Brown-water navy

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U.S. Navy riverboat deploying napalm during the Vietnam War.

Brown-water navy is a term that originated in the United States Navy, referring to the small gunboats and patrol boats used in rivers, along with some of the larger ships (including converted WWII LCMs, LSTs, etc.) that supported them as "mother ships," from which they operated. A broader meaning is any naval force that has the capacity to carry out military operations in river or littoral environments, commonly known as riverine warfare. The term "brown-water" generally describes river environments carrying heavy sediment loads, such as from soil runoff or flooding.[1] Since presence of "brown water" requires a soil source, whether riverine or coastal, the term has become associated with littoral navies.

The term "brown-water" can be either river or amphibious in contrast to "blue-water navy" which is capable of independent oceanic operations.


After losing its blue-water fleet in the Battle of Copenhagen (1807), the kingdom of Denmark-Norway quickly built a brown-water navy. The partial successes of the resulting Gunboat War were undone by land invasion.

American Civil War[edit]

USS Cairo on the Mississippi River, 1862

The term brown-water navy originated in the American Civil War (1861–1865).[2] As a blueprint for the "strangulation" of the Confederate States of America, Winfield Scott's Anaconda plan called for a two-pronged approach by first blocking the South's harbors and then pushing along the Mississippi River, effectively cutting the Confederate territory in two while also robbing the South of its main artery of transport. The U.S. Navy was assigned the blockade of the seaports, while a new force of gunboats and river ironclads, together with regular army units, would take, or at least lay siege on, the Confederate forts and cities along the Mississippi. In the early days of the war, these boats were built and crewed by the U.S. Army, with the naval officers commanding them being the only direct connection to the U.S. Navy. By the autumn of 1862, the boats and their mission were transferred to the Department of the Navy. Because of the river's murky brown water, the ships that participated in these Mississippi campaigns were quickly referred to as the brown-water navy, as opposed to the regular U.S. Navy (which was henceforth referred to as the deep-water or blue-water navy).

US Gunboat Diplomacy[edit]

Save for an occasional river patrol boat, the United States river ironclad navy was all but abolished at the end of the Civil War. Yet the concept of a river defense force lived on in countries and regions where rivers enabled the US to project its military presence, allowing it to protect its foreign interests abroad. US river boats (gunboats) of the Asiatic Fleet operated in portions of Chinese rivers (sometimes referred to as the "Asiatic Navy") during the 1920s, such as the gunboat USS Panay, which was sunk in 1937 (by Japanese aircraft, prior to WWII), and the USS Wake, which was captured by the Japanese in December 1941. The US Navy during that era was, under the terminology used then, protecting US foreign policy and her citizens abroad via "Gunboat diplomacy". The China gunboat USS Asheville was lost in action March 1942.

Indochina War[edit]

During the First Indochina War, the French Navy created the Dinassaut (naval assault divisions), in 1947, to operate in the waters of the Mekong and Red rivers. They have succeeded the river flotillas created in 1945, by the request of General Leclerc. The Dinassaut served until the end of the conflict in 1955, and its concept would be latter adopted by the United States Navy in the Vietnam War.

Ten Dinassauts were created, with five based in Cochinchina and the others in Tonkin. Each one was made of about ten vessels and one Commandos Marine unit. The types of vessels operated by a Dinassaut included LCI, LCT, LCM, LCVP, LCS, LCA, LSSL and fire support vessels.

The role of the Dinassaut was to transport, land and support the infantry, to patrol the watercourses and to assure the supply of the isolated posts.

The sailors that served in the Dinassaut were referred as the "Navy in Khaki", in comparison with the sailors that served in the ocean that were referred as the "Navy in White".[3][4]

Portuguese Colonial War[edit]

The large landing craft NRP Alfange (LDG 101) supplying the garrison of Bambadinca, Portuguese Guinea, in the early 1970s.

In Portuguese service, the brown-water navy has been often referred as the "Naval Dust" (Portuguese: Poeira Naval), for its use of a large number of small vessels, in comparison with the conventional blue-water navy that uses a smaller number of larger vessels. In several historical periods, the Portuguese Navy had to develop riverine forces to operate in the former Portuguese colonies in Asia, South America and Africa.

During the Portuguese Overseas War in Africa (1961-1974), the Portuguese Navy created a brown-water navy to operate in the rivers and lakes of Angola, Portuguese Guinea and Mozambique, against the separatist guerrillas. For the organization of their riverine forces, the Portuguese were inspired by the French experience in Indochina with the Dinassaut and by their own historical experience in the operation of river flotillas in support of the Portuguese colonial pacification campaigns in Africa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Under the local commands of the Navy, the Portuguese created river boat flotillas (esquadrilhas de lanchas) in the Zaire River in Angola, in the Lake Nyasa in Mozambique and in the river system of the Portuguese Guinea. Smaller riverine forces were also created in Eastern Angola to operate in the Cuito, Zambezi, Cuando, Lungué Bungo and Cuanza rivers and in Tete to operate in the Mozambican section of the Zambezi river. These forces were responsible for the surveillance and the interdiction of the rivers and lakes to the enemy, avoiding their use for the infiltration and supply of guerrillas in the interior of Portuguese territory. Additionally, the riverine forces were also tasked with the mobile fire support to the land forces, the movement of troops, the supply of the Portuguese garrisons and the support of the civilian population in the riverine areas.

For these riverine forces, the Portuguese Navy conceived five types of vessels: the LFG (large river patrol boats of 200-300 t), the LFP (small river patrol boats of 18-40 t), the LDG (large landing craft of 480-550 t), the LDM (medium landing craft of 50 t) and the LDP (small landing craft of 12 t). The LFGs were armed with 40 mm guns and the LDPs with 20 mm guns, with several units of both types being also armed with rocket launchers. The LDG, LDM and LDP types were based, respectively, in the LCT, LCM and LCVP/LCA designs, but were modified in order be also used in the patrol, fire support and Marines mobile base roles, including the capacity for a greater mission endurance. This modifications included the protection of the sensitive parts with armor, the installation of 40 mm (LDGs) or 20 mm (LDMs and LDPs) guns and the improvement of the crew accommodations, partially at the expense of the cargo deck.

The river boat flotillas were complemented by assault units of Special Marines (fuzileiros especiais) and security units of Marines (fuzileiros). The Portuguese Marines operated based in the patrol boats and landing craft and also using their own rubber boats.[5]

Vietnam War[edit]

Swift Boat in Vietnam
USS Hunterdon County in the Mekong River in Cambodia, replenishing Vietnamese and American armed forces

On 18 December 1965, for the first time since the American Civil War, the United States Navy formalized the new brown-water Navy in Vietnam. Initially the brown-water navy patrolled the inland waterways, primarily with South Vietnamese river craft (RAG—River Assault Groups), boats mostly inherited from the French during their war; which in turn, had been received from the US, as military aid, during the French fight against the Viet Minh (Communist-led Vietnamese alliance). As the new fiberglass PBR (Patrol Boat, River), using water jet propulsion, became available, it became the main interdiction vessel for the inland waterways.

For coastal duty the South Vietnamese Navy used larger seaworthy craft. These were replaced by newer U.S. Navy Swift Boats (PCF—Patrol Craft Fast, aluminum 50 footers) and United States Coast Guard Point-class cutters. By the late 1960s, the Swift Boat would commence operations alongside the PBR's in the inland waters, as well as maintaining operations along the coast line. Navy and Coast Guard ships assumed coastal duties.

The brown-water navy was a joint venture between the Navy and the Army, modeled after the earlier French Riverine and coastal patrols in the First Indochina War (1945–1954). In the beginning this force consisted of mostly modified surplus US WWII Landing craft (boats), such as the LCMs, LCVPs, LCIs, etc. The only entirely new riverine boat from the French Indochina War had been the French designed STCN (an all-steel "V" hulled boat, approximately 40 feet in length, whose design had been influenced by the US LCVP). This particular craft influenced the design of the US Navy's only original riverine boat built for the Vietnam War; the 50-foot all-steel hull, aluminum super-structured ASPB (Assault Support Patrol Boat, better known as the "Alpha Boat").[6] The "Alpha" boat was built by the Gunderson Company, in Oregon, USA, and was of reinforced construction, in order to survive exploding mines. As a consequence, the ASPB earned a reputation as the "minesweeper" of the riverine forces.

Other riverine craft included, along with the aforementioned PBRs, PCFs, and ASPBs, were the Patrol Air Cushion Vehicles (PACVs), Coast Guard Point-class 82-foot patrol boats, and the Monitors (modified LCMs). Together these craft formed a Mobile Riverine Force, that utilized various supporting facilities, such as the Yard Repair Berthing and Messings, advance bases, LSTs, helicopter and seawolf units.

The brown-water navy (in conjunction with other efforts, such as Operation Market Time) was largely successful in its efforts to stop North Vietnam using the South Vietnamese coast and rivers to resupply its military and the Viet-Cong. The flow of weapons and ammunition came to a virtual standstill during Operation Market Time, from 1965 and 1970.

Brown-water units were formalized in January 1967 with the 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division arriving under the command of Major General William Fulton. Later that same year, in combination with US Navy Task Force 117 they formed the Mobile Riverine Force. In 1970, for the last time since the Civil War, the Navy stood down the last of its brown-water navy units; as they were turned over to the South Vietnamese and Cambodian Governments under the Vietnamization policy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Butler, Rhett A. “Diversities of Image - Rainforest Biodiversity.” / A Place Out of Time: Tropical Rainforests and the Perils They Face. 9 January 2006.
  2. ^ Joiner, Gary (2007). Mr. Lincoln's Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron (American Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield)). Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0-7425-5098-2. 
  3. ^ In Dictionnaire de la Guerre d'Indochine, pages 83 et 147 à 148
  4. ^ In revue Bataille, HS n°7, page 70.
  5. ^ CANN, John P., Brown Waters of Africa (Portuguese Riverine Warfare 1961-1974), Helion & Company 2013
  6. ^ Friedman


A Chinese type 051 destroyer on the Yangtze in Wuhan

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