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Airborne forces of the US Army have often demonstrated their ability to conduct decisive, short notice, forced entry operations deep into enemy territory. They seize and maintain the initiative until follow-on forces are committed to the fight and then move to hit the enemy where he is the most vulnerable. The ability to rapidly deploy, land, and sustain a powerful ground combat force is vital to US interests and worldwide commitments.

From their origins early in World War II, the US Army's airborne forces have dramatically demonstrated their responsiveness and flexibility many times on DZs and battlefields all over the world. As the threat of regional conflict has grown, the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82d Airborne Division, and the 75th Ranger Regiment have demonstrated that well-trained, determined airborne soldiers armed with modern light weapons and led by skilled officers and NCOs can dominate the close fight and impose their will upon the enemy--wherever he is.

During Operation Just Cause in 1989, the actions of the 75th Ranger Regiment and the 82d Airborne Division clearly demonstrated the advantages of US airborne forces. The operation was well supported by other US Army units, the US Air Force, and US Navy.

On 17 December 1989, the National Command Authority decided to commit specially trained airborne units to military action in Panama. The President established H-hour for 0100 on 20 December, just three days after the decision to intervene. The complex operation was centrally planned due to the need for thoroughly synchronized operations. The mission assigned to the airborne force was to quickly isolate, neutralize, and, if needed, destroy units of the Panamanian Defense Force by overwhelming combat power. These forces were then to link up with elements of the 7th Infantry Division (Light), the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), and the 193d Infantry Brigade.

Deploying by strategic airlift from multiple bases in the continental United States, paratroopers jumped into action on two principal DZs. Ranger task forces seized airfields at Rio Hato and Torrijos-Tocumen Airport. Another task force built around the 1st Brigade of the 82d Airborne Division followed the rangers. Their mission was to jump, assemble, and conduct immediate air assaults to eliminate PDF garrisons at Fort Cimarron, Tinajitas, and Panama Viejo These initial offensive operations were later followed by ground combat and stability operations. They were sustained by air lines of communication front the US and by CSS units already in Panama.

Largely through airborne operations, capable and aggressive combined arms task forces were brought to bear on short notice against a dispersed enemy. Thirty-two separate objectives were attacked at the same time, paralyzing the enemy. The resounding success of Operation Just Cause was due mostly to the parachute assault and rapid follow-on missions made possible by the airborne operation. Operation Just Cause demonstrated once again the capability, flexibility and value of airborne forces.


Airborne and ranger units are organized and equipped to conduct parachute assaults to close with the enemy to kill him, to destroy his equipment, and to shatter his will to resist. This close personal fight requires combat-ready units composed of skilled soldiers and resourceful leaders. These units are the result of a tough, thorough, and demanding training program conducted by leaders who understand the effective employment of airborne forces, the combined arms team, and joint operations.


Paratroopers must be experts in marksmanship, close combat, individual parachute techniques, and fieldcraft. They should be proficient with their assigned weapons and other weapons in the unit. They should also be familiar with foreign-made weapons that the enemy will use. In the close fight, paratroopers must be skilled in employing all weapons to include the rifle, the bayonet the AT4, grenades, mines, and bare hands. They must be confident in their ability to fight with these weapons They must be highly skilled in land navigation, camouflage, and tracking and stalking techniques. Paratroopers must be able to move undetected close to enemy soldiers. Stealth is required for reconnaissance, infiltration, and achieving surprise. Paratroopers must have the skill and the will to dominate the close fight.


Infantry leaders must be the most capable soldiers in their unit and be tactically and technically proficient. The quality of the leadership determines the unit's success or failure in battle. Leaders must be proficient in land navigation and have an appreciation for terrain and parachute assault techniques. For a foot soldier, the terrain is both protector and ally. When properly exploited, it can increase the combat potential of the unit and support the achievement of surprise. All leaders must also be resourceful, tenacious, and decisive warriors. They are the combined arms integrators closest to the fight. They must be highly skilled in the employment of all the weapons and assets in the combined arms team. Leaders must be innovative and flexible when employing their units. They must have the mental agility to quickly grasp the situation and the initiative to take independent action, based on the situation and the commander's intent. Above all, they must personally lead their unit to success in close combat.


The strength of airborne forces comes from the skill, courage, and discipline of the individual paratrooper. The paratrooper's abilities are enhanced by the teamwork and cohesion that develop in squads and platoons. This teamwork teamwork and cohesion that develop in squads and platoons. This teamwork cohesion is essential to the survival and success of airborne forces in close combat. Cohesion enhances the paratrooper's will and determination to persevere, to accept the hardships, and to refuse to accept defeat. In the close fight, when the decision hangs in the balance, these are the factors that decide the victor. It is at the small-unit level (squad and platoon) that cohesion and teamwork provide the greatest benefits to the combat effectiveness of the unit. Paratroopers must have complete trust and confidence in their leaders. Leaders earn this trust and confidence by sharing the hardships and by displaying the leadership attributes described in FM 22-100. They must entrust the same confidence in their soldiers for this bonding to develop.


The unit training program must instill individual and collective skills and confidence, and must develop combat-ready units. It must consist of difficult, challenging training events that prepare soldiers, leaders, and units for the close fight. It must be conducted IAW FM 25-100, FM 25-101, and the MTP. The program must emphasize physical fitness, marksmanship skills, and parachute techniques. Paratroopers must be challenged to achieve expert proficiency in all of the combat critical skills. Night training, especially night live-fire exercises and parachute assaults, should be routine. The environment of the close fight should be simulated when possible. Training events that require subordinate leaders to use their initiative and take independent action are essential to prepare for decentralized operations that the unit normally conducts. Training to standard also develops cohesive, tenacious squads and platoons that can overcome all obstacles to ensure the safety of their unit and the accomplishment of the mission. The training program must continue after the unit begins conducting combat operations. The skills, teamwork, and cohesion must be sustained as replacements arrive in the unit. This is essential to maintain the combat effectiveness of the unit.


Airborne forces may be strategically, operationally, or tactically deployed on short notice to DZs anywhere in the world. They can be employed as a deterrent or combat force.

a. The USAF provides support to airborne operations that include:

  • Airlift.
  • Counterair.
  • Close air support.
  • Tactical air reconnaissance.
  • Air interdiction.
  • Special air warfare operations.
  • Electronic warfare.
  • Suppression of enemy air defense.

b. The strategic mobility of airborne forces permits rapid employment to meet contingence across the operational continuum anywhere in the world. Airborne forces provide a means by which a commander can decisively influence operations. The primary advantages of airborne operations are as follows:

  • Quick response on short notice.
  • Ability to bypass all land or sea obstacles.
  • Surprise.
  • Ability to mass rapidly on critical targets.

Airborne forces, when augmented with appropriate combat, CS, and CSS, can conduct sustained combat operations against any enemy.


Airborne forces execute parachute assaults to destroy the enemy and to seize and hold important objectives until linkup is accomplished. The parachute assault enhances the basic infantry combat mission: to close with the enemy by fire and maneuver, to destroy or capture him, and to repel his assaults by fire, close combat, and counterattack.

a. Missions for airborne forces can be strategic, operational, or tactical.

(1) Strategic missions. Simply alerting airborne forces for employment is a show of force that is politically significant in a strategic context. Airborne forces have strategic mobility. They can move from distant bases to strike at important targets deep in enemy-held territory with little warning. Strategic missions may require airborne forces to seize an airhead from which follow-on ground or air operations can be launched. Operation Just Cause was a strategic mission.

(2) Operational missions. Airborne forces can be employed anywhere in the theater of war. They attack deep to achieve operational-level objectives. For example, the seizure of objectives, such as airfields, bridges, or other key terrain deep in the enemy's rear area, is an operational mission. This is linked to the operational-level commander's concept and simplifies his accomplishment of assigned tasks. These airborne operations are usually short and require a linkup with other friendly forces or extraction of the airborne force. Operation Market Garden in the fall of 1944 is a good example of an operational mission.

(3) Tactical missions. Airborne forces assault in the rear or to the flank of the enemy, preferably where few fixed defenses exist and where well-organized enemy combat units are not initially present.

(a) Airborne units either assault their objectives and move to link up with friendly forces, or seize an objective and hold for the arrival of other friendly ground forces. They can also be used for rapid reinforcement of friendly ground units.

(b) Airborne forces can vary in size from an airborne company team to a division. Their size depends on the mission to be accomplished and the time, soldiers, and aircraft available. In January 1945, Company C and elements of Company F of the 6th Ranger Battalion executed a tactical operation to liberate American PWs from the Japanese at Cabantuen, Philippines. Usually only the assault echelon and its immediate follow-up are delivered into the objective area by parachute. Tactical airhead operations often involve the airlanding of heavy equipment, supplies, and supporting/reinforcing units to consolidate and exploit the initial lodgment.

b. Airborne forces can--

(1) Provide a show of force.

(2) Seize and hold important objectives until linkup or withdrawal.

(3) Seize an advance base to further deploy forces or to deny use of the base by the enemy.

(4) Conduct raids.

(5) Reinforce units beyond the immediate reach of land forces.

(6) Reinforce threatened areas or open flanks.

(7) Deny the enemy key terrain or routes.

(8) Delay, disrupt, and reduce enemy forces.

(9) Conduct economy-of-force operations to free heavier more tactically mobile units.

(10) Exploit the effects of chemical or nuclear weapons.

(11) Conduct operations in all four categories of low intensity conflict:

  • Support for insurgency and counterinsurgency.
  • Peacekeeping operations.
  • Peacetime contingency operations.
  • Combatting terrorism.


The airborne commander and his staff must understand the fundamentals of airborne operations to plan and execute a successful airborne assault. These fundamentals are valid at every level:

a. Airborne forces require specially selected, trained, and highly disciplined soldiers and leaders.

b. Airborne operations must capitalize on surprise.

c. The ground tactical plan must drive all other plans through the reverse planning process.

d. Airborne operations require centralized, detailed planning and aggressive decentralized execution.


Airborne operations are characterized by the following:

a. Joint operations.

b. A planned linkup with follow-on forces.

c. Complexity.

d. Robust, flexible command and control that emphasizes mission-type orders.

e. Detailed, universally understood SOP.

f. Aggressive, rapid seizure of the assault objective.


The commander and planners must recognize the limitations of airborne forces and plan accordingly. They must consider the following:

a. An airborne force depends on USAF aircraft for long-range movement, fire support, and CSS. The availability and type of aircraft dictates the scope and duration of airborne operations.

b. Airborne forces are vulnerable to enemy attack while en route to the DZ. Although the USAF can conduct limited airdrops without air superiority, large operations require neutralization or suppression of enemy air defenses. This may require SEAD, radar jamming, and fighter aircraft in addition to transport and CAS sorties.

c. After the initial airdrop, the sustained combat power of airborne forces depends on resupply by air. Any interruption in the flow of resupply aircraft can cause a potential weakening of the airborne force. Enemy air defense fires against resupply aircraft and long-range artillery and mortar fires on the DZ can hamper the delivery, collection, or distribution of critical supplies.

d. Once on the ground, the airborne force has limited tactical mobility. That mobility depends on the number and type of vehicles and helicopters that can be brought into the objective area.

e. The airborne force has limited FA and ADA support until additional assets can be introduced into the objective area. Additional target acquisition assets are needed to provide accurate and timely targeting information.

f. Evacuation of casualties from the airhead is difficult. Until evacuation means are available, the brigade must be prepared to provide medical care through the attachment of divisional medical elements.


An airborne operation is conducted in four closely related phases: marshaling, air movement, landing, and ground tactical.

a. Marshaling Phase. This phase begins with receipt of the warning order; it ends when the transport aircraft departs. During this phase, leaders--

  • Plan joint tactics and support.
  • Rehearse and conduct briefbacks.
  • Assemble and prepare paratroopers, equipment, and supplies.
  • Conduct briefings and prejump training.
  • Move paratroopers, equipment, and supplies to the departure airfields and load them into aircraft.

b. Air Movement Phase. This phase begins with aircraft takeoff and ends with unit delivery to the DZ(s) or LZ(s).

c. Landing Phase. This phase begins when paratroopers and equipment exit the aircraft by parachute or are airlanded. The phase ends when all elements of the relevant echelon are delivered to the objective area.

d. Ground Tactical Phase. This phase begins with the landing of units and extends through the seizure and consolidation of the initial objective(s). It ends when the mission is completed or the airborne force is extracted or relieved. Subsequent operations can include an offensive operation, defense of key terrain, a linkup, a withdrawal, or any combination.


Airborne operations, like any combat operation, can be considered in terms of the battlefield operating systems. These systems must be considered for each of the four plans required for an airborne assault. (Table 1-1.)

a. Intelligence. The commander must consider the type, number, and location of enemy air defense weapons, observation systems (visual, radar, and satellite), and warning systems. He must also consider the locations and capabilities of enemy reaction forces near the objective. Tactical air reconnaissance requires close joint cooperation, and aerial and satellite photographs and stereoscopic pictures can help offset the lack of terrain reconnaissance before an airborne assault. Commanders insert LRS teams at critical locations for gathering needed information.

(1) Airborne operations, more than any others, are affected by weather. The more territory an airborne operation covers, the greater the need for a long-range weather forecast system. Weather satellites may provide much of the needed information. Some intelligence requirements can only be obtained through HUMINT resources.

(2) The selection of DZs, assault objectives, and subsequent AOs depends on a thorough analysis to capitalize on strengths of the airborne force.

(3) Target acquisition is a vital aspect of the intelligence battlefield operating system. The search, detection, and location of targets are needed for maneuver and CS forces to prepare plans for engaging and destroying the enemy. These intelligence assets also assess target damage.

b. Maneuver. Forces must fit the task. The airborne brigade task force can be part of an airborne assault by a larger unit, or it can constitute the initial assault force, preparing the way for deployment of a follow-on force.

(1) Airborne battalions rarely conduct an airborne assault as an independent operation just to establish an airhead. The battalion is not large enough to adequately defend an airhead that includes the approach and departure routes for airdrop sorties needed to sustain the airborne force. However, airborne raids with withdrawal by air or other means are well within the capabilities of a well-trained battalion TF.

(2) The airborne force must capitalize on surprise. The commander must carefully select the time, place, and manner of delivery for the attack. Everyone concerned must maintain strict security.

(a) The force can maintain deception by masking operations as rehearsal deployments.

(b) The force must neutralize the effectiveness of enemy detection devices through destruction, jamming, or operator distraction. The following actions can help nullify detection devices:

  • Airborne forces can fly at low altitudes, using terrain masking and cloud cover to neutralize the effect of these devices.
  • Deception flights can divert the attention of radar operators.
  • Airborne forces can change course during the approach to confuse the operators.
  • Night operations increase the possibility of surprise, although they make assembly of airborne force elements and seizure of assault objectives more difficult.
  • They can pre-position to a REMAB from which to conduct the airborne operation.

(3) Rapid seizure of objectives is critical to success; speed and surprise are often more critical than numbers. Often, decisive action with a small force can succeed early where a fully assembled force cannot succeed later.

(4) Planning for a large-scale airborne operation should include preparation for air movement of large ground units to permit prompt reinforcement of paratroopers after their initial landing. To capture a suitable airhead for airland elements, the unit conducting the airborne assault must be able to capture airfields or terrain suitable for landing air transports. They must also be able to prevent enemy direct fire and observed indirect fire on the LZ. The suppression of enemy air defense assets along the aircraft approach and departure routes can be critical to success. Airlanded elements can be committed only when these conditions are met.

c. Fire Support. The primary source of fire support for airborne assaults is the US Air Force. US Navy/Marine Corps air assets and NGF if available will also be used. FA and mortars will provide fire support for the airborne force within 15 minutes after the beginning of the assault.

(1) The USAF must maintain air superiority for the airborne force to succeed in its mission. The more temporary the air superiority, the shorter the time-distance factors and duration of the flight should be. To establish and maintain air superiority, the USAF can neutralize nearby enemy airfields and C2 facilities.

(2) The commander must plan to neutralize or avoid all antiaircraft installations along the route selected for the flight. This can be a joint responsibility, depending on the availability and capability of fire support assets. For example, when airborne operations are conducted near the sea, NGF may provide much of the fire support to include JSEAD.

(3) The USAF must isolate the objective by attacking the enemy's ground and air forces. These attacks must begin late enough that the enemy does not identify the objective until it is too late to react effectively. Immediately before an operation, the USAF should consider incapacitating the enemy's fighter airfields and immobilizing enemy radar, communications facilities, and reserves near the projected airhead. An air attack on any enemy reserves moving toward the airhead can give the airborne unit extra time to seize the assault objectives, to reorganize, and to prepare for the defense.

(4) Airborne units require CAS initially until division and corps artillery can support them.

d. Mobility, Countermobility, and Survivability. Engineers provide--

  • Mobility.
  • Countermobility.
  • Survivability.
  • General engineering.
  • Topographic support to airborne forces.

(1) The nature of airborne operations often requires engineers to fight as infantry more often than in other operations. Engineers must be well trained in this aspect of their mission.

(2) A primary mobility mission for engineers in support of airborne operations is airfield runway clearance and repair. After the initial assault, airborne engineer units are prepared to improve or create landing areas for follow-on units, equipment, and supplies.

(3) Countermobility efforts are vital to the survival and success of the airborne force inside the airhead. Obstacles are created or reinforced to secure the airhead and to isolate it from reinforcing enemy forces.

(4) Survivability and fighting positions prepared from local materials are normal in airborne operations. Because airborne engineer units have limited earthmoving equipment, priority in preparing protective positions is normally given to key antiarmor and other weapon systems, C2 facilities, and vital supplies.

e. Air Defense. The force must provide its own air defense. This is achieved by establishing an air defense umbrella that is closely integrated with the USAF. Usually, the enemy can respond fastest by air, so rapid establishment of air defense is critical. To reduce fratricide, airborne forces must closely coordinate and train with the USAF.

f. Combat Service Support. Airdrop of equipment and supplies is the main resupply method for airborne forces and requires extensive planning.

g. Command and Control. Unity of command takes precedence over all other C2 considerations. (Both air and ground units must be under one overall commander.) The senior officer in the landing area commands the airhead until the arrival of the ground force commander. Establishment of the shortest possible chain of command is critical to success.

(1) Redundancy in all C2 systems should be established early in the planning stages of an airborne operation and maintained throughout the operation.

(2) Airborne operations require CPs both on the ground and in the air. The airborne force headquarters is divided into a mobile forward echelon and a stationary rear echelon. They can operate from a REMAB, an intermediate staging base, or a forward operating base. Commanders of airborne forces should land with the first units so that clear battle directions can be given from the outset.

(3) A highly qualified and trained force is required to successfully plan and execute airborne operations. A mutual understanding of the peculiarities, capabilities, and limitations of both air and ground assets by all leaders involved is critical.

(4) Leaders must train systematically with emphasis on well-functioning joint air-ground communications. (See Appendix G for more detailed information.)

(5) An airborne operation is as rapid in its execution as it is time-consuming in its preparation. Commanders must develop contingency plans for possible follow-on operations. These CONPLANs should be modified based on the most current intelligence Proactive advanced planning can allow more rapid decision making and timely commitment of forces.

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