News recently emerged that the British Army has significantly scaled down its ability to deliver military parachutists. Despite there being at least two battalions of the Parachute Regiment ostensibly assigned to deliver a parachuting capability, it has emerged that at present, the UK only maintains a roughly Company sized group able to deploy at ‘short notice’. This has led to suggestions that UK military prowess and capability is at stake as a result.
The Parachute Regiment is an interesting example of the challenges faced in Defence, and in particular the Army as we move towards the future force. Still consisting of three Battalions (plus a TA unit), the Regiment is one of the best known and recruited of all British Army cap badges, and has a strong historical legacy, and admirable recent operational record.
That said, for an organisation founded on the principle of jumping out of perfectly serviceable aircraft, it has not acted in the air assault role for nearly 60 years (Suez was the last drop of any size). Despite this, for many years the UK maintained the ability to employ an Airborne Task Force, at up to Brigade level capable of lifting the parachute component, plus supporting arms into action and delivering them at relatively short notice into hostile territory. More recently, cuts to the RAF air transport fleet and general army reductions have meant that the airborne component has been reduced to nearer Battalion level, supported by more conventional air assault assets using the helicopters of 16 Air Assault Brigade. The issue is whether the news that as of today the UK is only able to employ a Company group at short notice really matters, or if it is perhaps something in which the media have got themselves unduly wound up about.
There is no doubt that the Parachute Regiment is a priceless asset, comprising a body of men with an outstanding esprit de corps, and a strong sense of purpose, inculcated by the unifying bond of P Company. But, we have to be perhaps realistic about the reality of parachuting today and whether it is remotely feasible at large levels. On a purely technical side, one only has to look at the numbers of aircraft available now, and in the future to the RAF to realise that there will far fewer airframes able to support jumping in future. With a planned A400M buy of only some 22 aircraft, once training and servicing is taken out of the equation, then it’s likely that it would take nearly half the A400M fleet lifting at once to deliver a single Parachute battalion to its objective. When one considers that in any military operation, one of the most vital and in demand assets are the tactical transport fleet, then it’s clear that there are unlikely to be this many airframes available. At a most basic level, the UK is rapidly running out of the ability to airdrop more than a couple of hundred paratroopers at any one time, regardless of whether it has the infantry numbers to do so. Reductions to a company sized group is perhaps a sensible realism measure that accepts that ultimately there are only going to be a relatively small number of aircraft available for future operations.
One also has to consider the nature of any parachuting operation. As history has shown, jumping into an operational environment requires people to jump with what they’ll fight with and then be reliant on either a quick relief, or air dropped resupply. While it may be useful to drop a battalion of troops into a country, the question quickly becomes – what are they there to do, and how will they be supported for any duration of time? It is one thing to drop a company group into a discrete location – say an Embassy or other area to support an evacuation for a very short period of time. Larger drops though present major problems – you have committed boots to the ground who will need relieving at some point – a failure to relieve them will at best lead to hundreds of prisoners, or at worst, many dead soldiers. Arnhem stands as a signal example of what can go wrong when the airborne element is not quickly supported. Any future British Government considering the commitment of a parachute assault will need to consider that it must be followed up very quickly by fairly substantial ground forces in order to relieve them.
|Jumping during WW2|
So, while the Parachute Regiment offers an outstanding ability to insert itself into an operation, the bigger question is how such an effort could be sustained for any length of time and whether the drop would serve any useful military purpose. It remains hard to spot roles that specifically require dedicated parachute capabilities - since the end of WW2 the Parachute capability has only been employed at a substantial level on one occasion (Suez), despite many other operations involving the Regiment in a ground based role. As we enter an era where there is strong aversion to taking casualties, the implications of the loss of a single aircraft carrying paratroopers is hugely significant. The author vividly recalls the time in Iraq when the change of risk to aircraft from MANPADS meant that movements were conducted at night following the loss of a Lynx with five crew onboard. One only has to consider that this single incident led to major restrictions on flying, and what was a tactical level loss (with no disrespect intended to the families of those in this tragedy) had operational level implications. In any future campaign with Paratroopers on the ground, even a mild increase to the air threat may make it all but impossible to risk resupplying the troops without risking the loss of more aircraft and personnel. It would require a significant shift in public and political opinion to tolerate this type of risk.
This example perhaps demonstrates that the employment of Military Parachutists is perhaps one of the most irrevocable commitments to a campaign that can be made by a Government – once they have left the aircraft then they must be supported and relieved. If you are unwilling to resupply them from the air due to the air threat, you either commit ground troops – which requires further escalation and perhaps a deviation from the original campaign aim, or you write them off. The cold reality is that if you commit to the use of paratroopers, you are committed to a major escalation in your campaign with all the attendant risks that this brings.
The author firmly believes that there is a clear role for some military parachuting, and it is clear that there is some value gained from having a small body of personnel able to jump at short notice to support operations. As was seen in Mali, there is scope for a limited insertion, but one should be wary of reading too much into these sorts of operations. The much vaunted US use of airpower in TELIC to deliver paratroopers turns out on further research to have been less effective than perhaps though.
As time moves on, it becomes ever harder to see how a large scale jump could ever be conducted again. Paradoxically it is perhaps far easier (and maybe more politically acceptable) to envisage a company sized drop. A relatively small commitment of troops dropped to support isolated westerners, or assist an evacuation can be supported far more easily than a Battalion. It is easier to drop them in a more concentrated area, reducing the likelihood of confusion on the ground as troops reorganise themselves over a large drop zone. Finally it is much easier to extract 120 troops than it is nearly 1000.
|The future of Air Assault - Helicopters?|
The problem though is trying to sell this to the public – there is an incredible level of public awareness and support for the Parachute Regiment, and they have an immensely strong body of supporters. Any effort to reduce contingent capability will be met with an immensely strong outcry, with demands that something else should be cut instead. There will almost certainly be thunderous blasts from editorial columns which on the one hand berate the MOD for not modernising, but on the other hand will then demand that the parachute capability must be preserved. The mantra will be carriers without planes, Desert Rats without Tanks and Paratroopers without Parachutes.
It is this authors very personal opinion that there is no question that the Regiment has a strong reputation and has performed admirably in many recent operations. But has the time come for it to be reduced further in role and scope – perhaps seeing the title Parachute Regiment being more an honorific title like Grenadier Guards, a proud name for a proud past, and not a current capability. Maybe the time has come to ask the unthinkable and perhaps suggest that outside of a small rapid response force, that the time has come to move away from the Paratroopers parachuting, and instead refocus them more properly on the role in which they have excelled –namely hugely aggressive light infantry capable of conducting great physical acts of courage. While P Company will need to remain to train the more limited parachute capability, perhaps we should have the courage to face down another sacred cow and consider whether to tell the Paratroopers that it’s time for them to become ‘hats’ again?