Time to drop the Airborne

By Colonel (Ret.) Don McFetridge


The Army and indeed the entire Department of Defense is under excruciating pressure to reduce both size and budget. In such an atmosphere, the Army must give every unit and every capability the acid test of utility and cost-effectiveness. It is long past the time we should have dispensed with expensive anachronisms. Biplanes, gliders, horse cavalry and coast artillery must make a place on the shelf of history for parachute infantry. The usefulness of the Army’s over investment in airborne capabilities passed long ago.

Faced with justifying every dollar spent and every training hour committed, the Army is dispensing with everything from bayonet drill to armored reconnaissance. Yet, over 11% of the Army is still “airborne capable”. The cost of maintaining this historical anachronism – brigade and division size parachute assault-capable units – is substantial. The parachute assault, i.e. the forced entry “capability” that supposedly provides options to contingency planners is a chimera. Air landing is a separate and distinct issue; any unit can deplane at an airstrip. For decades the Army has devoted scarce resources to maintaining a substantial airborne training base, equipment development and support establishment as well as a large inventory of specialized (and generally less capable) equipment that contributes little or nothing to the core war-fighting mission. The several airborne brigades (with the attendant division and corps staffs), multiple Special Forces groups, Ranger Regiment, support and sustainment logistical brigades and battalions, the Airborne Board, Black Knights (with their dedicated aviation support) all consume scarce resources at rates that are simply unjustifiable and vastly in excess of any realistic future requirement.[1]

This assessment is in no way a reflection on the proud heritage of paratroopers or any denigration of their valor or fidelity. Parachute Infantry Regiments have every right to maintain the pride they have in their lineage back to World War II, just as Cavalry Regiments trace theirs to the 1930’s and Field Artillerymen correctly maintain they were at one time the entire US Army. No matter how glorious however, history did not justify maintaining horse-mounted units or muzzle-loading cannon – nor Coast Artillery, glider-borne units, tactical nuclear weapons, biplanes or battleships. Their time came and has now gone.

From a strategic, operational and tactical perspective airborne units of battalion, brigade, much less division size, have not been needed for half a century and are highly unlikely to be required in the future. The reasons for this are abundantly clear.

Strategic utility. Strategically, a major airborne forced-entry operation to seize and develop an airhead and then support it to achieve a decisive effect is a fantasy. Airborne units have been used on only a few occasions for major strategic operations, all but one in World War 2. The most notable of these included Operation Merkur, the German airborne seizure of Crete, and Operation Market Garden, the Arnhem operation, and Operation Varsity, the Rhine River crossing. The first two of these operations suffered such high casualties that both were disasters. The Germans eventually prevailed at ruinous cost on Crete and then only because of a tactical error by one New Zealand battalion commander who abandoned the only airfield the Germans captured. Merkur’s ruinous casualties destroyed the Luftwaffe’s airborne division and convinced Hitler that major airborne operations were a thing of the past. The Wehrmacht never again launched a major airborne assault. Crete played no further significant part in the war and was of marginal value to the German war effort. It was so little threat to the Allies that they ignored it for the rest of the war.

Market Garden failed with the destruction of the British 1st Airborne Division and little to show for it. The last major air drop of World War Two was Operation Varsity. Operation Varsity was a large scale demonstration of the ability to land paratroops under ideal conditions. Largely mounted because the resources were available and sitting idle, it was not decisive in effecting a crossing of the Rhine River which had already been accomplished elsewhere against a crumbling German defense.

Post World War 2, the single major strategic airborne operation was Operation Castor, the French deep penetration airdrop at Dien Bien Phu, an operation whose outcome is legendary and whose failure collapsed the French war effort in Indochina. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find a strategic use of airborne troops that made a decisive strategic or operational contribution to any campaign or war.

Operational employment. There have been a number of operational airborne attacks, conducted to achieve a decisive but local impact on a battle. Few were significant successes. At D-Day, for example, the main contributions of the scattered paratroopers was to sow confusion, cause some minor disruption of German reaction to the invasion and seize two bridges. While of value, these actions were not critical to the course of the battle. If the 82nd, 101st and British 6th Airborne Divisions had landed intact and accomplished all their missions, but even one of the amphibious assaults had failed, the invasion would have been compromised if not defeated.

Ironically, the American airborne divisions’ most famous battle involved no parachuting except for supplies. This was the defense of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. For that operation, the 101st Airborne Division was trucked to the village in borrowed vehicles (it had almost none of its own) and successfully defended the area with its organic light weapons and artillery, reinforced by tanks and artillery of Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division.

The 11th Airborne’s paratroop landing on Corregidor incurred significant landing injuries in an operation that could as easily have been done by an amphibious landing as the Japanese had successfully accomplished three years before. The Russian’s only attempt to use large scale air assault, at Kanev-Bukrin, was an Arnhem-style debacle. The single US airborne operation of Korea, at Sinju, was little more than a large scale training operation that utterly failed in its objective of trapping large units of the retreating North Korean People’s Army. The only airborne drop in Vietnam landed on a drop zone already secured by armored ground forces and made little if any contribution to the local military situation.

As for Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada, much has been made of this airborne “success”. In fact, the entire air drop involved two companies of Army Rangers whose primary mission was to clear the main runway so the main elements of the 82nd Airborne could land and deplane. The Marine battalion that landed in the north of the island with its organic transportation and armor rapidly seized over 80% of the island including some of the 82nd Airborne’s objectives. Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama, dropped 1300 rangers to seize airfields unneeded for the operation and unoccupied by significant Panamanian forces.

Tactically, airborne units suffer severe limitations in mobility and firepower in exchange for their ability to parachute. On one issue we must be clear. Parachuting is not a military capability. Parachuting is a sport no different than fencing or horseback riding. The difference is that we have put aside carrying swords and riding horses into battle, not because there could never be an isolated occasion where such talents could be useful, but because such cases are so rare and unlikely that they do not warrant the cost of maintaining the capability. The parachute is simply an implement that permits some specialized movement from one point to another. In that sense, it is no different from a bicycle, ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle), horse, truck, armored personnel carrier or helicopter. What distinguishes the parachute infantryman from those using the other forms of transportation is that tactically and operationally he is far less flexible in comparison. Once on the ground, the airborne trooper has no more mobility than a Roman Legionnaire. The paratrooper cannot use his parachute to move about the battlefield as the dragoon, motorized or mechanized soldier can use their mounts. He is just another infantryman, less heavily armed and supported than his brothers and arguably not as well trained.

Maintaining parachuting currency is an expensive proposition. The individual must make regular practice drops that require refresher training, significant administrative record keeping and costly airframe hours. In addition, parachuting remains a hazardous event. Over the decades, thousands of soldiers have suffered career ending, or limiting, parachuting injuries. And to these must be added the hundreds of fatalities in parachuting accidents and malfunctions. While Army training is meant to be tough and inherently dangerous, no other activity carries the same level of risk to achieve simple proficiency in a non-combat skill.

Doing all this is time consuming. To stay current, a paratrooper must make regular training drops taking away valuable training time from proficiency in combat skills. Further, since parachuting is a critical skill, soldiers who miss a practice jump with their units must make this up at another time, disrupting team cohesion for a second time.

An airborne trooper can carry as much as any infantryman on the battlefield. However, his unit cannot. Without organic transportation, heavier crew served weapons must either be added to the soldier’s burden or left behind. In the Grenada operation, crew served anti-armor weapons and mortars were left at Ft Bragg. When the enemy appeared in armored personnel carriers, soldiers successfully improvised to defeat them but this required using courage and blood to substitute for having the proper weapons on hand. No greater example of this can be seen in the defense of Bastogne. The 101st Airborne’s troopers were lucky to have their organic light artillery reinforced by regular artillery and armor units holding Bastogne even before the first paratroopers arrived. Absent these heavier weapons, one can question if even the courage and fortitude of the paratroopers would have been enough to hold out.

Supporting the parachute training requirement keeps substantial Air Force and Army aviation elements busy year round simply hauling paratroopers up to let them make their required practice drops. For any aviation unit this is of marginal training utility. As the air transport fleet shrinks, USAF planners are ever less likely to support a major commitment of these scarce, vulnerable planes to fly low, slow, straight and level in order to make a concentrated tactical airdrop in a warzone.

From the dawn of the airborne concept, all armies that experimented with airborne units recognized they could only be used when the friendly side had total air superiority. With the use of ever larger airframes like the C-17, the risk of losing an aircraft means that even air superiority is not enough; there must be total air dominance. The presence of increasingly capable, cheap man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) limits the potential areas where a parachute assault is even hypothetically feasible. More than 100 countries have effective MANPADS in their inventories. This relegates major parachute assaults to locations where there is little to no opposition or to drop zones so remote that there are no effective defenses AND where the airflow is not subject to serious challenge. Or in other words, where an air assault is unnecessary in the first place. The airhead must then quickly link up with ground units to be supported through land based logistical lines of communications. Where do such places exist that are of sufficient importance as to justify a major commitment of force?

The demand for moving combat and combat support elements rapidly into an active theater will place enormous demands on the air transport fleet. These demands include moving the Air Force’s own units that will in turn claim priority on their limited air assets. In the end the Air Force will surely veto a major air drop under any but the most benign and permissive conditions, such as a training event.

In the past, the airborne assault at least had the singular advantage of being able to strike beyond the main battle line into the enemy’s operational rear areas. The advent of the helicopter has usurped this capability. Helicopters confer the additional advantages of greater flexibility, much better command and control, more robust logistical capabilities, greater firepower support and better reliability. It is for this reason that only one airborne operation was launched in Vietnam in contrast to the thousands of helicopter assaults. There are simply better ways to deliver soldiers to the fight and sustain them once committed. These factors have not been lost on the world’s armies. None maintain more than token airborne capabilities.

Nonetheless, there may be rare occasions when small airborne units have utility. In those ever diminishing cases where a parachute assault may be useful, such as a small unit raid, such operations can safely be left to the ranger battalions. The Army (and the Air Force) must prioritize the resources to delivering capabilities that address a broader spectrum of utility.

In closing this discussion, let us turn one last time to history and the illustrative case of MG John Herr. General Herr was the last US Army Chief of Cavalry. MG Herr was an innovator who championed the jeep and the armored vehicles that later became the backbone of America’s tank force in World War Two, the M-3 Stuart light and M-4 Sherman medium tanks. General Herr was all in favor of mechanization but NOT at the expense of his beloved horse-mounted cavalry. He clashed bitterly and unsuccessfully with CSA General Marshal (an infantryman) and LTG Leslie McNair (a field artilleryman) over the need to retain horse cavalry. His stubbornness kept the combat ready 1st Cavalry Division out of the war until late 1943 when it was dismounted and sent to the Pacific to fight as infantry. In Congressional testimony before he retired in 1942 and in his postwar memoirs, Herr pointed out that all the Axis powers as well as our Soviet and Chinese allies maintained and employed large horse cavalry units effectively during the war. Horse cavalry could go places and do things no other unit could. He was absolutely right! To this day, horses and mules have proven more useful in Afghanistan than parachutes.

What MG Herr failed to see was that horse mounted units operated in an ever shrinking band of usefulness on the modern battlefield. The limited operational spectrum when horse cavalry could still be effective was not commensurate with the cost to create and maintain such formations. General Herr’s affection for the élan, espirit and heritage of the cavalry blinded him to the fact that horses were used elsewhere, not because they were optimal, but because the industrial resources were not adequate for those armies to do without them. The horse was not totally without value, but it was without sufficient value to justify its continuation in a modern mechanized army.

If we continue to fritter away critical resources to maintain outdated systems we, like MG Herr’s horse cavalry, will find ourselves with expensive units configured for an ever diminishing part of the spectrum of armed conflict. We may also find our military forces effective only when the enemy elects to operate on terms of our choosing where our tactics and equipment are most effective. Few enemies are likely to be so accommodating.

If we fail to take bold revolutionary steps forward and “Drop the Airborne” from our major force list, we may find our military forces compared to General Herr’s cavalry, Japan’s super-battleships or France’s Maginot line, absorbing the budget but delivering a military force better adapted to the past than the future.

[1] The most extreme example of this infatuation was the absurd reconfiguring of a mechanized infantry brigade of the 8th Infantry Division in Germany in the 1960’s and 70’s to be airborne capable. How a mechanized infantry unit could ever be used in combat against the Warsaw Pact, or deployed elsewhere in theater, was left unexplained.

Col (Ret.) C. D. (Don) McFetridge was born and raised in Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin (BA ’68) and the University of Hawaii (MA ’70). He was commissioned a second lieutenant, Armor, in 1970 and assigned to the 14th Armored Cavalry on the East-West German border. During the first 20 years of his 30-year career Colonel McFetridge served in squadrons of the 3rd, 7th, 11th, 12th and 14th Cavalry Regiments and in tank battalions of the 33rd and 64th Armored Regiments in both Germany and in the United States. The high point of Colonel McFetridge’s career was command of the 3rd Squadron, 12th Cavalry, 4th Brigade, 3rd Armored Division in Buedingen, Germany. The squadron was re-designated as the 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry in February 1989. Colonel McFetridge was the US Army Senior Service College Fellow for 1990-91 at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston. Following a tour on the Army Staff, Colonel McFetridge became the Defense and Army Attaché to the Republic of Indonesia (1994-98). Since retirement, Colonel McFetridge has worked as a consultant on all continents

, ,