JOINT EXPEDITIONARY BASE LITTLE CREEK, Va. — The Mark VI patrol boat bristles with heavy automatic weapons, and that’s the way its crews like it.
“I tell the crews that you want to look like a porcupine,” said U.S. Navy Senior Chief Derrick Cox, who trains the sailors that man the Mark VI as part of Coastal Riverine Squadron 2’s training evaluation unit. “You don’t want to kick a porcupine because you know there will be consequences.”
The Mark VI is a replacement for the Riverine Command Boat, which gained notoriety three years ago when two of them, along with their crews, were captured by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard when they strayed into Iranian waters near Farsi Island in the Arabian Gulf.
“This has double, maybe even triple the firepower of the RCB,” Cox said.
The RCBs had four mounts that could support a number of heavy weapons to defend the boat. The Mark VI is in another league all together. The boat shown to Defense News this month packed two stabilized, remote-operated, optically guided MK 50, .50-caliber Gun Weapon Systems; two MK 38 Mod 2 (25mm) Gun Weapon Systems (also remotely operated with an advanced optics system); and two crew-served .50-caliber machine guns.
“We’ve demonstrated that we can sustain a firefight for 45 minutes in the Mark VI,” Cox said.
The Mark VI was just coming online in January 2016 when the incident at Farsi Island went down — the last of the 12 were delivered by the end of 2018. And though ultimately none of the 10 captured sailors were hurt — they were released along with their RCBs after the personal intervention of then-Secretary of State John Kerry — the incident was deeply embarrassing for the Navy and infuriating for senior leadership. It prompted the service to refocus the Riverines’ mission and change the mindset.
Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, the parent command of the Riverines, dispensed training for offensive operations and refocused the Coastal Riverine Force toward port and infrastructure security, high-value unit escort missions, and other such anti-terrorism, force protection missions. It also forced the Riverine crews to get serious about their jobs, Cox said.
“Our missions were in more permissive environments, and a lot of our training was tailored toward that,” he said. “Now we are geared toward non-permissive environments.”
The head of NECC, Rear Adm. Brian Brakke, is taking that new focus and his new Mark VI platform and turning toward the challenge at hand: great power competition.
“Where I would like to go is where do we have the opportunity inside the littorals to be able to conduct missions for the Navy that may free up capital assets to go do other missions,” Brakke said.
The new Mark VI has a communications suite that well exceeds that of the RCB. The new boat can connect with the fleet via Link 16; it also has high- and ultrahigh-frequency and satellite comms so shore side controllers won’t lose track of the boat, as happened during the Farsi Island incident. The 85-foot boat has a top speed of more than 40 knots and a range of up to 500 miles.
It has a 10-person crew and can accommodate up to 20 personnel — the RCB maxed out at 15 personnel.
Among the possibilities Brakke is looking at: using the Mark VI as a mothership for swarm attacks in conjunction with new 40-foot patrol boats being introduced to the force; operating unmanned aircraft for over-the-horizon surveillance; operating autonomous wave runners for various missions.
The boat already comes with a ramp and rails to launch sleds for autonomous vehicles, which means the boats can be employed for mine countermeasures operations in the littorals. The launch capability is an area that needs improvement but is full of potential, Brakke said.
“From a force-development and innovation perspective, that’s where we are taking a look at how to grow this force and what it can do for us,” Brakke said. “We understood when they developed the craft that if it’s going to have that interaction with the fleet, we have to be able to communicate. So having SATCOMs, Link 16, being able to come up on blue-force tracker so that we know where they are, and they know where we are, that was a big piece of this.”
Fixing what’s broken
The 2016 incident with Iran also forced significant organizational changes into the Coastal Riverine Forces.
Since the Farsi Island debacle, NECC has worked to close the gaps that contributed to the incident. Up and down the chain of command, the Navy has boosted and improved training and communication, said Cmdr. Mike Ray, the head of Coastal Riverine Group 1, during a June 26 interview.
Watch standers in the operations centers that lost track of the RCBs as they got lost and bumbled their way into Iranian waters receive more training and are more fully appraised on the individual boat crews — their strengths and weaknesses, and what exactly they’ve been trained to do.
The turnover process in theater has also been greatly improved and is overseen by both the operational command in theater and by the administrative command, which is responsible for providing a manned, trained and equipped force to the operators.
“One of the specific deficiencies that was brought up in the Farsi investigation was that the [turnover] process allowed the incoming squadron and those forces to be ill-prepared to understand some of the theater-specific requirements or changes since the last time they deployed," Ray said. "So every time a squadron turns over now, you’ve got representatives of my staff or my counterpart in Little Creek from Group 2 who go over there to essentially shepherd that process hand in hand with the [operational control] task force commander to ensure that once the handover is complete, that new squadron … is fully prepared to execute in that theater.”
The improved turnover process gets after what was one of the more controversial questions in the aftermath of the Farsi Island incident: Was that unit ill-prepared when it entered theater, or did it degrade while it was in theater?
Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, then commander of 5th Fleet, determined that the Riverine crews were insufficiently trained prior to departing for deployment. But others argued that Commander Task Force 56 tasked the Riverine crews with a mission for which they weren’t properly trained — a long, open-ocean transit from Kuwait to Bahrain — and that the sailors had been in theater for months by the time disaster struck, well removed from their training.
The improved turnover then, ideally, cuts out the finger-pointing and ensures that both the relevant task force knows the unit it’s getting and are fully briefed on the training and capabilities.
Communication between the task force and the trainers back in the states during the deployment has also increased, Ray said. Even though the Riverines are turned over to the operational chain of command in theater, his group is still available to offer expertise and guidance on employment of their units on a mission-by-mission basis.
“We backstop them by providing Coastal Riverine Force-specific expertise in those planning briefs. Although they are [in operational control], they reach back to us a lot to provide oversight and review of those to ensure nothing is missed,” Ray said.
‘Ready to fight’
One of the more troubling aspects of the Farsi Island incident for the U.S. Navy was the behavior of the crew members, both in allowing themselves to be captured and in the leader of the voyage apologizing to Iran on camera.
Leaders in the Riverine force seem to chalk that behavior up to complacency and a lack of the proper mindset in a contested environment.
“We spend a significant amount of time talking about a combat mindset — understanding that contact with the enemy is a plausible scenario that they need to be ready for mentally, physically and tactically," Ray said.
“I just had the privilege of sending some sailors off to Bahrain to go do security, and it suffices to say that the 5th Fleet theater is contested," he added. "And I’ll tell you that every one of those sailors understood that they were headed into an environment where they potentially could be called up to employ those weapons skills, mental toughness, in a contested environment.
“So, not to say that there was any goodness that came out of the Farsi Island incident, but it served to reinforce the reality to our sailors that any given sailor, on any given day, perhaps is going to be called upon to demonstrate that toughness, to demonstrate that seriousness of purpose and demonstrate that tactical training: It was a good reminder for all of our sailors of the environment in which they serve.”
Brakke, the NECC commander, put it even more directly.
“And a lot of times when we talk to the units and the squadrons before they deploy we tell them that you have to be ready to expect that not all of you might come home,” he said. “And that focuses them that this isn’t just something where we’re going over to just ride around: We’re ready to fight and win our nation’s wars if we have to.
“That’s the culture that we’ve tried to put into place.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.