Brown-water navy

The term brown-water navy or riverine warfare refers in its broadest sense to any naval force capable of military operations in river or littoral environments, especially those carrying heavy sediment loads from soil runoff or flooding.[1] It originated in the United States Navy during the American Civil War, when it referred to Union forces patrolling the muddy Mississippi River, and has since been used to describe the small gunboats and patrol boats commonly used in rivers, along with the larger "mother ships" that supported them. These mother ships include converted World War II-era LCMs and LSTs, among other vessels.

Brown-water navies are contrasted with seaworthy blue-water navies, which can independently conduct operations in open ocean. Green-water navies are the bridge between brown-water navies and blue-water navies.

US riverboat using napalm in Vietnam
U.S. Navy's "brown-water navy" river gunboat, deploying napalm, during the Vietnam War.


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

Uss Cairo h61568
USS Cairo, part of the U.S. Navy's "brown-water navy", during the American Civil War, on the Mississippi River, in 1862

The term brown-water navy originated in the American Civil War, of 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 to, the Confederate forts and cities along the Mississippi. In the early days of the war, U.S. Army built and crewed these boats, 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).

Paraguayan War

After the end of the American civil war the next major military conflict in the world was the Paraguayan War (1864–1870). In this the Brazilian brown-water navy, which comprised large ironclads as well as river monitors, had a crucial role.

Buque Barroso (1865)
Barroso, a Brazilian ironclad of the central casemate type, the first vessel to dash past the Fortress of Humaitá on the River Paraguay

The natural highway to the Republic of Paraguay was the River Paraguay but this route was blocked by the formidable Fortress of Humaitá. It comprised a 6,000-foot (1,800 m) line of artillery batteries overlooking a sharp concave bend in the river, at a point where the channel was only 200 yards (180 m) wide. A chain boom could be raised to block the navigation. The fortress was exceedingly hard to take from the landward side for it was protected by impassible swamp, marsh or lagoons and, where not, by 8 miles (13 km) of trenches with a garrison of 18,000 men. The river was shallow, uncharted and capable of trapping large vessels if the water level should fall. In that environment the greatest threat to shipping was "torpedoes" (nineteenth century floating naval mines).

Six vessels of the Brazilian ironclad squadron eventually succeeded in dashing past Humaitá in an incident known as the Passage of Humaitá, an event considered as nearly impossible. Although it could not operate far beyond its military forward base, nevertheless, Brazilian domination of the river meant that Paraguay could no longer resupply the fortress, and eventually it was starved out and captured by the land forces in the Siege of Humaitá.

Even after Humaitá was captured − which took more than two years – the Paraguayans improvised further strongpoints along the river, further delaying the Allies (the Empire of Brazil, the Argentine Republic and the Republic of Uruguay).

U.S. gunboat diplomacy in China

Save for an occasional river patrol boat, the United States' river ironclad navy was all but abolished at the end of the American Civil War. Yet the concept of a river defense force lived on in countries and regions where rivers enabled the U.S. to project its military presence, allowing it to protect its foreign interests abroad. U.S. river boats (gunboats) of the Asiatic Fleet operated in portions of Chinese rivers, sometimes referred to as the "Asiatic Navy" or "China Navy", during the turbulent 1920s, patrolling for insurgents and river pirates. Two of the most notable China gunboats were USS Panay, which was sunk in 1937 by Japanese military aircraft prior to World War II, and USS Wake, which was captured by the Japanese in December 1941. The U.S. Navy of that era used the term for protecting U.S. foreign policy and its citizens abroad "gunboat diplomacy". The U.S. Navy, China gunboat, USS Asheville, was sunk by the Japanese in March 1942.

Indochina War

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, conducting search and destroy missions, against communist guerillas and river pirates. They 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

The large landing craft NRP Alfange 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 then-Portuguese colonies in Asia, South America and Africa.

During the Portuguese Colonial War, from 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, communist guerrillas, as well as river pirates. 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 the Cabinda Province of Angola, 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 reconnaissance, surveillance, the interdiction of the rivers and lakes to the enemy, and to avoid 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 to have a greater mission endurance and to be used for patrolling, fire support and as a mobile base for the Marines. This modifications included the protection of 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

Swift Boat Owasco PCF71
Swift Boat in Vietnam
PBR Mark II full speed
USS Hunterdon County Cambodia 1.jpeg
USS Hunterdon County in the Mekong River in Cambodia, replenishing Vietnamese and American armed forces

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

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 PBRs in the inland waters, as well as maintaining operations along the coast line. Navy and Coast Guard ships assumed coastal duties.

The brown-water Mobile Riverine Force 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 World War II 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 superstructured 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.

Along with the aforementioned PBRs, other riverine craft included PCFs, ASPBs, and 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 and Operation Game Warden) 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 river assault 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


  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


  • Friedman, Norman. "US SMALL COMBATANTs", 1987, ISBN 0-87021-713-5
  • Steffes, James, ENC Ret. SWIFT BOAT DOWN, 2006, ISBN 1-59926-612-1
  • Affield, Wendell. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A river assault boat cox'n's memory journey of his war in Vietnam. 2012, ISBN 0-9847023-0-X

External links

Blue-water navy

A blue-water navy is a maritime force capable of operating globally, essentially across the deep waters of open oceans. While definitions of what actually constitutes such a force vary, there is a requirement for the ability to exercise sea control at wide ranges.

The term "blue-water navy" is a maritime geographical term in contrast with "brown-water navy" and "green-water navy".

The Defense Security Service of the United States has defined the blue-water navy as "a maritime force capable of sustained operation across the deep waters of open oceans. A blue-water navy allows a country to project power far from the home country and usually includes one or more aircraft carriers. Smaller blue-water navies are able to dispatch fewer vessels abroad for shorter periods of time."

Caspian Flotilla

The Caspian Flotilla (Russian: Каспийская флотилия, tr. Kaspiyskaya flotiliya) is the flotilla of the Russian Navy in the Caspian Sea.

Established in November 1722 by the order of Tsar Peter the Great as part of the Imperial Russian Navy, the Caspian Flotilla is the oldest brown-water navy flotilla in the Russian Navy. In 1918, the fleet was inherited by the Russian SFSR then the Soviet Union in 1922, where it formed part of the Soviet Navy and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner in 1945. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Caspian Flotilla and most of its vessels were inherited by the Russian Federation.

The Caspian Flotilla's headquarters are located in Astrakhan, but were historically in Baku (now in Azerbaijan) from 1867 until 1991, with additional facilities in Makhachkala (HQ being moved there) and Kaspiysk. The current commander is Rear Admiral Sergey Pinchuk.

City-class ironclad

The Pook Turtles, or City-class gunboats to use their semi-official name, were war vessels intended for service on the Mississippi River during the American Civil War. They were also sometimes referred to as "Eads gunboats." The labels are applied to seven vessels of uniform design built from the keel up in Carondelet, Missouri shipyards owned by James Buchanan Eads. Eads was a wealthy St. Louis industrialist who risked his fortune in support of the Union.The City-class gunboats were the United States' first ironclad warships.The gunboats produced by Eads formed the core of the US Army's Western Gunboat Flotilla, which later was transferred to the US Navy and became the Mississippi River Squadron. Eads gunboats took part in almost every significant action on the upper Mississippi and its tributaries from their first offensive use at the Battle of Fort Henry until the end of the war.

Frigate navy

Frigate navy is a term describing a nation state's navy that is made of mostly frigates or destroyers as a major combat force. This navy would thus be lacking large vessels such as cruisers, a significant number of effective submarines, or aircraft carriers, but it would also be more effective and deployable than a navy that just maintains corvettes or gunboats. A frigate navy can be a green water navy or a brown water navy, depending on how logistics are structured. The Royal Netherlands Navy is an example of a frigate navy, as was the U.S. Navy in the War of 1812.

Green-water navy

Green-water navy is terminology created to describe a naval force that is designed to operate in its nation's littoral zones and has the competency to operate in the open oceans of its surrounding region. It is a relatively new term, and has been created to better distinguish, and add nuance, between two long-standing descriptors: blue-water navy and brown-water navy.

It is a non-doctrinal naval term used in different ways. It originates with the United States Navy, who use it to refer to the portion of their fleet that specializes in offensive operations in coastal waters. Nowadays such ships rely on stealth or speed to avoid destruction by shore batteries or land-based aircraft.

The US Navy has also used the term to refer to the first phase of the expansion of China's navy into a full blue-water navy. Subsequently, other authors have applied it to other national navies that can project power locally, but cannot sustain operations at range without the help of other countries. Such navies typically have amphibious ships and sometimes small aircraft carriers, which can be escorted by destroyers and frigates with some logistical support from tankers and other auxiliaries.

Hull classification symbol

The United States Navy, United States Coast Guard, and United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) use a hull classification symbol (sometimes called hull code or hull number) to identify their ships by type and by individual ship within a type. The system is analogous to the pennant number system that the Royal Navy and other European and Commonwealth navies use.

Korean People's Navy

The Korean People's Navy (KPN), officially the Korean People's Army Naval Force (Chosŏn'gŭl: 조선인민군 해군; Hanja: 朝鮮人民軍 海軍, Chosŏn-inmingun Haegun, lit. "Korean People's Military Navy"), is the naval service branch of the Korean People's Army, which contains each branch of the North Korean armed forces.

There are some 780 vessels including 70 midget submarines (including the Yono-class submarine and Sang-O-class submarine), 20 Romeo-class submarines, and about 140 air cushioned landing craft.The North Korean navy is considered a brown water navy and operates mainly within the 50 kilometer exclusion zone. The fleet consists of east and west coast squadrons, which cannot support each other in the event of war with South Korea. The limited range of most of the antiquated and derelict vessels means that, even in peacetime, it is virtually impossible for a ship on one coast to visit the other coast.

List of monitors of the United States Navy

This is a list of all monitors of the United States Navy. While the most famous name is represented in this list, many monitors held multiple names during their service life. View the complete list of names.

The whole category of monitors took its name from the first of these, USS Monitor, designed in 1861 by John Ericsson. They were low-freeboard, steam-powered ironclad vessels, with one or two rotating armored turrets, rather than the traditional broadside of guns. The low freeboard meant that these ships were unsuitable for ocean-going duties and were always at risk of swamping and possible loss, but it reduced the amount of armor required for protection.

They were succeeded by more seaworthy armored cruisers and battleships.

Maritime geography

Maritime geography is often discussed in terms of three loosely defined regions: brown water, green water, and blue water.


A minehunter is a naval vessel that seeks, detects, and destroys individual naval mines. Minesweepers, on the other hand, clear mined areas as a whole, without prior detection of mines. A vessel that combines both of these roles is known as a mine countermeasures vessel (MCMV).

Mobile Riverine Force

In the Vietnam War, the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF) (after May 1967), initially designated Mekong Delta Mobile Afloat Force, and later the Riverines, were a joint US Army and US Navy force that comprised a substantial part of the Brown Water Navy. It was modeled after lessons learned by the French experience in the First Indochina War and had the task of both transport (of soldiers and equipment) and combat. The primary base was at Đồng Tâm Base Camp, with a floating base at the base of the Mekong River. It played a key role in the Tet Offensive.


A navy or maritime force is the branch of a nation's armed forces principally designated for naval and amphibious warfare; namely, lake-borne, riverine, littoral, or ocean-borne combat operations and related functions. It includes anything conducted by surface ships, amphibious ships, submarines, and seaborne aviation, as well as ancillary support, communications, training, and other fields. The strategic offensive role of a navy is projection of force into areas beyond a country's shores (for example, to protect sea-lanes, deter or confront pirates, ferry troops, or attack other navies, ports, or shore installations). The strategic defensive purpose of a navy is to frustrate seaborne projection-of-force by enemies. The strategic task of the navy also may incorporate nuclear deterrence by use of submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Naval operations can be broadly divided between riverine and littoral applications (brown-water navy), open-ocean applications (blue-water navy), and something in between (green-water navy), although these distinctions are more about strategic scope than tactical or operational division.

In most nations, the term "naval", as opposed to "navy", is interpreted as encompassing all maritime military forces, e.g., navy, naval infantry/marine corps, and coast guard forces.

Navy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The National Navy (French: Marine nationale) is the maritime component of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC). It is a brown-water navy, which is currently commanded by Vice Admiral Rombault Mbuayama Nsiona.

Patrol Boat, River

Patrol Boat, Riverine or PBR, is the United States Navy designation for a small rigid-hulled patrol boat used in the Vietnam War from March 1966 until the end of 1971. They were deployed in a force that grew to 250 boats, the most common craft in the River Patrol Force, Task Force 116, and were used to stop and search river traffic in areas such as the Mekong Delta, the Rung Sat Special Zone, the Saigon River and in I Corps, in the area assigned to Task Force Clearwater, in an attempt to disrupt weapons shipments. In this role they frequently became involved in firefights with enemy soldiers on boats and on the shore, were used to insert and extract Navy SEAL teams, and were employed by the United States Army's 458th Transportation Company, known as the 458th Sea Tigers. The PBR was replaced by the Special Operations Craft – Riverine (SOC-R)

Patrol Craft Fast

Patrol Craft Fast (PCF), also known as Swift Boats, were all-aluminum, 50-foot (15 m) long, shallow-draft vessels operated by the United States Navy, initially to patrol the coastal areas and later for work in the interior waterways as part of the brown-water navy to interdict Vietcong movement of arms and munitions, transport Vietnamese forces and insert SEAL teams for counterinsurgency (COIN) operations during the Vietnam War.

Repair ship

A repair ship is a naval auxiliary ship designed to provide maintenance support to warships. Repair ships provide similar services to destroyer, submarine and seaplane tenders or depot ships, but may offer a broader range of repair capability including equipment and personnel for repair of more significant machinery failures or battle damage.

River monitor

River monitors are military craft designed to patrol rivers.

They are normally the largest of all riverine warships in river flotillas, and mount the heaviest weapons. The name originated from the US Navy's USS Monitor, which made her first appearance in the American Civil War, and being distinguished by the use of revolving gun turrets.

On 18 December 1965, the US Navy, for the second time in one hundred years, authorized the reactivation of a brown-water navy for riparian operations in South Vietnam. In July 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara authorized the formation of a Mobile Riverine Force (MRF); a force that would bring back the heavily armored single-turret river monitor.

River monitors were used on inland waterways such as rivers, estuaries, deltas and lakes. Usually they had a shallow draft which was necessary for them to be able to operate in enclosed waters; but their displacement, size and draft varied depending on where they were used.

Most river monitors were lightly armored although this varied, with some carrying more armor. Exceptional examples, however, most notably the Royal Navy's Lord Clive-class monitors, which could operate in coastal or certain riparian/estuarine situations, bore extra-thick armor plating and heavy shore-bombardment guns, up to a massive 18 inches (457 mm) in size. Typically, however, river monitors displayed a mixture of gun sizes from 3-inch (75 mm) to 6-inch (152 mm), plus machine guns. This type of vessel overlaps with the river gunboat.

Satakundskaya Flotilla

The Satakundskaya Flotilla (Russian: Сатакундская флотилия, romanized: Satakundskaya flotilla) was a brown-water navy unit of the Imperial Russian Navy, operating on Lake Näsijärvi, Finland, during the First World War from spring 1916 until winter 1917. In Finnish sources, the unit is often called Satakunta Fleet (Finnish: Satakunnan laivasto). The name of the unit derives from Satakunta, the historical province where Lake Näsijärvi was located at the time, but the Finnish version is likely a mistranslation of flotilla.

Yard Repair Berthing and Messing

Yard Repair Berthing and Messing were large unpropelled barges used by the "Brown Water Navy" of the US during the War times, as bases for specialized river boats. They contain limited shop facilities to permit ship's force repair work. It is fitted with a storeroom and workshops. All utilities are supplied from the pier. It has a reinforced bow for ocean towing. These vessels bore the hull classification symbol YRBM.A large number have survived and serve as floating hotels for US Navy ships undergoing repair and upgrades. The floating hotels (YRBMs and APLs) have a fully functioning galley (messing), sleeping areas (berthing), and office spaces.

Yard Repair types:

Floating Workshops are YR, 96 built, 24 built before ww2

Repair and Berthing Barges are YRB, 36 built

Repair, Berthing and Messing Barges were YRBM, 56 built

Dry-Dock Workshops - Hull are YRDH, 8 built

Dry-Dock Workshops - Machinery are YRDM, 8 built

Radiological Repair Barges are YRR, 14 built. Used to support nuclear plant overhauls of nuclear ships and submarines, also refueling and decontamination of used equipment.

Aircraft carriers
Patrol craft
Fast attack craft
Mine warfare
Command and support


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