I’m not a land combat expert so forgive me if I misrepresent some of this. The Army’s tactical unit is the squad. The tactical unit’s are combined, as needed, into larger units (platoons, companies, brigades, and so on) to accomplish larger and more difficult tasks. The key point is that the underlying tactical unit doesn’t change. A division still depends on individual squads. Yes, as the units grow in size, additional equipment and capabilities are incorporated such as tank platoons, artillery, HQ, and so forth but the tactical unit is the foundation of the Army.
What is the tactical unit of the Navy? Is the concept even relevant? What small unit of the Navy can carry out a worthwhile task and can be combined into larger squadrons, task forces, and fleets?
The short answer is, there is no tactical naval unit in the current Navy.
But … Could there be?
What’s needed is the equivalent of a WWII Fletcher class destroyer. This was a ship that was moderately capable individually, could combine numbers to produce a significant offensive and defensive capability, was cheap enough to be built in quantity, and could operate with, and contribute to, larger task force missions.
In today’s Navy, the Burkes are capable individuals that could be combined to create larger and more capable units but they’re a huge overkill for most naval tasks and very expensive. The tactical unit should be appropriately sized for accomplishing the mundane tasks (like the individual Army squad) as well as being able to combine to accomplish more challenging tasks.
The LCS is appropriate for many of the mundane tasks but lacks the capacity to combine to take on more challenging jobs. Regardless of how many LCSs are combined, they have no fundamental, useful, offensive or defensive capabilities to build on through numbers. It’s interesting, though, that with a relatively few changes in construction and a huge change in philosophy the LCS could offer the potential to be the tactical unit.
The LCS has, or could have with relatively little effort, an effective surface attack capability via bolt on Harpoons (or 16 or so VLS cells in a somewhat more significant redesign to accommodate the anticipated vertical launch LRASM), a credible short range and point AAW defense, a credible ASW capability, and an ability to conduct UAV operations. In combined units, these capabilities could offer a significant ASuW force, significant AAW self-defense or close-in AAW screening for nearby ships (escort function), and a viable hunter-killer ASW capability. With the deletion of the current propulsion system and reduction to a more realistic and useful 30 kt, conventional propulsion system the LCSs could operate as strike group escorts (assuming modifications to increase range and endurance) in a useful role by providing point defense and ASW.
Conceptually, a tactical naval unit should be Fletcher-ish in size, combat power, and cost. A modern, capable frigate would be about right.
Alternatively, this concept leads to consideration of tactical units composed of dissimilar vessels that might complement each other. For example, a small dedicated ASW vessel paired with a AAW/ASuW focused Fletcher-ish destroyer would make a flexible and useful unit that could be scaled up as needed.
Now, some of you may be thinking that the concept of a scalable tactical naval unit is a bit of a stretch and, honestly, you may be right. This is one of those topics that is worth some thought but may not be directly applicable. On the other hand, perhaps there is a seed of a valid concept, here. The value in this thought exercise is the forced consideration of alternate operational concepts and force structures. It never hurts to challenge one’s accepted notions.