Sunday, December 7, 2014

Tactical Unit of the Navy

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.

Tactical Unit?

Of course, this would require a total philosophical abandonment of the LCS concept and reversion to a more conventional operational and tactical role. 

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.


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    1. I urge you to evaluate that slide show you linked to very carefully before attempting to draw sweeping conclusions from it. It is rife with questions and limitations. For example, the weight/cost data graph/table is unreferenced - what ship(s)?, what time period? I'm guessing that the data is for Burkes but it doesn't say. If the data is for LCS, how does the data hold for Burkes, or vice versa?

      I've already debunked the steel is cheap truism. Only in the most limited sense is steel "cheap" - if we look only at the cost of the raw weight of steel. However, steel comes with automatic associated costs such as propulsion, ventiliation, electricity, paint, and so on. An extra five or ten thousand tons is not even remotely cheap.

      Also, the cost breakdown which purports to show that C4I & Armament is 50% of the cost is true (if it is) only for that particular unidentified ship that the data was drawn from. A Cyclone PC is unlikely to have its C4I & Armament be 50% of its cost. At the other end of the spectrum, a carrier is also unlikely to match the presented data.

      I could go on with the cautions associated with the slideshow but you get the idea. Be careful applying the data!

    2. A 15k ton hybrid frigate helicopter dock is NOT going to take over the frigate mission, at least not the traditional frigate mission. A frigate is intended mainly as an ASW vessel with a secondary, light ASuW capability and a tertiary, very light AAW capability (not much more than self-defense. The hybrid frigate would make a terrible ASW platform (though possibly a very good ASW mothership!) if for no other reason than its size which makes it an attractive, detectable, and easy target.

      The main characteristic of a frigate is numbers (meaning affordability). A 15k ton frigate is going to cost $2B or more which will preclude numbers.

      Affordability also confers another frigate characteristic and that is expendability. Frigates are used to perform high risk operations such as ASW and independent operations with limited support because they're considered expendable (cheap). Again, a 15k ton ship will not be affordable despite any wishful thinking we might apply.

      If steel is so cheap, why does the Zumwalt (15k ton) cost $4B each while a Burke (10k ton) costs $1.5-2B? The Zumwalt has less armament and a half radar system (to be fair, I'm not sure how that compares to a Burke system).

      Big ships, and a 15k ton vessel qualifies, are easier to detect and target.

      Having trashed the hybrid frigate design, I'll now say that the design is intriguing as a mothership for ASW and MCM.

    3. "The problem I have with building a modern Fletcher is that certain capabilities can't be scaled by just adding ships. Four or eight or sixteen Fletcher-21s still can't do BMD, or wide area AAW ..."

      An infantry squad can't conduct artillery bombardment. You have to add specialized equipment for specialized functions. Similarly, no amount of small ships can conduct fixed wing flight operations. At some point additional specialized equipment is needed. That doesn't negate the scaling concept.

      Multiple Fletcher-ish ships could provide a significant Tomahawk land attack capability, highly effective ASW, enhanced AAW (though not equivalent to Aegis!), powerful ASuW, and effective group escort. That sounds like scalability to me!

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    6. I fear you're the one comparing apples to oranges. Your cost contributors are all R&D costs. The actual construction cost is $4B each. The R&D costs you cite roughly doubled that.

      If steel is steel, which is your premise, then the Zumwalt should have cost only a few percent more.

      "Big ships, and a 15k ton vessel qualifies, are easier to detect and target." - I'm talking about all detection modes: sonar, radar, IR, EO, Mk1 Eyeball

    7. We have a fundamental disconnect and it isn't our different views of a frigate. The frigate is just a symptom. The difference is our view of war and the role of the Navy. During peace or low end, third world minor conflicts your hybrid will work just fine - so will any vessel including commercial ones. There's just no threat that requires any special capabilities or functions. In fact, I've suggested a peace fleet that's essentially exactly that type of low end, commercial based, generic vessels.

      The disconnect is that I view the role of the Navy as being to fight high end, all out wars against peers whereas your view seems to stop at the current low intensity activities we currently engage in and which, to be fair, make up 98% of a Navy's work. For high end combat, your hybrid is ill-equipped to function and survive because it isn't optimized for any particular role. I've posted on the fallacy of generalization before. While a frigate is, by definition, a low end, unspecialized vessel by comparison to high end specialized ones, it is still (if properly designed) a very effective ASW vessel built from the keel up for ASW. It will have a fighting chance at ASW. Your hybrid will stand out as a target and isn't even remotely optimized for anything. It's main failing is that it will be very expensive. Do you really want to risk a very expensive ship like that playing tag with subs? If you lose it, you lose all those functions that you claim it can do. I'd much rather have two or three specialized ASW frigates for the cost of one 15k ton hybrid.

    8. Have you thought through that whole USV pushing ahead thing? My initial reaction was that all those little high speed (loud) USVs buzzing around would pinpoint the launching ship for every sub for miles around. Each time a new "buzz" source appeared it would pinpoint the launch location. I don't know if that's true but that was my first thought. I've never read anything about passive sonar detection of small craft but I assume it would be easy. If helos can be detected via passive sonar I would think small craft ought to be easy to detect.

    9. Interestingly, your hybrid seems very similar in concept to all the hybrid helo-cruisers that have been postulated (and some built) since helos hit the fleet. None have proved viable. How does this design differ in concept?

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    13. B.Smitty, ComNavOps, and G Lof, step back for a little bit and take a look at what is the most general of trends in warship design, one which has been evident for more than a decade now.

      In general -- with the prominent exception to the trend being the LCS -- warships of frigate class displacement and above are now getting progressively larger and more capable as they acquire a modular system architecture and as they embark a greater number and variety of combat systems.

      The standard of comparison for a modern general-purpose 3200 ton frigate is the Korean FFX and similar warships from other nations. The standard of comparison for the multi-mission enhanced frigate is now the Danish Absalon class at 6000 tons. The standard of comparison for a general-purpose AAW/BMD/ASuW/ASW cruiser is now the Burke Flight II at 9500 tons. The limitations of the Burke Flight II as a multi-mission cruiser will be addressed in part by the larger Burke Flight III at 15,000+ tons.

      Those designs for warships of frigate class and larger which are now being judged as generally successful are those in which displacement as been allowed to grow as is deemed necessary to flexibly accommodate both a modular systems design philosophy and also a greater variety of embarked combat systems. Proper employed, increased displacement can become a powerful risk reduction tool, if it is being knowledgeably applied.

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  2. CNO
    First, I will let you in on a secret, we engineering types like to get paid for our work, and we get paid very well. So it should not be a surprise that the first ships (when the engineers are designing the thing) of any new class cost more than the fortify ship built.

    Second, there is that pesky overhead that a shipyard has to account for, When you build one ship per year, all that overhead is dumped on it, but when you build two ships per year, that number is cut in half. That why when you build a single Burke class DDG a year, its price jumps to around 2.3 billion.

    Third, build a larger vessel to carry the same equipment is cheaper than squeezing it into a smaller hull. The reason is it take a lot less man-hours to design and install the various systems that run between various parts of the ship. This is because you are not forced to use lots and lots if bends, angle changes and special parts to fit the all the wire, conduit, pipes, etc. into the space available, you can run thing is pretty much run them long straight line, that are easy to install.

    Finally, there is no one-size fit all when it comes to naval vessels, and while the use of squadron groups and tactic is sometime useful, there are times when tasks can't be divided among vessel. Even the LCS can only do a small fraction of the missions the navy as a whole preforms. And while I do agree that we need a larger, more versatile sea frame, a ship the size and shape of the Fletchers won't fill the bill.

  3. Yer I have to totally agree with ComNavOps the USN is totally gagging for a small cheap frigate to do A LOT of jobs. Particually, Picket, Escort and ASW.

    I’m not even going to go into the steal is cheap thing. But cramming weapons on a small hull is hell and a bad economy. A 3-4K tonne Frigate would be acceptable.

    Reasonable NOT ASSTOUNDING sensor fit. Local Area Air Defence. Standard ASuW 8 Harpoon. 16-24 cell VLS, Towed Array and 1 ASW Helo.

    30Kts is plenty, quiet hull important. Combined diesel or Gas is fine.

    Then build MANY MANY ! 60 would probably be a great start.

    Don’t gold plate, take existing technologies. USN does not need SUPER FRIGATES.

    If you must have wide are air defence, send 15

    If you want great ASW send a squadron of 8.
    (DEFINATLY CEC then in groups they will be powerful)

    You need a month’s endurance and an ability to do basic operations against non peer alone. But that’s about it!?

    TRY desperately to bring them in at about $600mil each PLEASE!

    [ NOT second tier, but using current tech they can still be good basic ships]

    Can’t see why this is such a difficult concept.

    Maybe I’m missing something tho ?


    P.S. where is that b*stardised LCS thing they were going to call a frigate ? Shouldn't we have heard a lot about it by now ?

    1. Well, we know that we can get 6000 ton military grade hulls and propulsion for ~300m per from foreign ship yards (ex Netherland's new frigates). We know they can be fitted with radar, computers, and software for another ~100m. So that's 400m excluding weapons and munitions. An Otobreda 127/64 lw goes for roughly 20-25 mil.

      So for roughly 500m you should be able to get a 6kt frigate with a 127mm cannon and about 60-64 VLS with hanger facilities including sensors/radar/etc. Then whatever it costs to buy a reasonable number of missiles and ammo. Peace time, you likely wouldn't fill up the VLS, maybe 32 ESSM and 8 AShM. Which is 16 cells. But it allows you a relatively quick port call to go to 64 ESSM, 8-16 longer range AAM, 16-32 AShM/Land Attack Missiles.

      Which is a reasonable capable frigate for ~450m starting cost, which is what we need.

    2. Beno, the Navy is being extremely close mouthed about the new LCS to the point of cancelling planned Congressional briefings and stating that they won't discuss it publicly until the 2016 budget comes out which will include funding for the new LCS. They clearly learned a lesson (not the right one!) from the LCS debacle and believe that if they don't talk about it, it won't be criticized. They're wrong. It just means that in additon to technical criticism, they'll be faulted for lack of transparency, too! You can't accuse the Navy of being smart!

    3. I’ve been fairly intensively looking as it’s quite an exciting and necessary program.
      But it IS like the think has disappeared off the face of the earth, its clear LCS’s days are now numbered. But with no (apparent and credible) small combatant successor program, it’s sending the wrong messages to China and Russia, both of which are cranking them out.

      Though in Russia’s case it’s mostly corvettes. Fairly capable ones though.

      I’m totally with you on your assessment of the (admittedly few) deficiencies in the USN and a light ASW\escort frigate (or something to fill these roles) will shortly be sorely needed.

      This cloak and dagger stuff just fans conspiracy theories of “military industrial complex”. Right now all parties could do with a quick basic win to restore confidence and capability.

      This doesn’t need to be a MEGA HIGH TECH \ high risk program. Let’s just build a good straight forward ship.

      [Of course I’d love to flog you 60 off, the Type 26, but its probably overkill :P it’s going to be £500m + :S ]


  4. Well, I don't feel a single ship should be the base naval tactical unit, due to lack of redundancy. I think the small squadron would be better suited. Say 6 ships of the same hull form, 3 ASW/ASuW as described above, 2 dedicated AAW with additional VLS in place of the helo hangar, and a squadron command ship, kind of a cross between the Destroyer Leaders and Marine raider's fast transports of WW2, possibly lengthened with an add on section, with only point defense, but added C3I & helo capability, maybe a small well deck, big enough to handle a couple AAVs or FAST boats.

    Randall Rapp

  5. CNO,

    My vote is for the smallest commissioned ship as the task element, with vessels smaller than 150 meters being assigned to flotillas.

    I further note that even ground forces have significant debate on what comprises the smallest tactical unit, heck there is health debate on what a squad is and what it should do!

    Some folks are adamant that the fire team is the smallest tactical unit because it is a maneuver unit (in theory) - the USMC rifle squad w/three fire times is the case in point. But others (the WWII Germans) hold that the Squad was the lowest unit of organization, and emphasized maneuver at the platoon or company level (in combat the 10-man German squad tended to effectively become six or seven-man machine gun teams). Then there is the "section." Bloody complicated even for infantry!



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