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LEARNING THE ART OF RIVERINE WARFARE: A DISCOUNTED INEVITABILITY FOR BANGLADESH ARMY

The Ronin

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By Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Reazul Kabir, afwc, psc, G, Artillery

Abstract:

Offensive spirit is intrinsic within our defensive posture. We need to learn the art of riverine warfare; exploit the fullest spectrum of our topographical advantage to maintain offensive spirit. We must utilize river systems to influence land operations: develop river hubs as logistic bases; apply them as regulatory nodes for movement and manoeuvre.

Terrain is an enduring aspect of war that dictates war fighting strategy. Rivers offer a wide range of operational activity contributable to both conventional and unconventional effort. Retaining control of terrain has got due significance in our doctrinal concept, however, there are unexplored areas in riverine warfare that need due attention.

There exists capability gap in terms of structure, equipment, doctrinal and training aspects while challenges to attain joint capability. Therefore, while riverine threat persists, apropos riverine force may be of great significance to Bangladesh Army to develop operational capacity apt for fluvial or littoral environments.

A modern riverine force with organized logistic bases would be the logical extension of such doctrinal focus. A steadfast effort based on acquired standard in ship building capability likely to meet our operational requirements. The paper puts forward specific recommendations in order to discern possible model of riverine force structure for Bangladesh Army.

Introduction :

Terrain is an enduring aspect of war that dictates the war fighting strategy. Bangladesh’s geographical position and shape do not offer sufficient operational depth. Moreover, physical and climatic characteristics of terrain staunched with time and force limitations significantly affect physical deployment of forces. On the contrary, combat power of potential adversary further shrink options available to us.

Therefore, retaining control of terrain has got due significance in our doctrinal concept. Bangladesh is a riverine country. Its rivers have immense defence potential that need to be prudently used to the best of own advantage while denying same to the enemy.

There are unexplored areas in riverine warfare that need due attention in our context. As example, there are many river hubs that may be suitable as logistic bases. These may be used as regulatory nodes for movement of unconventional warfare forces or regular troops across theatre or even used for conducting large scale manoeuvre through inland waters.

Our doctrine envisages that the forces operating in riverine terrain have to be joined. The principal role is played by the Army and Air Force while the Navy may play its due role by providing smaller riverine patrol craft in support of particular operation. However, the missing link of ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the interrelationship in planning and execution of such joint warfare pose some challenge to adopt the doctrine in practice.

This paper would firstly explore significance of riverine warfare for Bangladesh Army with a retrospect analysis. Subsequently, it would discuss our capability gap in conducting riverine warfare and the challenges in order to discern the possible model of a riverine force structure for Bangladesh Army.

Riverine Operations : A Retrospect Analysis

History has shown that riverine warfare is a persistent part of warfare. The French developed river flotillas during First Indochina War between 1945 and 1954. The flotillas, organized by French Army, comprised of a variety of types of landing craft manned by the French Navy.

Later on, they developed the naval assault divisions called the Dinassaut for conducting search and destroy missions. Increased armament and jointness were the notable features; however, the striking limitation was the lack of its organic infantry.

During the war in the northern Mekong Delta in 1967 and 1968, the United States mirrored the French blueprint and established Mobile Riverine Force (MRF) on the bedrock of experience in South Vietnam. It was a joint venture between the Navy and the Army. Brown water river assault units under the command of Major General William Fulton and Naval Task Force 117 formed the MRF.

They corrected the French mistake by including organically assigned landing force. The Army component included an Infantry Brigade, a Field Artillery Battalion, and support troops including engineers. Several types of small naval craft like fiberglass Patrol Boats and Swift Boats provided the mobility and firepower components. Mobile Riverine Bases, capable of moving upto 150 kilometers a day were used as support ships. The elements could launch operations just after 30 minutes at anchor.

The presence of the MRF is credited with turning the tide of the war in the northern Mekong Delta in the favour of the United States and South Vietnam. Rivers could provide the mobility for interdicting enemy lines of communication, move supplies, and even move larger strike forces as evident with the MRF in Vietnam.

Though they are sometimes criticized for their shortcoming in conducting dedicated riverine training; however, they developed the concept of floating Field Artillery Riverine Battalion which is considered as the single greatest contribution to riverine warfare during that time.

Significance of Riverine Warfare for Bangladesh Army :

Diplomacy, deterrence and defeating hostile design form the three pillars of our defence policy. However, offensive spirit is intrinsic within our defensive posture. Integration of riverine warfare may offer flexibility in maintaining such offensive spirit through surgical strikes or raids at enemy rear, or project power at enemy’s flank, or concentrating troops at a decisive point to influence an ongoing operation. The potential benefits of such capability to influence land operations at a decisive point not overbearing the land communication structure, cannot be overstated.

Rivers offer a wide range of operational activity: from as simple as patrolling, guarding a bridge or formation boundary to movement of troops or unconventional forces from one sector to other, transportation of logistics, mobility to interdict enemy lines of communication or even move larger strike forces like part of operational reserve. If a strong riverine element can be developed, it may effectively be used to guard the vital river nodes, influence the area of operations, deter riverine threats as well as interdict any sort of “ship to shore” movement or river crossing operations by threat forces.

History of our Great War of Liberation 1971 bears the testimony of our ability to procrastinate the defensive war, success in striking at enemy’s rear areas with demoralizing effect, seizing enemy with surprise both through land and riverine operations. Considering the riverine nature of the country, analyzing the possibility of taking advantage of demographic depth, urbanization, communication infrastructure and fluvial system in our terrain configuration, effective integration of unconventional warfare concept demands due attention on riverine operations.

If we consider conventional warfare, there is undeniable need to integrate the river system into our operational plans. Our terrain is crisscrossed by hundreds of rivers that make our country the defenders paradise. The number of rivers we have, particularly in the south or south west region of the country, and the width of the major rivers and other 6fluvial features, offers us inimitable scope of conducting wide range riverine operations.

The terrain configuration across border in the south east region also demands special attention for our offensive defence perception. Besides, a credible riverine capability may also help to tie down a sizeable enemy force to the defence of a large stretch of threat’s land, riverside or offshore installations that would restrict her achieving suitable offensive force ratio.

Apposite question arises; how far realistic is the possibility of developing joint capabilities for fluvial or littoral warfare in our context? What is our threat perception? Do we presume any amphibious threat? Historically, amphibious landings were aimed at seizing an area of threat controlled coast that gives access to military operational objective inland; speeding the advance of landing forces; cutting off an enemy’s avenue of escape and so on. Our geography offers long unbroken coast line; however, the hydrographic reality offers us advantage.

Moreover, a large scale amphibious landing in an enclosed or semi enclosed area is difficult to execute in the present day environment. While the riverine threat perception persists, Bangladesh Navy may have the prescience to confine strictly to the “Blue Waters” due to its limited present resources and operational focus. Naval operations differ considerably from tactical actions with regards to the size of the area in which combat takes place, duration, size and mix of forces, intensity of combat, and logistics requirements.

Taking realistic assessment into account of all the discussions above, conundrums remain; how naval force might be balancing a riverine focus vis-à-vis attaining three dimensional approaches to sea according to operational requirements. Similarly, many aspects of integrating air support for riverine operations remains unclear due to the lack of practiced procedures. As such, attaining joint capability for riverine operations could be challenging.

Considering both history of occurrence and the possibility of fluvial or littoral operations by potential adversary or our forces in future battle field scenario, it may be of great significance to Bangladesh Army to develop appropriate organizational capacity to dominate the “Brown Waters” and acquire required skillset for fluvial or littoral operational environments. A modern riverine force would be the logical extension of such focus and analysis of our capability gap.

Capability Gap :

Doctrinal Aspects : Thorough understanding of the riverine environment is necessary to plan and conduct riverine operations. We have the doctrinal foundation but dearth of refined riverine doctrine. The concept of riverine warfare is to achieve and maintain control of a riverine area by using forces, trained and equipped to operate in that environment, supported as necessary by ground and air mobile forces.

In Bangladesh, there are many inland waterways that provide established transport routes. During any campaign military planners shall need to focus on keeping these routes open for own use and deny them to enemy. Moreover, any riverine operation has to be conducted under the overall framework of any land operation. As such, the riverine force must be organized under any of the formation and need to operate under the specified operational plan. Therefore, our riverine tactics, techniques and procedures would have to be refined according to geographic realities and operational requirements.

Organizational Structure : A joint force under a unified command would permit extending influence beyond the riverine environment itself. However, we are yet to develop such functional force structures. We have Riverine Engineer Battalions that may be considered as the support elements or as best the replacement to the function of Navy, but, their limited bayonet strength and equipment do not provide meaningful capability to conduct riverine warfare. There are no dedicated forces like Riverine Infantry Battalion or Riverine Artillery that may be used to project power or influence the area of operation. Besides, other support elements are also unavailable. In true sense, we lack in the organizational illustration of the riverine force as mentioned in our doctrine.

Operational Platforms : An organized riverine force inevitably has to balance two distinct and contradictory requirements of the operational architecture: greater combat power vis-à-vis sufficient mobility and protection. Adequate security from ground and air threats has to be considered while undertaking riverine operations. This calls for firepower and heavy protective armaments.

At the same time sufficient mobility requirements demand lighter platforms. A similar contradictory requirement exists between operational reach and logistics requirements. Again, the depth of the waterways varies according to the geography. As such, the operational requirements need to be carefully addressed while selecting the operational platforms. Similarly, the supporting crafts and equipment need to be selected with care basing on topographic reality. Bangladesh Army has made some effort in adjusting existing platforms of our Riverine Engineer Battalions basing on navigability considerations; however, acquiring the required equipment according to full spectrum of operational requirements is of great importance.

Training Aspect. Riverine operations merit vast dimension of training ranging from crew training to boat tactics, techniques and procedures in various operational and tactical employments. Moreover, marine repair recovery and various other riverine logistics operations demand integrated institutional training. Whatever types of operation may need to be conducted, that merits specialized skills to operate in a riverine environment.

Therefore, dedicated training is a must requirement for the riverine forces corresponding to its mission requirements and capabilities. We are yet to develop adequate military institutional facilities for riverine training. There are Marine Courses available under arrangement of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority. However, there are requirements to attain required instructional expertise to conduct such trainings, as such; training in this aspect remains an area of study. In that context, adequate joint training also needs cost benefit analysis in terms of time; resources mobilization and coordination requirements before we are trained and equipped for riverine warfare.

Logistic Bases: Due to the peculiar nature of the terrain, water borne supply system has to replace the land based supply organization. Carriage, resupply, evacuation, repair and recovery pose logistic challenges in riverine warfare. The fuel requirement is quite heavy for the river crafts. Similarly, the marine repair and recovery requirements are also different than the usual military repair and recovery support provided by the established organizations.

All these put additional challenge on sustenance issues unless there are specialized logistic support bases with in operational reach. Our existing facilities available are limited against requirements of Riverine Engineer Battalions in terms of logistic support, jetty or harbour facilities. Certainly the lack of adequate and organized supporting logistics bases across the country is a major capability gap that needs due attention for conducting riverine operations.

Challenges in Riverine Warfare :

Navigability Aspects : The river systems in Bangladesh are unpredictable and sometimes the conditions of the riverbanks are deceiving. We need to master the art of utilizing the characteristics of our rivers to the fullest to our advantage. At present, out of our 24000 kilometer waterways only approximately 7000 kilometers are navigable round the year. It needs detailed study of various hydrographic data, their periodical review, capital dredging facilities and other required engineering tools to achieve the capability of controlling and maintaining selected river routes navigable round the year, or enhance the obstacle values of the rivers as required. Only by attaining such capability to monitor and maintain the river routes, we would be able to ensure transportation of logistics or large scale manoeuvre as per operational requirements, while making the selected river lines impregnable for any invading force.

Acquiring Hardware : The biggest challenges may be acquiring the most appropriate watercrafts that could constitute our future riverine force. There are diversities in water crafts available with other countries. The easiest course of action could be to explore those, assess the suitability according to our fluvial environment and acquire the suitable watercrafts off the shelf from the world market or with government to government deal.

However, Bangladesh has recently developed acceptable standard in ship building capability. Considering the development in this sector and the economic factor a steadfast effort may be taken to indigenously build specific water craft of section, platoon and company size according to our operational requirements.

Ways Forward :

Organizational Reform : While the capability gap exists, considering existing organizational resources and shortfalls, challenges associated with raising new type of unit, and involved financial implications, Bangladesh Army may consider converting few Infantry Battalions of Composite/Infantry Brigades to constitute the nucleus of Riverine Infantry Brigade Groups for security of inland waters and defence of river hubs.

Air Defence element, Artillery Regiment, Riverine Engineers Battalion with first line marine repair and recovery capability needs to be under the group. Riverine Engineer Battalions may be equipped with enhanced capacity of capital dredging and maintenance of inland waters. Considering the geographical requirements, Bangladesh Army may have required number of Riverine Brigade Groups and Coastal Riverine Brigade Group for South East Region.

These may be suitably put under concerned formations. Efforts may be taken to indigenously build specific water crafts for section, platoon and company size utilizing local shipbuilding facilities according to our requirements. This shall be cost effective as well as facilitate developing capacity of our defence industry and ensure uninterrupted supply and maintenance opportunity. Waterways logistics system need to be developed through selected rivers and maintained during peace time. Appropriate logistics bases may be established at selected river hubs.

Doctrine and Training: Integrated doctrine and associated training modalities for riverine operations in shallow and deep fluvial system, as well as littoral environment need to be
developed for the riverine force. Necessary training institutions need to be built; develop required instructional expertise, and obviously, conduct exercise on regular basis in all seasons.

The civilian institutions may be utilized to build on military institutional and instructional capacity. In order to orient with various water crafts as well as fluvial environments, the training concept could be: Riverine Brigade groups may rotate to specific designated place(s) round the year, familiarize with different types of watercrafts and train on various aspects of riverine warfare as needed.

Recommendations :

Basing on above discussions in this paper, the recommendations are as follows:

a. Considering the geographical requirements Bangladesh Army may have numbers of Riverine Brigade Groups and Coastal Riverine Brigade Group. A Board of Officers may be formed under Military Operations Directorate to assess and determine appropriate Riverine Force structure for Bangladesh.

b. A Board of Officers may be formed under Supply and Transport Directorate to study the feasibility of logistic bases at probable sites. Beside the real estate management issue, they may be tasked to recommend a suitable waterway logistic system.

c. A Board of Officers may be formed under Army Training and Doctrine Command so that riverine doctrine and tactics for riverine operations can be refined simultaneously with the development of an integrated training doctrine for application. Besides, suitable measures need to be taken to build on adequate number of instructors to develop military institutional training capability.

d. Local Ship Building agencies may be explored in coordination with Bangladesh Machine Tools Factory to build appropriate watercrafts suitable for operating in our rivers and coastal areas.

e. Once the Riverine Force Structure comes to reality, the Brigade Groups may rotate to suitable places to familiarize with different depth, salinity and other fluvial environments to train on different aspects of riverine warfare. Additionally, riverine training could be conducted utilizing the existing Coast Guard facilities during the interim period.

Conclusion :

Rivers are not “simply obstacles to be crossed,” but terrain that can be controlled. We need to master the art of utilizing the characteristics of our rivers to the fullest to our advantage. History has shown that appropriate force structure has positively contributed to success in riverine warfare. If a strong riverine element can be developed, it may effectively contribute to our defensive framework by guarding the vital river nodes, as well as deter riverine threats.

Integrating unexplored areas of riverine warfare we may be able to effectively influence the area of operations and maintain offensive spirit within our defensive posture.

Rivers offer a wide range of operational activity that can contribute to both conventional and unconventional effort. Bangladesh Navy may have the prescience to pursue its three dimensional approach to the “Blue Waters” due to its operational focus. There are other considerations like size of operational area, forces and logistics requirements that need attention in building a joint force structure.

As such, there exists challenge regards to the possibility of developing a joint capability in our context. Therefore, while the riverine threat persists, it may be of great significance to Bangladesh Army to develop appropriate organizational capacity and acquire skillset for fluvial or littoral operational environments.

Bangladesh Army has capability gap in terms of doctrinal aspects, organizational structure, operational platforms, logistic bases and training aspects in riverine warfare. There are other challenges like navigability aspects and acquiring hardware. All these can be addressed by organizational reform basing on sound doctrinal focus. A modern riverine force with organized logistic bases would be the logical extension of such focus and analysis of our capability gap.

Bangladesh Army cannot offer an exploitable weakness to our potential adversary not attaining the capability of riverine warfare in terms of doctrine, force, equipment and training. Therefore, we need to have another look at riverine warfare and develop coherent doctrine for conducting operations in shallow and deep fluvial system as well as littoral environments. We must develop appropriate force structure and maximize the advantage that our rivers offer to us; learning the art of riverine warfare.

Source : Bangladesh army journal 63rd Issue (June 2018)

Shared by: Syed Sabbir Ahmed
 
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leonblack08

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Great article, thanks for sharing. He really points where our gaps are and where to focus for improvement.

Particularly liked this line-"Rivers are not “simply obstacles to be crossed,” but terrain that can be controlled."

If we can master that, we go from strength to strength to defend from an invading force.

I think I may have seen somewhere a riverine brigade is being raised now. Those metal shark boat acquisitions were part of that plan, isn't it?
 

Michael Corleone

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Great article, thanks for sharing. He really points where our gaps are and where to focus for improvement.

Particularly liked this line-"Rivers are not “simply obstacles to be crossed,” but terrain that can be controlled."

If we can master that, we go from strength to strength to defend from an invading force.

I think I may have seen somewhere a riverine brigade is being raised now. Those metal shark boat acquisitions were part of that plan, isn't it?
Yes riverine force is key focus of the army followed by surveillance, armored, artillery and air defence in no particular order
 

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