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Posted on Jun 28, 2010 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 050 – Airborne Fundamentals

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

"When we jumped into Sicily, the units became separated, and I couldn’t find anyone. Eventually I stumbled across two colonels, a major, three captains, two lieutenants, and one rifleman, and we secured the bridge. Never in the history of war have so few been led by so many.” 

– General James Gavin on Jumping into Sicily in WWII.


In our initial article in this mini-series on airborne operations, we provided you a general overview on our topic. We included some basic airborne talk, addressed what airborne operations can and cannot do for you, detailed the types of missions airborne forces are well-suited for, and provided a short history of airborne forces. Our objective in this primer was to give you a basic understanding of airborne operations so we could go into more detail in the coming months.



This article will begin our quest to present you with that more detail. Our focus will be in the following areas: 1) The four plans that comprise an airborne operation. 2) How the battlefield operating systems are utilized in an airborne operation. 3) The key leaders in an airborne operation. 4) The planning considerations in airborne operations. We will conclude the article with a short case study on the use of airborne forces in World War II. If you are ready then – STAND IN THE DOOR!


Airborne operations involve air movement to an objective with the intent of executing a tactical, operational, or strategic mission. An airborne mission may include any combination of airborne units and air transportable units and may include classic airdrops and parachuting as well as air-landing—the final composition is based on the situation. The planner has to remember that airborne ops aren’t limited to the troops jumping out of planes although they are the most emblematic and visible aspect of such operations.

Airborne missions are unique and the initial conditions are unique. The airborne objective area is designated as the airhead. The control measure delineating the airhead is the airhead line (AHL). Planners use the airhead to place the drop zones (DZs), landing zones (LZs) and extraction zones (EZs) supporting the mission. The airhead is built to exploit interior lines of communications (LOCs) because paratroopers usually initiate the fight alone. They begin operations either encircled or deep in enemy territory without adjacent friendly units. This should last no longer than 48 hours in a well planned operation. Interior lines allow the force to resupply and reinforce quickly since the ‘lines’ to anywhere on the ‘front’ are short. The airhead should be anchored on defensible terrain allowing sufficient depth for forces to retain until relieved or reinforced.

Airborne ops are, by nature, Joint—requiring the cooperation of two or more services to execute. The initial insertion must be quickly followed by the seizure of the assault objective. The paratroopers are exposed until they can take their objective and establish a hasty defense while awaiting the eventual linkup with follow-on forces. These are complex actions requiring flexible command and control based on intent driven mission orders.

Airborne units are initially dependent on the Air Force for their movement via cargo planes, fires via close air support, and logistics via air dropped or air-landed resupply. The actual type of aircraft used will dictate the scale and duration of the mission. Heliborne airborne missions are much smaller in scope and scale than operations launched from C130’s or C17’s. The larger the operation, the more critical is the air force’s ability to attain and sustain at least local air superiority and local suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD). As stated above, resupply comes by air until a link-up is completed and a ground line of communication (LOC) is established or the force is extracted. Enemy air defense against resupply coupled with artillery and mortar fires on the DZ can hinder delivery and recovery of supplies and hinders the distribution of supplies. If the paratroopers can be isolated and cut off from resupply they are in danger of dying on the vine.

Once on the ground, the airborne units becomes regular infantry which means; limited tactical mobility, limited sustainment, and limited protection. When the chutes are rolled up the paratroopers are extremely vulnerable. Consequently, the ability to rapidly establish the airhead is critical. The airborne unit can drastically improve its mobility and firepower by dropping wheeled vehicles (TOW HMMWV’s) and augmenting the airhead with helicopter support. The paratroopers initial dearth of artillery support and air defense can be improved through the use of battalion mortars and wheeled Stinger Teams. These assets can drop in or can be the first of the follow on assets, usually air-landed, that are introduced into the objective area. Casualty evacuation may be delayed until the airhead line is secure. Therefore airborne units must be prepared to provide their own medical care within the airhead. They may require added support from divisional medical units until external support is established.


Airborne operations are conducted in four phases which equate to four plans: marshaling, air movement, landing, and ground tactical. Each phase contains a complete set of orders and instructions of its own. All four phases are nested (provide mutual support to one another) and ultimately support the ground tactical plan. If this sounds familiar, this is the same rationale utilized in air assault operations. The four phases/plans are:

The Marshaling Phase begins with receipt of the warning order and ends when the transport aircraft depart. This phase includes overall mission planning, rehearsal and brief-backs. It includes the preparation of paratroopers, equipment, and supplies to include pre-jump refresher and sustainment training. This phase culminates with the movement of men and equipment to their designated airfields and loading them onto their assigned aircraft.

The Air Movement Phase begins when the aircraft take off and ends when they arrive over their assigned drop zones (DZ) or landing zones (LZ).

The Landing Phase includes the delivery of troops and equipment by parachute or when they are air-landed. This phase ends when the paratroopers rally and assemble in the objective area.

The Ground Tactical Phase is the most important portion of the operation where decisive action is taken to accomplish the overall mission. All prior planning and execution revolves around it. It begins with the assembly of assigned units and extends through the seizure of the objective and the establishment of a defensible airhead line (AHL). This phase doesn’t end until the mission is accomplished or the force is extracted or relieved in place.


All operations of all types are assessed in terms of the battlefield operating systems (BOS). The BOS provides the planner and commander with a comprehensive framework for planning, preparation, and execution of combat operations. They serve as an intellectual checklist used to ensure planning is as comprehensive as possible. Below we will address the relationship between the BOS and airborne operations.

Intelligence. The commander must template enemy air defense weapons, observation systems, and warning systems as well as defending units and reserves in and around the objective. Once this is done, he must assign men and assets to search for the above in order to confirm or deny his estimate. A critical, scarce, and highly skilled asset to accomplish this is the long range reconnaissance and surveillance team (LRS). LRS is the commanders top asset in terms of ‘boots on the ground’ to gather the above information.

Maneuver. Airborne battalions rarely establish an airhead independently. A battalion sized unit is not typically large enough to defend an airhead. Defense of the airhead is not limited to the actions taken to counter the local enemy. The defender must also defend the approach and departure routes for airdrop sorties that are required to sustain the airborne force. On the other hand, a trained battalion is fully capable of executing a raid with a planned withdrawal—coming by air or other means.

The airborne force must capitalize on surprise. This is the essence of airborne entry—troops appear where the enemy thinks it impossible. To gain surprise, the planner and commander must carefully select the time, place, and manner of delivery for the attack; usually at night or during periods of limited visibility or when the enemy is significantly distracted.

Once on the move, the force must neutralize enemy detection devices through evasion, spoofing, destruction, jamming, or distraction of threat collection assets. To accomplish this they can fly at low altitudes, using terrain masking and cloud cover to neutralize the effect of these devices. Deception flights can divert the attention of radar operators. Airborne forces can change course during the approach to confuse the operators. Night operations increase the possibility of surprise, although they make assembly of airborne force elements and seizure of assault objectives more difficult.

Rapid seizure of objectives not only adds to surprise; it also enhances survivability and defensibility. These characteristics are critical to success. In airborne operations, speed and surprise are often more critical than numbers. A rapid and decisive action by a small force can often succeed where a deliberate action by a fully assembled force may struggle to succeed.

Planning for a large-scale airborne operation should include preparation for air movement of large ground units to permit prompt reinforcement of paratroopers after their initial landing. To capture a suitable airhead for airland elements, the unit conducting the airborne assault must be able to capture airfields or terrain suitable for landing air transports. They must also be able to prevent enemy direct fire and observed indirect fire on the LZ. The suppression of enemy air defense assets along the aircraft approach and departure routes can be critical to success. Airlanded elements can be committed only when these conditions are met.

Fire Support. The primary source of fire support for airborne assaults is the US Air Force. US Navy/Marine Corps air assets and Naval Gunfire will also be used. FA and mortars will provide fire support for the airborne force within 15 minutes after the beginning of the assault. Airborne units require Close Air Support until division and corps artillery can support them.

The USAF must maintain air superiority for the airborne force to succeed in its mission. The more temporary the air superiority, the shorter the time-distance factors and duration of the flight should be. To establish and maintain air superiority, the USAF can neutralize nearby enemy airfields and Command and Control facilities.

The commander must plan to neutralize or avoid all antiaircraft installations along the route selected for the flight. This can be a joint responsibility, depending on the availability and capability of fire support assets. For example, when airborne operations are conducted near the sea, Naval Gunfire may provide much of the fire support to include Joint Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (JSEAD).

The USAF must isolate the objective by attacking the enemy’s ground and air forces. These attacks must begin late enough that the enemy does not identify the objective until it is too late to react effectively. Immediately before an operation, the USAF should consider incapacitating the enemy’s fighter airfields and immobilizing enemy radar, communications facilities, and reserves near the projected airhead. An air attack on any enemy reserves moving toward the airhead can give the airborne unit extra time to seize the assault objectives, to reorganize, and to prepare for the defense.

Mobility, Countermobility, and Survivability. Engineers provide mobility, counter-mobility, and survivability. The nature of airborne operations often requires engineers to fight as infantry more often than in other operations. Engineers must be well trained in this aspect of their mission. A primary mobility mission for engineers in support of airborne operations is airfield runway clearance and repair. After the initial assault, airborne engineer units are prepared to improve or create landing areas for follow-on units, equipment, and supplies. Countermobility efforts are vital to the survival and success of the airborne force inside the airhead. Obstacles are created or reinforced to secure the airhead and to isolate it from reinforcing enemy forces. Survivability and fighting positions prepared from local materials are normal in airborne operations. Because airborne engineer units have limited earthmoving equipment, priority in preparing protective positions is normally given to key antiarmor and other weapon systems, Command and Control facilities, and vital supplies.

Air Defense. The force must provide its own air defense. This is achieved by establishing an air defense umbrella that is closely integrated with the USAF. Usually, the enemy can respond fastest by air, so rapid establishment of air defense is critical. To reduce fratricide, airborne forces must closely coordinate and train with the USAF.

Combat Service Support. Airdrop of equipment and supplies is the main resupply method for airborne forces and requires extensive planning. We will discuss this more significantly in future articles.

Command and Control. Unity of command takes precedence over all other Command and Control considerations. (Both air and ground units must be under one overall commander.) The senior officer in the landing area commands the airhead until the arrival of the ground force commander. Establishment of the shortest possible chain of command is critical to success.

Redundancy in all Command and Control systems should be established early in the planning stages of an airborne operation and maintained throughout the operation. Airborne operations require Command Posts both on the ground and in the air. The airborne force headquarters is divided into a mobile forward echelon and a stationary rear echelon. They can operate from a remote marshalling base, an intermediate staging base, or a forward operating base. Commanders of airborne forces should land with the first units so that clear battle directions can be given from the outset. A highly qualified and trained force is required to successfully plan and execute airborne operations. A mutual understanding of the peculiarities, capabilities, and limitations of both air and ground assets by all leaders involved is critical.

Commanders must develop contingency plans for possible follow-on operations. These CONPLANs should be modified based on the most current intelligence. Proactive advanced planning can allow more rapid decision making and timely commitment of forces.


While there are many leaders on the battlefield, there are two key leaders

Airborne Commander. The airborne commander establishes mission-oriented command and control by ensuring that his concept is understood and by defining the responsibilities of key personnel. The airborne commander is responsible for accomplishing the ground mission, loading aircraft with equipment and personnel.

Airlift Commander. The airlift commander is responsible for allocating sufficient aircraft to support the ground tactical plan, delivering assault elements to the correct DZ and conducting resupply and evacuation missions.

Joint Responsibilities. The airborne and airlift commanders have joint responsibility for establishing control parties at departure airfields, supervising loading, rehearsals, DZ / LZ selection. They also include unloading of aircraft at the LZ, preparing the aerial resupply and evacuation plan, securing departure airfields, preparing the air movement table and coordinating the movement of soldiers and aircraft.


The commander has the full range of graphic control measures to use. At a minimum, he must assign unit areas of operation (AO), and DZs, LZs, and EZs. He must also define the battlefield by designating assault objectives and an airhead line.

Once the commander determines the principal components of the ground tactical plan and the maneuver and fire support schemes, the airborne force organizes to execute its assigned mission. The commander balances the immediate need for combat power with the need to ensure force sustainability over time. To ensure unity of effort, part or all of the assigned forces’ subordinate units can form into one or more temporary tactical groupings, such as teams or task forces. Each tactical group has a designated commander. Airborne forces generally divide into one of three echelons: the assault echelon, the follow-on echelon, and the rear echelon.

Assault echelon. The assault echelon consists of those forces required to seize the assault objectives and the initial airhead, reserves, and supporting units. The assault echelon is the element of a force that is scheduled for initial assault on the objective area. In an airborne assault it normally comprises those forces capable of insertion by parachute in a single drop by the available lift systems. The assault echelon is a combined arms organization with only limited sustainment capabilities. The commander cross-loads key assets such as commanders, communication systems, recon, and crew-served weapons. This is done so the loss of a single air frame will not compromise the operation.

Follow-on echelon. The follow-on echelon consists of forces required for subsequent operations. It enters the objective area by air or surface movement when required. The follow-on echelon contains those forces moved to the objective after the assault echelon. They provide the combat power necessary to expand the airhead, and secure the lodgment area. The follow-on echelon can consist of heavy and light combined arms formations, field and air defense artillery assets, and combat engineers, as well as combat support and combat service support elements. Introducing this echelon can take several days and involve multiple sorties. This echelon contains increased sustainment capabilities.

Rear Echelon. The rear echelon consists of administrative and service elements that remain in the departure area. The rear echelon contains those elements that are not required in the objective area. It may remain at an intermediate staging base or support base during short-duration operations. This echelon generally contains the airborne unit’s long-term sustainment capabilities.

Concurrent Planning. Commanders plan for all phases of an airborne operation at the same time since all phases are interrelated. This reduces the total planning time. A subordinate unit must maintain plans in draft until the next higher headquarters has finalized its plans.

Coordination. Commanders normally provide plans and orders down the chain of command. For airborne operations, however, higher headquarters often cannot complete their plans until subordinate units have conducted a briefback of their plans.

Liaison. Parallel echelons of the airlift and airborne units coordinate continuously from the time of the joint planning conference until the operation is executed or cancelled. Before the operation, complete coordination is essential down to the smallest detail. Liaison officers are normally exchanged between the airborne force and numerous other entities:

(a) Army units supporting the operation from outside the objective area.

(b) Airlift elements.

(c) Linkup forces.

(d) Special operations forces, especially AC-130 assets.

Brief-backs. Subordinate commanders must conduct brief backs on all aspects of their plan to the next higher commander. This ensures that plans are nested (provide mutual support) and are fully coordinated within the commander’s intent. Commanders conduct brief-backs on a terrain model, a sand table, or a map. Planning for an airborne operation is a dynamic fast-changing process. A change in one plan has an impact on the other three. Plans remain in draft until every commander in the chain has conducted a brief-back. All commanders must inform their subordinates of changes.

N-hour deployment sequence. An N-hour sequence is developed and followed to ensure all reports, actions, and out-load processes are accomplished at the proper time during marshaling.

Units prepare internal deployment standing operating procedures (SOPs) and continually update and rehearse them. These SOPs should include actions that are common to all deployments, to include airland as well as parachute assault.

Conduct no-notice emergency deployment readiness exercise.

Prepare personnel for overseas deployment.

Update and review all vehicle load plans.

Validate and update movement plans with next higher headquarters.

Update access and recall rosters.

Review family support group rosters and rear detachment responsibilities.

Ensure special team personnel are identified and trained (air movement/planning, NBC, outload, ammunition handling, and so on).

To end this article, let’s look back at an operation in World War II, where airborne forces were instrumental during execution.

Case Study: Eben-Emael.

Fort Eben-Emael, guarding the Meuse River, was known as one of Europe’s most impregnable fortresses. It was defeated on May 10th 1940 by 85 German paratroopers during the blitzkrieg. Eben-Emael provides a great example of a small airborne force accomplishing what a much larger armored force could not.

Eben-Emael dominated the Albert Canal and the bridges over it. It served as Belgium’s bulwark against attack from the east. Loss of the bridges would open up invasion routes into Belgium.

The seemingly invincible fort was designed to thwart ground attack, but was vulnerable to an attack from the air—not by air forces since the fort was subterranean, but from airborne troops. The Germans decided on such an attack using glider troops to land on top of the fort. There were no guns there. The paratroopers combined this novel attack technique (gliders) with a revolutionary new weapon, the shaped charge. The former put them in a place where no one thought an attacker could go while the latter allowed men to breach the roof and attack the defenders manning the guns inside.

The paratroopers trained for six months and used 11 gliders each containing seven or eight men a piece. They ‘landed’ at 0525 in the morning just ahead of the main attack across the Belgium border. They used dummy glider landings around the canal to confuse and deceive the defenders.

The paratroopers had 60 minutes to defeat the fort and create a defendable airhead. The attack was a success—the defenses were neutralized and the bridges were captured intact at a cost of 6 KIA’s and 15 WIA’s out of the 85 paratroopers.

Eben-Emael demonstrates the potential of airborne operations. The unexpected method of attack (airborne via gliders); the target of the attackers (the roof versus the avenues of approach); the timing (limited visibility); and the skill of the attackers (trained sappers) combined to surprise the enemy and defeat the fort with little cost.


In our next article, we will begin keying on the four plans encompassing an airborne operation. Just as we did during our treatment of air assault operations, we will dissect each plan in detail. As is our Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) we will backwards plan. Thus, we will begin our discussion with the ground tactical plan and then cover the landing plan.


  1. Tactics 101 Article #49 does not appear to be in the archives. Could this please be added? Thanks


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