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Airborne Operations

Delivering small, highly trained military units behind enemy lines has been an essential tool of warfare since the gates of Troy were thrown wide to drag in an odd wooden horse left by departing Greek warriors. Airdrop is the employment and resupply of forces through the aerial delivery of troops and equipment without landing the aircraft. Formation operations are essential for adhering to the principles of mass and security. The airdrop capability directly supports the JCS requirement for an immediate response capability to deploy airborne forces throughout the world. This is the basis for maintaining strategic airdrop capabilities. While airland is the preferred method of deploying forces, the capability to airdrop troops and equipment is a crucial capability that remains an integral part of Army doctrine.

Since World War II, paratroopers have continually distinguished themselves in battle, earning 69 Congressional Medals of Honor and hundreds of other awards for valor. Beginning with the first combat jump by the men of the 2d Battalion, 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment, over North Africa in November 1942, by one count by the year 2001 airborne and special operations soldiers had made a total of 93 combat jumps [this number must surely include a large number of jumps involving very small numbers of jumpers]. By another count, the March 2003 jump of the the 173rd Airborne Brigade was the 44th combat jump in US history [this number is much closer to the reported number of large jumps].

In any event, only seven jumps were conducted following the end of World War II, and the airborne operationa in Panama in 1989 were the only instance since 1951 of Brigade-sized operations. Two brigade airdrops were conducted with good results during the Korean War, and there were three battlion-sized airdrops in Vietnam. In 1983 a Ranger battalion conducted a combat aidrop into Grenada, and in 1989 two Ranger battalions conducted combat airdrops into Panama. On 20 December 1989 the three battalions of the Division Ready Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division conducted a combat airdrop into Panama, the first 82nd combat jump since Operation MARKET-GARDEN in September 1944. Brigade-sized airdrops were planned for the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Haiti in 1994, but in both cases the airdrops were cancelled shortly before they were scheduled to begin. A Ranger battalion conducted a combat jump in October 2001 in southern Afghanistan. Parachute operations by smaller units are far more common, but almost impossible to document, particularly since most are clandestine Special Operations activities.

The 26 March 2003 jump by the 173rd Airborne Brigade into Northern Iraq was advertised as "the largest airborne assault since D-Day" but that was manifestly untrue. Operation MARKET, which followed D-Day, was larger than the Normandy assault, and operations in Korea and Panama were larger than the 2003 airdrop. In early 2004 the 26 March 2003 jump was classified as a combat jump, even though the Kurdish controlled drop zone was in friendly hands and little resistance was anticipated.

Direct delivery, involves airlifting personnel and materiel from ports of embarkation (POEs) to forward operating locations in the theater, bypassing intermediary operating bases and the transshipment of payloads typically associated with hub and spoke operations. Direct delivery uses airland or airdrop delivery methods. For example, personnel can be airlifted from CONUS and delivered directly to the theater by airlanding them at a forward operating location or airdropping them as part of a strategic brigade airdrop operation. Direct delivery shortens in-transit time, reduces congestion at main operating bases, and enhances the sustainment of forward bases. One challenge for aircrews conducting direct delivery is obtaining up-to-date information during the lengthy flight.

Combat employment missions allow a commander to insert surface forces directly and quickly into battle and to sustain combat operations. For example, combat missions may involve airdropping paratroopers behind adversary lines. Combat sustainment missions may consist of reinforcement of front-line forces engaged with the adversary. Airlift affords commanders a high degree of combat maneuverability permitting adversary troop strongholds to be bypassed. This provides to friendly forces a potent offensive advantage, complicating the adversary's defensive preparations. The combat employment and sustainment mission usually accounts for a small percentage of total airlift sorties; nevertheless, its importance is far greater than the number of sorties indicates. This is a capability which, in most circumstances, cannot be accomplished by other means.

While this mission provides significant capabilities, it also carries substantial risk. Success in combat and combat support hinges on air superiority and threat avoidance. This requires accurate and timely intelligence regarding threats along the ingress and egress routes and over the target area. Once delivered to the target area, the inserted force may be totally dependent upon subsequent airlift operations for sustainment, movement, withdrawal, or redeployment.

The commander and planners must recognize the limitations of airborne forces and plan accordingly. 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. 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. 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. 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.

Another important aspect of combat employment and sustainment is the concept of forcible entry. In performing this mission, airlift forces are usually matched with airborne, air assault, light infantry, or ranger forces specifically designed for delivery by air. This mission normally involves the insertion of airborne forces via airdrop; however, carefully planned airland assault operations can be equally effective. An example of intertheater forcible entry operations is the strategic brigade airdrop capability that the Air Force provides for the Army. This gives the President and Secretary of Defense a unique military force projection capability.

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.

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

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. 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.

Since a stated goal of Focused Logistics is reducing the footprint of combat service support in a theater, aerial resupply must be considered as a critical requirement to support this process. This is especially true in operations such as Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, when GLOCs were either lacking or insecure. The Air Force is concerned, as it should be, with the efficient use of its resources, while the Army is concerned, as it should be, with accomplishing its mission.

Currently, airdrop is considered an option of last resort. Future airdrop systems, however, will allow for delivery of cargo and supplies with increased accuracy while protecting the delivery system. The commander on the ground is concerned with receiving resupply when it is needed. If predictability is gained through airdrop, then the commander can accept this method. One of the greatest advantages of airdrop is its availability when aircraft cannot land because of weather, conditions of the landing area, or enemy threat.

However, there are five disadvantages with airdrop. First, and probably the largest concern, is the condition in which the cargo and supplies will land. Next, the cargo may not arrive at the desired location because of many possible variables, including enemy interdiction, a parachute malfunction, or a possible disruption or malfunction of the GPS signal. For example, US forces destroyed six Iraqi devices designed to jam signals from the GPS satellite navigation and weapon-guidance system. Third, retrograde of unserviceables is not possible. Fourth, the amount of cargo that can be delivered is reduced because of the configuration required to prepare the load to be dropped. And finally, the items must be dropped well in advance to allow support personnel to retrieve and deliver the cargo to the customer at the required date and time.

The other option available to deliver cargo and supplies on the battlefield is airland. Airland relates to delivery of supplies by either rotary wing or fixed wing which requires a semi-improved airfield. The advantages of airland are that it is accurate, the cargo has a higher probability that it will arrive at its destination in a serviceable condition, more cargo can be delivered, and unserviceables can be retrograded. The disadvantages are that the aircraft is more prone to enemy threat and may not be able to land because of airfield conditions or weather.




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