Airborne Forces: is “light” right?

This article was first published in May 2002 as a Milli-Brief for the UK Defence Forum:


“Five thousand balloons, capable of raising two men each, could not cost more than five ships of the line; and where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defence, as that ten thousand men descending from the clouds might not in many places do an infinite deal of mischief, before a force could be brought together to repel them?”

– Benjamin Franklin, letter dated Jan. 16, 1784. 1


It would take another 160 years before Franklin’s insightful vision of 10,000 airborne troops causing havoc behind the enemy’s lines came to be realised. But when it did, the men were not borne aloft in flimsy, slow-moving and unpredictable balloons – rather they were dropped by parachute at night from fast, precisely navigated aircraft to do their “infinite deal of mischief”.


Interest in airborne forces has been rekindled by the recent operations in Afghanistan involving the parachute drops of US Army Rangers, and the air assault operations by units of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the US 101st Airborne Division.

What manner of men are these? 2

Following the earlier precedents set by Italy and the Soviet Union, Germany set about establishing a number of experimental parachute and glider-borne infantry units in 1936. It was June 1938 when Luftwaffe General Kurt Student was placed in overall command that the young German airborne arm (known as “Fallschirmjaeger”) began to really make military sense. Student threw out the sabotage and guerrilla warfare missions and concentrated on organising and training his men as elite light infantry regiments with organic combat support elements.

Their first real test would be the Blitzkrieg across Western Europe in early 1940. Student argued for use of his elite Fallschirmjaeger to crack open “Fortress Holland” by dropping paratroops and gliders to overpower and occupy the key airfields, defensive structures, and bridges. He also planned to aim part of his forces directly at the nerve centres of government in Rotterdam and The Hague.


By concentrating the deployment of the airborne forces in both space and time in this way, he predicted that the entire Dutch defence system would crumble and the main force would be able to cross the frontier relatively unscathed. Although the Dutch fought back tenaciously in some locations, in the end the German use of political deception, surprise (both tactical and technical) and well-calculated risk – taken by bold and skilful troops – combined to achieve a legendary quick victory.

The stunning German successes in Holland, Belgium, and later (though at tremendous cost) in Crete caused Great Britain, the United States and Canada to rapidly form airborne forces of their own. Yet whilst these operations were not without tactical significance, their real value lay in the lessons learned for the future – valuable lessons in selecting and training paratroopers and in perfecting the technical craft of inserting great concentrations of them into unknown territory under the cover of darkness.


Parachuting demands a continual testing of oneself. It requires the individual repeatedly to overcome the fear of jumping, thus ingraining the soldier with the skills of calmness under mental pressure and functioning under conditions of physical stress. For example, although the nucleus of the Parachute Regiment in 1940 was drawn from the ranks of the renowned No.2 Commando, the official history of the British Airborne Forces records that “these men were tough, but even so all them could not manage parachuting.”3 Similarly, a post-war Canadian report revealed that some men who had displayed great bravery during the war could not bring themselves to jump from an aircraft 4. For the military, parachuting thus provides an excellent device for attracting and screening individuals for courage, resiliency, self-reliance and motivation.

Into the 4th generation

The quantum-leap advances in technology during World War II, particularly long-range guided missiles, strategic bombing and atomic weapons, shattered the traditional dependence many nations placed on geography for security.

The Second World War had shown how airborne warfare attacks directly at the interior of a nation at its critical centres, not at predictable borders or coasts, and destroys the enemy’s ability to fight back. Today’s airborne troops are specially organised, equipped and trained for delivery by airdrop or air landing into an area to seize objectives or conduct special operations against exactly these kinds of high-value targets, and thus deliver a strategic blow to the enemy.


But although airborne units today have impressive advantages in terms of speed and range over their WWII forefathers, they are limited in their mobility after landing. For subsequent operations, time-consuming regrouping, planning, and staging must follow an airborne operation. Therefore, the greatest value of airborne forces is that they provide rapid crisis reaction, strategic power projection – combined with logistically-efficient combat capabilities.

As an example, current UK doctrine for airborne operations lies in utilising air power to insert a ground force into battle via the air flank. Typically this means creating a safe “air corridor” to protect the insertion of an assault force.

This force assaults from the air, using parachute, support helicopter, or Tactical Air-Land Operation insertion. The assault force then secures a foothold on the ground in order to secure a landing zone into which the remainder of the combat power can build up using rapid air-land, and follow on air-land of tactical transports (C-130s). The airborne force may then exploit from the airhead and link up with heavier ground forces, or consolidate for conducting peace-support or humanitarian missions.

Although some might consider the days of the massed parachute drop to be over, there are a number of advantages to airdrops. First, is the matter of aircraft range:  the C-130 Hercules can, without in-flight refuelling, deliver 50-70 men over ranges of 2500 miles. Compare this with the normal range of transport helicopters: the best can only manage around 400 miles without refuelling, at a speed less than half that of a C-130 and carrying half the number of troops. Second is the speed and concentration of troop delivery. Despite troops becoming slightly separated by the very action of the drop, a higher concentration of personnel is achieved on the ground than through the use of helicopter air assault. In battalion-sized operations, the advantages of airdrops are particularly pronounced.

Beyond the obvious strategic advantages of rapid deployment over long ranges; tactically, the light airborne forces are also often the best weapon in the arsenal of democracy. In peace-support, crisis reaction, or humanitarian operations – as well as in the fight against terrorists and guerrillas – cruise missiles, bombers, and heavy armoured forces are of limited value (to say the least). The real force multiplier for these types of missions is the lightly equipped, highly trained, self-reliant airborne soldier. These are soldiers who do not involve a huge logistics chain, they do not require a month to prepare for deployment, they do not need a sophisticated (and hence vulnerable) base-camp upon arrival – they are quite at home operating on foot and can carry practically all they need on their backs.

Furthermore, the investments needed to improve the mission performance of light forces are minute when compared to heavier, or more high-tech, forces. For example, small all-terrain or lightly armed vehicles useful to paratroops cost a fraction of armoured infantry-fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery or helicopters 5.


Franklin’s visionary concept, inspired by the sight of balloon pioneers ascending and floating away on the wind, remains relevant today. Any method of warfare that enables the attacking force to out-flank the main defence and to attack the opponent’s vulnerable areas has obvious merits.

However, it is interesting to note that, whilst foreseeing the potential of vertical envelopment, Franklin was equally alive to the dangers inherent in such enterprises. His ominous qualifying phrase “before a force could be brought together to repel them” recognised problems that are all too often overlooked.

In terms of their potential for operational and strategic mobility airborne forces are unrivalled – offering the ability to insert a combat-ready advance-guard force over long distances in a short time.  But if airborne forces are to continue to thrive throughout the 21st Century, then more needs to be done to improve their mobility and combat power for follow-on operations once the airhead or air corridor has been established. 

The concept of “air-mechanised forces” offers a possible solution.  The usefulness and practicality of this concept has been proven by the successes of the Soviet airborne forces during the Cold War, and also by the heli-transportable, light-armoured forces of the modern German Bundeswehr.

airbornegroup  wiesel1


1 Written after observing one of the first experimental hot-air balloon flights by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris. Franklin was serving with the American Diplomatic Mission to France at the time.

2 “What manner of men are these who wear the maroon beret?” – Field Marshall Montgomery. The British Airborne Forces in WWII first adopted the maroon beret. Today it is almost universally worn by paratroopers around the world – the Russian paratroops, with their light blue beret, being a notable exception. Note: The German Fallschirmjaeger of WWII did not wear a beret of any colour; neither did the American paratroops.

3 Dr. Terry White, The Making of the World’s Elite Forces (London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., 1992), 14. Another reference is made in Capt Newnham’s Prelude to Glory, where the author stated, “…the majority got to the edge of the hole in the aircraft before refusing. Four men fainted in the aircraft, while a number jumped in a state of collapse having forced themselves to do so by sheer willpower.”

4 Major J.S. Hitsman, “Medical Problems of Paratroop Training,” Canadian Army Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1, April 1950

5 At an even more basic level, the US Marine Corps Commandant, in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated that the key enhancements to the Marines capabilities in the previous year was the issue of Gore-Tex rain gear, a new 4-man tent, and a new platoon-level field kitchen.

Further reading about the concept of “air-mechanised” forces can be found here: and here:

A book on the subject can be found here:

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