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A Bridge Too Far – The Decline Of Conventional Parachuting Part 2

The first part of this paper analysed the impact of risk on politicians and subsequently the military operational commander.  It assessed that in either a discretionary or non-discretionary operation, current risk tolerances will prevent the use of Britain’s air-drop capability in future.  It recommended that the capability should be resubordinated under Joint Forces Command (JFC) or deleted.  The second part of this paper will propose methods to ensure that Britain’s air-drop capability remains relevant in future, using historical operations to identify common criteria for the use of air-drop operations.  Analysis will subsequently develop proposals for future higher-level air-drop doctrine to better educate risk owners.

The combination of Army and Royal Air Force assets to deliver air-drop effect suggests that the rightful place for associated doctrine should be within the Joint domain: ‘Joint’ referring to an operation or organisation in which elements of at least two Services participate. Joint Doctrine Publication 01 UK Joint Operations Doctrine focuses on operational planning and constitutes the highest level of doctrine in which a strategic air-drop capability could, and should, be discussed, yet it makes no mention of it.  Indeed, no philosophy or principles exist for air-drop operations. Mann concluded that current doctrine does not fuse together the capabilities of the Royal Air Force and the British Army to cohere Britain’s airborne capability.1

Allied Joint doctrine, broadly focussed on NATO rather than national operations, highlights the principles of Joint operations2.  They “enable commanders and staff to approach problems coherently.”3.The principles of Joint command include ‘unity of command’, personified only upon deployment by the Joint Force Commander, and a ‘clear chain of command’.4 A clear chain of command strengthens integration between components.  Doctrine is supposedly hierarchical so the British Army’s core operational doctrine, Land Operations, is subordinate.  Higher level British Land doctrine articulates the nature and composition of airborne forces and provides some examples of situations in which they could be employed, but omits any guiding principles for employment. Higher level British Air doctrine does discuss the definitions of airborne, air-land and air-drop operations used earlier, but again gives no guidance on employment of the capabilities. The lack of Joint ownership of the air-drop capability means there exists no higher-level doctrine which has primacy during an air-drop operation.

The subsequent obfuscation of responsibility between the two Services therefore prevents obedience to the principle of command highlighted earlier. It means that no doctrinal guidance is available for politicians charged with owning the associated risk of a strategic air-drop capability, except for the subjective views of senior military commanders.  Weeks summarised this issue well in his study of airborne warfare: “probably the most interesting feature of airborne warfare is the difficulty which some generals had in understanding how they could and should use their airborne troops.”5 It is assessed that there is a requirement for new Joint air-drop principles in higher doctrine.  To avoid bias, this paper will use the principles of Joint operations as the genesis for additional proposals, rather than the British Army’s Principles of War.6

It will not propose principles that are already covered in sufficient depth in extant Joint doctrine, unless these require a slightly more nuanced definition to account for the use of air-drop forces, or where the principle is ignored by current capability gaps.  It will recommend reinforcement of the principle of ‘clear chain of command’, the addition of ‘air superiority’ and ‘linkup’, and the removal of ‘surprise’ and ‘concentration of force’.

Although the Italians were the first to assign an Infantry unit to parachuting, it was the Soviets who pioneered the concept of air-drop warfare.  In 1930 their Supreme Commander-in-Chief General M.N. Tukhachevsky requested a divisional-sized airborne unit, and by 1932 almost every Soviet exercise included the use of air-drop troops.  The mission of paratroops was to create disruption in the enemy’s rear.7 The initial Soviet enthusiasm with the concept did not translate to wartime employment.  “On the few occasions where airborne troops were employed as such, the planning was so hasty and uncoordinated that the results were hardly worth the losses”,8 and Stalin himself did not regard the use of airborne operations as very effective.  By the end of the Great Patriotic War, Soviet airborne troops “in most instances ended up fighting in the front line as regular infantry.”9 After World War Two however, Russia recognised the need for coherence and clarity in a Joint environment by placing their airborne forces under a separate strategic command.  The Russian airborne translates to a distinct Service, to be employed directly by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief.10 Not only does this ensure unified command and coherence of doctrine, it also gives the capability an advocate at Defence level to ensure both its survival and employment.

The Germans took a similar approach.  At the inauguration of their Fallschirmjager in 1936, paratroops fell under command of the Luftwaffe.  In an interview conducted after World War Two, Field Marshal Kesselring stated that “since the actual fighting in airborne operations takes place on the ground, it is advisable to have both air and ground operations under the same command.” 11 Indeed at their pinnacle in the summer of 1944, the Luftwaffe commanded a divisional-sized airborne capability with a total of 30,000 trained parachutists.12 The benefits of fusing air and land capabilities under one command were highlighted when Kesselring discussed the development of the Luftwaffe in Goering’s newspaper the Essener National Zeitung.  In 1941 he wrote that “during the recent campaign of the “war of movement” the Luftwaffe could never have fulfilled its tasks if its leaders had not continually kept in mind the importance of training their personnel to become an integral part of the German armed forces…to study thoroughly the rules of land fighting and to submit themselves unreservedly to its laws.”13Unreserved submission to British air-drop ‘law’ is made extremely difficult given that it is split across two Services’ doctrine.  General Student, the commander of the Fallschirmjager, further alluded to the resourcing benefit created by clarity in command when he stated, “during commitment the transport squadrons must be subordinated to the parachute commanders…the ideal solution would undoubtedly be to incorporate the transport squadrons organically into the airborne forces.”14

In his study of airborne operations, Weeks stated that “the only way to achieve successful airborne operations in future is going to be by nominating an overall commander who completely controls both air and land forces, and he must be a land commander.”15 The recent French experience during Operation Serval in Mali reinforced this.  On 28 January 2013, around 250 paratroopers from 2eRegiment Etranger Parachutiste parachuted to secure Timbuktu airport and the north of the city, seeking to cut off insurgents fleeing north from the French ground forces.  Although the use of an air-drop capability in Mali was tactical, the French force structure was regionally aligned, resourced with appropriate assets well suited to expeditionary operations, and placed in one distinct chain of command.  This mitigated the issues associated with a capability spread across two Services.16 During a British deployment, associated force elements fall under the command of a Joint Force Commander and this should ensure a simple chain of command.  The issue does not arise at the force generation stage however, but beforehand, since ownership of the capability is split between Services until deployment.  Kent concluded that “it is axiomatic that airborne operations must be entirely joint from the outset, and proficiency in joint planning is not easy to achieve in peace since the scope for misunderstanding between the air commander and the ground commander is limitless.”17 This adds further weight to the argument that the British air-drop capability should be owned by JFC.  It is assessed that British air-drop capability does not comply with the principles of command of Joint operations which limits its effectiveness.  The principle of clear chain of command therefore requires strengthening when establishing future air-drop doctrine.

Surprise is defined as “to strike the adversary at a time or place or in a manner for which they are unprepared.”18When planning his invasion of Belgium, Hitler stated that “the parachute arm is one that relies upon surprise…I am not going to reveal the secret of the new weapon prematurely.”19 Tugwell argued that the German decision to air-drop Fallschirmjager during the invasion of Norway exposed the Allies to this capability earlier than Hitler wished, which in turn rendered future air-drop operations, specifically the invasion of Crete, less effective thanks to the forewarning the Allies had received.  The casualties suffered during the invasion of Crete by the German air-drop forces prevented their use in this role at formation level during the reminder of the war.  Hitler also recognised that in his campaign against the Soviet Union, the “relatively vulnerable airborne arm, lacking the advantage of total surprise, could accomplish little but its own extinction.”20

Kesselring acknowledged that surprise in the use of air-drop forces would become increasingly difficult, a trend that continues in the contemporary operating environment.  He also argued that it was not impossible to achieve. 21 This view is seconded in Russian airborne doctrine, which highlights that surprise is “the basic principle.” 22 Soviet Marshal Zhukov stated that “surprise is achieved chiefly by two things, concealing preparations and acting swiftly.” 23 It is assessed that since the Russian’s primary adversary, America, enjoys such a technological advantage in intelligence gathering, surprise is given prime consideration to prevent detection of the intent to launch an air-drop force.  Current Russian tactical doctrine accordingly emphasises basic measures to disguise air-drop preparations.  Once a decision is taken to use such a capability, its position within a distinct, unified and clear chain of command (it is, in effect, its own TLB) increases speed of action.  Russian air-drop forces are therefore configured to best achieve their prime planning consideration, which also aids protection of the force and makes mission success more likely.

General Ben Hodges, former Commander of US Army Europe, stated that “we would never take off the table a [air-drop] capability that our opponents would no longer have to worry about.” 24 Hodges conceded that strategic surprise has been lost in this statement, since knowledge of America’s capability will ensure prudent planning of counter air-drop activity by an adversary.  It is assessed that surprise is therefore not dominant in American planning doctrine. Kent agreed, noting that “improved surveillance and communication militate against the achievement of surprise.” 25 Britain’s current air-drop capability prevents surprise from being achieved on several levels.  The increased necessity to expose to parliament the intention to use force provides ample warning to adversaries, and historical awareness of the capability will initiate prudent planning to defend against it.  The decision to then conduct an air-drop operation will not be adequately swift, due to the requirements of air-drop planning across two separate Services. This split also magnifies the perception of associated risk.  Inadequate dispersion of critical transport assets, combined with a transparent open source location of air-drop troops, will provide hostile actors several indicators and warnings that an air-drop operation is being prepared.  Taken together, these factors prevent surprise being achieved.

The very nature of surprise is “transient, as shock and confusion recede over time.” 26  Subsequent anticipation by the enemy during an air-drop operation can prove catastrophic, notwithstanding the requirement to safely conduct air manoeuvre to an operational area through a contested A2AD environment.  It is assessed that, as surprise can no longer be satisfactorily achieved during contemporary operations, it should be removed as a planning principle.  This clearly increases the risk to the air-drop force, since achieving surprise also supports initial force protection.  Although taken to an extreme, the experience of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu during the early months of 1954 by the Viet-Minh highlights the consequences of air-drop operations that lack surprise.  Following insertion of a brigade-size force in November 1953, General Giap surrounded and isolated it with artillery and anti-aircraft guns, such that by March 1954 resupply and reinforcement could only be conducted via exposed air-drop.  By May, and eventual surrender, the French had lost seven battalions.  “Enemy flak was devastating and prevented the French from mastery of the area, and indeed aircraft losses over and to the area totaled 244.” 27 There is therefore a requirement to mitigate the risk to an air-drop force that is created by removing surprise as a planning principle.  This paper will now discuss the proposed principle of linkup to mitigate the risk created by removal of surprise.

A linkup is classified as an enabling activity, with the aim of “join[ing] two or more units…They normally occur in contested territory and may involve different types of forces. 28 From a British stance, probably the most notorious linkup operation involving air-drop forces is that of the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem during Operation Market Garden, which ended in disaster for several reasons, but primarily the inability of British XXX Corps to conduct a linkup with forces at the bridge.  Kesselring stated that “an air drop behind the enemy front is…an envelopment by air, an envelopment executed in the third dimension.” 29 Extrapolation of Clausewitz’s theories therefore highlights the requirement for a linkup with air-drop forces.  He stated that “it is a completely false kind of notion to consider that coming on the rear of an enemy is immediately an advantage in itself.  In itself it is as yet nothing, but it will become something in connection with other things.” 30

Following Churchill’s direction, it was considered that British air-drop forces’ principal employment would be “the spearhead for a large operation in which they would be supported by land forces.” 31 This was necessitated by the inability to air-drop heavy weapons alongside the troops, with which they could defend themselves appropriately against an enemy ground force.  The requirement to linkup with a deployed air-drop force was shared by the Germans, who believed that the linkup of an airborne formation with ground troops had to be achieved within two to three days.  This was developed by General Franz Halder, Chief of Staff of the German Army, who directed that “the essential condition for the successful employment of airborne operations – even on a large scale – exists only in close cooperation with the operations of ground troops.” 32 failures at Arnhem were analysed and later rectified during Operation Varsity, the Allied crossing of the Rhine in March 1945.  Summing up the key air-drop related learning points from the operation, American airborne General Gavin stated that “[commanders] employed important innovations, including landing the air[drop] troops after the ground assault began, and using drop zones within medium artillery range of advancing ground forces.” 33 In other words, the requirement to conduct a linkup between air-drop and ground forces was a planning principle that enabled force protection of the lightly armed paratroops, and sustained operational momentum.

It was not just the Western theatre of war that saw parachute operations. The Japanese conducted an air-drop to seize Menado airfield in Indonesia in January 1942, and rapidly conducted a linkup with marine infantry who were able to consolidate and defend the position using heavier weapons.  There were sixteen air-drop operations in the Eastern theatre in total, and the requirement to linkup with maritime forces was identified as critical.34 French air-drop operations in Indochina in the 1950s totalled a staggering 156, ranging from patrol to brigade-size drops.  Their battalion-sized air-drop operation onto Cao Bang ridge in October 1950 is notable for the fact that over eighty percent of the inserted force was destroyed; there was no supporting ground plan and the French paratroops were not supported by heavy weapons.35  During the second Arab-Israeli War in October 1956 the Israeli Defence Force conducted an air-drop to seize the Mitla pass.  Sharon’s men of the 202 Parachute Brigade were saved only thanks to their linkup with ground forces, which then maintained operational momentum west.36  More recent air-drop operations by American and French units in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali, have also relied upon ground linkup to strengthen, rather than extract, the force.37

Air-drop forces are vulnerable due to the limited amount of weapons, equipment and ammunition they can carry to battle.  This weakness is currently only a planning consideration in doctrine, rather than the foundation on which an air-drop capability should be employed.38A principle that forces planners to mitigate against this weakness is therefore required. Russian doctrine delivers this. The former Commander-in-Chief of the Airborne arm, General V F Margelov went so far as to describe the entire purpose of air-drop troops as “to conduct operations in co-ordination with the main arms of the ground so as to ensure the high speed and continuity of the offensive.”39  It dictates that a requirement for success is that “airborne operations should include the preparation for the movement of large ground units to permit the prompt reinforcement of airborne troops after their initial landing.”40Lessons identified in numerous French Army documents, as well as a 2013 white paper have also stressed the importance of linkup operations between air-drop forces and deployed ground forces to maintain offensive momentum during Operation Serval.41 The French linkup occurred primarily with ground forces already in the African theatre, where they have a permanent forward presence.  Operation Musketeer first highlighted the inadequacy of Britain’s land bases to enable a linkup operation: “Libya and Jordan were closed to us; facilities at Cyprus were inadequate; Malta too far and too small.”42The NSR does outline Britain’s desire for global influence but the lack of any sizeable forward presence, save for that currently deployed in Estonia, would prevent a linkup with air-drop forces akin to the French model.  For that to occur, Britain shall have to adapt its present strategy or ensure maritime forces are correctly positioned to achieve the linkup.

The concept of Joint Theatre Entry (JTE) does propose that a linkup is conducted between air-drop troops used to initially secure an airhead, and air-land troops used to reinforce that position.  Joint doctrine defines JTE as “the projection of forces into a new theatre of operations to conduct operations in response to an emerging crisis.”43 Under different nomenclature, this was the tactic the American military employed in Operation Urgent Fury to seize the International Airport during the invasion of Grenada in 1983, and Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama in 1989. In each operation, an initial battalion-sized air-drop was used to seize an airfield, which allowed the subsequent in load of up to a division of air-land troops.  The key requirement outlined for Joint Theatre Entry forces is to establish “temporary or localised control of the domains of operation so they can seize, establish, and protect a lodgement.”44  Although the British train for such operations, the disparity between force capability is evident with British forces conducting company-sized drops to enable the landing of the remainder of a battalion, plus limited enabling troops.

The American assessment of force elements required to conduct this sort of dynamic operation, against even a non-peer enemy, demonstrates that the current British capability is insufficient.  It is assessed that although the British could conduct JTE operations, the force elements involved in both the seizure of lodgement and subsequent linkup are insufficient to mitigate risk to a sufficiently low level for the use of air-drop forces.  The NSR outlines a vision for global influence, but a lack of ground based forward deployed forces such as used by the French in Mali will prevent a sufficiently quick air-drop linkup with anything other than maritime forces.  British air-drop forces could have a vital role to play in supporting the emerging Strike concept (a mutually beneficial relationship to be sure) but to this author’s knowledge there has been no development of this proposal.  General Hodges states that for “it [JTE] to be a viable option…you have to have the kit.”  This can be expanded to include any of the force elements of which the capability is composed.  The American military has the resources to achieve this proposed principle using airborne troops alone.  Britain does not.  Linkup is therefore proposed as a distinct guiding principle for British air-drop forces.  

A linkup is also required to enable another principle of operations, that of concentration of force, which is defined as “concentrating combat power at a pre-selected time and place to achieve decisive results.” This concentration could be achieved using any number of means, for example: the use of artillery; or air support to achieve a desired effect on the enemy. Kesselring believed that “in spite of rockets and atom bombs, it is still the possession of the land, the conquest of enemy territory, that will decide the issue in a war.”45 The British government’s National Security Objectives prioritise protection of territory, and since land based forces are required to hold territory, this paper will analyse why concentration of force should be replaced by linkup as a planning principle for air-drop forces.

Mann argues that “rapid concentration of force is fundamental to maintain relative superiority and achieve success.”46Due to the light nature of air-drop forces, concentration of force is subsequently reliant on achieving overwhelming mass of troops on the objective, and, initially, airpower to provide joint fire support.  Airpower shall be discussed later in the paper.  During World War Two the Germans struggled to achieve critical mass due to the dispersal of parachutists during air-drop operations: “experience shows that parachute landings are very widely scattered so that assembly takes a considerable time.”47Dispersal was caused by a combination of factors: poor communication and navigation systems might split the force during air manoeuvre; the limited troop carrying ability of transport aircraft required large numbers of them to insert an air-drop force; and effective anti-aircraft defence.  The Germans went so far as to insert air-land forces ahead of the parachutists to ensure that critical mass was achieved as quickly as possible.  French efforts to reinforce their position at Dien Bien Phu were impeded by “the great dispersion of parachutists upon dropping”,48 prevented them from achieving critical mass at key points. This was mirrored by the South African Defence Force during Operation Reindeer in 1978.  Their air-drop operation to seize the village of Cassinga in Angola went “catastrophically wrong…paratroopers landed on their objectives and went into action separately.  Several sticks landed in the river rather than the DZ, or on the other side of it which meant they took little part in the battle after being forced to jettison all their kit for survival.”49The failure to achieve critical mass on an objective in a timely manner heavily impacts the chance of success during an air-drop mission.

The Allies achieved critical mass during Operation Varsity by inserting the air-drop force in one air manoeuvre operation, rather than several smaller iterations as had been the case at Arnhem.50This allowed the whole air-drop force to be inserted within an hour, which was cited as one of the main reasons for success.51This was mirrored during more recent large-scale air-drop operations.  During Operation Junction City 726 men from US 173 Airborne Brigade were delivered in seven minutes.52Russian doctrine highlights mass as a condition for success during air-drop operations, and they deem it so important that their airborne force development has focussed on increasing the scale of their air-drop capability.53Modern transport aircraft are better equipped to deploy air-drop forces onto an objective, and are able to carry more troops, which mitigates to an extent the dispersion issue.  The larger size of aircraft also increases the number of casualties that will be caused in the event of a critical incident occurring during insertion, which increases risk to force and reputation.  This latter factor has political ramifications which will prevent the air-drop capability from being used.  Mass drop from the air to achieve rapid critical mass on the ground requires delivery from a continuous stream formation of aircraft.  This formation is “a highly specialised business, calling for a standard of training that cannot always be guaranteed in the light of the many other tasks and commitments which fall to any Transport Force.”54Notwithstanding enemy action, to ensure air assets retain the currency required to deliver appropriate mass they must either be protected or increased in number to allow for simultaneous activity.  Since the Royal Air Force lacks the capacity to insert even a battlegroup in one continuous stream, it is assessed that critical mass cannot be achieved by British air-drop forces alone.55The principle of concentration of force is therefore unachievable and should be removed. Associated risk is mitigated by the inclusion of the guiding principle of linkup for air-drop operations.

To insert an air-drop force, air assets must first conduct air manoeuvre operations to the operational area.  To protect the relatively large, slow and low-flying transport aircraft as they deliver their air-drop forces, supporting air operations will defend against enemy air power seeking to target the transport aircraft, as well as suppressing enemy ground-based air defence assets.  Once dropped, the lightly armed air-drop forces require additional firepower. This is likely to be available initially only from the air due to the dislocation of air-drop forces from other ground troops.  Further, until a linkup is achieved they will be reliant on air operations for sustainment. Mann acknowledged this by stating that “planners must consider the air force’s ability to compensate for an airborne force’s lack of firepower and sustain it until linked-up with a ground force.”56To enable air manoeuvre operations, and then provide fire support and logistics to the air-drop force, the air component will attempt to establish control of the airspace over the operational area.  Control of the air can be achieved in two ways, by establishing: air supremacy; or air superiority.  The former is defined as “that degree of air superiority wherein the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference.”   By definition it is only applicable against an adversary with air capabilities, so would not apply in combat operations such as those conducted by the British in Afghanistan from 2006.  Even against an opponent with air assets, since doctrine states that “control of airspace will be limited and not constant”, air supremacy cannot be achieved by implication, as limited presence will allow adversarial action.  It is therefore discounted as a potential principle of air-drop operations.  Air superiority is defined as “that degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.”   This paper will now analyse the role of air superiority during air-drop operations to propose it as a guiding principle.

Captain Miksche’s study of air-drop forces throughout World War Two concluded that “[air-drop] troops cannot be launched successfully against the enemy’s rear, unless throughout the operation they can rely fully on support from the air arm.”57Without that support any initial advantage is lost to the enemy which brings about decisive failure.  Miksche discussed the air component’s ability to provide fire support to the air-drop force, which is known in modern parlance as close air support.  Operation Varsity proved that assaults against defended drop zones were possible, “provided that the landings were well supported by fighters [aircraft].”58Air support was key to the success of the air-drop conducted by 3rdBattalion The Parachute Regiment during Operation Musketeer in 1956: it “enabled the paras to defeat the Egyptians, against heavy resistance.”59It was also critical during Operation Reindeer.  The South African Air Force defeated a Cuban armoured column sent to reinforce the rebel position at Cassinga, preventing the isolated and lightly armed air-drop forces from being overwhelmed by the five tanks and thirteen armoured personnel carriers.60 In 1983, air support proved vital to the Ranger Battalion tasked to seize the Point Salines International Airport during the American invasion of Grenada.61So important is the provision of air support that the British Air Ministry cited it as the essential factor to be taken into account during the planning for “all airborne operations when enemy opposition is expected.  It should be maintained until the force is relieved.”62

The Germans also considered this factor a precondition for success.  “The attacker’s air force should be so strong that even at the beginning of the war it will either be wholly superior to the enemy, or, in fighting the enemy air force, will seriously weaken that force and thus pave the way for mastery of the air with regard to time and space.”63For airborne operations specifically, this “temporary and local air superiority is an absolute necessity.”64They were only able to meet it during the earlier phases of the war however.  Once German ambition had been tempered following the Battle of Britain, an Eastern front had been opened, and American mass production arrived in the European theatre, the Germans were unable to achieve air superiority in any meaningful way, even over their own territory to conduct vital training.  Their effort to reinforce Sicily with airborne forces, for example, lacked vital close air support from fighters and dive bombers, and was conducted without the intensive training and rehearsal that had been in place in previous airborne operations.65To mitigate the subsequent threat to their airborne forces caused by a lack of air support, parachute divisions were equipped with heavy weapons and artillery, but the additional weight did little to improve their air manoeuvrability.66From a British perspective, Arnhem failed for many reason, but a key lesson identified was that “arrangements for close air support were weak and failed utterly in the event.”67The same was true of Dien Bien Phu, where a “key French weakness was in fact the lack of airborne firepower.  The fire-suppression missions flown by French fighters were inadequate given the sheer overmatch of enemy artillery ranged against the French.”68Whether or not air superiority is achieved has proven to have a direct link to mission success or failure.

The RAND Corporation Rapid Force Projection study makes for disturbing reading from an air-drop perspective.  In their simulations, an American airborne brigade simulated battle against a variety of Russian-type armoured units that ranged in size.  In one of the presented scenarios of JTE prior to linkup with land forces, the Brigade lasted a little less than two hours before being overrun, with the loss of almost all forces.  An American airborne brigade boasts far more combat power than its British equivalent, containing organic aviation attack helicopters and an anti-tank unit, so it is likely the British would not have survived even this long.  It is interesting to note that the study was conducted against a force in a peer versus near peer environment.  The survivability of the Brigade plummeted further when placed against a peer enemy, which is broadly the likely comparison of the British 16 Air Assault Brigade against larger Russian regiments. RAND’s conclusion was that the current American airborne force structure could not sustain a credible defence against a near peer enemy.  This scientific, objective proof defeats the more subjective views of several military authors, who suggest that an air-drop capability does have the combat power to “seize, secure and importantly hold vital areas of key terrain.”69An increase in both direct and indirect fire capability is required to achieve anything like a sustainable defence.  As already highlighted, until a linkup operation can take place, British air-drop forces are reliant on close air support for this indirect fire, which necessitates air superiority.70Russian doctrine recognises this, highlighting ‘success of airborne operations is in many ways due to the overall superiority in the air over the enemy.’71

It is likely that in a peer versus peer conflict, an opposing force will seek to prevent friendly air superiority for this last reason.  There is thus a requirement to protect the air-drop force during insertion.  To do so necessitates air superiority both along the approach route and over the drop zone. General Giap’s anti-aircraft defence ringing Dien Bien Phu “was devastating and prevented the French from mastery of the air in the area.  The infiltration route for the aircraft had become a veritable “flak corridor” along which the French aircraft had to run the gauntlet.”72The impact of this air defence had second order effects, as aircraft were diverted from close support to flak suppression missions, further denuding the French air-drop forces of support.  Resupply loads were also increasingly misdropped as a result of transport aircraft flying higher to avoid the flak.  Indeed, several accounts cite defeat at Dien Bien Phu as being primarily a result of the disparity in firepower, which the French air force could not reduce.  “If any group of enemy soldiers should be considered indispensable to victory, then it must be the Viet-Minh antiaircraft gunners.”73Modern air manoeuvre tactics would use a suppression of enemy air defence mission to protect the air-drop insertion.  These missions allow “friendly aircraft to operate in airspace defended by enemy air defence systems”’74 They are extremely resource heavy in a modern A2AD environment, such as employed by the Russians or Chinese, with a multitude of different weapons capabilities to be defended against.  Their endurance is therefore questionable.

British doctrine states that “sustainability may be the deciding factor in assessing the feasibility of a particular operation.”75Kent proposed that without effective air superiority provided by a suppression mission, ‘the problem of resupply will be acute since the enemy will be aware of the need to deliver within a certain area.’76This increases the risk to a deployed air-drop force, since its fighting strength and endurance is reliant on resupply by air until a linkup can be achieved. The decisive factor therefore is whether the military situation permits the air transport of supplies to sustain the force.  A suppression mission is not only required during the insertion of the air-drop force, but also during every subsequent resupply mission until a linkup occurs. This requirement to protect the resupply of a deployed air-drop force increases the pull on scarce resources, as the French found to their cost at Dien Bien Phu.  The experience of the British Army in Burma also demonstrated the impact of decreased aerial resupply to air-drop forces.  All Chindit airbases in Burma were totally dependent on air assets for resupply, casualty evacuation, and reinforcement.  Japanese air defence along insertion routes, and increased air presence around these airbases, meant that the British could not retain air superiority.  With its loss “the strain became too much and the operation was folded with No1 Air Commando withdrawn.  Without air supply and air support long-range operations could not succeed.”77Admiral McRaven, commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, stated “if relative superiority is lost, it is difficult to regain.”78During World War Two, the Germans found it impossible to conduct protracted aerial resupply, not only because they could not maintain air superiority but also because they lacked sufficient transport planes.  This is a sobering lesson given the strategic nature of a modern air-drop capability, the distances that can be affected, and thus the immense effort required by the Royal Air Force to provide this vital function and ensure the protection and sustainment of the paratroops.  To ensure the survivability of an air-drop force, air superiority is therefore proposed as a planning principle.

To summarise, the second section of this paper used study of historical air-drop operations to propose methods that might allow Britain’s air-drop capability to retain relevance in the contemporary operating environment.  Linking into risk analysis, German and Russian experience showed how the fusion of air and land capabilities into one command structure provided an advocate for air-drop operations at the highest level of Defence.  Education of decision makers was another factor shown to lower risk thresholds.  Historical study developed changes to extant doctrine to ensure that politicians receive the correct guidance for employment of their potentially strategic capability, which would again increase the chances of its use.  This paper recommended reinforcement of the principle of ‘clear chain of command’, the addition of ‘air superiority’ and ‘linkup’, and the removal of ‘surprise’ and ‘concentration of force’.  

A comprehensive and coherent air-drop capability provides a nation with a truly strategic deterrent, capable of rapid and global intervention against a full range of threats.  A capability that lacks investment, such as Britain possesses, will never be used and becomes an unnecessary drain on scarce resources. Yet an air-drop capability has proven to be important in military operations since its very inception, giving military planners the ability to conduct an envelopment of the enemy in the aerial dimension, and in so doing exposing areas of weakness for subsequent effect.  The ambitions outlined in the NSR do present options for the employment of Britain’s air-drop capability, but not in its current guise.  The associated risks created by lack of investment will always outweigh the benefits.  A resurgent Russia is the opportunity that Britain’s air-drop capability requires. Intrinsic threats to society have caused rapid institutional change throughout history, and the British Army must adapt its air-drop capability to ensure that it remains able to conduct strategic influence, when so many other levers of influence have been divided amongst competing Services or higher commands.  

Moving the air-drop capability under JFC will lower political and military risk thresholds and allow for increased and worthwhile resourcing.  Whether the capability remains conventional would make an interesting piece of future work.  Subordination under JFC would give the air-drop capability an opportunity to market itself as more special than conventional, and since political comment is not given on the activity of Britain’s special forces, this might enable the planning principle of surprise to be achieved.  This in turn would lower risk thresholds substantially, making employment of the capability far more likely.  A final moment of indulgence: it is this sort of approach that is required to ensure the survival of Britain’s elite force, The Parachute Regiment. Currently tied to an unusable capability, it too is threatened.  A lack of coherent discussion on mutual support to emerging military capabilities such as Strike or Specialised Infantry further devalues The Parachute Regiment’s preeminence as the British Army’s elite fighting force.  It is firmly believed that elite forces will always be required on the main effort of a commander’s plan, and therefore The Parachute Regiment’s future must lie down an innovative route, such as proposed by this paper, to ensure its survival.

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. Mann, Dropped! p. 37
  2. They are: unity of effort; concentration of force; economy of effort; freedom of action; definition of objectives; flexibility; initative; offensive sprirt; surprise; and security.
  3. NATO, “Allied Joint Doctrine, AJP 01 Operations,” (Edition E, Version 1, 2017): 1-13,  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/602225/doctrine_nato_allied_joint_doctrine_ajp_01.pdf(accessed August 14, 2018)
  4. Ministry of Defence, “Joint Doctrine Publication 01, UK joint operations doctrine,” (First edition, 2014): 103, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/389775/20141209-JDP_01_UK_Joint_Operations_Doctrine.pdf(accessed July 18, 2018)
  5. Weeks, Assault from the Sky, 6
  6. Ministry of Defence, “Army Doctrine Publication AC 71940, Land Operations,” (First edition, 2017): 1A-1, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/605298/Army_Field_Manual__AFM__A5_Master_ADP_Interactive_Gov_Web.pdf/ (accessed June 13, 2018)
  7. Marshall Miller, “Airborne Warfare: A concept the USSR actually can claim it invented first,” Armed Forces Journal International/note](October 1989): 48. 
  8. Ibid., p.49
  9. Mark Urban, “Soviet Airborne Forces,” British Army [Review, no. 66 (1980): 200.
  10. O.S. Tanenya and V.N. Uryupin, “Using Airborne Forces,” Military Thought, no. 3, vol. 26 (2017): 1-15.
  11. United States Army, Historical Study, Airborne Operations A German Appraisal(Washington D.C.: Center of Military History, 1989), 6
  12. United States Army, Historical Study, 13.
  13. Kenneth Macksey, Kesselring: The Making of the Luftwaffe (London: Frontline Books, 2012), 17.
  14. United States Army, Historical Study, 14.
  15. Weeks, Assault from the Sky, 183.
  16. Michael Shurkin, France’s War in Mali, lessons for an expeditionary army, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2014), 9.
  17. Kent, Requirement for airborne forces, 31.
  18. NATO, “Allied Joint Doctrine, AJP 01 Operations,” (Edition E, Version 1, 2017): 1-14,  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/602225/doctrine_nato_allied_joint_doctrine_ajp_01.pdf (accessed August 14, 2018)
  19. Whiting, Hunters from the Sky,16.
  20. Tugwell, Day of the Paratroops, p. 44.
  21. United States Army, Historical Study, p. 4.
  22. Ibid, p.30
  23. Tanenya and Uryupin, Using Airborne Forces, p. 13.
  24. Jen Judson, “US Army Europe commander defends need for airborne forces”, European Balance of Power (July 2017): https://www.defensenews.com/land/2017/07/24/us-army-europe-commander-defends-need-for-airborne-forces/(accessed June 25, 2018).
  25. Kent, Requirement for airborne forces, 28. 
  26. Ministry of Defence, “Army Doctrine Publication AC 71940, Land Operations,” (First edition, 2017):1-11https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/605298/Army_Field_Manual__AFM__A5_Master_ADP_Interactive_Gov_Web.pdf, (accessed June 13, 2018).
  27. Bernard Fall, Hell in a very small place, The Siege of Dien Bien Phu(Oxford: Alden Press, 1966), 131.
  28. Ministry of Defence, “Army Doctrine Publication AC 71940, Land Operations,” (First edition, 2017): 8-22,
  29. United States Army, Historical Study, 39.
  30. Carl von Clausewitz, On War Book VI: Chapter 24
  31. Air Ministry, Airborne Forces¸ 5.
  32.  United States Army, Historical Study 
  33. James Gavin, Airborne Warfare, (New York: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2014), 135.
  34. Weeks, Assault from the Sky, p.64
  35. Ibid., p127.
  36. Ibid., p139.
  37. Shurkin, France’s War in Mali, p.16.
  38. Urban, Soviet Airborne Force, p. 200.
  39. Ibid., p.50
  40. O.S. Tanenya and S.A. Buyanovsky, “Airborne forces in local wars and armed conflicts,” Military Thought, no. 3, vol. 0022 (2013), p. 43.
  41. Ibid., p.13
  42. Barker, Suez, 197.
  43. JCN 1/17 p.6
  44. Ibid p. 11
  45. United States Army, Historical Study, p. 39.
  46. Mann, Dropped!., p. 27.
  47. United States Army, Historical Study, p. 11.
  48. Fall, Hell in a Small Place, p. 8.

  49. Willem Steenkamp,  Border strike! South Africa into Angola(London: Butterworth and Co., 1983), p. 51.
  50. Gavin, Airborne Warfare, 135.
  51. Air Ministry, Airborne Forces¸ 239.
  52. Bernard Rogers, Cedar Falls Junction City, A Turning Point(Washington D.C.: Department of the Army, 1974), 29.
  53. Tanenya and Buyanovsky, Airborne Forces in Local Wars, 28.
  54. Kent, Requirement for airborne forces, 31.
  55. A battlegroup is a force tailored to conduct combined arms operation.  Its core is an infantry battalion, bolstered by additional fire support, enabling, and sustaining components.
  56. Mann, Dropped!, 26.
  57. F.O. Miksche, Paratroops: the history, organisation and tactical use of airborne formations (London: Faber and Faber, 1943), 56.
  58. Weeks, Assault from the Sky, 112.
  59. Ibid., 144.
  60. Steenkamp, Border strike!, 84.
  61. United States Department of Defence, “Overview of Operation Joint Fury”, International Security Affairs (1990): http://www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/International_security_affairs/grenada/181.pdf(accessed September 9, 2018).
  62. Air Ministry, Airborne Forces¸ 239.
  63. Air Ministry, Airborne Forces¸ 43.
  64. United States Army, Historical Study, 3.
  65. Weeks, Assault from the Sky, 50.
  66. United States Army, Historical Study, 13.
  67. Tugwell, Day of the Paratroops, 50.
  68. Fall, Hell in a Small Place, 104.
  69. Mike Thwaite, “Utility of Airborne Operations in Modern Warfare” (Defence Research Paper, JSCSC, 2017), 4.
  70. Randall Steeb, John Matsumura, Terrel Covington, Thomas Herbert, and Scot Eisenhard, “Exploiting new technology concepts for light airborne forces,” RAND Rapid Force ProjectionProject(1996).
  71. Tanenya and Buyanovsky, Airborne Forces in Local Wars, 30.
  72. Fall, Hell in a Small Place, 131.
  73. Ibid., 104.
  74. United States Department of Defense, “MCRP 3-31.2 Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD)” (First edition, 2016): 1-4, https://www.marines.mil/Portals/59/Publications/MCRP%203-31.2%20(Formerly%20MCWP%203-22.2).pdf?ver=2016-08-04-060548-463, (accessed September 9, 2018).
  75. Ministry of Defence, UK Defence doctrine, page 29.
  76. Kent, Requirement for airborne forces, 29.
  77. Weeks, Assault from the Sky, 70.
  78. William McRaven, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare (New York: Presidio Press, 1997), 6.

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