The last official combat jump occurred when a small team from the 75th Ranger Regiment jumped into an area in southeastern Afghanistan in July, 2004. It has been 11 years since a large-scale Airborne operation was conducted, when the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped into Northern Iraq. The last large-scale Airborne operation where paratroopers had to jump into hostile territory was in Panama during 1989.
In today’s combat environment, are large-scale Airborne operations obsolete? At the height of World War II, there were seven Airborne divisions. Today, there is only one. As Barack Obama said famously in the 2012 presidential debates, “…we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” Is large-scale Airborne operational capability going the way of horses and bayonets?
With possible military contingencies in North Korea, China, Russia/Ukraine brewing, having an entire division that is capable of deploying anywhere in the world within 18 hours is a wonderful tool to have in the toolbox. The fact that the 82nd Airborne had already left Pope AFB and was en route to Haiti convinced leaders of a 1991 coup d’état to abdicate power and return their democratically elected president, Jean-Bertand Aristide, to office in 1994.
Traditional force-on-force combat is a “suitable” environment to use paratroopers. A situation where this would work is the capture of an international airport in the capital city of the enemy. In the initial days and weeks of the Iraq War in 2003, there were, in fact, plans for the 82nd to take the Baghdad International Airport from the air. Those plans were scrapped in favor of having paratroopers defend supply lines.
Airborne operations carry more risk. This is purely a shock tactic which, if used correctly, can have a huge impact on the shape of a battle. “If you were sitting there and you weren’t doing anything except for holding your guard position, and the next minute you had a sky full of paratroopers, I don’t know about you, but I would reconsider what I was up to,” says former paratrooper Brett McElfresh.
Is the reward worth the risk?
The injury rate among paratroopers using the newer T-11 parachutes is 5.2 times per 1,000 jumps compared to 9.1 times per 1,000 jumps with the T-10D. The most common injuries are concussions, ankle sprains, and lower-back sprains. Add to that the wear and tear of jumping five times a year (to maintain jump status) with a combat load of over 300 pounds, and you have an increased risk for long-term injury.
Is there a tactical advantage to having the battalion’s paralegal specialist airborne qualified? Is he or she going to do a night jump into hostile territory in order to hand out an Article 15? All kidding aside, is the investment worth it to have soldiers who are not in front-line infantry or special-operations capable units go to jump school?
By the time support personnel are needed in-theatre, it’s usually safe enough to insert them via land, and not air. In today’s combat environment, asymmetrical warfare is more the norm. With the enemy blending in with civilians more and more often, battalion-or-larger-sized chalks of paratroopers are put at an incredible risk. It makes more tactical sense today to insert a smaller team of special operations soldiers or airborne infantrymen and have larger units follow on and support once the area is secure.
There are distinct advantages to having entire divisions capable of forced vertical entry into hostile territory. On the other side of the coin, it does not make tactical sense to hand out jump wings (mustard stains) to a “chairborne ranger” or other soldiers who are not Combat Arms.
The way the United States Army should move forward is to take non-essential personnel off jump status. This way, we still have the capability to insert large numbers of troops by air, but can streamline the way Airborne operations are done, which fits well in this environment of budget cutting and doing more with less. Bottom line: Limit airborne qualification to certain MOS’s that are combat arms and special operations.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Defense.gov)