In the era of diminishing budgets, everyone looks to cut costs where ever possible. And the cost of maintaining large numbers of troops on Airborne status generally comes up.
So here is my analysis…
There is “strategic mobility” and there is “tactical mobility” and the “Holy Grail” of military forces is to deploy a unit with the “strategic mobility” of an Airborne Brigade while having the “Tactical Mobility” of a Stryker Brigade, and having the punch of a heavy mech brigade.
Of course that’ll happen exactly never. The laws of physics just happen to apply. If you want to move a lot of men in aircraft, that’s easy to do. If you want to move a lot of tanks in aircraft, that’s tough to do. The problem with a “medium weight” formation is that people want it to deploy like a light formation then fight like a heavy formation, and that doesn’t work because a medium formation has the worst of both worlds (or the best depending on how you accept limitations).
But here is the point, if the US leadership wanted to put 10,000 pissed off Americans somewhere on the planet tomorrow, they won’t call the USMC. The USMC can’t do that mission, and the USMC force posture is such that even if they had a MEF or a MEU available, it would be dispersed on ships and could only get a small force inland. The famous or infamous Marine deep insertion via CH-53E is an example of, “Well, we can get you something, but it’ll look like a bunch of dismounts getting off a helicopter.” as an answer to the nations call.
So in truth the Airborne Brigades are a unique capability, and anyone who says otherwise really needs to explain how any other formation can load up and roll out with the strategic mobility of an IBCT(A). Yes it takes a LOT of C-17s to drop a Brigade, but it can be done and that is one of the reasons the C-17 is in the inventory to begin with. It would take a lot more C-130s, but it could be done.
But that strategic mobility comes at a price, and this price is why IBCT(A) formations don’t do combat jumps very often. And we need to address these in detail to make a good decision about whether or not the cost of keeping Airborne around it worth it.
Each of these considerations is a point of tactical or strategic risk that accompanies the use of Airborne forces. In the military risky things are part of the job, but it is also part of the job to never assume more risk than necessary to accomplish the mission.
1st, once you commit Airborne Forces, you are committed. Marines can get back on the CH-53s or MV-22s and play “just the tip” all they want. Airborne forces, once they are on the ground have zero options for organic egress.
2nd, once you commit Airborne Forces, you have to support them. This is why the prime targets for Airborne operation is “airfield seizure” which is really just a “secure us a damn logistics hub you overpaid lawn darts!” to military planners. Somebody has to secure the airfield, and between the Range Regiment, 173rd, and 82nd (plus the BN Task Force in Alaska) that mission is sufficiently covered. Generally an airfield seizure doesn’t require an entire Brigade, or even an entire BN.
3rd, once you commit Airborne Forces, the clock is ticking on that support package. You run into the problem of committing too many men in order to get security on the ground you also run into the problem of not having enough aircraft available to send in the life support they need to not die. The big risk here is that without a relatively secure supply chain, the boys on the ground are boned, and by putting the boys on the ground you had to accept the risk of an non-secure supply route for some very expensive aircraft. This often means that the supplies to support the forces have to be staged, or pushed long before the “go” command is given. If you have that much time to plan, it makes it hard to plan on an Airborne force.
4th, once committed, you will have drop zone injuries. There is no combat jump in history without broken legs, backs, or other injuries that take men out of the fight before they ever have the chance to fire their weapon. It is a lot to ask a leader to say, “Yes I’ll commit these forces without an immediate casualty evacuation plan that will get the wounded to treatment.”
So with those four realities of risk conducting Airborne operations, let me explain to you why it is worth it.
1, it is a credible capability that enemy commanders have to waste combat power protecting against. Right now neither Russia nor China have enough forces to make our Airborne capability a non-threat. Just like the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo changed how Japan waged their side of the war, airborne forces can put combat power on the map where there was none the day prior. At the outset of “Operation Desert Shield” it was the 82nd making a line in the sand as best they could simply because we couldn’t get anyone else their faster.
2, it is a useful capability in combat. While we don’t do Brigade level operations very often we still use the parachute as a means of insertion for deep recon, Special Forces, and other who need to get behind enemy lines to do their thing. As the world saw in Desert Storm, laser guided bombs work great when there is someone lasing the target.
3, it serves as a recruiting pool for SOCOM. The Army has 45,000 Airborne slots total and fills 32,000 SOCOM slots. If you do the math, you’ll see that leaves about 13,000 slots for the Regular Army. The truth is that being Airborne qualified has little to no bearing on whether or not you are good at your job, but everyone in SOCOM (Army side anyways) is expected to be able to jump in and do their job, often with minimal support.
4, it serves a peacetime purpose as well. Other nations have airborne units and SF can’t do all the cross training everywhere. USASOC turns down so many multi-national training missions simply because it can’t support them. Having regular Army Airborne formations allows many of those missions to be fielded. It was the 173rd Airborne that pushed troops to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania when the President decided to keep an “enduring presence” along the eastern flank of NATO to reassure allies in the face of Russian aggression.
5, Airborne forces are cheap. The cost of keeping the capability is less than the cost of two tanks or one helicopter (except for the Lakota, that is a very cheap airframe) to keep in the inventory. The cost of an Airborne brigade is about two million more than a straight leg unit, and with five Brigades that’s about ten million dollars per year. The Army is paying 14 million for two tanks, and 35 million for an Apache. Is having 13,000 Paratroopers available for duty worth two tanks or one helicopter in terms of combat power? Yes. Even a Stryker vehicle costs over 2 million per, so a Brigade worth of Infantry or a platoon worth of Strykers? Conversely, it costs 1.6 million to fly a B-2 Spirit on one 10 hour mission.
6, Airborne forces are expected by America. If the Army was an industry that produced a product, our Paratroopers would be one of the expected products. The National Guard would be another. Our heavy mech forces probably the most necessary and least appreciated. Losing the “Airborne” product line would be like telling the USMC that they don’t need Force Recon because they have MARSOC and SEALs covering down on that mission. We expect Marines to maintain a recon force, and we expect the Army to maintain an Airborne force, and while some of that is purely cultural there are very good reasons that those institutions became cultural in the first place.
So there you have it, the reasons why we should keep such a rarely used capability in the inventory and on the rosters. Losing that capability wouldn’t mean we would lose the next war, it would only mean that the next war would be harder to fight and more difficult to win. It also means that those “oh crap” moments where the US needs to put boots on the ground somewhere fast couldn’t happen. Whether that is re-enforcing a NATO or Southeast Asian ally (South Korea, Japan) or Australia (there are very good reasons we don’t send heavy mech brigades to train in Australia).