Wavell Room
Image default
AirCapabilities and SpendingConcepts and DoctrineLandLong Read

The Future British Airborne Force


“Show me a man who will jump out of an aeroplane and I will show you a man who will fight” [General James M. Gavin]

This article continues from part 1 British airborne forces in the contemporary operating environment addressing the contemporary issues facing airborne forces and making recommendations for a future British airborne force. It takes the opinion that the perception that airborne forces are irrelevant is erroneous and largely due to a lack of corporate understanding and assumptions based on inaccurate and flawed information. It examines a number of key areas for development that require addressing if UK Defence is to maintain an airborne capability.

As with part 1, this article is concerned with airborne operations that are delivered by parachute (airdrop) and by plane (air landing), which are the sole preserve of British airborne forces.

Corporate understanding

British airborne forces greatest issue is that across Defence there is a poor understanding of the airborne force concept and their utility that is leading to a misunderstanding of airborne risk, incorrect tasking and non-usage that results in a downward spiral into unintended degeneration and eventual insignificance. Ironically the ‘elite’ status of airborne forces not only maintains high standards but also reduces corporate understanding by limiting the number of qualified airborne personnel within the military, as opposed to the less restricted French and US models, resulting in a lower level of corporate understanding and a tendency to accept incorrect generalisations about airborne forces. Airborne forces tactics and utility are not instructed at Staff College nor included in staff estimates further reducing exposure of airborne doctrine and lessons learned from previous conflicts to the leaders of the future. The lack of corporate understanding can lead to misunderstood capability, inefficient tasking and poor decisions being made for it’s use.

The lack of corporate understanding is linked to a near vacuum of airborne institutional fortitude within the British Army. Devore states that “British airborne forces’ evolution was marked by their extremely weak institutionalisation”1 and it could be argued this remains the case today. Although in his work he argues that the institutionalisation in the US airborne forces is a bad concept because it inhibits adaptation and evolution, in the British case the lack of institutionalisation generates exclusion from the wider force and decreases understanding that consequently increases risk to the mission and force through incorrect utilisation.

The lack of corporate understanding can be countered by continuous instruction and teaching at all levels of Joint Service education, from Section Commander to General, and inclusion in staff estimates and firepower demonstrations. Additionally, understanding can be increased by operational utilisation either unilaterally or multinationally; there is no open source evidence indicating British airborne forces have deployed operationally since the end of operations in southern Afghanistan, less the Gurkha Air Landing Battalion2. While French and US airborne forces are routinely operationally deployed, British airborne forces appear welded to perpetual provision of the Air Assault Task Force (AATF). Based on the current political unlikelihood of an AATF deployment, only once this cycle is broken will British airborne forces deploy on operations again, demonstrating a broad utility that will increase corporate understanding.

Airborne Risk

The omnipresence of the global media and ‘citizen-journalists’ are the main tool by which concepts of casualty aversion are spread3 making every single casualty a major headline and politically damaging, resulting in casualty aversion4. The disconnect between UK national expeditionary defence policy and the desire for zero-risk operations leaves airborne forces in a quandary, with the misconception that their use will generate too many casualties making the political and operational risk unacceptable. The declining appetite for risk has shifted the equilibrium away from airborne operations. This counter-risk atmosphere has been desensitised by A2/AD pushing the risk of airborne operations above a tolerable threshold, undermining their deterrence effect and reinforcement capability. While British airborne forces must work to re-educate and reassure Defence that the use of airborne forces is manageable, example must be made of the recent use of airborne forces by the French and to some extent the US, and if managed correctly the risk of using airborne forces is tolerable, in the correct situation.

Capability Investment

Investment in full airborne capability reduces risk and increase utility. Effected in the last decade by the switch to a campaign footing in Afghanistan, airborne capability is yet to recover its pre-Afghanistan form. Investment in full Battle Group airdrop and air-landing capability in both the airborne infantry role and enabling units will create a meaningful capability and reduces risk by delivering a whole force package.

Combat mass on the first wave of an assault is critical and a rise in the force ratio improves the likelihood of success. While this is an obvious statement, it supports the investment in a full airdrop and air-landing battle group capability and is built upon the historic experience of the requirement for mass realised in 1940 by the first British airborne planners. In the absence of tactical and strategic air transport aircraft, mass can be supplemented by air delivered and indirect fires. British airborne forces would benefit greatly from an integrated long-range rocket system such as GMLRS or the US HIMARS and light armoured vehicles. This would increase protection both when operating as part of a larger ground force and when conducting forcible entry operations.


Surprise has been identified as a critical element to the success of air manoeuvre operations. Surprise is a potent psychological weapon, causing shock through unexpected action in time, space and method5. Enabled by security, surprise involves using secrecy, concealment, deception, originality, audacity or tempo to confuse, paralyse or disrupt effective decision-making, and undermine an adversary’s cohesion and morale6. Surprise is becoming harder to achieve in the contemporary environment through the profusion of sensors on the battle field and at home, and an increase in space reconnaissance assets leading to some to questioning whether airborne operations can achieve the surprise they require.

A potential solution lies in technology with the masking of assets, spoofing of sensors and other technological work-arounds. But a more realistic solution lies with the combination of technology and the basic concepts of secrecy, deception and audacity aiding the maintenance of surprise for airborne forces. If surprise cannot be achieved risk could be considered too high and airborne forces pushed to the lower risk peripheries of combat and consequent reduction in their utility.

Potential Roles

British airborne forces role in joint theatre entry remains valid. This role can be conducted independently although it is more likely to be as part of the UK’s 3rd Division or as part of a multinational coalition based on the UK-French Airborne-Combined Joint Expeditionary Force or in partnership with the US Global Response Force.

Historically the advantage of the use of airborne forces was their ability to deploy swiftly over long distances to deal with any quickly escalating situation that required a rapid military response. This ability remains extant and offers politicians and military planners the option to rapidly respond to quickly developing crises. In the UK their use to support the police in the event of a major terrorist incident uses their high readiness capability, but thought should be given to using airborne forces as a rapid overseas reaction force that compliments any special forces reaction, giving politicians an option to retaliate if appropriate.

Gordon et al. propose the creation of an airborne light armoured infantry force potentially as a compliment to the airborne infantry role. This would enjoy several advantages over traditional airborne infantry in three domains: It has substantially improved tactical mobility, it has improved lethality against a range of targets, and it is more survivable against a number of threats. The advantages come at the cost of additional airlift, but makes the force more employable in the contemporary politically low risk environment and could make the force well suited for employment in a range of operational contexts.

Gordon proposes the following future mission types for an airborne light armoured infantry force: counter genocide, establish a deterrent presence, protect an enclave, seize and secure a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Site, conduct a non-combatant evacuation operation, and conduct a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation. While these tasks are not new, having light armour would make them more feasible for airborne forces. Additionally the concept of airborne cavalry would enable the army to project a much stronger force into the enemy’s rear area as long as they could be sustained.

A secondary role that British airborne forces could fulfil is working alongside irregular and unconventional forces. Historically airborne forces, due to the expectation that they would be the first regular allied troops to arrive on a battlefield, expected, trained and prepared and had experience of working with allied unconventional and local irregular forces. Were this skill reinvigorated it would increase airborne forces Defence Engagement employability, give operational flexibility and with the option to airdrop or air land a force to train and accompany unconventional and local irregular forces, offer the Army a unique specialist infantry capability.


The creators of the German Airborne forces of World War Two recognised that airborne forces require special equipment and special training7. In order to maintain airborne capability and reduce operational risk fully funded Joint training is required. As a Land capability enabled by the Air Component inter-service co-operation is critical. In a world where unilateral action is uncommon and multilateral allied response to crises is the norm, multi-national training with allies is required to maintain a credible deterrent capability.

With the continued advance in technology and profusion of sensors training must incorporate novel technologies as well as more traditional concepts of deception, secrecy and audacity in order to maintain surprise. Lost in a decade of campaigning the skill of deception is a cost effective option to reinforce surprise. Although uncomfortable for light-role airborne infantry, the reality that with 70% of the global population likely to live in cities by 2045, armed forces will almost certainly need to operate in this environment to a greater extent8 therefore, a future airborne force should expect to operate in the urban environment at some point in any operation.

Airborne training needs to develop an individual who is willing to lead and take the initiative. Due to the often dispersed nature of airborne infantry’s arrival on the battlefield, with poor communications and separated from their commanders they are the apogee of mission command and working to their commander’s intent. They are required to develop a unique combat ethos that understands the conventional but can comfortably move to the crafty, ruthless, hybrid mind-set when needed; being surrounded and often out gunned is natural for Airborne forces therefor the ability to adapt and aggressively out think the enemy should be second nature. In a contemporary environment where our adversaries seek to exploit our doctrinal and capability weaknesses by out thinking our pedestrian military mind-set British forces will require a nonconventional combat ethos similar to that espoused by airborne forces.

Equipment and Technology

Technological advantage delivers success on airborne operations through indirect fires, light armour, engineering, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance and countering enemy air defence. Technological advantage enables airborne forces to be utilised against near-peer adversaries and conversely a lack of investment in technology will push airborne forces to be used against less technologically proficient enemies. The integration of new stealth technology should be considered to create spaces of opportunity in A2/AD screens allowing the insertion and supply of airborne forces, as should the use of artificial intelligence to increase operational tempo, improve and reassure planning and decision making processes through immediate statistical analysis and allowing full mission rehearsal in two and three dimensions.

Equipment procurement should focus on solving the two main restrictions of airborne forces; a lack of mobility and armoured support, especially in the initial phases of forcible entry operations. The UK would be well served to follow the US in potentially purchasing a light armoured or similar vehicle. This would aid the protection and mobility of airborne forces when separated from the main friendly armoured force consequently reducing risk to the force. The vehicles are air droppable and deliverable by air landing and could be task organised into the air landing battalion for immediate protection and enlargement of the airborne lodgement or for use on non-airborne missions as described above.

Doctrine and Concepts

Current British doctrine neglects airborne operations by including the concept within wider air manoeuvre doctrine, is biased towards aviation operations and does not recognise the importance of airpower to deliver a strategic and joint capability9. Additionally the lack of airborne principles in UK doctrine affects the employability and capability development of airborne forces.

Ironically airborne forces fit perfectly into the concept of joint action “to affect an actor’s will, understanding and capability, and the cohesion between them to achieve influence”10. Merely a nation’s possession of airborne forces coupled by the ability to globally deliver them will influence an adversary in his distribution and utilisation of forces. Historically airborne operations have had a disproportionate influence causing confusion and indecision in enemy command.

In the contemporary environment when operating against an A2/AD threat the US concept of Multi-Domain Battle calls for the integration and synchronisation of capabilities to create temporary windows of superiority across multiple domains and throughout the depth of the battlefield in order to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. Doctrinally this reflects the UK’s joint action model, but critically it outlines that through the correct integration and synchronisation within joint operational design, airborne forces can not only insert in the ‘windows of superiority’ but can also be used to exploit initiative through bold and audacious manoeuvre as demonstrated by the French in Op SERVAL and historically by Britain during Op VARSITY and Op MUSKATEER.

Conceptually in the contemporary environment airborne forces must consider being targeted in their base and mounting locations by cyber, space and precision strike capabilities. The principle of maintaining surprise is further complicated by commercially available live air traffic information and daily continuous global imaging potentially allowing the least technologically proficient adversary to monitor force build-up and inflight routing. The fusion of the historical lessons of the dispersal of forces across multiple airfields, deception flights, night operations and other counter-measures identified by German WWII planners11 and contemporary technological solutions work towards solving these issues, but the most important reaction is acknowledging the threat while creating the mind-set to generate new, novel, and unforeseen solutions.


The historical organisation of airborne forces around the complimentary airdrop and air-landing capabilities remains extant today, giving the flexibility to use one or both of the capabilities and is reflected in the current organisation of the UK’s airborne forces. Within the contemporary environment multi-national interoperability with key French and US partners and the NATO alliance not only enables airborne operations but also helps to build consensus, generate meaningful deterrence and tackle threats.

Were there options for the overseas basing of elements of the airborne brigade, this would enhance regional response capabilities as seen by the French in Mali; the initiative that France gained with an early demonstration of force by harnessing the capabilities that were already in theatre was significant12. On current global force laydown this could include positioning an airborne battalion in Cyprus, or more realistically place the Brunei based Gurkha infantry battalion within the airborne brigade. This would not only enhance the UK-Brunei bilateral defence agreement but would strengthen the UKs defence engagement posture in South East Asia in line with the National Security Capability Review 2018 intent.


The current infrastructure of airborne forces is one of the best in the British Army although there are two potential improvements. Firstly were the British to copy the French and US models13 they would have immediate access to an airhead where all kit and equipment would be held at readiness. Secondly were the entirety of the British Airborne Brigade located at an airhead this would allow a significant reduction in response times, decreasing the risk of not reacting in time and increasing deterrence effect. Surprise would also be aided by keeping activity discreet within the airfield. Conversely a dispersed force counters the ability of long range precision strike to target airborne forces in their base locations.


This article has presented a number of conclusions about the characteristics of a future airborne force. Continued investment is required in the whole airborne force if it is to remain relevant and deliver genuine deterrence capability alongside our partners. Critically increased protection and mobility is required through investment in a light armoured vehicle and full battle group airdrop and air-landing capability. Large scale airborne operations can only be achieved by a multinational force therefore interoperability with key allies will underpin future success. Technology will become increasingly relevant but the traditional art of deception, secrecy and audacity should not be forgotten and integrated into operational design.

The disconnection between expeditionary defence policy and the growing social expectation of zero-casualty operations will adversely affect the opportunity risk balance, impacting on future airborne operations. The misperception of the increased risk of airborne operations must be corrected by increased joint force education and reassurance at all levels of Defence. Misperception is also corrected through utilisation; freeing a unit per year from the perpetual AATF rotation would provide the army with an airborne battalion for operations in perpetuity. Full integration with the air component, utilisation of emerging technology and stealth to take advantage of operational windows of opportunity will also increase broader utility.

The UK requires a very high readiness airborne force to spearhead the country’s response to a crisis but there is a danger that airborne forces will only be used in a low threat conflict rendering them obsolete in a near-peer clash.  Airborne forces remain the fastest way to deliver a large force directly onto a target at one time, have genuine global reach and deterrent effect and offer Defence a unique and cost-effective military capability. As such airborne forces rightfully remain relevant in contemporary operations.


  1. Devore, M. Where failure thrives: Institutions and the Evolution of Postwar Airborne Forces. Fort Leavenworth: Army Press, 2015. 68.
  2. 2 RGR Op TORAL 3, Kabul, 2016.
  3. P Girardin. Casualty Aversion in Tepid War. The Quarterly Journal, No1 (March 2003):102.
  4. Holland, P. “Does the historical experience of Airborne Operations apply today?” DRP, JSCSC 2010. 40.
  5. United Kingdom. AC 71940. ADP Land Operations. Warminster: Land Warfare Development Centre, 2017.1A-1.
  6. United Kingdom. AC 71940. ADP Land Operations.1A-1.
  7. United States. Historical Study: Airborne Operations a German Appraisal. Department of the Army 1951. Center of Military History, 1982. 2.
  8. United Kingdom. Developments, Concepts and Doctrine Centre. Future Force Concept. Joint Concept Note 1/17. Shrivenham: DCDC, 2017. 17-19.
  9. Mann, D. “Dropped! Why airborne operations are neglected by the UK Air Manoeuvre doctrine.” DRP, JSCSC 2015. 40.
  10. United Kingdom. Developments, Concepts and Doctrine Centre. JDP 3-00 Campaign Execution. Shrivenham: DCDC, October 2009.3-2.
  11. United States. Historical Study: Airborne Operations a German Appraisal.4.
  12. Cresswell,Jon. Operation SERVAL – Some Early Thoughts. The British Army Review 157: Summer 2013. 45.
  13. Fort Bragg North Carolina and Toulouse.

Related posts

Lead Us Not Into Temptation


The Non-Combat, Combat Estimate.

Infantry Training Screw

The Integrated Operating Concept

Steve Maguire

Leave a Comment