Are Airborne Forces Fundamentally Flawed as an Instrument of Strategy?

Are airborne forces still effective?

Many states around the world have airborne units, but it’s not often that they are used in airborne operations in modern warfare. So, what is the need for airborne forces? Are they fundamentally flawed and if so, why do states still use them? So I will be looking at what airborne forces are used for and what the positives and negatives of having airborne forces are. I will also look at how airborne forces were used during World War 2 and how they are used now. Airborne operations involve moving soldiers by air into an objective area. The idea of airborne forces came about during World War 1, with a plan by a US Colonel called Billy Mitchell who proposed that the United States should drop an infantry division behind German lines at Metz in 1919. He claimed this would create such chaos behind German lines that Allied soldiers would advance against a crumbling adversary. But this never happened due to the ceasefire in 1918 and ultimately an agreement being signed and ending the war.

The Airborne forces have many roles and gives a state a strategic option that otherwise would not be possible. The airborne force is well trained and can react quickly to any threat by an adversary and can be deployed to be a show of force against this potential threat. To be able to show a force that can react quickly is good for a state to strategically deter any threats that may be opposed against the state or its allies. One of the main roles the airborne forces do, and which has been seen in lots of major operations like Operation Market Garden, is to seize an objective and hold it until it main force can link up with them. This is good because it can cause confusion and panic within the enemy rank and especially with the Generals higher up the chain while its main force rolls past the enemy’s frontline and links up with the airborne forces. Alongside being able to take objectives, the airborne can set up forward operation bases (FOB) that can be used to support operations and to be able to react to the enemy in local areas. 

One of the most effective uses of the Airborne forces are that of the raids that they are capable of doing. Raids have been strategically important because airborne forces are able to drop and can kill or capture high profile targets or can capture enemy intel. In 1942, C Company from the 2nd Battalion, the parachute regiment, took part in Operation Biting, which was a raid to capture a German radar to understand how advanced their radar technology is, but they also managed to capture two German radar technicians. This raid was a huge success and showed that the airborne forces were effective at raids and many more raids were committed by airborne forces. 

The airborne forces can reinforce other units and support its flanks quickly when needed. If troops are needing support at the front, then airborne units are ideal to send reinforcements quickly. During Operation Market Garden, we saw after the initial drop that more airborne forces were sent to help take the objectives.

A very useful role that airborne forces can play is to deny terrain/routes to the enemy and delay, disrupt, and reduce the enemy forces. This means that the enemy does not have time to be able to organise a defence and it also causes chaos among the enemy’s army and its logistical lanes. During Operation Overlord, airborne forces from Britain and America were tasked to capture bridges and to delay German reinforcements in aiding the defence of the Normandy landings.

One of the most useful and efficient use of Airborne units in my opinion is the creation of special forces units that had been established from the creation of airborne units. Special forces give a state an ability to be able to do things in secrecy. The first special forces were the British Special Air Service. During World War 2, they would support French resistance groups and commit sabotage behind the enemy lines, but in the modern era they have been given many roles from Counter Terrorism, close protection, training militias, sabotage, and many other missions. This is effective because you can send a small amount of men to do these missions without having to send a massive number of regular soldiers, so this will cause less casualties. But airborne forces can also be adapted to be able to do a regular work of a normal soldier, so these specially trained soldiers are able to adapt their work into either a normal soldier or a paratrooper when needed.

Even though airborne forces have many roles they have many challenges and flaws with the concept of airborne forces. Before airborne troops can be airlifted to its objective, the air force needs to gain air superiority. "Successful air drops require air superiority if one wants to drop troops close to or in a combat zone or else you risk losing air planes full of paratroopers to enemy Fighter Jets." In modern combat, even if you have gained air superiority, there are missile defences that are now a threat to aircraft. So, it would be very hard for aircraft to get to its target objective. If air superiority is not gained, an aircraft is vulnerable when flying to its target and can be easily shot down by other aircraft. They are also vulnerable to attack from air defences. During World War 2, many aircraft got shot down before it got to its drop zone and many people were killed in this way. Today’s air defences consist of advanced anti-aircraft missiles which are very hard to avoid. When paratroopers make it to the drop zone, they will have to jump out of the plane, which can be dangerous if they do not jump correctly. If you don’t jump correctly, you can seriously injure yourself and you also must be able to land correctly and away from trees because this has the potential to cause painful injuries to the soldier. All paratroopers when jumping from the aircraft need to look out for each other and have good communication while parachuting because there is the risk of colliding mid air and getting both canopies tangled with each other. As paratroopers are parachuting they are falling very slowing which adds to the risk of being shoot by enemy soldiers or even a flak round, which is designed to explode and throw fragments around, can hit the paratrooper which can seriously injure them or even kill him. 

Intelligence is a huge challenge for airborne operations. It is very hard to find correct and accurate intelligence behind enemy lines. So, for airborne units they are not 100 percent sure at what they will be going against and this can cause problems when they arrive at the objective. If intelligence Is wrong, then they could be heading towards a massacre and being completely outnumbered with no real idea on what the objective is. Even if you have the best intelligence, it is very hard to understand what troops are stationed there. In World War 2, "British intelligence failed to note the presence of two SS Panzer divisions near Eindhoven and Arnhem in September 1944. This intelligence failure led to the destruction of the British 1st Parachute Division." The weather is unpredictable and even when you have technology that predicts the weather, it is not always what you may think. Planes are unable to fly in bad weather in most cases. So, if there is bad weather then this has the potential to delay an operation or planes can be damaged and crash due to the bad weather. Operation Overlord was delayed for 24 hours due to bad weather. So, when planning an airborne operation, you need to make sure that weather is good enough for the planes to fly in and for the airborne units to parachute in. Aircraft, alongside the airborne units that they carry, need to be able to carry supplies for the soldiers. Compared to ships, aircraft can carry very limited supplies and cannot carry very heavy equipment. It is only recently that it has been possible to transport light artillery guns by helicopter or to parachute vehicles and artillery but throughout World War 2 and most of post war, aircraft can only carry the soldiers and that limited the supplies that the soldiers themselves will carry. Because of the low supply that soldiers have and the difficulty of resupplying, "airborne units were not designed for prolonged engagements independent of support. The combined lack of resupply, reinforcement, and weight restrictions (prohibiting all but the very lightest anti-tank weapons and vehicles, and even greatly limiting infantry heavy weapons), along with the fact they were surrounded by the enemy, meant that they would attrition significantly faster than normal ground troops. Particularly as surprise wore off and the enemy could concentrate their forces on the airborne positions."

Another challenge with airborne units is that they can have very limited mobility. Before they are dropped, airborne units can be deployed where they are needed. But "once on the ground, the airborne units become regular infantry which means: limited tactical mobility, limited sustainment, and limited protection." This is because once they have been dropped they become normal infantry soldiers. Airborne soldiers are limited because it’s difficult to deploy vehicles alongside the soldiers and gain support from other units, so they are very much having to travel on foot and very much on their own. When they have landed, they become limited because most of the time people get split up from their units and people don’t know where they are so it’s very hard for them to be able to move to the right objective. 

The biggest challenge in my opinion is the command and control of the airborne forces. When the soldiers get on the ground many soldiers do not reach their drop zone and many get separated from their units. For the officers that are in command, it is very hard to organise its forces once dropped, because the majority of the time people don’t get dropped where they should be dropped, and this causes confusion, so the leaders do not have any idea where everyone is. An account from General James Gavin who airdropped into Sicily said:

"When we jumped into Sicily, the units became separated, and I couldn’t find anyone. Eventually I stumbled across two colonels, a major, three captains, two lieutenants, and one rifleman, and we secured the bridge. Never in the history of war have so few been led by so many.” This is a big challenge for the airborne and it is very hard to improve command when this happens or to prevent it from happening.

Airborne operations have changed since World War 2. During World War 2, airborne units would either be delivered by parachuting or by gliders. Many of these aircraft would be shot down and many people would be killed. Today airborne units would not jump out of planes into battle. The last time British Paratroopers did this was in the Suez Canal crisis in 1953. With the creation of Helicopters, even the normal soldiers that are not trained for airborne operations can be transported by the air. It would be harder for airborne operations to happen like they used to in World War 2 with the advancement of air defence missiles, which would mean that these aircraft that carry airborne units would be easily targeted. Many air defence systems can fire missiles for huge distances which means that these planes would have to drop the soldiers from out of range of the missiles and then the soldiers would have to travel for huge distances, which would be ineffective. 

With the invention of helicopters, the airborne units have not needed to paradrop anywhere and instead they can be transported by helicopter. Even regular soldiers are able to be transported by helicopter with no real training needed. Helicopters have more mobility and can pick them back up after they have completed the objective. An advantage of para drops is that the plane can transport troops faster and much further away and helicopters can only really be effective if there is a base not too far away and helicopters cannot carry as many soldiers or equipment as the plane. During World War 2, airborne operations were used en mass, with the Allies using huge number of soldiers to parachute behind enemy lines, which was done in France, the Netherlands, and Sicily but there were huge amounts of casualties and they needed to be relieved by its ground forces for them to be successful. Today, airborne assaults are done by helicopters and are not done en mass. They are used for small raids in capturing or killing high profile targets. Even though they have not dropped into battle since the Suez Canal, they still train to drop from aircraft as part of the states reaction force.

The conclusion that I have come up with is that I believe that although airborne units don’t have the traditional role as much as they used to and that they perform the same role as the regular infantry soldier, they are still are useful and still can perform many roles. In many states the airborne are the elite soldiers that are highly trained. They no longer perform mass airborne operations due to the high casualty rate that it causes and only perform smaller operations and raids, but they still are trained to do airborne operations, which is good in case they ever need to do one and to be able to have it as an option. I don’t think that the airborne force is flawed but with the current airborne techniques and technology, I don’t see airborne operations happening, especially with air defence systems that are currently about, but there are future technologies that are being planned that could change this. For example, "The Special Parachute and Logistics Consortium" is a German venture between two companies with expertise in parachuting. Their most eye-catching project is the Gryphon Next Generation Parachute System. This is described as a modular upgrade for parachute systems for use in “high-altitude, high-opening” jump missions, typically carried out by Special Forces. This 6-foot wing gives a glide ratio of 5:1, which means that a drop from 30,000 feet will allow you to glide about 30 miles. The makers estimate that this would take around 15 minutes, giving an average speed of about 60 miles an hour. This new technology, if successful, could bring back airborne operations and give a solution to avoiding aircraft and air defence systems. So, although the airborne units can’t perform the typical airborne operation, they still have some capabilities and potentially they are a huge prospect for the future.

Now Reading
Are Airborne Forces Fundamentally Flawed as an Instrument of Strategy?
Read Next
Jobs for Military Veterans Without Degrees