect. It can travel at speeds up to 55 knots with a range of 500 nautical miles. Its hull design increases stability and maneuverability in shallow waters, according to company officials.
At present, however, the Navy has made no commitment to Stiletto, Frothingham emphasized. “There are a lot of other craft out there,” he said. “We’re looking at a number of them.”
Advanced composites offer great potential, he added. “They aren’t cheap, but big screen TVs weren’t either when they first came out. Eventually, prices came down. Maybe that will happen with advanced composites, too.”
Meanwhile, the Navy continues to institutionalize the command. This summer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen approved the expeditionary specialist qualification program and a new pin for graduates of the program to wear with their uniforms.
To qualify, sailors must complete a set of training including marksmanship, weapons maintenance, land navigation, field communications and expertise in setting up expeditionary camps.
The program and pin are part of an effort to establish a career path within the field of expeditionary warfare, similar to that with the submarine and naval aviation communities, and thus encourage recruitment, promotion and retention of sailors, Frothingham said.
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