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British Airborne Forces in the Contemporary Operating Environment

‘…a tribute to the man who is looking for no better drop zone for tomorrow than in the heartland of the enemy, the Allied airborne soldier. As future commanders, you will find he is a useful fellow to have around.’ [Maj-Gen M. Taylor, US Army].1

The utilisation of Airborne forces is a tactical act, but demonstrates strategic and political resolve.  This article will examine the utility of British Airborne forces in the contemporary operating environment through the prism of the four challenges outlined in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015.  It makes the assertion that airborne forces still have utility in the contemporary environment, but are facing considerable threats against their ability to operate effectively.

This article is concerned with airborne operations that are delivered by parachute (airdrop) and by plane (air landing).  Although British airborne forces are trained and equipped to conduct air assault operations by helicopter, non-airborne troops can conduct this mission in extremis although they are more likely to conduct air-mobile operations.  Therefore the article will focus on airdrop and air landing operations as they are the sole preserve of British airborne forces.

The increasing threat posed by terrorism, extremism and instability

British Airborne forces do not play a direct role in countering terrorism, extremism and instability other than supporting Operation TEMPERER where they form part of the 10,000 service personnel who remain ready to deploy at short notice in support of the police to provide additional protective security, aimed at deterring, disrupting and preventing terrorist activity and providing public reassurance.

British airborne forces play a wider role in reducing the threat through continued work overseas conducting defence engagement and through operational deployments. They provide the UK the ability to rapidly intervene in an unstable region or country as demonstrated in May 2000 by the deployment of the Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF) to Sierra Leone.  More broadly, their main role in counter terrorism is the ability to offer the British Government the capability to strike back in the event of a large-scale terrorist attack.  Airborne forces are held at very short notice to deploy and have the capability to deliver a large force at long distance as such the use of airborne forces could complement any special forces reaction, offering the government a larger force should they wish.

Additionally with the advent of fusion doctrine in the National Security and Capability Review (NSCR) 2018, to improve the UKs collective approach to national security, airborne forces could see their role expand linked to cross governmental operations.  Airborne forces would offer the government a light force capable of rapidly inserting into a troubled region potentially in support of other government department’s activities.  Airdrop still offers the fastest method to globally deliver the largest force in the shortest time; this could be of great use both militarily and for humanitarian and other non-kinetic cross-government activities to counter extremism and instability.

The resurgence of state-based threats and intensifying wider state competition

The risks from state-based threats have both grown and diversified and the international state system that was established post World War Two is under threat from a growing number of rising, often illiberal states that do not see the US-created order as consistent with their interests or reflective of their power.

In his address to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in 2018, the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) described his most immediate concern as the rising threat from states and the consequences that stem from this for the military.  With this rise in state threats the ability to project force remains and the UK requires operational forces that have the ability to react rapidly to fast moving global events, to act as a deterrent and a genuine capability.  While the use of Anti-Area / Access-Denial (A2/AD) weapons can limit the deterrent effect of all forces by limiting their theatre entry and intra-theatre manoeuvre capabilities, the fact that the UK possesses airborne forces will affect the planning of peer and near-peer adversaries.  The mere inclusion of capable airborne forces in a force package will cause the adversary to reinforce his rear areas, potentially weakening his front-line to the advantage of friendly forces.

The resurgence of state-based threats and access to higher capability weaponry by non-state actors raises the risk to airborne forces.  There is a school of thought that in the potential A2/AD environments created by Russia, China or another near-peer competitor, and with the proliferation of accurate and effective air defence weapon systems, attempting a mass airborne operation today would result in a substantial loss of lives and aircraft, significantly reducing its tactical and strategic impact. The ‘low and slow’ aircraft needed for a paradrop is to the advantage of an enemy that values air defence over air supremacy and could result in a political shock were one to be destroyed with a full complement of paratroopers on-board.

But what this school of thought does not consider is that Airborne operations are a joint endeavour that are enabled and protected by the Air Component and are conducted as part of a combined air operation that involves Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) and the Destruction of Enemy Air Defence (DEAD) to create windows of opportunity to insert and sustain airborne forces.

SEAD and DEAD missions are capable of destroying operational air defence systems but the profusion of Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) remains a concern for airborne operations particularly with their increased commonality.  To counter this threat aircraft are fitted with defensive aids systems when flying in hostile environments that provide pilot and crew with an essential defensive capability.

The school of thought against airborne operations does not consider the advances in stealth capability.  The new 5th-generation F35-B aircraft procured by the UK comes complete with stealth capability that provides greater survivability and access, allowing aircraft to operate in contested areas, including A2/AD environments that legacy fighters simply could not penetrate or evade.  In April 2018 US F-22 stealth fighters were used to operate inside the Syrian integrated air defense systems ‘offering an option with which to neutralise [Integrated Air Defense System] threats’ during larger strike operations.  While the full capabilities of the F35-B remain classified, it could reduce the risk to airborne operations when correctly incorporated into the joint operational plan.  This will require detailed operational planning with the air component to enable the insertion and resupply of the land airborne forces.

Despite the reduction in operational and strategic risk when fully integrating joint assets with the correct defensive capabilities the political risk appetite to use airborne forces in a near-peer inter-state conflict still remains very low.  Until this risk is acceptable it is highly unlikely that airborne forces will be used in inter-state conflict against a near peer enemy. Instead airborne forces are more likely to be utilised in their airdrop role in a lower threat environment akin to French airborne operations in the Sahel.

The impact of technology, especially cyber threats and wider technological developments

The greatest threat to airborne forces in the contemporary operating environment is the proliferation of A2/AD weapons.  Anti-access refers to those actions and capabilities, usually long-range, designed to prevent an opposing force from entering an operational area2 or deny effective use and transit of the global commons. Anti-access is designed to restrict access of forces and to raise the risk of conducting operations to a level that are politically unacceptable. It might involve economic and political prohibition, a blanket denial of basing, staging, transit, or over-flight rights, sophisticated long range anti-aircraft capabilities, and a combination of capabilities and assets including ballistic missiles, submarines, weapons of mass destruction and offensive space and cyber assets.

Area denial refers to those actions and capabilities, usually of shorter range, designed not to keep an opposing force out, but to limit its freedom of action within the operational area3.  Area denial systems include conventional weapons but can be enhanced by the novel integration of information, cyber, and hybrid and irregular warfare.  When combined with the proliferation of precision weapons and improvised battlefield lethality now available to non-conventional and state actors this presents a significant issue to airborne forces.

A2/AD undermines the effective deterrence provided by Airborne and other high readiness forces and the longstanding stratagem of the US for defending its vast alliance network.  The US necessarily spreads its military assets around the world4 relying upon local forces to survive before additional forces arrive. US Airborne forces could be called upon to respond to a crisis and if working in a coalition, British Airborne forces could partner them. But adversaries can use long-range precision and A2/AD weapons to counter this stratagem by making it difficult for the US to defend and reinforce its deployments.

At the inception of a conflict an adversary could strike units with long range precision strike weapons with command, logistics, combat units and other key targets destroyed. Rapid reinforcement could be impeded by A2/AD systems with anti-access weapons targeting ports and airfields, precluding easy access into the theatre of operations, effecting the employment of airborne forces to rapidly reinforce a force or gain theatre entry. Even if Airborne forces successfully penetrate anti-access defences, they must still contend with area-denial weapons, which can harass staging areas, supply dumps and resupply convoys.

The use of long range precision strike weapons is not just confined to use within the theatre of operations.  In his work ‘Using Airborne Forces’ Tanenya examines how NATO would target Russian Airborne forces in an inter-state conflict.  He comments that “one should expect adversary action on embarkation airfields to disrupt the employment of the drop force”. He comments that airborne forces would be targeted on the airfield by space reconnaissance assets and so it would make it extremely difficult to conceal the preparation of an airborne force.  NATO forces could then attack the airborne force by integrating space assets with long range precision strike capabilities before deployment.

The same concept could be used against British airborne forces in the UK, before deploying on any operation. Russian forces have employed long range cruise missiles in Syria against the Islamic State and reports show that they are in the process of developing a similar ground based long range cruise missile, the SSC-8, with a reported range of approximately 1500 miles.  This places all UK airfields within range of Russian territory, thus when combining the contemporary threats of space reconnaissance and long range precision strike British airborne forces can be targeted within their base locations.  Airborne forces should plan to operate against an adversary with precision strike and space capabilities with dispersal, deception and secrecy integrated into the operational plan.

Technology and cyber advances potentially inhibit and deny airborne forces the key element of surprise. With the profusion of military sensors on the battlefield and ‘civilian sensors’ in base locations attaining surprise will be harder to achieve.  This could relegate airborne forces to operate in low-tech environments and against lower capability adversaries, but equally the use of novel solutions could maintain an element of surprise, reducing the risk to airborne operation and increasing their utility with British airborne forces being required to conduct constant adaption if they are to maintain surprise.

The erosion of the rules-based international order, making it harder to build consensus and tackle global threats.

The contemporary operating environment has seen Russia foment conflict in the Donbas and support the Assad regime, violate the national airspace of European countries, and mount a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption, including meddling in elections North Korea has flagrantly violated international law, conducted 20 missile tests in 2017, tested a nuclear device and Iran’s destabilising activity in the Middle East continues. Now more than ever there is a requirement for strong and stable relationships and defence partnerships that support the rules based international order.

Deterrence against the full range of threats to UK interests will require wider partnerships in general and with the NATO Alliance in particular5.  British airborne forces have a strong and meaningful partnership with French and US airborne forces and are at the forefront of British Army interoperability development. British airborne forces are well practiced and suited to this activity, both with NATO Allies through the NATO airborne community and more widely through their regular exercises, exchanges and bilateral agreements.  Uniquely their integral Gurkha airborne infantry battalion allows deeper relationship building with Asian countries, most notably Brunei, Singapore, India and of course Nepal.

The depth of these partnerships facilitates interoperability and crisis response when there is no time to start building relationships. It is through these relationships built in training that allows airborne forces to be a meaningful deterrent to tackle global threats to the UK.

Summary

In summary a number of pertinent themes have been raised when examining British airborne forces in the contemporary operating environment. Airborne forces are suited to high readiness support of the police in a terrorist incident, would require increased resources were their homeland role to increase, and they offer the government the ability to retaliate in the event of a serious attack.  Against state threats airborne forces provide a rapid operational deterrence that will affect all adversaries’ plans, and while near-peer conflict increases the risk to the airborne force this can be mitigated by joint operational design and the integration of stealth technology.  A2/AD increases the risk to airborne forces to unacceptable levels undermining deterrence effect and reinforcement options, while long range precision strike can target airborne forces in their base locations. All these factors combine to potentially relegate airborne forces from near-peer conflict to the operational fringes or lower threat conflict with a resultant loss of capability and corporate understanding.

In part 2 (yet to be published) the author examines how British airborne forces can overcome these contemporary issues and makes recommendations for a future British airborne force.

Lewis is parachute qualified and has worked in the British Airborne forces. He has commanded on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theatres and served on the staff in a Brigade HQ, Army HQ and in the MOD.

Footnotes

  1. T Otway. Airborne Forces. London: Imperial War Department,1990.1
  2. United States. Department of Defence. Joint Operational Access Concept.Ver1.17 January 2012.i
  3. United States. Department of Defence. Joint Operational Access Concept. Ver1. 17 January 2012.i.
  4. Luis Simón. Balancing Priorities in America’s European Strategy. Parameters. Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring 2016. 13-24.
  5. United Kingdom. Developments, Concepts and Doctrine Centre. Future Force Concept. Joint Concept Note 1/17. Shrivenham:DCDC, 2017.IX.
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