10 April 2018
When assessing the current needs of the United States Armed Forces, military leaders must always be willing and able to criticize their own organizations. By making constant improvements, and cutting out the proverbial dead weight, they are able to maintain a force which adapts with the times and stays relevant to modern conflicts. With the shift away from conventional warfare towards unconventional counter-insurgencies, many have claimed that the prospect of using and maintaining large airborne forces for vertical envelopment operations, (parachute-based assaults), is an endeavor based on a false premise of relevancy. In spite of their critics, airborne units maintain a vast quantity of often-underrated capabilities, and through their flexibility, training, and combat tested success these forces maintain a high state of relevancy in modern operations.
Airborne forces in the United States began with a small test group in 1940 at Fort Benning, Georgia (Jahner, Key Moments). The Army had realized that the world was adopting the new-at-the-time capability, and with World War Two already playing out, decided to push forward with the plan. Within a few years the American techniques for airborne insertion were hashed out, and multiple battalions, or large 800-man groups began to form and became ready for deployment into the European and Pacific theaters of the war.
As planes grew larger and began to carry more fuel and cargo, and as parachutes became more reliable, the abilities of the airborne forces grew immensely (Murray). With an airborne unit, a single plane or a large group of them can transport hundreds or even thousands of fully equipped soldiers many miles behind enemy lines. Once the planes arrive at the destination, the paratroopers, (the name of trained airborne soldiers), jump out of the aircraft with all of their equipment and parachute down onto pre-planned “drop zones”, which are the areas which have been designated by the military as being conducive to the safe landing of parachute forces. With this method, thousands of soldiers can occupy the drop zone within an hours-time. By landing behind the lines, paratroopers are able to cause massive amounts of chaos on an unsuspecting enemy and can capture strategic positions and hold them for days and even weeks at a time until reinforcements arrive.
Despite this capability, criticism towards the retention of airborne forces still abound. The biggest opponent of maintaining airborne forces in recent years has been Marc DeVore. A retired Army officer-turned-lecturer, DeVore states on multiple occasions that not only do airborne forces not offer anything for modern conflicts, but that their historical success is also largely exaggerated. Financially, DeVore parrots that airborne forces on average require 10% more maintenance costs when compared to similarly equipped non-airborne infantry units. These costs come from a variety of factors, including equipment that is lost and damaged during training jumps, as well as the additional equipment which must be purchased and maintained in order to allow the jumps to take place, (specialized packs and training courses). These facts can’t be easily debated, airborne forces are a financially intensive element (Devore).
However, regardless of the perceived financial drain, must ask ourselves if the investment in airborne forces is worth the end result. To this, DeVore heavily references large historical operations, specifically the multitude of combat jumps which took place in World War Two. In his book, “When Failure Thrives”, DeVore states that, among other things, “…even if they reached their target zone, the vagaries of winds and primitive navigation technologies frequently led to paratroopers becoming impossibly dispersed as soon as they exited their aircraft…” (DeVore 21). Again, DeVore isn’t speaking out of line. It is a fact that airborne operations result in heavily dispersed forces, however it could be argued that this is the true beauty of an airborne operation, and indicative of the level of skill that the participating paratroopers ultimately have. Upon landing in either a hostile area or a training zone, dispersed paratroopers are taught from day one to immediately link up with other soldiers and form “LGOPs”, (little groups of paratroopers). These LGOPs, regardless of their actual unit affiliation, are trained to proceed forward to the objective while simultaneously taking in other dispersed troops, growing their own force larger as time goes on and the operation develops (France).
This flexibility is an ingrained trait in all airborne capable units and stands in contrast to the rigidly structured non-airborne units which would likely fall apart in such a scenario. Being as this is a well-rehearsed and trained situation, (airborne units will practice these operations on a monthly basis), the traits of independence and adaptability become so ingrained that they apply to a wider range of scenarios than the relatively straight forward operations themselves. The flexibility of airborne forces allows them not only to succeed when dispersed on a drop zone, but also allow the units to adapt quickly to whatever mission they may become involved in, airborne related or not. Having groups of soldiers who can think on their feet even when not receiving direct orders from a command element provides a formidable and unpredictable force which often throws off and disrupts enemy movements, to our own advantage.
Furthermore, tactics alone aren’t enough to differentiate a paratrooper from a regular soldier. Much attention is also paid to the training and recruitment processes of these unique men and women. Airborne soldiers are often known in the United States Army as “double volunteers”. Not only did the soldiers volunteer to join the military, but they had to again volunteer specifically to join airborne units and undergo training, and this training is never-ending. From the very beginning, soldiers must attend the Basic Airborne Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. During this three-week training course soldiers learn how to wear, inspect, and jump out of a plane with the parachute and its accompanying equipment. Before the soldier ever graduates and earns his or her “jump wings”, (silver wings worn on their uniform to indicate the training), the paratrooper will have completed five separate jumps, in a variety of conditions including total darkness (BAC Training).
Once the paratrooper graduates airborne school and arrives at his unit, the training simply continues indefinitely. Multiple training jumps are required each year, often on a monthly basis. These jumps act as practice for real-life operations and insure that the paratroopers are constantly ready to perform their duty. In some cases, units will maintain a “global response force” status, which means that they will be limited to how far away from their post they can be, and at all times must be ready to board a plane and jump into a conflict zone within twenty-four or seventy-two hours, depending on the severity of the conflict (Gordon).
Physical fitness and uniform appearance standards are often much tougher in airborne units. Due to the nature of the job, paratroopers must maintain high levels of physical strength and conditioning to carry the heavy loads required once they hit the ground in a war zone. To promote this high level of readiness, airborne units typically adhere to a higher passing score on the physical fitness test used in the Army. Additionally, uniform appearance standards are often rigidly upheld. Cosmetically, airborne units also wear a distinctive piece of headgear which won’t be found in any other type of Army unit. Following the cooperation of British and American paratroopers in World War Two, the British “paras” bestowed the maroon colored beret on their American counterparts as a badge of honor, to distinguish them from other soldiers. That originally-unofficial uniform item was eventually turned into daily apparel for all soldiers holding the title of paratrooper, and as it represents a great historical lineage, its appearance must be strongly maintained at all times (Murray).
In addition to their theoretical and repetitive training in peace-time environments, airborne forces still maintain their tactical relevancy in real modern conflicts as well. Summed up neatly by the RAND Corporations 2014 survey, “Enhanced Army Airborne Forces”, “An advantage of today’s airborne capability is its ability to conduct forced entry operations into areas that are deep inland. Whereas maritime forces can reasonably reach a few hundred miles inland if they are located near a crisis, airborne forces can be inserted virtually anywhere.” (Gordon 12). In the age of counter-insurgency and non-standard conflict, the ability to immediately put a large number of troops on the ground nearly anywhere on the globe is one that can’t be easily discounted. While in a conventional environment, anti-aircraft fires can limit an airborne forces path of entry, this threat is largely non-existent when facing poorly armed irregular forces such as have been seen throughout the Global War on Terror. In 72 hours, nearly 2000 fully equipped soldiers can be deployed from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to a combat zone anywhere in the world. This is a tool which one cannot easily throw to the wayside, given the nature of modern warfare (Tan).
In some cases, as recently as 1994, even the simple threat of an airborne invasion has been enough to prevent conflicts in their entirety. In Kyle Jahner’s article “Does the Army need airborne?”, written for the Army Times, he states that “…the mere existence of airborne may give potential adversaries pause. In 1994, the U.S. had prepared an invasion of Haiti after the United Nations, for the first time, authorized force to restore a nation’s democracy after a 1991 military coup. Haitian military leaders agreed to a transition plan – with invading U.S. forces already in the air and on the way.” (Jahner). It’s stated in “The Art of War” that the best-case scenario for a conflict was to defeat the enemy without a single death (Sun Tzu). What better way to fight a war than to not have to fight it at all? Even if we assume that every negative trope pointed towards airborne forces is true, including high maintenance costs which drain tax-payer’s dollars, which would the American people prefer? While the units might require more money to keep around, that seems to be a small price to pay in exchange for preventing the deaths of not only American soldiers, but local populations as well.
While the detractors of maintaining airborne forces do have many well-founded opinions that lead them to believe the age of airborne assaults are over, the evidence would prove otherwise. Regardless of maintenance costs and recent inactivity, the history of the airborne forces speaks for itself, and continues to sell the concept as valid. In a rapidly developing world where conflicts change overnight, airborne forces through their flexibility, tactical capabilities, and perceived power continue to show that they have a well-earned seat at the table when it comes to modern methodologies. Let the detractors say what they will, as long as thousands of American parachutes can fill the sky over a hostile landing zone in a short amount of time, both the American people and our allies can sleep more soundly.
Airborne School: What It’s Really Like Learning to Jump. SOFREP, 10 June 2016, sofrep.com/56403/56403/.
BAC Training. The United States Army | Fort Benning, http://www.benning.army.mil/infantry/rtb/1-507th/airborne/.
Burke, Crispin. “Yes, the U.S. Army Still Needs Paratroopers.” War Is Boring, warisboring.com/yes-the-u-s-army-still-needs-paratroopers/.
Cole, Kevin. “HISTORY OF MILITARY OPERATIONAL PARACHUTE JUMPS.” Special Forces Association, Special Forces Association, 7 Mar. 2013, www.specialforcesassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Combat_Jump_Record_03.07.2013.pdf.
DeVore, Marc R. When Failure Thrives: Institutions and the Evolution of Postwar Airborne Forces. Combat Studies Insitute Press, US Army Combined Arms Center, 2015.
France, Duane. “Never Underestimate the Power of the LGOP.” Head Space and Timing, 26 Oct. 2016, veteranmentalhealth.com/2016/03/16/149/.
From Cow Pastures To Kosovo. 9 Years Ago Today the 173rd ABCT Jumped Into Northern Iraq During Operation Northern Delay, fromcowpasturestokosovo.blogspot.com/2012/03/9-years-ago-today-173rd-abct-jumped.html.
Gordon, John. Enhanced Army Airborne Forces: a New Joint Operational Capability. RAND, 2014.
Jahner, Kyle. “Does the Army Need Airborne?” Army Times, Army Times, 7 Aug. 2017, www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2016/02/29/does-the-army-need-airborne/.
Jahner, Kyle. “Key Moments in Army Airborne History.” Army Times, Army Times, 7 Aug. 2017, www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2016/02/29/key-moments-in-army-airborne-history/.
King, James. “Yes, Mass Airborne Operations Are a Thing of the Past.” Modern War Institute, 9 Dec. 2016, mwi.usma.edu/yes-mass-airborne-operations-thing-past/.
Murray, Williamson. “Airborne Operations During World War II.” HistoryNet, 8 Aug. 2016, www.historynet.com/airborne-operations-during-world-war-ii.htm.
Operation Market Garden, 17-27 September 1944.” Operation Market Garden September 17 – 27 1944, www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_arnhem.html.
Paschall, Rod. “Dark Clouds Over Junction City.” HistoryNet, 9 Feb. 2016, www.historynet.com/dark-clouds-over-junction-city.htm.
Phillips, Jon. “The Gear, Gadgets and Weaponry of a D-Day Paratrooper.” Wired, Conde Nast, 6 June 2012, www.wired.com/2012/06/d-day-paratrooper-gear-gadgets/.
Shurkin, Michael. “What Can the U.S. Army Learn from France’s War in Mali?” RAND Corporation, RAND Corporation, 17 Oct. 2014, www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR770.html.
Smith, Stew. “Army Basic Training PFT.” Military.com, www.military.com/military-fitness/army-fitness-requirements/army-basic-training-pft.
Sun-tzu and Samuel B. Griffith. The Art of War. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964. Print.
Tan, Michelle. “82nd Airborne Soldiers Sharpen Skills for Global Response Force Mission.” Army Times, Army Times, 7 Aug. 2017, www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2016/02/19/82nd-airborne-soldiers-sharpen-skills-for-global-response-force-mission/.
US Army Airborne School.” Baseops, www.baseops.net/basictraining/airborne.html