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A Bridge Too Far: The Decline of Conventional Parachuting – Part 1

If the art of war were nothing but the art of avoiding risks, glory would become the prey of mediocre minds.

Napoleon Bonaparte

General Lord Wavell’s opinion on the drop of some 1,500 troops by parachute in 1936 was that “the use of parachutes was of doubtful tactical value”.  In the years since however, every country with an ambitious foreign policy has developed a military parachute capability.  It could be argued that World War Two was the zenith for parachute forces and in sheer scale alone no operation since has come close to the mass drops of 1944 by the Allies.  Throughout that war various nations employed their parachute forces in both tactical and operational roles, but it is only afterwards, with improved technology, that the use of parachute forces has developed towards the strategic level of warfare.  Combined with joint resources, parachute forces currently provide the capability to attempt truly global intervention operations.  Guidingdoctrine has not kept pace and terminology is often contradictory.  The term ‘airborne’ has been overlapped with others such as air-land, air manoeuvre, airmobile and air-assault. Joint doctrine defines ‘air-drop’ as delivery of forces from an aircraft in flight using parachute, and so will this article.

Another consequence of strategic elevation has been increased exposure of the capability to political risk, defined as “things that have the potential to discredit, disempower or detach a political actor from their ability to rule.” 1 The relatively recent rise of the risk industry has served to increase political accountability, thus decreasing the level of risk tolerance. The political hangovers following recent discretionary military interventions are still keenly felt.  This article will analyse the impact of political decision-making through risk management on future air-drop operations, concluding that technological and socio-political pressures have rendered the capability irrelevant.  I put forward the view that the British military should modify its conventional air-drop capability before it is deleted.  It should be resubordinated under Joint Forces Command (JFC) to ensure associated force elements are available for innovation, thus preventing them from becoming irrelevant as well.

Risk management has a “strong intrinsic appeal because it is inexorably linked to the human condition; a Hobbesian desire for security and an existential desire for ontological certainty.” 2 We seek assurance in our decision-making process, so a system that can translate uncertain risk into a certain outcome has gained distinction.  “Risk management is becoming a widely accepted practice in decision-making in firms, the public sector, and the military.  Frequently political debate is framed within the context of competing risk.” 3 This is alarming given the level of confusion in the field of risk management.  Each article on risk management researched for this article defined it differently.  There would appear to be no academic agreement, yet the military has an entire Joint Doctrine Publication devoted to the subject. This confusion has a negative effect on operational output.  A recent study, in which the use of risk management tools by fifty British military headquarters was analysed, concluded that their development of operational courses of action fell into the extremes of either not doing risk management, or doing it badly. 4  Robert McKellar’s guide to political risk is more damning, stating that “risk as a tool for decision making is inherently flawed because there is little agreement over what constitutes risk, and this creates conflicts of perceptions.” 5

Ulrich Beck suggests that the recent rise of risk management is due to a change in how society perceives risk, as a result of changing societal relations: broadly that “more people seem to be afraid of more things than ever before.” 6 The absence of death from everyday life, increased life expectancy, greater access to information and the lack of an intrinsic threat have all changed what the British public now defines as a risk.  “The threshold of risk acceptance in modern society is significantly lower; casualties make headlines.” 7 A lower threshold for accepting risk amongst the public pervades directly into the political sphere, where the impact of electronic media has made immediate resolution of risk more important.  “Risk defines the political environment, it is not an optional extra but an inescapable structural condition.” 8

During the British ‘Mad Cow’ crisis, then Prime Minister John Major relied on “risk management without a political perspective.” 9 A consequence of the subsequent landslide defeat of the Tory government has been that all issues are now viewed as political issues, rather than being devolved to the appropriate lever of power.  A military response to political direction in turn becomes a political issue. “Political risk manifests itself in many ways, but most notably, is associated with the presentational aspects of any actions.” 10 are more conscious than ever of the electoral impacts of their decision making as it is they that are ultimately responsible for political judgment. A Cabinet Office report on risk identified it as “a crucial factor in the relationship between government and its constituents.” 11 Political perception is therefore crucial in both the initial assessment, and then management, of a risk.  The political level has primacy.

How hazardous a risk appears to be will change with its owner.  This conflict of perceptions means that strategies intended to alleviate risk for the one group create new risk for the other.  In risk management, the military will transfer ownership of a risk they feel unable to mitigate to the political level. Consequently, and paradoxically, the process of risk management can have the effect of increasing perception of risk: highlighting the unintended consequences of a course of action and ultimately laying culpability for a decision at the political door.  The current social requirement for immediacy ensures that often for a politician, “the safest answer is to do nothing.” 12 Study suggests that policy makers will always choose the option that presents the lowest political risk, acting to reduce their current political risks at the cost of deferring policy benefits.” 13 So military risk management defeats its own purpose: the proposed course of action is never politically authorised.  Worse still for the military, within British politics there appear deterrents against risky behavior.  Parliamentary enquiries related to bad risk management limit promotion potential, lowering related ambition of politicians. 14

The political backlash over military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya still haunts the political class.  The level of political debate over the British decision to use force in Syria is a prime example of the effect of previous interventions.  Thus, only options with the lowest inherent risk are taken, which rarely involves deploying ‘boots on the ground’.  To do so has “become totemic as the likelihood of casualties increases and the perception remains that once troops are deployed it becomes extremely difficult to extract them.” 15 This further decreases the likelihood of an air-drop operation being authorised since they come at the cost of higher risk for force protection and sustainability. Weeks’ analysis on the future use of air-drop forces within the contemporary operating environment outlined in the National Security Review (NSR) explains why.  “In a highly populated area there is no place for huge streams of troop transports cruising over drop zones.  Nor is there much hope of supplying soldiers who are dropped, nor of giving them any meaningful air support.” 16

Considering the political imperative to minimise risk, it is assessed that political calculation relating to its military lever of power is aimed at risk avoidance rather than risk management.  Smith states that “risk management is not about reducing risk to citizens but to government – the reality is that the concern is with governing risk, rather than using risk to govern.” 17 Risk avoidance has become a mechanism for ensuring governing survival.  Political issues will rarely be clear enough to ensure political expediency.  Risk management within the military must both understand and appreciate political risk to appropriately assess, communicate, and manage the risk of using air-drop forces. The British Government has been classified as an “egalitarian risk taker, [meaning] risks should be avoided unless they are inevitable to protect the public good.” 18 Given the British culture of egalitarianism, public perceptions of discretionary and non-discretionary operations must be analysed.

Politicians believe that war affects their domestic standing and have struggled recently to persuade their electorate that wars of apparent necessity, such as Afghanistan, were not in fact discretionary.  Their response has been to minimise risk by choosing not to commit land-based force. 19 Discretionary operations carry greater political risk because the electorate is likely to be more divided over the requirement to militarily intervene. British society does not yet face an intrinsic threat, and so any use of force is viewed as discretionary. Attendant risks to a proposed military course of action are thus optional, and face repercussion. Discretionary operations historically carry lower operational risk, typically against an opponent that possessed inferior military capability (non-peer).  Although the operational commander might wish to make use of an air-drop capability, analysis therefore shows that since the option presents any risk at all, it will be rendered politically unviable.

The Future Operating Environment 2035 suggests that discretionary operations will become less likely, highlighting that resource competition will instead increase the existential threat to British interests.  In a non-discretionary operation “policy makers believe they have greater policy discretion brought about by the increased international stakes.”[22]  Paradoxically, non-discretionary operations carry lower political risk because the public unites behind an existential threat.  Theoretically, this would give more freedom of action to operational commanders, but the military risk associated with a peer opponent will also render an air-drop operation unfeasible.

The greatest operational threat to airborne forces in the contemporary operating environment is the proliferation of anti-access area denial (A2AD) systems.  These affect the chances of a successful insertion of an air-drop force, and subsequent support to it.  Anti-access systems are designed to restrict access of forces to an operational area, raising the risk of conducting operations to a level that is politically unacceptable.  Area denial systems usually consist of conventional air-defence weapon systems and present a significant issue for air-drop forces. The recent NSR outlined the resurgence of state-based threats intensifying wider state competition; primarily Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.  These revisionist powers are all accelerating modernisation of their conventional armed forces, including technological capabilities such as A2AD systems.  This “has significantly eroded Western technological and military advantage”. It is assessed that an intrinsic threat to Britain would expose the military to opponents with comparable (near-peer) or better (peer-plus) capabilities. Although an air-drop operation might be more politically palatable in this non-discretionary operation, the enemy threat will prevent it from being a realistic operational option, and so will be discounted by the military commander.

“All military innovations gradually lose their utility as they are overtaken by further technical and societal developments.” 20 The decision by most States to not employ their air-drop capability during the myriad of differing conflicts in the last fifty years reflects the calculation that associated cost outweighs benefit.  In either type of operation, non-discretionary or discretionary, a decreasing tolerance for risk has prevented, and will prevent in future, the use of the British conventional air-drop capability.  To ensure that air-drop forces retain their relevance this paper will now propose measures that could be taken to alleviate associated risk and make the capability a more acceptable option.  

Althaus proposed two basic measures that would assist in assuaging the concerns of politicians: education to reduce uncertainty; and tailoring policy to public image. The former factor encapsulates higher-level doctrine, which should be used to guide the military strategic and political level decision makers. It is woefully lacking for the British air-drop capability, given its strategic potential.  Air-drop doctrine will be analysed in Part 2 of this article. Althaus’ latter factor requires an advocate for the capability to champion its use within government, the military and to the electorate.  Within the British military the air-drop capability is composed of elements from two Services: the RAF: and the Army.  The division of capability over two distinct commands creates rivalry and prevents advocacy.  The British air-drop capability was not born from the mind of a military advocate.  A political advocate was required to galvanise its development when the War Office preferred the glider. 21 It was only Churchill’s direct intervention that forced the War Office to commit units to the specific air-drop role.  A similar strategy of advocacy must be pursued for survival and employment of the capability in future.  Research shows that “unless a policy features such a champion the political risk associated with that policy will not be managed properly and the policy is likely to be considered a failure in political risk terms.” 22

Devore discusses the impact of institutionalisation in the military, stating that “if decision makers aim to foster new technologies or tactics they must first ensure that they create organisations that possess enough autonomy to successfully pursue the innovations.” 23 Clayton Christensen’s study on innovation in the private sector demonstrated “that new capabilities are best developed when these are embodied in specially – created organisations rather than embedded in existing structures.” The Soviet military achieved this, ensuring their airborne capability had a champion at the military strategic level by separating it from the remainder of the military into its own strategic command.  This gives its airborne capability a proponent equitable to that of the maritime, air, or land commands during strategic discourse, and ensures its survival as a coherent capability. 24 The most coherent solution for Britain’s air-drop capability would be to move it completely under one command structure: JFC; rather than split between the Army and Royal Air Force.

Personal involvement is another variable of risk that has been found to affect people’s judgement.  Study shows that “people usually have a more favourable perception of risk if they are practically or emotionally involved in the risk causing activity.” 25 Integration with JFC would also provide an involved proponent for the air-drop capability at Defence level, unifying and thereby lowering risk perception, rather than devolving it across two commands, as is the current situation.  It would also allow the development of comprehensive Joint air-drop doctrine.

To briefly summarise this section before the reader moves (hopefully) to Part 2, the aim was to identify whether the British military should retain its conventional air-drop capability. Part 1 has shown that risk management strategies used by both British military and political decision makers will prevent the use of the capability in future.  This paper recommends that it should therefore be deleted, or, more fittingly, amended. Personal involvement and advocacy were both factors shown to lower risk thresholds in decision makers.  Further analysis established a strategic proposal that, if taken by the Ministry of Defence, might allow the capability to retain relevance within the contemporary operating environment, namely: the resubordination of the capability under the command of JFC to ensure advocacy.  This move would also allow the comprehensive development of higher level Joint doctrine, which analysis showed to be lacking.  Part 2 will further analyse air-drop doctrine to guide senior military and political risk owners.

Ashley Howard

Ashley Howard has served in The Parachute Regiment for 19 years, commissioning in 2007.  He has operational experience of Iraq and Afghanistan and is currently part of a NATO HQ.  He is keen to develop debate on Britain’s military parachute capability, to ensure it remains at the forefront of innovation and utility.


  1. Catherine Althaus, Calculating political risk, (London: Earthscan, 2009), 70.
  2. Martin Smith, Mad Cows and Mad Money: problems of Risk in the Making and Understanding of Policy(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004), 312.
  3. ibid
  4. ibid., 100
  5. Robert McKellar, A short guide to Political Risk, (London: Routledge, 2010), 327.
  6. Johan Eriksson, Threat Politics, New perspectives on Security, Risk and Crisis Management (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2001), 1.
  7. J.C. Coote, “The operations of 6th Airborne Division in Normandy demonstrated both the strengths and weaknesses of highly mobile but lightly equipped forces. What are the lessons for warfare today and tomorrow?” (Defence Research Paper, JSCSC, 2015), 8.
  8. Althaus, Political risk, 30.
  9. Smith, Mad Cows, 160.
  10.  Mark Ridgway, “Why is there political involvement in the delivery of air power?  Will this change in the future and what are the implications for the RAF?” (Defence Research Paper, JSCSC 2013), 17.
  11. Peter Truscott, The ascendancy of political risk management and its implications for global security and business investment(London: Stephen Austin and Sons Ltd., 2007), 1.
  12. Smith, Mad Cows, 327.
  13. M.W. Cannon, “When do states fight limited wars,” Security Studies 9, no. 4: 139.
  14. Smith, Mad Cows, 319.
  15. Ministry of Defence, “Op SERVAL: French Intervention Operations in Mali; Lessons and Insights,” Land Exploitation Centre (Warminster, 2013): 14.
  16. Weeks, Assault from the Sky, 179.
  17. Smith, Mad Cows, 314.
  18. Renn, Risk governance, 249.
  19. Hew Strachman and Sibylle Scheipers,The Changing Character of War(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 10.
  20. Devore, When Failure Thrives, 1.
  21. Air Ministry, Airborne Forces, 3.
  22. Althaus, Political risk, 260.
  23. Devore, When Failure Thrives, 71.
  24. Devore, When Failure Thrives, 68.
  25. J. Pickford, Mastering Risk Volume 1 (Harlow: Pearson Professional Education, 2001), 106.

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