Reimagining and Modernizing U.S. Airborne Forces for the 21st Century


Do we need Army Airborne? This question was raised by Kyle Jahner in the Army Times. This is not a new debate. In fact, it comes up during every period of defense downsizing. In Jahner’s article, the usual suspects and arguments are trotted out again: the high costs of maintaining airborne forces, the risks of using them in the face of increasing lethal air defenses, the lack of sufficient deployment aircraft, the lack of jumps much larger than a brigade since World War II, and the assertion that the 75th Ranger Regiment is sufficient for any probable airborne forcible entry operations. We’ve seen these arguments in longer form in Marc DeVore’s thoughtful study, When Failure Thrives: Institutions and the Evolution of Postwar Airborne Forces. The counters to these arguments are also familiar: The airborne forcible entry capability is a national asset, there is always an airborne brigade in the Global Response Force that can rapidly deploy anywhere in the world on short notice, and paratroopers are “double volunteers” (i.e., for the Army and for airborne training) and, therefore, elite light infantry.

Furthermore, joint doctrine envisions only a limited role for airborne and other forcible entry capabilities such as amphibious assault. Their mission is to “seize and hold lodgments” to enable the “the continuous landing of troops and materiel possible and provides maneuver space for subsequent operations.”

In short, the current discussion and doctrine for airborne forcible entry is centered on costs, risks, and existing capabilities —all of which limit operational employment. However, we believe that modernized airborne forces could be instrumental in solving a broader set of key problems policymakers face.

What Problems Can Airborne Forcible Entry Help Solve?

Airborne brigades bring several unique capabilities to forcible entry operations. First, they can deliver combined arms formations (infantry, indirect fires with artillery and mortars, and joint fires integration) that the Ranger Regiment cannot. Second, given ongoing special operations forces commitments, the entire Ranger Regiment is probably never available. Third, these combined arms formations can be inserted anywhere in the world. Amphibious assault is limited to the littorals, while helicopter air assault operations have range limitations. Even the Marine V-22 Osprey, with its extended range and speed, cannot deliver large combined arms formations, given the limited numbers available and the payload of the aircraft.

A good place to begin a discussion of the potential utility of airborne forcible entry is the list of 12 missions the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff specified for the military in the 2015 National Military Strategy: maintain a secure and effective nuclear deterrent; provide for military defense of the homeland; defeat an adversary; provide a global, stabilizing presence; combat terrorism; counter weapons of mass destruction; deny an adversary’s objectives; respond to crisis and conduct limited contingency operations; conduct military engagement and security cooperation; conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations; provide support to civil authorities; and conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

Five of these missions could potentially involve combat and the need to respond rapidly: defeat an adversary; combat terrorism; counter weapons of mass destruction; deny an adversary’s objectives; and respond to crisis and conduct limited contingency operations. Coupling these five missions to specific scenarios — particularly those far from the littorals — makes apparent the unique utility of airborne forcible entry.

Examples of Future Operations

The degree of instability in the world today means that the U.S. military has to plan for operations in a wide variety of locations against opponents that range from relatively poorly armed insurgents and terrorists to the militaries of nation states equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry. Operations could take place relatively close to where U.S. forces are located, or they could unfold at great distances from an existing base.

One of the advantages of airborne forces is their ability to quickly deploy over intercontinental distances, including to locations located deep inland. Future operations could include forcible entry to enable the arrival of follow-on U.S. and/or coalition land forces; the insertion of conventional airborne forces to operate alongside special operations forces in counterterrorism missions; short-notice noncombatant evacuation operations; seizing and securing nuclear, chemical, and ballistic missile sites; and the rapid deployment of a ground force as a deterrent signal to convince an adversary that vital U.S. interests are involved in a particular region.

Defeat an adversary. This has been a mission for airborne units since World War II. In some circumstances, airborne units conducting a forcible entry will be sufficient to accomplish the larger overall mission. This was the case in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom when the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped into northern Iraq near Bashur to open a northern front when the 4th Infantry Division was denied passage through Turkey. During Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division took key objectives as part of the overall joint force. In other cases, the initial forcible entry sets the conditions for the entry of follow-on forces, including armored formations that will complete the operation. This was the goal of Operation Market Garden in World War II, when three Allied airborne divisions secured bridges in Holland to support the rapid advance of an armored force. Although the airborne assaults were successful, stiff German resistance stopped the armored advance and the British 1st Airborne Division was annihilated. There are a number of locations around the world where forcible entry might be required. For example, in the event of a conflict with Iran, there could be a need to introduce ground forces on the northern shore of the Straits of Hormuz to help ensure safe passage of merchant shipping. Airborne units would be one of the options, along with air assault and amphibious forces, either to accomplish the mission themselves or to secure lodgments for follow-on forces.

Combat Terrorism. Depending on the particular situation, these operations could include a mix of special operations forces (SOF) and conventional forces. Airborne units may be needed to provide capabilities that SOF, including the Rangers, lack. Airborne forces are particularly well suited if such operations take place deep inland. Indeed, airborne may be the only realistic option in some circumstances, particularly if time is of the essence. Conventional airborne forces have considerably greater organic firepower compared with special operations forces, and they are better suited for missions that may last for a protracted period. Sudan, northern Nigeria, and locations well inland in South America are examples of places where such operations could take place.

Counter weapons of mass destruction. One example might be North Korea descending into a state of chaos in an internal civil war or in the aftermath of a war with South Korea. Armed groups in North Korea could persist, and concerns about the security of weapons of mass destruction — particularly nuclear weapons — would be paramount. Maneuvering forces through the thickest part of North Korean defenses north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) would be difficult. These weapons of mass destruction sites are located in North Korea beyond the difficult-to-traverse Kaesong Heights north of the DMZ. Getting to these sites quickly would be difficult. Airborne forces may represent the best or only option in those circumstances. Airborne units could initially secure key sites, defend them against marauding factions, and await the arrival of other elements to complete the mission.

Deny an adversary’s objectives. In this case, the United States might need to rapidly deploy a force demonstrating to an opponent that U.S. vital interests are involved and that Americans are willing to fight. In some circumstances, rapid deployment may be essential in order to interpose a U.S. force before an opponent makes a move. Such a force would have to be both credible in the eyes of the adversary and able to fight successfully if deterrence fails. If the opponent is well-armed, this mission would be beyond the capability of special operations forces to perform. Capabilities unique to conventional forces would be required, such as mobility, protection, and firepower commensurate with the mission and the capabilities of the enemy.

Respond to crisis and conduct limited contingency operations. A noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO) in Nigeria is a potential example of this mission. There are tens of thousands of U.S., European, and other nationals in Nigeria today. Given the escalating level of violence in the country, it is possible that the situation could become so serious that a large-scale evacuation of foreign nationals could be required. Such a mission would require rapid insertion of forces both along the coast and much deeper inland, particularly into the vicinity of the capital of Abuja. Airborne units would be ideal for this mission. It should be noted that a need to conduct a NEO could occur in a number of countries in Africa and elsewhere. This is not without precedent. In 1964, the Belgian Para-Commando Regiment, transported by the U.S. Air Force, conducted airborne assaults in the Republic of the Congo during the Simba Rebellion. The mission was necessitated when the Simba rebels began torturing and executing American and European hostages. Airborne operations rescued some 2,000 hostages who would have otherwise been slaughtered.

What Other Countries Are Doing

Both Russia and China maintain large airborne formations and are currently modernizing their capabilities. Devore writes that Soviet investment in these forces was once illogical and wasteful given the vulnerability of its light armored systems. During the Cold War, Soviet airborne forces were “probably incapable of penetrating NATO airspace,” and continued Soviet investment in airborne capabilities “ignored the broader issue of whether mass paratroop combat drops were even possible in high-intensity wars.”

What Devore does not discuss is the utility Soviet, and now Russian, airborne forces possess in contingencies beneath the level of high-intensity combat. The Soviets deployed airborne units to Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. In Czechoslovakia, these forces air-landed after Spetsnaz forces took the airfields. In Afghanistan, Soviet airborne units were prepared to conduct a parachute drop if the airfields were not secured. Both operations were rapid and accomplished their objectives of decapitating the regimes and seizing control. In the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the success of the initial takedown operation is often overlooked. Similarly, the French employed airborne forces quite effectively in Mali in 2013 during Operation Serval and even airdropped a company in Timbuktu.

One thing the Chinese, Russians, and French share is that their airborne units have armored fighting vehicles with cannons for armament that can be airdropped or air-landed during operations.

Current Airborne Brigade Combat Team Capabilities Limit Their Utility

As noted by critics, current U.S. airborne forces consist largely of light infantry with limited mobility absent new vehicles. Additionally, U.S. airborne units do not possess organic light armor capable of insertion through airdrop.

Because they lack vehicle mobility, today’s U.S. airborne forces must conduct airdrops relatively close to their objective areas — locations that are probably important to an adversary and may be heavily defended by both ground troops and air defenses. Today’s airborne units also suffer from limited capabilities to defeat enemy armor or other targets like bunkers or barricades given their lack of armored vehicles with cannons, since the M551 Sheridan armored reconnaissance vehicle was retired in 1996.

By improving the tactical mobility of the infantry and adding light armor, Army airborne forces would provide more options to decisionmakers. Units with vehicle mobility can land at drop zones farther from defended areas, maneuvering to their objectives at vehicle speed, rather than at the pace of dismounted infantry. The addition of light armor would give airborne units considerably more mobile protected firepower at contact with enemy forces. This is a different mode of operations compared with today’s airborne capability.

There are both short-term and long-term options to improve the tactical mobility and armor capabilities of U.S. airborne forces. Any near-term improvements (those made in the next five years) would have to be based on existing vehicles, perhaps with some modifications. To improve the mobility of the airborne infantry elements, light wheeled vehicles are available that can be parachuted from all U.S. Air Force transport aircraft. The new Ground Mobility Vehicle is an excellent example of this type of vehicle.

In terms of light armor, there are a number of vehicles available today that, with minor modification, could be used for airdrop from either C-130 or C-17 transport planes. A 2014 RAND Corporation report, Enhanced Army Airborne Forces, highlighted the U.S. Marine Corps’ LAV-25A2 as a current vehicle that could be used as a near-term light armor option for Army airborne units. With a combat loaded weight of roughly 16 tons, LAV-25A2 is ideal for transport and airdrop in C-130 aircraft, and multiple vehicles can be lifted in a C-17 aircraft. Farther in the future, it may be possible to design both a new class of light armor for airborne use — ideally as part of the Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower initiative — and a vehicle aerial delivery system capable of parachuting heavier vehicles and weapons than the current system. These new delivery systems might include GPS-guided parachutes that can be released from above the range of man-portable air defense systems.

If an airborne force had the enhanced mobility and firepower described above, any of the illustrative operations listed earlier would be more feasible and enjoy lower risk. Greater tactical mobility on the ground would permit the selection of drop and landing zones farther from an opponent’s defenses, particularly high-end air defenses. Enhanced firepower via airdrop-capable light armor would give commanders the ability to fight through opposition as they move from their arrival locations to their objectives, and the fight at the objective areas would take place with the support of light armor. Airborne commanders would also have better opportunities to exploit the effects of joint fires by operating at higher tempos and with the ability to quickly follow up on the effects of fires provided by the other services.

Many of the challenges the United States will face in the coming years across the range of military operations could be deep inland and require rapid response. Airborne forcible entry — with reimagined and modernized airborne forces — would offer political decision-makers options in crises that they do not possess today.


David E. Johnson is a senior historian and John Gordon IV is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.


Photo credit: U.S. Army