The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


Chapter 16
Airborne and Special-Purpose Forces Operations


Strategic Missions
Operational Missions
Tactical Missions
Army Group, Army, and Corps Operations
Planning and Preparation
Command and Control
Conduct of Airborne or Heliborne Operations
Special Reconnaissance
Direct Action
Diversionary Measures
Peacetime Missions
Transition to War
Wartime Missions
SPF Brigades (General Staff or Theater)
SPF Brigade (Army Group)
SPF Battalion (Army)

The OPFOR views airborne and special-purpose forces as means to carry the battle into the depths of the enemy's position. The General Staff uses these highly mobile forces against strategic forces or for power projection. It may also allocate such forces down to the operational and tactical levels.


The primary theater role of airborne units is to support the rapid advance of a large combined arms force deep into the enemy's operational or operational-strategic depth. Airborne units are an integral part of many operations at army group and army levels. Airborne and heliborne forces are especially critical given the fluidity and rapid tempo that characterizes the modern battlefield. The OPFOR expects to capitalize on the added vertical dimension airborne and heliborne forces provide when working in concert with fast moving operational maneuver groups (OMGs) or forward detachments. Airborne and heliborne forces have the capability to surprise the enemy, rapidly envelop key objectives or exploit targets weakened by the effects of deep fires.

The OPFOR also uses airborne forces as a means of projecting power. Major portions of invasion forces could consist of airborne units. Airborne troops are well suited for such roles. They train for operations in a variety of geographical environments. They also train specifically to establish, defend, and expand an airhead. Their equipment is air-transportable.

To allow flexibility in employment during wartime, airborne forces are directly subordinate to the Supreme High Command, with operational control exercised by the General Staff. Theaters can receive airborne units for strategic operations. Airborne units can be assigned to army groups, armies, and corps for specific operational-depth missions.


The OPFOR categorizes airborne missions based on the depth and importance of the objective, the size of forces involved, and the level of command of the originating commander. The three categories of missions are strategic, operational, and tactical. The location of enemy forces, the level of the controlling headquarters, the significance of the target, weapons systems capabilities, and geography also determine the scope of the operation. Other factors to consider when deciding how far behind enemy lines to insert an airborne force are the--

  • Size of the force.
  • Potential for reinforcement of the force.
  • State of advance of friendly forces designated for linkup.

Strategic Missions

In wartime, the Supreme High Command establishes strategic missions, which the General Staff controls. The outcome of a strategic mission should have significant impact on the war or campaign. The use of airborne forces in a power-projection role is also a strategic mission.

Airborne forces conduct strategic missions against deep targets. Forces from other arms and services can also participate. Linkup with advancing ground forces may not occur for several days. Since, troops on the ground receive supplies by air drop or airlift, the operation requires substantial air combat and transport support.

Objectives of strategic missions could be national capitals or other administrative-political centers, industrial or economic centers, ports or maritime straits, or air fields. Strategic missions also may establish a new theater or neutralize one member of an enemy coalition.

Operational Missions

Airborne forces are not organic to an army group. However, the higher command may allocate such forces to support an army group in a given operation. Operational objectives include--

  • Headquarters or command posts.
  • Communications facilities.
  • Enemy precision and nuclear weapons.
  • Logistics facilities.
  • Airfields.
  • Ports.
  • Bridges and other water or gap crossing sites.

Typical missions can include deception operations, blocking a withdrawing enemy, or enveloping enemy defensive positions.

Tactical Missions

While recognizing the need to limit the use of airborne forces to primarily strategic and operational missions, the OPFOR also recognizes the need for the capability to insert troops to perform missions at tactical depths. A tactical airborne mission could have the same types of objectives as an operational mission. On occasion the army group or army may allocate airborne troops for such missions, but the force is more likely to consist of mechanized infantry troops from a maneuver division. In either case, the units involved would normally rely on helicopters for tactical insertions, rather than fixed-wing aircraft. The primary function of these tactical airborne or heliborne landings in army group and army operations is to cooperate with forward detachments and OMGs in reaching operational objectives.

Heliborne units can perform reconnaissance missions by insertion into the enemy rear area. They may perform rear area security missions, or screen, delay, or defend against an enemy approach to a vulnerable flank. Ambushes, raids, sabotage, and deception operations are examples of other missions suited to heliborne operations. Heliborne units can also lay and clear mines in the enemy rear. A division commander may order and control a tactical mission, but the army commander (and the army group commander if it involves airborne troops) must approve the mission.


Airborne landings require many valuable assets. Therefore, only after careful consideration would a commander make the decision to use airborne forces. If other units are capable of fulfilling a given mission, they execute it instead of airborne units. Heliborne landings also require valuable assets but are often more economical than airborne landings.

The use of airborne forces in an operation depends upon whether it would enhance the likelihood of surprise, deep penetration, and rapid exploitation. Also essential is a favorable correlation of forces in the drop or landing zones and the objective area. These criteria, together with the achievement of at least temporary local air superiority and the availability of airborne and airlift assets, constitute the main elements in a planner's decision to conduct an airborne or heliborne operation.

The OPFOR can launch battalion-size landings throughout the tactical depth. The commander usually assigns the landing force an objective within range of OPFOR artillery, and most operations occur during daylight. Linkup with friendly forces is planned to occur within hours of the landing.

Army Group, Army, and Corps Operations

The OPFOR intends to employ airborne forces in support of army group, army, or corps operations. The General Staff places the force under the operational control of the supported commander to ensure airborne objectives support the overall mission of the army group, army, or corps. The supported commander establishes the airborne units' objectives and time of deployment.

Airborne landings in support of army group, army, or corps operations can occur at distances of up to 250 km from the forward edge. This does not mean, however, that an airborne unit will typically be dropped at such great distances forward of ground forces. Many factors can affect the decision of how far forward to insert an airborne force. The size of the force, the potential for reinforcement of the force, anticipated enemy resistance, the air situation, and the projected rates of advance for designated link-up forces are all important considerations. An airborne brigade is the most common size force used to accomplish operational missions.

Military transport aviation allocates air transport support units required for deployment. Either transport aircraft or heavy-lift helicopters or a combination of the two can air-land airborne units or insert airborne battalions. Aircraft of civil aviation can augment military capabilities. Civil fleet equipment consists of some medium- and long-range passenger transports and larger numbers of short-range transports and helicopters. Staging bases and associated airfields are located at distances that protect aircraft and troop concentrations from tactical aircraft and short-range SSMs. Airfields and equipment are camouflaged and concealed against aerial observation, and aircraft are placed in revetted positions at least 200 m apart. Most heliborne operations require at least a squadron of transport helicopters allocated from the army group or army.

Planning and Preparation

Planning considerations for airborne and heliborne operations include the mission, troops and support available, terrain, the depth of the operation, flight routes, air superiority, drop zones (DZs) or landing zones (LZs), surprise, security, and the enemy situation. Deception operations are planned to mislead the enemy as to the true purpose and location of air activity. Given routine readiness conditions, the time required to prepare transport aviation and to plan a battalion or larger airborne mission is, as a minimum, approximately 24 hours. This planning time includes--

  • Notification of alert and moving out: 2 hours.
  • Preparation of air units: 18 hours.
  • Embarking troops and equipment and final aircraft preparation: 4 hours.

When exercising a preplanned contingency or starting from an increased readiness condition, the preparation time is reduced by 5 to 8 hours. The time required to plan for a battalion heliborne assault is similar. Troop embarkation times can be reduced if few or no vehicles accompany the force. The force selected to conduct the assault may require training, and this adds at least one day to the preparation time. To avoid this delay, the OPFOR trains selected battalions in each division for heliborne operations.

Aerial reconnaissance, clandestine agents, sympathizers, maps, signals reconnaissance, long-range patrols, or air-dropped reconnaissance teams all provide intelligence information for an airborne operation. Reconnaissance of the DZ or LZ, by both air assets and special-purpose forces (SPF), continues throughout the planning and execution stages of the operation. If enemy troops are located in the area, they are attacked and neutralized with air, artillery, or SPF. Reconnaissance takes place when the airborne and heliborne operation is first conceived, when troops are embarked, when the formation is airborne, and while aircraft are en route to drop or landing zones. The enemy armor, artillery, and air threats are of major concern. Reconnaissance activities also occur outside the projected objective area, as a deception measure.

Airborne and heliborne operations require extensive coordination between the committed force and the controlling army group or army headquarters, supporting aviation, and ground maneuver forces. The following principles contribute to success:

  • Surprise should be used to advantage. Extensive security measures are necessary in all phases of the operation to prevent early detection and to minimize enemy reaction time. Night airborne operations are a primary means of achieving surprise. False insertions aid deception and surprise when conducting heliborne operations.
  • Landings should be in undefended areas or in areas where enemy defenses have been effectively neutralized.
  • There must be effective air cover for the en route formation. Suppression of enemy ground-based air defense weapons along the flight route is imperative. Artillery fires at and beyond the line of contact are essential to the support of heliborne forces.
  • Airborne assaults receive fire support from air strikes, missile strikes, and artillery, as it advances within supporting range of airborne forces.
  • Attack helicopters escort transport helicopters to prepare the LZ before the landing of troops and to provide fire support once the assault force has landed.

Command and Control

A division commander is the lowest level ground force officer likely to order an airborne or heliborne operation. The army group and army would know of and approve the operation in advance.

The commander of the airborne or heliborne force is the commander of the unit forming the basis for the landing force and is responsible for preparing and positioning troops for loading. He shares with the aviation commander the decision to proceed with the landing, based on the assessment of the situation at the DZ or LZ. After the landing, the ground force commander is solely responsible for conducting the operation.

While the ground force commander can plan the scheme of maneuver, final approval of the plan comes from higher authority. The ground force commander follows the operations plan as closely as possible.

Preparation for an airborne or heliborne landing includes the following:

  • Determining the composition, strength, and capabilities of the enemy forces in the DZ area (or those near enough to interfere with the landing operations and subsequent attack of the objective).
  • Determining the nature of the terrain and condition of the road network.
  • Locating natural and manmade obstacles that would interfere with air drop of men and equipment.
  • Selecting suitable primary and alternate DZ or LZs.

Conduct of Airborne or Heliborne Operations

A typical DZ is three by four km; a typical LZ may be smaller. An airborne brigade normally receives one primary and at least one alternative DZ. Within a brigade DZ, each airborne battalion has a designated, individual DZ. The commander designates alternate zones for emergency use. Follow-on forces normally use the zones used by the initial assault wave. Heliborne forces use one or more LZs depending upon the situation and size of the assault force. The commander designates at least one alternate LZ.

Air Movement

The OPFOR considers the air movement phase of an airborne or heliborne operation to be its most vulnerable phase. The OPFOR emphasizes the necessity of creating a threat-free flight corridor from the departure area to the DZ or LZ. All along the flight path, fire support assets target enemy air defenses. Fighters and fighter-bombers escort transport aircraft during an airborne operation to protect them from enemy fighters and ground fires. Attack helicopters can escort transport helicopters during a heliborne operation to protect them from ground fires.

Passive defense measures taken during the air movement phase include conducting movement during hours of darkness, using more than one flight route, maintaining radio silence, and flying at low altitudes. The OPFOR will likely use electronic combat measures during air movement, including escort jammers, which suppress enemy air defense and surveillance systems.

Air Drop

Airborne forces normally conduct combat air drops at an altitude of from 150 to 300 m. They emphasize the necessity of dropping at low altitude to minimize the amount of time individuals are in the air. Low-altitude drops also increase the likelihood that a unit's personnel and equipment would land close together.

Heliborne Landing

Forces inserted by helicopter have the advantage of arriving on the LZ as organized units. To minimize their vulnerability to ground fires, helicopters will remain on the ground in the LZ only long enough to disembark troops. If the LZ is under effective enemy fire, the landing force commander, after consulting the aviation commander, may divert the force to an alternate LZ.

Drop Zone/Landing Zone Procedures

If the main body of an airborne force lands during daylight hours, personnel move directly to their predesignated attack positions. However, if the force lands at night, personnel assemble before occupying predesignated attack positions. If the DZ is not on the objective, personnel assemble in battalion assembly areas. Personnel dropped during the hours of darkness assemble as companies and move to battalion assembly areas.

The air drop or landing and reorganization phase are the second most vulnerable period in an operation following the air movement phase. The DZ must be cleared before an enemy force arrives. If the DZ is under strong enemy attack, personnel assemble and move immediately to the perimeter to establish defensive positions. Personnel use any available light armored vehicles to reinforce defensive positions, and do not sort out the vehicles until after repelling the enemy attack. If the DZ is not on the objective and units assemble first, they try to avoid combat with enemy units. If required to actively defend against an air attack, at least one entire platoon per company or one company per battalion is responsible for the mission. For a planned follow-on air landing, the brigade's initial assault force leaves a rear detachment at the drop zone. This detachment provides security on the drop zone for the landing of the follow-on force.

In the mountains, DZs might be closer to the objective and located on several sides of an objective to compensate for decreased speed of movement. If DZs are not near the objective, the OPFOR plans to move only on roads to reach the objective area. Finally, the OPFOR relies more on radio communications in the mountains even though radios are less reliable in such regions.

The heliborne force lands on its objective if possible. If it is not on the objective, the LZ should be as close as possible but outside of the direct fire range of the objective. After landing, the heliborne assault force organizes rapidly in an assembly area.

Movement to Objective

Speed and security are the primary concerns during movement to the objective. If the airborne force is moving at night, it can use established road networks to reach the objective before dawn. If movement is during the day, the unit moves cross-country using terrain features to provide concealment when possible. During movement, the airborne force maintains radio silence until making contact with the enemy, with only the commander transmitting messages.

Since, the information received before departure is perishable, reconnaissance missions during the ground movement phase are extremely important. The reconnaissance is conducted by teams from the reconnaissance company of the airborne brigade and the reconnaissance platoon of an IFV-equipped airborne battalion or by a designated platoon of an airborne battalion. Reconnaissance teams may have engineer or chemical defense elements attached.

Rapid execution is especially important to the heliborne force. The force departs the assembly area in pre-battle formation, with reconnaissance out front and on the flanks. The assault force will attack the target as quickly as possible to gain surprise and maintain momentum.


Once on the ground, offensive tactics of IFV-equipped airborne forces are similar to those of mechanized infantry forces. Before the attack, supporting units deploy to provide maximum support. Airborne forces at the final objective attack to destroy the enemy or to seize control of the enemy-held area or facility. The heliborne force can be reinforced with combat engineers, antitank weapons, artillery, and chemical defense troops. The force will usually attempt to attack its objective from several directions at once. A heliborne force is generally assigned an objective less heavily defended than that assigned to an airborne force.


Once the force has seized an objective, it must defend that objective until the arrival of ground forces. Usually, the force establishes a perimeter defense. In some cases the terrain and the enemy's situation may permit establishing a defense in depth, with a small mobile reserve. A number of factors influence the capability to remain on the objective: days of supply on hand, a secure air resupply corridor, the availability of air support, and the enemy's ability to respond to the envelopment. Heliborne forces, especially those drawn from the regular ground forces, have little sustainability and their time on the objective should not exceed from four to six hours before linkup occurs.


Airborne or heliborne units either await a linkup with friendly forces or, when necessary, fight their way back to friendly lines. The rule of thumb is that the probability of overall success is greater the sooner the linkup occurs. To accomplish linkup, the unit sends its reconnaissance element to meet advancing ground force units. The reconnaissance element provides information on the best approaches into the area, the security situation on the objective, and the enemy situation. A linkup with ground forces normally completes the mission of an airborne or heliborne force. Once linkup occurs, operational control of the unit returns to the parent headquarters.


The OPFOR maintains a broad array of special-purpose forces (SPF) that the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff controls. The SPF conduct a variety of sensitive missions, including covert action abroad. In wartime, SPF may operate far behind enemy lines for extended periods of time. They would conduct reconnaissance, sabotage, and attacks on a variety of military and political targets. The OPFOR SPF are as highly trained as any in the world. Expert in the use of a variety of weapons, demolitions, and mines, they are an effective and flexible force, capable of conducting a wide variety of missions.


The SPF conduct operations to achieve military, political, economic, and/or psychological objectives or achieve tactical goals in support of strategic objectives. Such operations may have either long-range or immediate impact on the enemy. The OPFOR concept of SPF operations includes special reconnaissance, direct action, and diversionary measures.

Special Reconnaissance

The OPFOR defines special reconnaissance as a type of intelligence-reconnaissance activity conducted for the purpose of undermining the military, political, and economic potential and morale of a potential or actual adversary. Its principal tasks are to--

  • Obtain intelligence on military and economic installations.
  • Destroy or disable those installations.
  • Organize sabotage, subversion, and acts of terrorism.
  • Train rebel forces.

In peacetime or during war, military and civilian intelligence services organize special reconnaissance activities; intelligence agents and SPF execute them.

Direct Action

Direct action involves an overt, covert, or clandestine attack by armed individuals or groups to damage or destroy high-value targets or to kill or seize a person or persons. Examples of direct-action missions for SPF units are assassination, abduction, hostage taking, sabotage, capture, ambushes, raids, and rescue of hostages (civilian and military). Implementation of direct-action missions depends on the size of the enemy's defenses, the element of surprise, and the assets available to the SPF unit commander.

Diversionary Measures

The term diversionary measures refers to direct actions of groups or individuals operating in the enemy's rear area. These measures include the destruction or degradation of key military objectives and the disruption of C2, communications, junctions, transport, and lines of communication (LOCs). They could include misdirecting military road movement by moving road markers and generating false communications. They also involve the killing personnel, spreading disinformation, destruction of military hardware, and other actions to weaken the morale and will of the enemy by creating confusion and panic. Diversionary measures may contribute to the conduct of information warfare.


SPF operations are part of the concept of deep operations. The SPF's simultaneous attack of both front and rear areas to disrupt or destroy enemy forces includes the following basic missions:

  • Neutralize weapons of mass destruction and precision weapons.
  • Attack air defense facilities and airfields.
  • Disrupt lines of communication.
  • Attack C2 facilities.
  • Exploit surprise to disrupt defensive actions.
  • Undermine morale and spread panic.
  • Disrupt enemy power supplies and transportation networks (power utilities, POL transfer and storage sites, and internal transportation).
  • Conduct reconnaissance for future ground force operations or for airborne and/or amphibious landings.
  • Organize local guerrilla or partisan groups.
  • Prevent efficient movement of reserves.
  • Assassinate important political and military figures.
  • Provide terminal guidance for attacking aircraft, missiles, and precision weapons.

In addition to these basic missions, SPF may have specific missions in peacetime, transition to war, and wartime

Peacetime Missions

During peacetime, the Main Intelligence Directorate carefully coordinates reconnaissance programs geared to meet the intelligence requirements of the OPFOR in war. Aside from SPF troops, it maintains agent networks in the target country to support SPF operations. Some of these agents actively engage in subversion; others are "sleepers," prepared to act on call in time of war. The OPFOR trains agents to operate as political agitators, intelligence collectors, and saboteurs. The agents establish residence near military targets such as airports, missile bases, arsenals, communications centers, logistics centers and depots, and routes used for troop movements. Just before the beginning of hostilities, airborne SPF troops link up with agents already operating in the target area.

Clandestine SPF sabotage agents do little intelligence collection. Their job is to assimilate into the local culture, establish residences near transport and power installations, and when ordered, emplace explosive charges in preselected targets.

Another important task for clandestine SPF sabotage agents in peacetime is to acquire houses and plots of land to prepare safe areas where sabotage teams (civilian and military) can find refuge after landing behind enemy lines in times of hostilities. These places are usually in the country, forested areas near the sea, or in the mountains.

Agents provide incoming sabotage and assassination teams with safe areas, motor transport, fuel, and supplies. They then guide the teams to their objective. Both intelligence and sabotage agents come under the command of senior army group intelligence officers. These intelligence officers can transfer agents from one category to the other at any time or order them to fulfill both roles.

Transition to War

Before hostilities begin, SPF conduct clandestine operations in the target area. This increases the probability of destroying key targets well before enemy rear area security measures tighten. This is the most critical period because clandestine elements can efficiently use the enemy's lack of awareness as an opportunity to disorganize and disrupt the local population. Missions generally include the following:

  • Conduct strategic and operational reconnaissance.
  • Train and assist guerrillas operating in foreign countries.
  • Organize local guerrilla or partisan groups.
  • Weaken the target country's military capabilities or will to fight through either subversion or direct action.
  • Assassinate key military and political figures.

The General Staff directs the planning of SPF wartime missions, which form an integral part of combined arms operations. Intended to support theater- as well as army group- or fleet-level operations, SPF are capable of operating throughout enemy territory.

Wartime Missions

SPF plays an important role in support of both the offense and defense. They may perform their missions separately, in support of strategic objectives, or in support of an army group or army operation. Missions generally include some of the following:

  • Conduct deep reconnaissance operations.
  • Conduct direct action along strategic or operational axes, including ambushes and raids.
  • Destroy critical air defense systems and associated radars.
  • Support follow-on conventional military operations.
  • Assist foreign guerrillas to prepare for offensive operations.
  • Provide communications, liaison, and support to stay-behind partisan operations in the defense.

The OPFOR conducts operations in the enemy's rear to undermine the enemy's morale and to spread panic among the civilian population and the political leadership. Refugees can hamper deployment, defensive maneuver, and logistics.


The Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff assigns SPF to strategic and operational commands. Though organized into brigades and battalions, these forces would infiltrate and fight as small teams composed of from 5 to 12 men. (See FM 100-60 for details on SPF organization.) A typical team would consist of an officer as leader with a warrant officer or senior sergeant as second in command. Other members of the team receive training as radio operators and weapons, demolitions, and reconnaissance specialists. The size and composition of teams are not fixed, but flexible according to the mission.

Once deployed, the teams would conduct reconnaissance and tactical operations against various targets (such as ship and submarine bases, airfields, command and intelligence centers, communications facilities, ports and harbors, radar sites, and nuclear weapons facilities). The SPF have the potential to achieve results disproportionate to their size against a list of critical and often vulnerable, targets.

SPF Brigades (General Staff or Theater)

If the General Staff creates a theater headquarters, it might place an SPF brigade under the operational control of the intelligence directorate at that level. However, this brigade remains under the command of the General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate.

The OPFOR would employ SPF throughout the theater for reconnaissance and to disrupt communications, destroy bridges, seize choke points, and direct attacking aircraft, missiles, and precision weapons to prime targets. SPF structure can vary from one theater to the next depending on the command's requirements and the number of targets. The General Staff would also reserve some SPF brigades under its own control to engage strategic-level targets located beyond the range of theater- or army group-level SPF.

SPF Brigade (Army Group)

The army group-level SPF brigade conducts operations in support of operational-strategic objectives and army group military offensive and defensive operations. In wartime, SPF brigades would deploy throughout the enemy operational and operational-strategic depth. This normally means inserting elements (by parachute or other means) from 500 to 1,000 km behind enemy lines. Initially, SPF would focus on targets to the depth of the army group's subsequent mission, which generally would be the rear of the enemy army group (from 600 to 800 km deep). If the army group must then conduct a second mission into the enemy's communications zone, SPF activity could extend to 1000 km or beyond.

SPF Battalion (Army)

The army-level SPF battalion's primary missions might include conducting reconnaissance, creating confusion (diversionary measures), and destroying targets. The battalion structure is flexible and can change according to the mission. A SPF company might operate as a single unit, when conducting a sabotage mission into the enemy's rear areas, or it can divide into smaller forces. It normally inserts elements (by parachute or other means) from approximately 100 to 500 km behind enemy lines. It is assigned missions which target items of special interest to the army commander. This means that the focus of SPF activity is initially to the depth of the enemy corps (250 to 350 km).

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias