Paratroopers still matter

Foreign Legion Paratroops jump from a Transall C-160 over Timbuktu, as seen from a French ISR drone.

Foreign Legion Paratroops jump from a Transall C-160 over Timbuktu, as seen from a French ISR drone.

In the initial stages of the Iraq war, the United States discovered it couldn’t count on its fair-weather ally, Turkey, and had to cover an entire open front between Iraq and demilitarized Kurdish territory with special operations forces, mostly from the 10th SF Group, and a hastily-organized drop of paratroops. Combat jumps of Rangers have seized airfields and other objectives from Grenada to Panama to Kandahar. Other nations, too, rely on paratroops. The Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979) were led by airlanded paratroopers, who were ready to jump if indigenous forces had resisted.

And the French have relied on paratroops to settle restive natives in their former African colonies since World War II, most recently on Monday when a battalion-sized airdrop took place in Timbuktu.

The paratroops linked up with French and West African multinational ground forces proceeding overland from Niono. Additional airmobile forces landed on the airfield of Gao, after it was secured by French SOF.

Image via French paratroopers of 2e REP Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment were parachuted on Timbuktu – Army Recognition.

While the French parachute attacks are initially successful, there’s a good bit of campaigning ahead for the French and Foreign Legion paratroops and their ground-force mates.

But in the rest of the world, airborne forces are growing in importance, even as civilian “defense intellectuals” pronounce them obsolete, which they’ve been doing at intervals, with no visible shame at their repeatedly exposed error, since at least V-J Day.

Still a great way to get there. Special Forces with SF-10 parachutes

Still a great way to get there. Special Forces with SF-10 parachutes. Army photo.

The spiny south end of South America, for example, is home to two nations who each maintain an airborne corps d’elite: Argentina, which has a can mount a not-brigade–sized 4th Airborne Brigade plus a task-organized airborne / airlanding battalion (called a brigade) based on its joint special operations forces, and Chile, which is establishing its first airborne brigade now and over the next decade. The Chileans are aiming towards a similar broad-spectrum capability to the Argentine SOF unit, with a view to multinational and UN taskings. Both nations have flexible parachute and helicopter vertical delivery options.

A dirty little secret that may drive a revival of airborne operations is: parachute operations from fixed-wing aircraft are longer range, more affordable, safer and more reliable, and with modern chute technology, nearly as accurate as helicopter insertions. Helicopters have significant advantages (especially this: they can pick up what they put down, a challenge for a cargo jet dropping chutes), but their costs in money, maintenance, fuel and — especially — risk are enormous. You do not have to think far to think of operations complicated, or even defeated, by their own helicopter problems.

Parachute troops are, by the nature of parachutes, light infantry. A great deal of effort has been expended over the years trying to make special purpose weapons for paratroops, from German efforts like the FG41 and the 2.8/2.0 CM squeeze-bore AT gun, to the Japanese takedown paratroop rifle, to special-purpose armored vehicles like the US M551 Sheridan light tank, and the Russian ASU-51 and ASU-85 SP guns. The special weapons are seldom so much better, even for para use, that they justify their development expenses. But it’s the nature of military leaders to look for an edge, and to try to fill deficiencies.

Light infantry delivered by parachute are not a bad thing, actually. They are a force-in-position. They constitute “boots on the ground.” Their eyes and sensors on the ground can deliver to a distant commander “ground truth” that he cannot get from technical, stand-off ISR platforms. They can seize and hold ground. They can meet with friendly or hostile forces, and negotiate or accept surrender of enemies. They can open up options. In short, they can do myriad tasks that are beyond the competence or ambit of drones or any other stand-off technology.

Cash-strapped military men everywhere do well to study the Rhodesian FireForce operations. Even wealthier and better-outfitted services could find other advantages than mere savings in their approach. And FireForce did it with parachutes.

Paratroopers still matter.