Actually, Paratroopers Are Obsolete Without Armored Vehicles
It's time to evolve the airborne brigade
Airborne units have many who defend their current and future relevance. One of them, Crispin Burke, did so here at War Is Boring.
That said, he missed the case reformists have made. Simply put, questioning the current structure of the Army’s airborne forces does not dismiss the important role that airborne brigades play. Instead, careful examination shows that light-infantry airborne forces have shortcomings on modern battlefields.
Further, conventional brigades can take on many of the same missions currently performed by airborne brigades, and that the savings from doing so will allow airborne units to evolve to meet emerging threats.
Let’s start with the question of conventional forces being able to take on similar roles as airborne units. First, the entire 173rd Airborne did not drop into Iraq. Rather, fewer than 1,000 paratroopers were dropped in to occupy Bashur Airfield, which as the author noted had already been secured.
Yet despite the poor runway conditions, the bulk of the 173rd still landed there as opposed to being dropped. Additional supporting units followed, including a battalion of 70-ton M-1 Abrams tanks. And while the runway did begin to crumble during this operation, the flow of aircraft continued landing. In other words, the entirety of the 173rd could have been flown in conventionally, as could have a conventional infantry brigade.
Second, the French airborne operation in Mali was even smaller, consisting of a 250-man company, augmented by less than a dozen sappers. This was very different from the mass paratrooper assaults we know from history.
These troops dropped in support of a fast-moving mechanized ground force that was tasked to capture Timbuktu’s airfield, and was dropped primarily to establish blocking positions to prevent Al Qaeda elements from escaping. The remainder of forces flowing in were delivered conventionally, landing at the already secure Bamako-Senou International Airfield.
In other words, the mission could have been established via air assault, had helicopters been flown in by transport planes.
To be sure, there are theoretical cases in which airborne brigade combat teams units are absolutely irreplaceable. But while these cases demonstrate the value of strategic airlift, they don’t make the case for airborne units.
Whistling past the graveyard
Nobody denies that tactical discussions often lack sufficient nuance and scope. Yet strategic discussions cannot divorce themselves from tactical realities. If the means by which one intends to use the military are insufficient, then one’s entire strategic approach is doomed to failure.
The threats facing airborne troops today are nothing at which to scoff. The Rand Corporation’s Army Research Division published a 2014 study that attempted to determine what role airborne forces would play in the future, what threats they would face, and how those airborne forces should develop to meet those threats. Its findings were enlightening.
First, advanced air-defense systems at low, medium and high-altitudes are proliferating globally. Even with robust efforts to neutralize these systems, airborne formations could be forced to drop far away from their initial objectives (such as the airfields needed to facilitate additional strategic lift) in order to reduce the risk of their transport aircraft being shot down.
Since most airborne formations move at the speed of a walking infantryman, this change eliminates the operational speed and surprise that is so key to airborne envelopments.
Second, modern surface-to-surface artillery systems have also proliferated, giving potential adversaries the ability to concentrate long-range firepower far more readily than before, targeting drop zones, assembly areas and seized airfields. Though this second threat creates the requirement for an airborne-deployable force, that force cannot be the light infantry formations we currently field.
The United States has not really had to face these threats in any significant way. And assuming that we’ll always be able to defeat them is simply not sound.
Who, then, would field these capable systems? The author mentions China, and rhetorically asks if the United States would really attempt to drop airborne forces in China given its massive population. Obviously not. Which is why most advocates of airborne reform would scratch their heads. China isn’t the most likely threat.
That threat comes from Russia, most likely in the Baltic States.
A conflict with Russia is unlikely to consist of a massive Fulda Gap style attack westward. The rapid isolation of the Baltic States followed by the capture of some or all of their territory is most likely. We know this because Russia rehearses it during its Zapad (“West”) exercises. What’s more, it consolidates these rapid conventional gains by using tactical nuclear weapons to coerce the NATO allies to sue for peace, something Zapad exercises have rehearsed.
What’s more, Russia has used ongoing exercises as cover to pre-position ground forces that are later used in offensive operations. The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, despite its problems, used this mechanism well.
Risking a nuclear war by entering a conventional conflict with Russia is clearly not in our interest, nor those of NATO. But by neglecting our ability to respond conventionally to such a threat against the Baltic States, we risk incentivizing Russia to attempt a limited attack during a crisis.
If a conventional attack is guaranteed success (which another Rand study detailed at War Is Boring indicates is currently true), then Russia could actually be incentivized to attempt such a move, especially if it were to judge that the threat of nuclear escalation could create such decision paralysis within NATO as to break it completely.
But there is a way to prevent this. Though the U.S. has been pre-positioning equipment in the Baltic States for use in the event of crisis, we need a more robust capability in the event they are unable to arrive.
The United States must be able to rapidly deploy conventional forces to the Baltics that are sufficiently capable of blunting an initial Russian attack and buying time for NATO to mobilize. Further, given the amount of time and money Russia has invested in long-range precision strike systems, that force may not have airfields at which to land.
This sounds like a textbook case for our current airborne units. But the Russian forces that participate in Zapad are largely mechanized, which current airborne brigade combat teams are ill-equipped to defend against. Further, the Russians have placed great emphasis on unmanned aerial systems and heavy artillery to supplement their conventional forces.
A French VBCI armored fighting vehicle. Wikimedia photo
We need a different kind of airborne brigade, one that the Rand study has already recommended. It should be equipped with wheeled armored vehicles, such as those the U.S. Marine Corps currently uses, which are configured to act as mortar carriers, assault guns and infantry fighting vehicles.
This would allow it to more effectively face mechanized opponents, survive in the face of heavy artillery, and maneuver rapidly to the objective should air defense systems force aircraft to drop at a more distant location from their objectives.
This brings up the question of cost. The author is correct — airborne forces, in their current configuration, do not cost significantly more than a conventional infantry brigade combat team. But to make these brigades mechanized with light armor, as is necessary, will mean an increase in cost.
As such, reducing the number of airborne brigades from five to three would help offset the conversion cost. Fielding three brigades would allow one of those brigades to be deployable as part of the global response force (GRF) at all times.
As the author notes, airborne forces are useful for the kinds of low intensity wars that the United States is most likely to fight. I could not agree more. Which is why such a modification would also make them more effective at those missions as well.
Iraq and Afghanistan have shown U.S. forces why it’s important to have ground forces in properly armored vehicles to protect against small arms fire and improvised explosive devices, while allowing them to bring superior firepower to ground engagements.
Want to know what that would look like? The previous author already showed us where to look.
The French units arriving in Mali transported VBCIs — a wheeled armored fighting vehicle — by air. This provided the French enormous mobility and the toughness to overmatch their adversaries. As such, we should focus less on that French force’s parachutes, and more on its vehicles.
Luke O’Brien is a U.S. military officer stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and is a Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Graduate Fellow at National Defense University. His views are his own and not those of the Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_j_obrien.