Yes, the U.S. Army Still Needs Paratroopers
Parachute soldiers are mobile, flexible
Once again, Army Times, in an apparent desperate bid for clicks, dragged up and flogged a dead horse — this time, questioning whether the Army still need its airborne forces, including the 82nd Airborne Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade and a brigade of the 25th Infantry Division.
The paratroop-skepticism joins other tired questions that have inspired many a monograph at the various war colleges, including “Is the Aircraft Carrier Obsolete?” (since the 1950s), and “Does the United States Still Need a Marine Corps?” (since before World War II).
Yet whenever pundits claim airborne forces are obsolete on the modern battlefield, a modern battlefield finds airborne forces — most recently in 2013, when French paratroopers jumped into Mali.
Though helicopters have largely replaced parachute assaults for what military experts term “vertical envelopment,” paratroopers still have their place in the Pentagon’s arsenal.
Don’t forget — paratroopers travel farther, faster and in greater numbers than helicopter-borne troops can do.
Helicopters may give troops tactical mobility, but paratroopers have strategic mobility thanks to the Air Force. While the Army’s standard heavylift helicopter, the Chinook, can carry 30 troops 200 miles or so, with aerial refueling a C-17 cargo plane can drop more than a hundred paratroopers thousands of miles from their home station.
Parachute assaults have another advantage over traditional airplane landings. Airplanes can drop troops and equipment by parachute much more quickly than by landing and unloading on the ground. That was the case during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, when U.S. forces spent days unloading one aircraft at a time on the island’s tiny runway.
In some cases, ports and runways may not even be available, as in the much-maligned parachute drop into northern Iraq in 2003. Critics scoffed at the op, noting the drop zone had already been secured by Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
Was it bravado, then, which caused the men of the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade to jump into battle? Hardly. As Emma Sky, a trusted adviser to several military officials, recounts in her memoir The Unraveling. “[Col. William Mayville, the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade] took me to the side of the airstrip, showing me that it was not built to withstand the weight of heavy aircraft. There was evidence everywhere of the ground subsiding.”
Indeed, despite the snickering and cynicism, airborne forces had once again proved their worth.
Airborne troops are often the first U.S. “boots on the ground” in any crisis — be it major combat or humanitarian relief. Lightly-equipped and rapidly-deployable, a brigade of paratroopers can deploy into anywhere in the world in as little as 18 hours as part of the Pentagon’s Global Response Force.
And while paratroopers can easily fight as regular infantry, regular infantry cannot fight as paratroopers.
Throughout the history of the 82nd Airborne Division, America’s main airborne force, parachute assaults have been the exception, rather than the rule. Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne gradually picked up armored vehicles following World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, with the division bordering on a mechanized infantry division by war’s end.
The 82nd fought as “leg” infantry during Vietnam and Desert Storm. Over the past 10 years, paratroopers traded their parachutes for behemoth-size armored vehicles, patrolling the streets of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.
Standard infantry units, however, cannot be re-trained for airborne operations. Not only are parachute operations highly specialized, requiring years of training, they’re also completely voluntary.
Now it’s true that paratroopers have long had their critics. Even Gen. “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin, the 82nd Airborne’s most legendary commander, questioned the airborne concept as far back as 1945, according to his biography.
But take note. Throughout history, many a tactic has been prematurely declared dead. Pundits dismissed tanks after many fell prey to anti-tank missiles during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Ditto for balloons, now a staple over most Forward Operating Bases in Afghanistan. Even horses were thought long obsolete until U.S. Special Forces rode on horseback into battle in the opening days of the first war of the 21st Century.
Does the airborne capability come at a cost? Sure, but critics even admit it’s not much of a cost. Aside from parachutes, airborne forces require little specialized equipment. Indeed, operations and maintenance costs for an airborne brigade is only 10 percent higher than for a standard infantry brigade, and only one-third that of an armored brigade.
There’s an old adage inside the Beltway. “Amateurs talk tactics.” Just witness critics question the viability of a parachute assault into a nation with a sophisticated air defense, like China’s.
Fortunately, professionals talk, well, political realism — and question why the Pentagon would parachute 15,000 troops into a nation of one billion people.
Not every nation has an integrated air defense system like China’s or Iran’s. Failed states — like Mali was in 2012 — may lack not only air defense systems, but also the trained operators to man them. Even nations with air defenses can find their networks neutralized within a few days. Witness the barrage of Tomahawk missiles which opened the U.S.-led intervention in Libya in 2011.
Will a division of paratroopers hold off a near-peer adversary? Probably not. Is our next war likely to be against a near-peer? You be the judge.
Crispin Burke is a U.S. military officer stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. His views are his own and not those of the Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter at @CrispinBurke.