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Posted on Jul 27, 2010 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 051 – The Marshaling Plan

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

“A standard question for a new man was why he had volunteered for parachuting and whether he enjoyed it. On one occasion, a bright-eyed recruit startled me by replying to the latter question with a resounding, ‘No Sir.’ ‘Why then, if you don’t like jumping did you volunteer to be a parachutist?’ I asked. ‘Sir, I like to be with people who do like to jump,’ was the reply. I shook his hand vigorously and assured him that there were at least two of us of the same mind in the Division.

General Maxwell Taylor


In our last article, we focused on airborne fundamentals. We strived to answer four principle questions. First, what are the four plans that comprise an airborne operation? Second, how are the battlefield operating systems utilized in an airborne operation? Third, who are the key leaders in an airborne operation? Finally, what are the planning considerations in airborne operations? We concluded our discussion with an historical example of how airborne forces were utilized during World War II at Fort Eben-Emael.



As mentioned above, in the last article, we introduced the four airborne plans: the Marshaling Plan, Air Movement Plan, Landing Plan, and Ground Tactical Plan. As with all military operations, we plan backwards beginning at the objective; meaning we should start with the ground tactical plan. This was the way we reviewed air assault operations. We want it understood that this is the way it is done. Now that we’ve clarified that, we are going to do this series the other way around. We’ll be saving the ground tactical plan for last because airborne ground operations are unique and interesting—thus—we’ll save the best for last this time.

With that said, we will begin our discussion of the four plans with the Marshaling Plan. This of course is not to be confused with The Marshall Plan! Anyway, we digress! In this article, we will key on the following subjects: 1) Preparation Activities before Marshaling 2) Selection of a Marshaling Area 3) Actions in the Marshaling Area 4) Outloading and we will conclude highlighting the major aircraft utilized in airborne operations (this will be an excellent tie-in to our next article — the air movement plan).

The Marshaling Plan

You need a starting point before you begin and that is the purpose of The Marshaling Plan. The Marshaling Plan gets the right number of paratroopers, their equipment, supplies, and vehicles to the right place (airfield) where they will board the right aircraft to continue their mission. Of course, the other right in this equation is to get them there at the right time.

The Marshaling Plan takes into consideration all events that begin upon receipt of the first warning order to conduct the airborne mission until the first aircraft takes off from the marshaling area/airfield. Within the Marshaling Plan, there are several key actions that must take place. These include:

  • Final planning and preparation for the other plans of the operation.

  • Preparing the unit for a coordinated maneuver to the Marshaling Area.

  • Preparing the Marshaling Area for occupation.

  • Maneuver of the unit from current locations to assembly areas within the Marshaling Area.

  • Maneuver of the units from within the Marshaling Area to the airfield.

  • Loading of Soldiers, equipment, and vehicles onto designated aircraft.


There are troop leading procedures that must be followed before marshalling begins. These activities are covered in the marshalling plan and they include the usual suspects: jump refresher training, mission briefings, pre jump inspections, preparation of airdrop containers, and issuance of rations and ammo. These may seem like mundane tasks to some. However, they are truly critical to mission success. Many airborne missions have not achieved their mission because one of the above activities was not conducted to standard.

N-Hour Sequence. At the front end of airborne operations is a tight timeline that orchestrates planning, preparation, and execution. U.S. Airborne operations, particularly when launched from the continental United States (CONUS), are designed to be no notice, rapid response operations. As such, they follow a semi-scripted, time-sensitive, process that gets men and machines together rapidly in order to deliver combat power to the battlefield. This process is the so called N-Hour sequence and it is triggered the moment units are alerted about a pending airborne operation. Initiation of the N-Hour begins the backwards planning that will get ‘wheels up’ on the lead planes to the objective in no later than 18 hours.

Rehearsals. As with all military operations, rehearsals are conducted at all echelons with the intent of uncovering potential weaknesses in execution and enhancing synchronization. The goal is to conduct full-scale rehearsals, particularly of actions on the objective. However, as we know, time will almost certainly limit what can be done. Airborne leaders must therefore prioritize what’s rehearsed, when, and where.

Assembly, Inspection. and Maintenance. Units assigned to the mission must rapidly assemble the equipment and supplies demanded by the operation at hand. Once gathered, the equipment is inspected to ascertain status of equipment and finally; those items in need of maintenance and repair are addressed or swapped out. The maintenance focus is on small arms and supporting weapons systems, parachutes, and aerial delivery containers. Simultaneously, heavy-drop loads are prepared and equipment to be left behind is packed away and stored with the rear detachment.

Selecting a Suitable Airfield

Obviously, the selection of a Marshaling Area is tied to the proximity of a suitable airfield. The selection of the airfield is tied to numerous factors. These include the following:

  • What is the mission of the unit? How many Soldiers, equipment, supplies, and vehicles are required for the mission?

  • How far is the airfield from the unit’s current location?

  • Is there terrain near the airfield suitable for a marshaling area?

  • What are runway lengths of the airfield? Are they long enough for the aircraft to land and takeoff?

  • What is the capacity of the airfield? Can it handle the number of aircraft required for the mission?

  • Does the airfield possess its’ own lighting for night-time operations?

  • Does the airfield possess hard wire communications?

  • Does the airfield possess facilities to receive personnel, equipment, supplies, and vehicles?

  • Does the airfield possess internal logistical support?

  • Does the airfield possess facilities for loading and unloading personnel, equipment, supplies, and vehicles?

  • How exposed is the airfield? Is it susceptible to attack from the ground, air, or indirect fire?

  • Does the airfield possess terrain and/or facilities which can assist in building a defense if required?

Once these factors are analyzed, a decision is made on the selection of an airfield. In some cases, there may be no choice since there are no other alternatives. In other cases, there may be several airfields available. Thus, these factors are prioritized and the airfield (or airfields) which best assist in mission accomplishment are chosen.

Selecting a Marshaling Area

Once the airfield is selected; then the process of choosing a Marshaling Area can begin.

The selection of the Marshaling Area depends on a number of factors. These include:

  • What is the distance to the airfield?

  • How much time is available until first wheels up?

  • How secure is it from enemy observation and potential attack?

  • Does it possess defensible terrain?

  • Is the terrain suitable for maneuver and training?

  • Are there existing facilities the unit can utilize?

  • Are there good road networks to go in and out of the Marshaling Area?

  • Are there good road networks to go in and out of airfield?

  • Is it accessible to logistical support?

Again, the Commander and his staff will look at all these factors and more and determine the Marshaling Area.


Within the overall Marshaling Area, the Commander will designate Marshaling Camps (think of these as assembly area) for units to occupy until they are called to the airfield. The purpose of the Marshaling Camps is two-fold. First, they are dispersed within the Marshaling Area so units are not concentrated and susceptible to attack from air and ground. Second, they are placed within the Marshaling Area so that units are positioned in locations that will facilitate a smooth maneuver into the airfield.

A typical Marshaling Camp will have the following characteristics:

  • Good road network to the airfield

  • A security zone outside the perimeter that is 50 meters wide and cleared for external security

  • Fencing around it (triple-strand concertina if possible) for internal security

  • An area for rigging equipment

  • If the tactical situation allows; have lights available

  • A bivouac area if there is sufficient time until loading aircraft for Soldiers to get some valued rest before their mission

Maneuver to the Marshaling Area.

Once the airfield is selected, the Marshaling Area determined, and camps within the Marshaling Area designated; the unit can begin planning and then executing the maneuver to the Marshaling Area. As we have discussed in numerous other articles, even the supposedly simplest maneuver must be done to standard. Poor planning at this early phase can derail the entire mission.

A march table that lays out and controls traffic from the assembly area, designates the route of march, lays out the timeline, and guides units into their place within the marshaling area is critical. The logistics officer, S4, notifies headquarters of the number of organic vehicles that the unit can furnish to move troops and equipment to the marshaling areas. The operations officer, S3, uses this information and the personnel list to procure any additional transportation as required.

Marshaling Area Operations

Within the Marshaling Area, the jumping units’ higher headquarters has overall responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the area. They will receive assistance from various operating detachments. These detachments will provide personnel and equipment to aid in communications, transportation, and medical services. These detachments may receive personnel augmentation from the jumping unit until those Soldiers are required to prepare for their mission. The detachments will not receive equipment from the jumping unit so that this equipment can be prepared for loading

Actions on the Airfield

Not only is the Marshaling Area a hectic place, but the airfield itself is abuzz with activity. Below we will discuss some of the most important actions which take place.

Issuing and Rigging Parachutes.

Parachute issue and rigging can be done alongside the aircraft or in-flight. Rigging is the process of properly donning the parachute and mounting equipment for the jump. It is a complex and time consuming process requiring on-sight inspection by Jumpmaster qualified paratroopers. An improperly rigged jumper risks loss of essential equipment at best and injury (or even loss of life) at worst.

Plane side rigging reduces the time jumpers are required to walk around while rigged—a tiring process. On the other hand, plane side rigging requires the parachutes be delivered to the aircraft.

In-flight rigging allows the jumper to wait longer before donning his parachute thus, reducing fatigue during long flights. The wait also allows more time for rehearsals and inspections. The cost of in-flight rigging is that it reduces the number of parachutists that an aircraft can carry since parachutes are loaded on the aircraft separately. Thus, even a seemingly routine decision has operational implications.

Transporting Cargo

One of the key actions that must occur in the Marshaling Area/Airfield is preparing equipment for air drop. In many instances, airborne units will operate far from logistical support. Consequently, they must receive their support from the air. Below are two systems/techniques that can be utilized via airdrop to receive that support.

Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System (LAPES) —

LAPES is the system of choice for delivery of cargo when air-landing is either undesirable or impossible. The cargo aircraft flies in low, but does not touch down.

A drogue parachute that is attached to a tow plate on the rear ramp is deployed.

At the release point, extraction chutes are deployed pulling the cargo from the rear of the plane. The ramp falls to the surface where friction drags it to a halt. LAPES can deliver up to 37,000 pounds of supplies into confined spaces.

Container Delivery System (CDS) –

The CDS is a system used to make a high velocity drop from 400-600 feet. The load is ‘kicked out’ and a small parachute deploys to decrease the rate of descent to a rate of 70-90 feet per second (still a pretty good clip!). The chute also stabilizes the load so that it lands vertically as opposed to tumbling that would occur in a low altitude free drop without a chute. This method is used to deliver small loads of ammunition, MRE’s, and ammunition. A CDS pre-packaged pallet contains 2,200 lbs of supplies.

Out load

The endstate of the Marshaling Plan is to have your aircraft loaded and ready to take off. In order to get your aircraft loaded efficiently and a timely manner, you must have a plan. Within the plan, there must be roles for the airborne unit and the airlift unit. Below we will highlight the key responsibilities for each.

Airlift Unit:

  • Develops the load plan for each aircraft
  • Issues load plan to airborne units
  • Provides instructions to the airborne units on loading and subsequent unloading of the aircraft
  • Ensures airborne units understand how all cargo will be tied down in aircraft
  • Ensures each aircraft is ready to eject all cargo and paratroopers on the dropzone.
  • Provides equipment to upload aircraft
  • Provides personnel to upload aircraft


Airborne Unit:

  • Based on the Ground Tactical Plan, establishes the priority and sequence of the movement of paratroopers, vehicles, and equipment onto aircraft
  • Prepares all cargo that will be airdropped. This includes marking it (weight, cubage, and center of gravity) and filling out the proper documentation (always paperwork!).
  • Responsible for the movement of all paratroopers, equipment, and vehicles from the Marshaling Area to the airfield loading area
  • Provides personnel to load and tie down equipment and vehicles on designated aircraft


The actual out load is complex and requires close supervision to ensure all equipment and personnel are put onto the right aircraft as quickly and efficiently as possible. Briefly, here is how it works:

  1. Initially, personnel and equipment are dispersed in marshaling areas distant from the loading airfields. They are in communication with the control groups (we will discuss shortly) at the airfields.
  2. Once called, the unit or equipment is moved by planeload (everything getting on that specific aircraft) to the call-forward area. You strive not to have many planeloads waiting in the call-forward area. More planeloads in the call-forward area just add to the congestion and potential chaos.
  3. As aircraft arrive in the loading area, planeloads are called forward. Soldiers from the airborne unit load and tie equipment down with the technical assistance of Air Force personnel.
  4. Once all paratroopers, equipment, and vehicles are loaded they are now set to execute the Air Movement Plan. We will discuss this next month.


Key Groups on the Airfield

For any endeavor to be successful, you must be organized for success. You must formulate the right groups and have the right people overseeing actions. Clearly, operations conducted on the Marshaling Area/airfield are no different. Below we will highlight the key groups that make things happen.

Loading area control center (LACC). A LACC is provided for the initial preparation of vehicles for loading upon designated aircraft. It should have a 10-foot by 20-foot area for each vehicle and a 20-foot-wide area between rows for maintenance. Depending on the type of unit, this can be a large area.

Marshaling area control group (MACG). The MACG is designated to enable the majority of the airborne force to concentrate on preparing for the mission as opposed to administration and logistics. Units not participating in the airborne assault are formed into provisional units designated as the MACG.

Airlift control element (ALCE). The ALCE coordinates all airlift aircraft while they are on the ground at the airfield. This includes movement control and reporting, communications, loading and off-loading teams, and aero-medical activities. The ALCE’s also covers activities related to the airfield. The ALCE is typically an Air Force unit. In addition to the tasks above, the ALCE also distributes the loading manifests, the aircraft parking plan and coordinates loading. It coordinates the disposition of equipment and personnel left behind by aborted sorties and conducts briefings for Army and Air Force personnel. They prepare flight clearances, coordinate aircraft configuration and schedule and coordinate proper Air Force coverage of assault LZs, DZs, and EZs. Critically, they also schedule and publish the air movement tables for supported units. They are certainly a vital cog in airborne operations.

Departure airfield control group (DACG). The DACG ensures that airborne units and their equipment are moved from the marshaling area and are loaded in accordance with the air movement plan. Timing is critical and tight control of air and ground traffic must be maintained.

Arrival airfield control group (AACG). The AACG is similar to the DACG. When personnel, supplies, and equipment are arriving on aircraft and need to be moved to marshaling camps or holding areas, the AACG offloads them. Like the DACG, the AACG works closely with the ALCE unit at the arrival airfield.

Key Aircraft.

Before we conclude this article, we thought we would highlight some of the key aircraft utilized in U.S. airborne operations. This is an excellent tie-in to our next article in the series – the air movement plan.

HC-130 Combat Shadow: This is the refueling bird used for long range operations. It carries 80k gallons of fuel; has a 16 hour flight time; and has a range of 4200 nautical miles

C-130 Hercules: The Hercules is perhaps the most famous airborne delivery aircraft in the post WWII era (and of course the subject of many marching and running cadences) This venerable aircraft carries 64 pax (personnel) routinely, but can handle up to 91 in combat conditions.

C141 Starlifter: The C141 carries more than double the C-130, up to 200 pax in combat while also traveling farther and faster. On the downside, it takes a longer and wider runway.

C17A Globemaster: The C17 is the latest generation of troop and cargo aircraft. It adds to the range and speed of the Starlifter. It delivers more troops and can carry outsized cargo but, it also requires a much longer runway. It can carry a 70 ton M1 Tank or a Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) or Patriot.

C5 Galaxy: This aircraft is a heavy load carrier that typically airlands. It can carry 340 pax in airbus configuration or 78 when also carrying heavy equipment.

AC 130 Spectre: This is the ancestor to the old ‘Puff’ of Vietnam fame. The AC130 is a powerful fire support platform that can be used in support of ground operations where the air defense threat is low. It can provide close air support as well as search and rescue. It is armed with 25mm and 40mm cannons and a 105 gun, all controlled by a laser target designation system. It totes ground flares and can implement its own BDA and strike correction. It can track ground troops with high resolution imagery or thought the use of night vision and special designator tape. It is a ‘full service’ platform capable of executing a multitude of support missions.


All in all, you can see why we covered marshaling first. It’s a bit dry and seemingly mundane albeit critical to success. If the marshaling plan goes awry, the delivery of men and equipment to the battlefield will be disrupted if not completely blown. Mismanagement of time can lead to deployment without rehearsals or brief-backs thus forcing the success of the mission to rest on the boldness, audacity, and skill of the troopers. While the troopers usually come through, the commander and his staff owe it to them to do everything in their power to set them up for success rather than to rely on fate and luck! Marshaling isn’t very exciting, but it is critical.


In our next article, we will key on the air movement plan. This is one plan where you need to balance a little art and a little science to be successful. As can be expected, in airborne operations the air movement plan is critical. After all, it is not airborne unless you are actually jumping. As you know, the only way to set the conditions for success on the ground is to have the other three plans linked to the ground tactical plan. Next month, we will discuss the air movement plan and its’ linkage to the ground tactical plan.

The Highly Coveted U.S. Army Airborne Wings



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