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US riverboat using napalm in Vietnam

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. 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 is used in contrast to the terms "green-water navy" and "blue-water navy". At one time, it was common to refer to all non-blue-water navies as "brown-water navies". Today blue-water navies are generally defined as being capable of sustained oversea deployment, preferably with aircraft carriers,[citation needed] while green-water navies are defined as those with frigates or better, operating in coastal and regional areas.

Being a brown-water navy does not imply a lack of offensive capability, as many small littoral combat ships are armed with powerful anti-ship missiles.


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.

United States[]

American Civil War[]

Uss Cairo h61568

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).

Gunboat Diplomacy[]

Save for an occasional river patrol boat, the 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.


Swift Boat Owasco PCF71

Swift Boat in Vietnam

PBR Mark II full speed


USS Hunterdon County Cambodia 1

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. Its primary mission would be to interdict enemy re-supply, and any contraband which might contribute to the enemy's war effort. In the beginning, the brown-water navy patrolled the inland waterways, primarily with South Vietnamese river craft (RAG—River Assault Groups) which had been 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 close coastal waters during the war, more seaworthy South Vietnamese Navy water craft were used, until replaced by newer 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.

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").[3] 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 "mine-sweeper" 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 was largely successful in its tactics to combat infiltration and weapons smuggling during its existence between 1965 and 1970. The 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. Friedman


Wuhan - Hankou Waterfront seen from a ferry - P1050118

A Chinese type 051 destroyer on the Yangtze in Wuhan

External links[]

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