The Future of Airborne Forces
Another guest post from Monty
Every now and then, some bright spark comes along and says that some established military paradigm has become redundant. We’ve heard it all before. Nuclear weapons are irrelevant. The tank is dead. Large calibre small arms are pointless. And conventional warfare is a thing of the past. Then, when you start to look at these things in more detail, you begin to realise that they’re not necessarily obsolete, merely that they need to evolve.
A look at the future of airborne forces
When it comes to airborne operations, quite a few strategic analysts have suggested that assault helicopters (think Chinook and Blackhawk) have become a superior delivery mechanism to the traditional airborne drop from a C-130 or C-17.
I don’t agree with this, although I do think that helicopters have become a very important tactical and strategic asset.
While the mission to take out OBL shows how effective heliborne ops can be, it also shows their vulnerabilities.
It doesn’t help that when you think something like a battalion-level jump, we still operate in terms of the old round canopies used since Normandy and Arnhem, where you jump blindly hoping that the wind will blow you more or less to where you need to be
There’s also a practical consideration. As much as we might like to consider executing brigade-size drops (let’s not forget we have three parachute infantry battalions), we simply don’t have the airlift capability to perform such an operation.
So, there are three questions I’d like to pose and then try and answer (with your help):
- Is the capability to deliver an airborne forces by parachute still relevant?
- If airborne forces remain important, what size / level of capability should we have?
- Could an improved capability be achieved more cheaply than it is with existing forces and equipment by embracing new technology?
It is perhaps worthwhile to start this discussion by looking at the origins of airborne forces.
When it comes to UK airborne forces, as an ex-Guards officer, I like to remind Parachute Regiment types that the first battalions were populated with volunteers from Household Division battalions.
Actually, we need to go further back. In addition to inventing the tank, Leonardo Da Vinci is also credited with inventing the parachute although Sebastien Lenormand, Faust Vrancic and Jean Pierre Blanchard bought the idea to fruition.
Winston Churchill also gets a credit, having advocated the use of a parachute forces to attack Germany towards the end of World War 1. Despite US experiments in the 1920s, which included soldiers clinging on to the wings of aircraft and opening their chutes to be pulled away from it, the first proper military parachute capability emerged in 1927 when the Italian Army developed the static line concept. This opened a soldier’s parachute automatically upon exiting an aircraft. In parallel, the Russians also did much to develop the concept.
The head of Luftwaffe, Herman Goring, and Luftwaffe General Kurt Student, had been impressed by early Italian and Soviet efforts, and so commissioned Nazi Germany’s Fallschirmjäger divisions.
The first major airborne assault was against Aalburg airport in Denmark in 1940. This was followed by a succession of increasingly more ambitious operations including the attack against Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium, which accelerated the eventual fall of that country.
Then there was the invasion of Crete in 1941, where an entire division was parachuted into battle.
The surprise achieved in Crete was total. German parachute forces created confusion and panic. Many historians who have analysed the campaign have concluded that the attacking airborne force could and should have been repulsed. The fact that it wasn’t speaks as much to the quality of parachute infantry employed as the effectiveness of the tactics used.
In these early days, parachute reliability was not anything like as consistent as it is today. Paratroopers didn’t wear reserve chutes and their main canopies often didn’t open. Even in training, injuries or deaths were frequent. In combat, airborne troops usually jumped without heavy weapons and landed in direct contact with the enemy. Their aircraft were large easy targets and many were shot out of the sky before depositing their troops on the ground.
In short, the casualty rates of airborne troops were shocking and completely unacceptable by today’s standards. Indeed, after Crete, Hitler forbade any further large-scale airborne operations.
Conversely, the shock of Crete forced Britain to finally get its airborne act together with the US following soon after.
Volunteer allied troops became airborne pioneers and the tactics they developed evolved with every mission.
The Bruneval Raid in 1942 showed that we soon caught-up with Nazi Germany and by the invasion of Sicily in 1943 airborne units had become a permanent addition to the overall Allied force structure.
By D-Day, airborne units were highly skilled and drilled elite forces. The jumps made by the US 101st Airborne Division, US 82nd Airborne Division and British 6th Airborne Division were a vital part of securing the Normandy beachheads.
Operation Market Garden, to seize the bridges at Nijmegen and Arnhem in Holland, was the most ambitious airborne mission attempted. Had it succeeded, it might well have shortened the war. As it was, it ended in massive losses for the British 1st Airborne Division. Cornelius Ryan’s seminal book about Arnhem, A Bridge Too Far, is perhaps the best description of airborne warfare written so far. (One interesting theory to emerge was that UK Airborne Forces had been trained to such a fever pitch, that they were sent into battle even though intelligence reports indicated that the 9th SS Panzer Division was resting there – because there was a fear they might mutiny if they weren’t used.)
The airborne operation to secure crossings over the Rhine in 1945, Operation Varsity, was less ambitious, but proved much more successful. The audacity of World war 2 Allied airborne operations elevated the standing of airborne soldiers.
Today, they are the elite units of all regular armies and provide a steady stream of recruits for special forces.
After the war, airborne deployments tended to be restricted to Battalion-size jumps rather than Brigade- or Divisional-size operations. During the Suez crisis in 1956, 3 Para successfully jumped into Egypt securing their objectives with very few casualties despite heavy resistance. The slickness of this operation represented a zenith in airborne forces capabilities.
Thereafter, combat jumps became a rarity.
The US 82nd Airborne Division made its first operational jump since 1944, when it deployed to Panama in 1989.
The US 75th Ranger Regiment jumped into Kandahar in 2001 to secure the airfield. Most recently, 250 paratroops from the 11th French Parachute Brigade jumped into Mali in January 2013 to support the operation to capture Timbuktu from rebel insurgents.
The most recent British airborne assault was in Sierra Leone in 2000, but this used helicopters not parachutes.
The post war model for airborne operations has essentially followed lessons learned from previous WW2 operations, although modern equipment such as the Lockheed C-130 Hercules and C-17 transport aircraft have proved to be more efficient delivery tools than the ancient but robust Douglas DC-3 Dakota.
Advantages and Disadvantages
While modern tactical helicopters offer many benefits, mass airborne assaults using paratroops still offer a range of attractive advantages over heliborne assaults:
- Strategic reach. Aircraft like the A400 and C17 are strategic assets that enable paratroops to reach objectives well beyond the reach of heliborne forces. Parachute forces can attack virtually any location on the planet within 18 hours of wheels-up.
- Speed. There is still no faster way to put 1,000 or more troops on the ground more less simultaneously in a forced entry operation. Parachute operations are still the preferred technique for airfield seizure during a forced entry.
- Load-carrying ability of strategic aircraft. Modern transport aircraft such as the C17 can drop much heavier equipment and armour than any modern helicopter can.
- Vulnerability of helicopters. Helicopters which have to land, take-off, or hover are much more vulnerable targets for enemy small arms and RPGs than fixed wing aircraft flying at 500-1000ft and 125 knots over the drop zone.
Despite recent developments and refinements in military jump techniques, a number of disadvantages still remain:
- LZ dispersion. Parachute delivery can deposit forces over a large area requiring them to regroup which can take time. Unexpected winds can blow units way off target, causing disorientation and increasing the distance between the landing zone and final objective and thus the time taken to secure it. This can void any element of surprise and may result in mission failure should a determined enemy be able to quickly mount a counter-attack.
- The amount of weapons, equipment and ammunition that airborne soldiers can carry is limited. The practical load limit that can be carried by dismounted troops is around 70 kg. Battle order reduces this to around 35 kg. The more kit you pile on a soldier, the more you reduce his combat effectiveness. The very real limits of equipment that a paratroopers can carry, means they can only hold positions for a few days before ground forces will need to link-up with them. This makes airborne operations short-term, limited initiatives even with air resupply.
- Limited number of strategic transport aircraft reduces level of immediate armoured support that can be delivered. While it is now possible to air-drop a variety of light tanks, heavy weapons and support vehicles, such as jeeps and CVR(T)s, the availability of sufficient aircraft is a practical limitation. While hand-held ATGWs will provide a reasonable defensive capability, scope for offensive actions by parachute troops will be limited.
Essentially, the ideal use of contemporary airborne forces is to deploy them behind enemy lines to seize strategic targets such as airfields, bridges, supply dumps, or areas inaccessible to vehicles. Operations may also include outflanking manoeuvres that deny the enemy access to key routes or strategic resources. Once an objective is captured, the airborne unit holds it until relieved. In some situations, airborne units may be dropped merely to delay an advancing enemy. This tactic can be used to cover a withdrawal or act as a diversion.
Perhaps most relevant to today, parachute delivery is ideal for the covert insertion of special forces. HALO (high-altitude, low-opening) or HAHO (high-altitude, high-opening) parachuting both require a higher degree of training, but this is consistent with the specialisation of such troops anyway. HAHO is more dependent on wind and weather conditions than HALO, but allows units to track large distances across country before landing near their objectives.
Gliders were used successfully during World War 2. On occasions, they proved to be a highly effective means of delivering larger concentrations of airborne troops into battle as well as inserting heavier support assets such as weapons and vehicles.
The British landings the night before D-Day to seize crossing points across the River Orne and Caen Canal were textbook examples of glider operations. Analogous to modern day helicopter assault operations, they enabled larger forces of better equipped airborne troops to land much close to their objectives. With soldiers ready to fight as soon as they disembarked, gliders reduced the amount of time required to regroup and thus maximised the element of surprise.
Gliders were, of course, slow, fragile and vulnerable, especially when being towed en route to an objective. Successful operations required large, flat landing areas. When glider operations went wrong, the consequences were often disastrous. During the invasion of Sicily, poor planning and bad weather led to a large number of gliders landing in the sea with the loss of everyone on-board. Sometimes glider infantry units could be scattered even more widely than parachute infantry. Glider operations also took a heavy toll on glider pilots, who were expensive to train and difficult to replace. After the war, glider operations fell out of favour, especially as techniques for air dropping large vehicles by parachute were perfected.
21st Century Military Parachuting
While there is a clear strategic and tactical justification of the requirement to retain parachute-capable troops, the cost of maintaining such assets is frequently debated. It is argued that only special forces are required to land by parachute in order to secure landing zones for main heliborne assault forces. While there may still be a strategic requirement to rapidly deploy large-scale parachute forces, analysis of the potential circumstances where this might be necessary are increasingly considered to be exceptional rather than routine. Notwithstanding such concerns, the USA remains committed to the retention of two parachute-trained divisions. The UK is less certain and only one battalion of our three regular Parachute Regiment battalions serves in a dedicated parachute-ready role at a time. If there are further defence cutbacks, the number of parachute battalions could even be reduced. Given the elite status enjoyed by Parachute Regiment soldiers, there is considerable resistance to reducing their numbers. That being the case, the UK continues to spend a lot of money on a military parachute jumping capability that is seldom used.
In defence of our highly valued Parachute Regiment soldiers, while they may never deploy by parachute, they are frequently deployed by helicopter and will continue to be so. The UK maintains 16 Air Assault brigade as a rapid reaction force that can be quickly sent to trouble sports. Despite a reduced parachute-jumping requirement, it is probably not expedient to rename the Parachute Regiment as the ‘Helicopter Regiment’.
What modern military parachute operations do not take account of is recent developments, not only in civilian sports parachuting, but also in extreme parachute base jumping. There is evidence to suggest that these might be extremely relevant to an improved capability.
Parachute design has undergone a continual metamorphosis over the last 20 to 30 years.
Parachuting started with round canopies. The first major evolution was rear vents, which were added to make them steerable.
New round parachute types have gradually become more sophisticated to achieve a limited degree of control. A major change in canopy design came with the cruciform (square) parachute design, which has a larger surface area and a reduced oscillation effect (the tendency of a parachute to swing from side to side to release trapped air).
The US Army is currently evaluating the T-11 Cruciform design to replace its T-10 parachute, which has been in service since 1955.
The quantum leap in parachute design came with the invention of the ram-air parachute in the 1970s. This is essentially a parachute with two layers instead of one. The two layers are divided into cells, with a typical ram-air parachute having between 7 and 9 cells.
As a parachutist deploys the canopy, air floods into the cells automatically filling providing lift as the parachute moves forward. Some designs have plastic rib inserts to help the canopy maintain its shape. Once inflated ram-air parachutes function like wings creating lift to slow the descent. They can be steered much more precisely. They can also be flared (stalled) immediately prior to landing to reduce speed and the force of the landing. The lift effect of ram-air parachutes means that they can be reduced in size yet still achieve the same controlled descent effect.
With the aid of computer-aided design systems and advanced high-strength nylon fabrics, the latest ram-air parachutes have steadily become smaller, lighter, and safer. At the same time, they are more manoeuvrable and controllable. The parallel development of parachute harness-containers means that these too have become smaller, lighter and more compact. They now hold both main and reserve chutes. Above all, they have been designed to facilitate the reliable deployment of the canopy.
Today, the fatality level for sports parachuting is approximately 1 in 100,000 jumps. According to published statistics in the USA, around 20 people a year die during parachute jumps, which is the same number of people killed on US golf courses and much less than the annual number of SCUBA diving or motorcycle accident deaths.
If the latest civilian 9-cell ram-air canopy types for sports parachuting were to be used for military parachute operations, they would allow paratroopers to steer, brake and land with much greater precision than any existing standard round parachute. Ram-air canopies would also substantially reduce the total weight of the jump load carried. While these advances are relevant for both HALO and HAHO jumps made by special forces soldiers, they could also provide a step-change in the tactical military capabilities of ordinary airborne troops.
The most significant development in sports parachuting over the last 50 years is the Wingsuit. This is a one-piece garment worn as an outer layer over other clothing like coveralls. With extra fabric that joins the arms of the suit to the body they create what is best described as a set of wings. with an additional flap positioned between the legs, a wingsuit adds significant amount of air resistance to a free-falling human body. When you wear one, you look like a flying squirrel. By allowing forward movement as the parachutist descends, impressive horizontal distances can be covered from a jump point to the landing area. Typically, the horizontal ratio of modern wingsuit designs is 1 to 4, that is 4 metres of forward flight for every metre descended.
Wingsuit design is still in its infancy. Every year new designs push the boundaries of what was previously possible. When we achieve a horizontal ratio of 1 to 10 or higher, the ability for individual parachutists to literally glide from an aircraft to the ground and to land in a specific place will be as easy as jumping of a fence. At some point, a parachute may no longer be necessary.
A parachutist wearing a wingsuit can reach speeds of over 100 mph, even terminal velocity. What makes wingsuit flying compelling for those who use them is that they enable a skydiver to turn with a high degree of control. Wingsuit aficionados describe the sensation as being about as close to flying as is humanly possible.
Wingsuits have given birth to a new sport called proximity wingsuit flying. This is a variation of base jumping, where an individual wearing a wingsuit jumps from a solid object, usually a mountain, and follows its contours down before opening his or her parachute at a low, but safe height above the ground. The thrill of flying unassisted at high speed close to the ground is addictive. Base jumping with wingsuits is popular, but dangerous. With approximately one fatality every 100 jumps, wingsuit base jumping is undisputedly the world’s most dangerous sport.
However, wingsuit flying has also percolated across to the safer and more conventional sport of regular sports parachuting. Many ordinary parachutists now use wingsuits without taking unnecessary risks. Jumping from much higher altitudes, 10,000 feet or more, a wingsuit can still provide an incredible sensation of flying. You can track across country to cover distances of several kilometres, depending on the height from which you jump.
When you combine the precision effect of wingsuit flying and the control imparted by modern parachutes, you have the potential for a large group of individuals to exit an aircraft some distance from a target – even across a border and then descend en masse to reach a very small landing area, something the size of a football field. Forget old style PLFs, you just flare your parachute around 10 feet above the ground and you coast to a halt.
The following films, provide an excellent visual description of the above.
This first video shows a modern parachute being packed in several deliberately incorrect ways. Note that the ‘chutes still opens and function correctly:
This video shows how easy modern canopies are to fly:
This video shows a speed flying canopy and the level of control it provides. (Yes. The guy really does execute a 360-degree turn!):
This video shows a wingsuit being used for base jumping. Note level of control, horizontal velocity versus speed of descent:
This video shows wingsuit precision flying from a helicopter. Really crazy, but it shows what’s possible:
This video goes one step further. Exit from a powered hang-glider passing in between buildings in Rio Da Janeiro Ultimate wingsuit flying
Potential Future Airborne Operations
Now, let’s consider a military application for the same technology. Put an airborne company of 100 men equipped with wingsuits in a single C-17. They fly under the radar, i.e. at very low level, to within 10 kilometres of a target. Then the aircraft climbs to 10,000 feet and they all jump out en masse and track towards the target. The team leader would follow a pre-agreed glide path to the LZ and everyone would track down behind him in formation. At 600 feet, each parachutist would open their chute (automatic opening at this height could make the process safer). This would enable the company to all land more or less in unison in a staggered formation. Using this technique, it should be possible for all 100 soldiers to land in an area not much bigger than a football field. Assuming they could all exit the aircraft within 60-120 seconds, then they should all land within about the same amount of time. That’s 100 men landing in almost complete silence, together and very close to an objective. Now multiply a single C-17 by 10 and you’ve landed an entire parachute battalion discretely and with precision.
Before they deployed their canopies, any airborne troops using wingsuits would be difficult to spot, even if you knew they were coming. Thereafter, once their canopies were deployed, they would be moving forward fast enough to present quite a difficult target to shoot.
What I am proposing is a very different from the type of military parachuting executed in recent years. What’s changed is the ability to control freefall descent. With relatively little practice inexperienced parachutists would be able to use a wingsuit to fly in formation – airborne drill if you will. Never before has it been easier to track horizontally across the sky from an aircraft exit point and then, with the benefit of highly steerable canopies, to achieve a precision landing at a specific drop zone. The ease with which a novice skydiver can now control a parachute is a world a way from what it was only 10 years ago. Although BASE jumping is dangerous because many participants take unbelievable risks, regular airborne troops would jump from an aircraft as before, not from mountains. Wingsuits obviously require more experience, training and practice, but new developments continue to reduce the learning curve.
In essence, parachuting as we know it is unrecognisable. It is no longer a matter of blindly jumping out of an aircraft via a static line and being carried by the wind to an area more or less in the proximity of your objective and hoping you land near your mates.
A military application of recent developments would require high standards of training and equipment, but would it be beyond the ability of our existing airborne troops to master the techniques required to execute a precision jump onto an enemy objective and then secure it? I don’t think so. As usual, it would involve planning, discipline and practice. I am sure that the UK Parachute Regiment, the US 82nd Airborne Division and French 2ième REP would all relish the task of mastering these arts.
In the final, analysis, I believe that an evolved jump technique would allow a large group of soldiers to be positioned where you want them much more quickly and quietly than landing by helicopter or driving in a vehicle. Once airborne troops get reasonably proficient with their wingsuits, you could give them night vision goggles and then jump at night. Covert infiltration on an industrial scale.
One of the problems of both helicopters and armoured vehicles is that they can easily be seen and heard from quite a distance. When the US conducted operations in Grenada, it lost a number of Blackhawks to a single enemy machine gunner IIRC. Opposed helicopter landings remain a risky proposition. In Afghanistan, vehicle tracks kicked enormous plumes of dust making them ideal IED or ambush locations. With 100 parachutists landing anywhere you want them to and almost simultaneously, one or two might get shot by an enemy that was quick to react, but the rest of the attacking force would soon be down and upon them. More often than not, they’d land and no one would know they were there. The element of surprise and psychological effect would be that much greater.
Airborne Unit Vehicles
The final piece of the future airborne jigsaw is delivering vehicles with the same level of precision.
World War 2 gliders were flimsy wooden machines with limited structural integrity. However, aircraft design has moved on even more than parachute design. So let’s imagine a glider constructed from carbon fibre and aluminium. It would be very light and very strong. Instead of towing it behind a C-17, we could design one that fits inside. Equipped with pop-out wings, it would fly close to the landing zone, and be released along the same lines as a battle box container. The glider would then release its ‘chute and manoeuvre towards the target. It would land quickly near the objective. Now pre-pack a 40-tonne vehicle into the glider and make it autonomous like a drone. It should be possible to air drop large armoured vehicles with relative ease.
There is no reason why other older ideas considered during World War 2 could not be resurrected and tried again. One particularly interesting concept was attaching aircraft to the gliders to deliver them.
These would then detach and return to base. As drone technology proves, modern aircraft don’t need pilots. So heavy lift gliders could be piloted by remote control. Gliders could be used to land much heavier vehicles than it is presently possible to land by parachute.[browser-shot width=”550″ url=”http://www.aviastar.org/helicopters_eng/hafner_rotabuggy.php”] [browser-shot width=”550″ url=”http://www.heliplanellc.com/”]
In summary, by failing to embrace new parachuting technologies, we have reduced the relevance and effectiveness of our airborne forces. Recent advances have changed the paradigm: they allow large groups of soldiers to land with increased control and precision much closer to an objective. Mastering new techniques would require investment in new equipment and additional training. Naturally, there are risks, but in pioneering something like military wingsuits, the benefits outweigh the dangers, which are considerably less than they were in 1941.
There is no need to limit new parachute equipment to special forces. They offer more general strategic and tactical benefits which are hard to ignore. Landing a battalion-size force covertly wherever we wanted to would be a worthwhile advantage. Instead of being scattered over a wide area, we would achieve a greater concentration of force closer to an objective. This is the same benefit conferred by tactical helicopters, but there is much less risk of ground fire bringing down a transport aircraft. Ideally suited to COIN operations as well as general war scenarios, wingsuits combined with lightweight steerable parachutes would deliver combat soldiers exactly where they were needed. In the final analysis, you could say: The paratrooper is dead! Long live the paratrooper!
Sir H did a nice post on a similar subject a few weeks ago