Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on May 12, 2010 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 049 – Intro to Airborne Operations

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

Airborne Operations

“Do not be daunted if chaos reigns. It undoubtedly will.”

Commander, 3rd Bde, British 6th Abn Div, on D-Day


In our last article, we put ourselves in the shoes of the commander who has been encircled by enemy forces. These shoes are obviously not very comfortable. The options for this commander are fairly limited. He can defend in his current position and await assistance from the outside. Or he may elect to conduct a breakout and penetrate the enemy with hopes of linking-up with outside forces. In our discussion, we keyed on each of these options. For each option, we provided what should be achieved in planning and execution to set the conditions for overall success. Although becoming encircled is not the best of situations – all is not lost. The commander, through strong leadership and understanding the terrain, the enemy and himself can get out of the situation and be utilized later in the operation.



Beginning this month, we will start a series of articles focused on airborne operations. As we did in our air assault series, we will begin with a general overview and then start digging deeper into the intricacies of airborne operations. In this article, we will discuss some airborne basics, talk some capabilities and limitations, and provide some typical missions that airborne forces can be of great value. So if you are ready – STAND IN THE DOOR.


The aura of the United States Army Airborne (as well as most country’s airborne units) is legendary. This reputation did not arise because of their cool maroon berets or their silver wings. Their legacy is built upon a young, yet venerable past. From Anzio to Sainte Mere Eglise to Nijmegen and Bastogne; American paratroopers distinguished themselves as brave and tenacious warriors. They have to be since they are usually isolated early on as the first to put ‘boots on the ground’. The airborne mystique is tied to their strategic mobility that makes them ‘Johnny on the spot’ for every global contingency from armed conflict in the Gulf to humanitarian aid in the Caribbean.

The unique allure of airborne operations is their strategic and operational mobility, flexibility, and the potential to attain surprise and generate chaos. Paratroopers can be delivered, day and night, behind enemy lines and can come enmasse (Normandy) or in small tailored packages (Panama). This lethal and potent mix of military capabilities is not without weaknesses. Once on the ground, paratroopers become light infantrymen with the same limited tactical mobility and firepower shortage of any other ‘ground-pounder’. In order to survive, a linkup with another unit is required. If they are left alone things can get precarious. (i.e. the British 1st Abn at Arnhem).

Given the above, paratroopers are an agile and potent force, but are also vulnerable when misused. They are clearly not a panacea for all challenges. As with all military organizations, the strengths have to be balanced against the weaknesses.


Airborne forces are generally composed of infantry and light, non-armored vehicles and guns. The strength of airborne forces begins with the skill, courage, and discipline of the individual paratrooper. From the very beginning, the paratrooper must be trained to fight and win alone. He must be able and willing to stand alone for a time awaiting the arrival of the Calvary.

Teamwork and cohesion are essential to the survival and success of airborne forces in close combat. Teamwork is key given the fact that, early on, the only allies the paratrooper will have are his own comrades. Cohesion enhances the paratrooper’s ability to maintain unit integrity under adverse conditions and to persevere. These factors decide the victor during a close fight. Paratroopers must have complete trust and confidence in each other and in their leaders. They must also entrust that same confidence in their subordinate leaders and soldiers. Trust, up and down, the chain of command allows the unit to bond.

Airborne training focuses on the individual and collective skills required to build a ‘fight tonight’ mentality—a combat ready force. Training consists of tough, challenging and realistic events that prepare soldiers, leaders, and units for a close fight. The regimen emphasizes physical fitness, marksmanship, and parachute techniques. Paratroopers need to strive for expert proficiency in all combat critical skills given the increased likelihood of temporary isolation inside enemy territory.

Night training, especially live-fire exercises and parachute assaults, is routine. Training should be as realistic and stressful as possible and subordinate leaders must be forced to use their initiative and take independent action. All airborne units, from the squad on up, should be prepared to execute decentralized operations. Training continues even after combat operations begin in order to sustain skills, teamwork, and cohesion as replacements arrive.

The premise of airborne operations is that they can arrive so quickly that a coherent defense cannot be mounted against them in a timely manner. This advantage cannot be sustained for long. Consequently, a rapid advance of ground based troops in support is needed.


The calling card of the airborne is their parachute. Airborne forces may be strategically, operationally, or tactically deployed on very short notice to drop zones (DZ) almost anywhere in the world. They can be employed as a deterrent—a demonstration of national will—or as a combat force. The strategic mobility of airborne forces permits rapid employment to meet contingencies spanning the full operational continuum anywhere in the world. Airborne forces provide a means by which a commander can achieve surprise and decisively influence operations. The primary advantages of airborne operations are as follows:

Quick response on short notice. Depending on the size of force required; airborne units can be in the air in hours.

Ability to bypass all land or sea obstacles. Aerial delivery means that the airborne is not impeded by terrain and the use of planes instead of helicopters means their range is unlimited and less vulnerable to weather effects.

Surprise. Paratroopers can drop into areas that cannot be seized rapidly by ground forces. Typically they hold key terrain, disrupt rear areas, and await a linkup by forces moving towards them through weakened enemy defenses.

Ability to mass rapidly on critical targets. Airborne units can arrive enmasse allowing a rapid build-up of combat power in a short amount of time.


Airborne strategic mobility does not come without a price. Part of the reason paratroopers are so mobile is that they come to the fight with little baggage. Tanks, trucks, and self propelled artillery don’t ‘drop’ so the force consists of light infantry, small vehicles, Anti-tank HMMWV’s, mortars and towed artillery whenever possible. The highly skilled airborne warrior relies on small unit proficiency and decentralized operations to create the desired effect on the enemy and to ‘hold on’ until friendly forces link up and reinforce them for sustained operations. This was brilliantly demonstrated by the famous 101st Airborne defense of Bastogne while awaiting a link up with Patton’s Army from the South.

Airborne planners must recognize the limitations of airborne forces and plan accordingly. The airborne force depends on aircraft for long-range movement, fire support, and logistics. The availability and type of aircraft dictates the scope and duration of airborne operations. Airborne forces are vulnerable to enemy attack while en route to the Drop Zone (DZ). Although the air force can conduct limited airdrops without air superiority, large operations require neutralization or suppression of enemy air defenses. This may require suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), radar jamming, and fighter aircraft support.

After the initial airdrop, the sustained combat power of airborne forces depends on re-supply by air. Any interruption in the flow of re-supply aircraft can weaken the airborne force. Enemy air defense fires against re-supply aircraft and long-range artillery and mortar fires on the DZ can hamper the delivery, collection, or distribution of supplies. Once on the ground, the airborne force has limited tactical mobility that is dependent upon on the number and type of vehicles and that can be brought into the area of airborne operations.

The airborne force has limited artillery and air defense support until additional assets can be introduced into the objective area. Additional target acquisition assets are needed to provide accurate and timely targeting information.

Evacuation of casualties from the airhead is difficult. Until evacuation means are available, the airborne unit must be prepared to provide medical care on site. In summary, airborne limitations include:

Limited logistics. Airborne units can typically sustain themselves for 48 hours. Beyond that, they require re-supply. Air dropped supply can extend their combat effectiveness but a physical linkup with friendly forces is required.

Limited tactical mobility. Once on the ground, the airborne unit is truly a light unit. Trucks, when brought, are of limited supply. The unit becomes foot mobile.

Limited Firepower. Artillery support comes in the form of towed artillery and mortars. Close air support from the Air Force is often required to augment fires.

Limited Protection. Light fighters lack armor protection and must dig in if required to retain ground.

Weather. Airborne operations are sensitive to adverse weather conditions that can ground aircraft or scatter jumpers.


Airborne forces execute parachute assaults to destroy enemy units, reserves, logistics bases, and artillery in depth. They can also seize and hold key terrain and enemy oriented objectives until a linkup is accomplished. The parachute assault enhances the basic infantry combat mission: to close with the enemy by fire and maneuver, to destroy or capture him, and to repel his assaults by fire, close combat, and counterattack. Airborne units can also be the first forces to arrive in humanitarian and disaster relief situations where they can restore order, assist in search and rescue, and distribute relief supplies. Airborne missions can be strategic, operational, or tactical. Let’s look at each.

Strategic. Simply alerting airborne forces for employment is a show of force that is politically significant in a strategic context. Their strategic mobility serves as a direct representation of resolve and intent. They can move from distant bases to strike at important targets deep in enemy-held territory with little warning. Strategic missions may require airborne forces to seize an airhead from which follow-on ground or air operations can be launched. Operation Just Cause was a strategic mission in that airborne forces seized key objectives that guaranteed success of the overall operation.

Operational. Airborne forces can be employed anywhere in the theater of war. They attack deep to achieve operational objectives such as destroying key artillery emplacements or seizing bridges that support a follow on general attack. The seizure of objectives such as airfields, bridges, or key terrain in the enemy’s rear area is an operational mission. This is linked to the operational-level commander’s concept of the operation and supports the accomplishment of key subunit tasks. These airborne operations are usually short and require a linkup with other forces or extraction of the airborne force upon completion. Operation Market Garden in the fall of 1944 is a good example of an operational mission. The airborne divisions seized a series of bridges that allowed an armored corps to penetrate deeply into enemy lines.

Tactical. Airborne forces assault in the rear or to the flank of the enemy, preferably where few fixed defenses exist and where well-organized enemy combat units are not initially present. Airborne units either assault their objectives or seize an objective and hold awaiting the arrival of other ground forces. They can also be used for rapid reinforcement of other ground units.

The tactical employment of airborne units can vary in size from a company to a division. The size depends on the mission and the time, soldiers, and aircraft available. In January 1945, Company C and elements of Company F of the 6th Ranger Battalion executed a tactical operation to liberate American prisoners of war from the Japanese at Cabanatuan, in the Philippines.

The employment of helicopters increases the tactical flexibility of airborne units. When provided to the airborne unit, air assaults are an effective alternative to parachute operations. Even so, the limited range of helicopters and the limited number of troops that can be transported by them guarantees the need to retain the airborne capability as a strategic asset.

Usually only the assault echelon and its immediate follow-up are delivered into the objective area by parachute. Tactical airhead operations often involve the airlanding of heavy equipment, supplies, and supporting or reinforcing units to consolidate and exploit the initial lodgment.

Given enough air support, a combat division can appear “out of nowhere” in what can be called a vertical envelopment. Airborne forces can:

Provide a show of force. The mere arrival of paratroopers demonstrates commitment and can deter further enemy aggression.

Seize and hold important objectives until linkup or withdrawal. Isolated, vulnerable, yet critical facilities behind enemy lines are prime airborne objectives.

Seize an advance base for deploying forces or to deny its use to the enemy. Often, paratroopers are the leading edge of a larger operation as was the case on D-day.

Conduct raids. The Cabanatuan mission mentioned above was a raid designed to liberate prisoners of war. Other raids can be launched to destroy enemy gun emplacements, destroy command and control headquarters, or to capture key enemy personnel—high value individuals (HVI).

Reinforce units beyond the immediate reach of land forces. Isolated units can be effectively reinforced by paratroopers that can get their more rapidly and in greater numbers than ground troops that must ‘fight their way in’.

Reinforce threatened areas or open flanks. As above; paratroopers can rapidly move to wherever they are needed.

Deny the enemy key terrain or routes. Airborne units are ideal for ‘dropping in’ on the enemy’s rear where they can seize unguarded chokepoints that hinder enemy movement.

Delay, disrupt, and reduce enemy forces. As at Bastogne; paratroopers can conduct sustained close combat buying time for larger armored forces to close on the battlefield.

Conduct economy-of-force operations to free heavier more tactically mobile units. Like any light infantry unit, paratroopers can hold a defensive position previously held by an armored or mechanized force thus freeing up the force with greater tactical mobility to fight somewhere else.

Conduct counter insurgency and counter terror operations. Light fighters are often the best equipped for these troop intensive environments.

Peacekeeping operations. Again, this type of operation requires more troops than tanks and the airborne is well manned and highly proficient for this situation.

Peacetime contingency operations. Paratroopers are often the first face on the scene in the wake of a natural disaster as we have seen recently in Haiti. Their strategic mobility means they can get their quick and demonstrate willingness to help.


The first serious discussions of utilizing airborne forces occurred during World War I. However, the War ended prior to any use of the forces. After the War, U.S. General Billy Mitchell conducted a demonstration and six soldiers actually safely jumped from a Martin Bomber. Despite skepticism from the United States, the Germans and especially the Russians were impressed with the possibilities. The seed was planted!

In the late 1920s, the Russians begin seriously expanding their program. This resulted in having Russian paratroopers participate in military exercises in August 1930 and the creation of a test unit in 1931. In 1935, they would utilize two entire battalions of airborne soldiers in exercises. By this time, other countries did not want to get left behind. The French, Brits, and in particular, the Germans were developing their own airborne units. They would soon test their concepts for real in a few years.

World War II was obviously tailor made for the use of airborne soldiers and units. Instead of discussing their use, we have included a link for an excellent article entitled Airborne Operations during World War II by our brothers at History Net

Since World War II, many countries have used airborne drops in combat situations. In regards to the United States, these included the following:

· During the Korean War, the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team – Rakkasans made two combat jumps.

· During the Vietnam War, the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne), the 319th Artillery (Airborne) and portions of H&H Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade made a combat jump on February 1967 in OPERATION JUNCTION CITY.

· During Grenada, the 75th Ranger Regiment jumped onto Point Salines International Airport.

· During Panama, elements of both the 82nd Airborne and 75th Ranger Regiment made combat jumps. Additionally, M551 Sheridan tanks were dropped.

· During Operation Enduring Freedom, the Rangers jumped into Kandahar, Afghanistan (October 2001).

· During Operation Iraqi Freedom, elements of the Ranger Regiment and the 173rd Airborne Brigade made jumps in Northern Iraq in March 2003.


In this article, we simply provided you a primer on airborne operations. We talked some basics, addressed capabilities and limitations, looked at the types of missions airborne forces can be used in, and highlighted the history of airborne. This knowledge will set the conditions for the forthcoming articles in this mini-series.


The challenges facing airborne operations can appear daunting, but they have been overcome time and again throughout history given detailed planning that respects airborne strengths and weaknesses. In the coming series of articles, we will lay out the basic structure of the airborne fighting force. We will break down its components and see how they are best applied. We will take a close look at their doctrinal employment and finally, we will break down airborne operations, soup to nuts, and see how they work. You will see that the ‘juice is worth the squeeze’ as long as you pay attention to detail and use your paratroopers as they are intended to be used. There need not be any “Bridge too Far” missions for the airborne if we pay attention to detail.

1 Comment

  1. As I was a paratrooper with the 1/509th 8th inf div, 3/505 82nd abn div, 3/187 101st abn div, 19th SF group every time I stood in the door of an aircraft , I thought of those that came before me. The pride that goes with those silver wings runs deep indeed. In combat in vietnam we were always out numbered when it came to man power, but that did not stop us from completing the mission given us. That pride and getting the job done is still with us today with the young generation of airborne troopers. I loved takeing the fight to the enemy, thats what I signed up for. This sprite lives on. DRIVE ON AIRBORNE.