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September sees the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden. Immortalized by the all-star film adaption of Cornelius Ryan’s seminal tome “A Bridge Too Far”, the operation was an unusually audacious move by British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery to end the war by Christmas 1944. In simple terms, the plan was to deploy thousands of paratroopers over The Netherlands to seize nine strategically vital bridges, allowing a powerful armored thrust to penetrate into the industrial heart of the Nazi war machine – the Ruhr Valley – then sweep through the North German Plain and on towards Berlin. In effect, the operation was designed to circumvent the heavily fortified ‘Siegfried Line’ on the German border. Although high risk, the rewards were deemed worthy; there had been a sense that the Germans were collapsing post the break-out from the Normandy beachhead, but this had been replaced by a growing concern that Eisenhower’s cautious ‘broad front’ policy was giving the Wehrmacht the opportunity to regroup. The slow advance was also consuming fuel at a prodigious rate, forcing the Supreme Commander to chose between two schools of thought. The first school was that of the cautious Omar Bradley and Montgomery, though each, for personal reasons, thought they should be in the vanguard of the overall advance. The second was the hard charging ‘maneuverist’ philosophy of the likes of George Patton, who was utterly convinced he could drive his tanks the whole way to Berlin (and, it is said, Moscow…) if given enough fuel. Market Garden fell into Eisenhower’s lap as the ideal compromise, and an opportunity to both finish the war swiftly and to employ the expensively trained parachute troops that had been sat back in the UK since shortly after D-Day, and who were spoiling for another fight.
History, of course, records that Market Garden was an ambitious failure. Though many of the tactical objectives were met, and several Dutch cities, such as Eindhoven and Nijmegen, were liberated, the failure to seize and hold the bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem led to strategic failure, and significant losses amongst the comparatively lightly armed Airborne Troops. The war would not be over by Christmas.
Surely then, the modern military mind would not conceive of using a similar plan again. Would it?
Imagine my surprise as I sat in a briefing in the back of a UK CH-47 Chinook helicopter on the evening of 11th June 1999 at Skopje airfield in Macedonia listening to “Market Garden – Redux” being explained. The air war, Operation Allied Force, had compelled the Serbian government to yield and a NATO ground force was now required to secure Kosovo to prevent further bloodshed. The ‘plan’ for us, as explained by the Brigadier in command of the UK’s 5th Airborne Brigade (itself a direct descendent of the 1st Airborne Division of 1944 and wearing the same Pegasus badge on their uniforms) was to use our Chinook and Puma helicopters to deploy troops to seize a number of key bridges within the Kacanik Defile (gorge) to permit an armored convoy to travel to the Kosovan capital of Pristina.
Paras, Bridges, Armor.
History echoed loudly in my ears. When I noted that we’d tried this before in Holland, 55 years earlier, and that it hadn’t gone that well, I received a number of glares and pointed stares. It got better. The bridges, we were assured, were all wired for detonation and the surrounds heavily mined. There was a strong chance that disaffected Serbian troops might attempt to detonate bridges as we crossed them…..
A significant advantage of deploying troops via helicopter vice parachute is that we could actually land on the bridges – at a stroke removing the random scatter and injuries of parachute drops, and the long march to the bridge at Arnhem that Col John Frost’s men had to complete in 1944. However, it did lead to some anxious moments before the Bomb Disposal experts had rendered the demolition charges safe. Indeed, I had my own ‘moment’ as I got to one bridge to drop troops only to find it was already full of helicopters. I therefore elected to land with the rear two wheels on the valley side and the front two hanging in the air over the vertical drop. “Ramp down, clear troops” I shouted on the intercom, only to look out my window to see a white-faced engineer officer intimating that I was crazy. We practiced this technique a lot, so I thought he was simply in awe of my piloting skills. When we lifted and turned to depart, we realised that we’d actually landed in a minefield……
The wars in The Balkans are by, today’s standard, rapidly approaching historical status. The role, esprit de corps and romance of parachute infantry, however, persists to this day. Parachuting is an expensive business; to become and remain proficient, troops must train regularly. Clearly, this involves using valuable aircraft and flight hours. These aircraft are often the very same Strategic and Tactical airlifters that higher echelons see as vital to transport, resupply and broader maneuver tasks. Resistance to the mass employment of parachute troops has grown steadily since the 1950s, and large scale parachute drops are nowadays extremely rare, even in training. As a capability, it is increasingly seen as an expensive luxury when budgets are under threat, especially in smaller militaries such as the UK.
In many respects, the helicopter has replaced both the parachute and glider as the preferred means of deploying the ‘vertical flank’. The helicopter overcomes several of the disadvantages of parachuting. Firstly, troops can be concentrated on the Landing Zone (LZ), not scattered subject the vagaries of wind, technique and aircraft position. During WW2, it often took hours to regroup after a large combat drop, giving the enemy time to react. Even the most recent large-scale combat drop, Operation Northern Delay, onto Bashur Airfield in northern Iraq in 2003 using modern aircraft and techniques, resulted in the 950 troops requiring some 15 hours to properly assemble. Helicopters also enable troops to better penetrate hostile airspace at low level; a well flown helicopter at tactical heights (circa 50 feet above ground level) whilst somewhat vulnerable to small arms / RPGs is a very difficult target for Radar Guided Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) and fighter aircraft – unlike a much larger transport aircraft flying significantly higher. Losses are also more acceptable in a helicopter; the loss of a C-17, for example, could result in over 100 parachute casualties, over twice the number if a CH-47 were lost, let alone the cost of the asset. Finally, and most prosaically, unless the troops trip over exiting the helicopter or walk into a tail rotor on the LZ, the chances of starting the fight with dead or injured troops is significantly reduced using a helicopter-based assault. Whilst figures are open to interpretation, research has shown that a ‘worst case’ tactical night jump with equipment can lead to an figure approaching 20 severe injuries (broken ankles, legs, shoulders) per 1000 troops. Strong winds, equipment weight and terrain can all exacerbate this average ‘on the night’. Scatter and casualties are two big issues that weigh heavily on the mind of a parachute commander contemplating a combat drop.
The helicopter, however, is not a panacea. The helicopter has three major limitations when compared to parachute insertion. Firstly, range. The most common argument deployed by adherents of mass-parachute drops is the ability for a theatre entry to be made from a strategic stand-off distance. Helicopters are relatively short ranged, especially if fully loaded with troops. Assaults much over 150 nautical miles become problematic in terms of trading payload against fuel. Secondly, helicopters are slow. Whilst a C17 can cruise to a DZ at 400kts+, even the fastest helicopters only cruise at around 150kts. Helicopters are also subject to low level winds and cannot climb above the worst of the weather if the tactical situation permits. Lastly, helicopters cannot carry the heavy equipment that the troops may need to support themselves in an isolated enclave behind enemy lines; whilst the biggest helicopters (such as the CH-53K and CH-47F can carry small vehicles internally, larger equipment needs to be ferried slung underneath. Such operations significantly increase the drag experienced by the rotorcraft, further reducing speed, range and maneuverability.
Perhaps a compromise is at hand. The USMC have already shifted their traditional doctrine away from being wholly focussed on amphibious assault. The “Ship to Objective Maneuver” (SToM) philosophy calls for a direct assault, or coup de main, onto the enemy’s vulnerable Centres of Gravity if within range. Rather than land, build up combat power on the beachhead then strike inland, SToM advocates using technology to save time and create shock by going ‘direct’. This type of assault at range was once the preserve of parachute troops; the USMC changed the paradigm with the fielding of the V-22 Osprey. Whilst not possessing the range or payload of a C130, it can fly almost as fast and can provide all the helicopter ‘benefits’ at the LZ. With range extended by Air-to Air refuelling, the V-22 offers some flexible and capable alternatives to mass assault. The US Army is also about to reap the benefits of advanced helicopter technology. The Future Vertical Lift / Joint Medium Rotorcraft (FVL/JMR) program will see thousands of ‘legacy’ UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters replaced by an advanced design from either Bell (V-280 Valor) or Sikorsky/Boeing (SB-1 Defiant). Both designs are significantly faster with longer range than the UH-60s they will replace. Slightly ahead in testing, the V-280 has already exceed 300kts in level flight. Army planners will soon have an enormous increase in operational flexibility, and one that will further blur the line between what a helicopter assault and parachute drop looks like.
Will military parachuting remain a key capability?
For the time being, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. Whilst mass drops are now a rarity, smaller, more covert, insertions of Special Forces via parachute are still essential for rapid ‘boots and eyes on the ground’ over strategic distance in a rapid timescale. Indeed, a key argument for the retention of specialist parachute trained units is that their higher standards of fitness and training act as a conduit for troops to enter the SF ranks. Much like the horse before it, the parachute soldier has become part of army tradition and folklore. As long as this remains part of the corporate memory, expect parachute troops all over the world to continue to fight a valiant rear-guard action in defense of their capabilities and esprit de corps. Perhaps Op Northern Delay will become seen, in time, as the last mass drop in military history, but the past also tells us that, invariably, militaries discover that they need a capability, badly, just after it’s been withdrawn. For this, and a number of the emotional ‘intangibles’, expect to see parachute battalions in many armies for the foreseeable future, and the legacy of Operation Market Garden to endure.