Thursday, 14 March 2013

To infinity or beyond? The future of the Parachute Regiment


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?

31 comments:

  1. All this was decided ages ago. The post HERRICK ABTF was only ever going to have a Company Group parachute capability.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Perhaps it is time to follow the Canadian, or Australian model to airborne infantry?
    Talking of the Guards why not turn them into a multi-battalion single regiment like the SCOTS, or RIFLES? Each battalion could carry the title and lineage of the current regiments and the incremental companies could be combined into a single multi-badged public duties battalion permanently based in London.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The final Orbat by AFF (non-MOD but should be correct) says nothing of additional airmobile infantry beyond 2 and 3 PARA. (http://www.aff.org.uk/linkedfiles/aff/latest_news_information/cregulararmybasingannouncementgridunclas.pdf)

      http://jeneral.diaryland.com/130314_54.html

      So sad.

      Beyond just paras, 16th AA Brigade has little land moble capability; the HCR doesn't look like its attached to it.

      RE Sir. H's post above, no many armies have parachuted since WW II I believe?

      Delete
  3. BTw, where is the source that says "only roughly a Company sized group able to deploy at ‘short notice’".

    ReplyDelete
  4. It seems to me as if the author is trying to convince himself that a company sized element is the best situation. The situation I would point to that discredits most of the author's fields, yet is arguably one of the airborne's top missions, is airfield seizure. In addition to this, any airfield worth seizing is going to require much more than a single company of paratroopers. For one, the concept of resupply is simple in that scenario. Once the airfield is secured, follow on forces land and expand the bubble.

    The best, and most recent, example of this was the 173rd Airborne landing 1,000 paratroopers around an airfield in Northern Iraq during the opening days of the 2nd GW. From the author's comments, I can only guess that this was the instance he was referring to, so I'm not sure how he considers it unsuccessful. Yes, it took longer than desired, but the results were the same. We gained a foothold in the north where we were able to land armored forces to push south.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anonymous, when I was drafting this piece, I was considering the airfield seizure role to try and think how it would work in reality.
      The problem I kept coming back to in my own mind is one that is simple. If you are conducting an operation which involves jumping, you're likely to need reasonably nearby bases to stage out of. If you've got access to these bases, then why not instead focus on use of helo assets, which are far more reliable to get to a certain location, rather than dropping across a wide area. Additionally with the lift capabilities, you can get more equipment in the assault, and you have an ability to extract if things start to go badly wrong. There are time issues - namely that it would take time to get the helos to theatre etc, and its not ideal, but I felt it was a more credible option than a company group and one that would place less pressure on increasingly scare AT assets.
      The 173rd operation was the one I was referring to - I've seen a debate as to the effectiveness of the operation relative to the value of what was gained from it.

      Delete
    2. What if you include special forces and the RAF regiment squadrons. So say the special forces lay the groundwork and then there's less of a need to parachute and easer to airlift or heli assaault.

      Delete
    3. Hey Sir Humphrey. In the instance of the 173rd jump, I think it actually demonstrated the value of Airborne in that their point of departure was all the way in Italy. Prior to the start of the war, the US held out hope that Turkey was allow our forces to cross their border into northern Iraq, however, when that fell through, we initially believed the North would be inaccessible. Whether it was successful on a strategic level I cannot say. Personally, I think landing a large force in an area that was previously thought to be denied would be a success, but I'm no strategist.

      The thing about helicopters is that they are slow, have a small carrying capacity and have extremely limited range when compared to a C-130, C-141 or C-5. It is for these reasons that I think we should retain a sizable airborne force.

      BTW, I'm mechanized infantry myself, so I certainly have no self-interest when commenting on a bunch of arrogant airborne types, lol.

      Delete
    4. When the 173rd jumped, there was already a ground element in place. The US Special Forces already held the airfield. By jumping, the 173rd gained credit for a "combat jump" but landing the aircraft would have allowed more passengers and cargo to disembark thus better utilizing the aircraft available. A few hours later a small comany sized element of M1 tanks and M2 Bradleys was airlanded to join them. As a tactical event it was questionable; as a public relations exercise a victory. The utility and operation threat of the "Northern Front" is debatable as well.

      Delete
  5. It has to be said that very few parachutists actually jump out of "perfectly serviceable aircraft", because we don't have any!

    ReplyDelete
  6. "BTw, where is the source that says "only roughly a Company sized group able to deploy at ‘short notice’".

    It's true. A Company group of Parachute capability. 5 SCOTS did have the ABTF tasking (until May I believe) so I daresay that there is an airmobile element to it too to round it out to a battlegroup (-). I do know it needs 17 para capable medics!

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's not to justify only one company but the reality of the situation at hand. Financial issues aside, another big issue facing the UK military today is the welfare and enticement of troops.

    ReplyDelete
  8. We have moved away from large scale conventional warfare. Our overseas challenges now are small-scale terrorist actions. The Algerian hostage crisis is, sadly, a likely precedent for the future. If,big if, the UK were to respond militarily to something similar what would we need? Too far for helicopters and not enough; ground move too slow; not enough special forces on their own (who will also be parachuting to get there of course). A military parachuting capability makes good sense for situations like this. Does nobody remember Kolwesi? Arguably we need a parachute capability (and an amphibious capability for much the same sort of reasons) far more than we need heavy armour.

    BTW it's sad to see an otherwise supposedly serious defence blog resorting to this sort of article to gain view traffic. Is this the Soldier magazine letters page?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anonymous, thanks for your comment.
      I agree that there is likely to be a much larger increase in the sort of 'little actions' that we'll find challenging to respond to. The problem that I see is that there won't be enough airlift for the scale of jumping previously envisaged, and also there is a wider issue that outside of a short range operation, its quite hard to just 'jump' without questioning how you will support and extract. These are genuine questions which need to be posed in my own mind.

      As for your comments about site traffic - the way I write articles is simple. I look at the sort of issues in the news and where there are interesting developments, and also other matters that are of interest to me. This week, with a very heavy real life workload, I've only had the chance to write on this one subject, which I've been fascinated by for many years. The idea that I draft articles for traffic purposes is amusing but utterly false. This site is a personal blog and nothing more than that. I certainly wouldnt want it to resemble the Soldier letters page, if only because we would have articles aplenty on SFA, Cold War / Jubilee medals and complaints about unbelievably petty issues like tucking shirts in or out...

      Delete
  9. Sir H, good article and agree with most of it.

    I firmly believe the UK needs to go back to the drawing board on its airborne assault / insertion capability. Like I would like to see the RM to be restructred to have three USMC style MEUs, I think the 16AAB should be structured into 3 AEUs (Airborne Expeditionary Units). This would allow the UK to have one MEU and one AEU on call 100%, a capability unique outside of the US.

    Each AEU core would be structured around a core battalion of light infantry (mainly from the current Paras) with supporting light mechanised units, attack / transport helos and a/c (inc a 9 a/c F35B sqd). Overall size in the order of 2000+ troops. Parachuting a company of men would be enough with the rest arriving be helo and a/c.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That might be pushing it in terms of not just finance but recruitment. The latter is important; yes even if there were not the drastic redundancies made would there be enough willing people to serve to build up that strength? Military size doesn't come based on paper but willingness. Such a size would mean devoting financial and non-financial (welfare, medical, emotional, PTSD treatment etc) resources. Unless a sizeable portion of both male and female 18 year olds are willing to sign up such dreams are fantasies.

      Delete
    2. Why? This would be less about 20k troops. Not much for a combined force of the Army + RM close to 90k?? Most of the equipment I describe is either in service, already in the planning or could be bought from focusing funds from elsewhere in the MOD.

      Delete
    3. Nope it needs more than just that. Increasing to such an astronomical size would burst lots of areas and under equip forces.

      Delete
  10. To deliver the older ABTF based around a Parachute Battalion (800 paratroops) it was planned to take 15x C130 loads (9x pax and 6x for kit).

    We'd retain the airlift to drop that force so as long as enough parachutes and MSPs are retained then I can see no reason why a BG sized para drop capability couldn't be regenerated for a deliberate operation but with the smaller ABTF being at continuous VHR. No point having a para capability at VHR if the planes to drop it aren't also at that level of readiness and work up on a constant basis.

    ReplyDelete
  11. One quick comment - P Company is an arduous course and doesn't involve jumping out of planes, that training happens later and is run by the RAF. So removing the parachute role wouldn't get rid of P Company. Having said that, most of the value of the parachute training seems to be in helping the soldiers develop the agressive mindset the regiment is known for. As such, continuing to train recruits in parachuting but only keeping a company group qualified may actually be quite a sensible way of arranging things.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Why do commentators always quote Suez when trying to justify the reduction or demise of capability. Quite clearly, the UK has not mounted a significant airborne operation since Suez. But, others have when force of circumstance compelled them to do so. They were able to do so precisely because they had the capability to project or poise force strategically and quickly: 1973 the Soviets had an Airborne Division airborne and en route to the Middle East to intervene (it was turned around in mid air), Kolwezi, Panama, Grenada, most notably N Iraq in 2003 when an entire BG of the 173rd ABN was dropped into Kurdistan because a NATO ally (Turkey) refused land access from the north to Coalition forces, and of course 2 REP in Mali. Helicopters can't hack the range, capacity or volume. Fixed wing aircraft are the only viable mode of strategic projection. The main questions are, what size and to what purpose? While some commentators talk about being able to cobble together a BG sized drop, this is not feasible. Most of the institutional knowledge of how to do this in terms of rigging, air-mounting, tactical air loading plans etc. etc. simply doesn't exist as current knowledge and expertise. The problem in Britain has always been, largely because of the parochial nature of the Regimental system, that airborne operations have been seen as a tactical or, at best, operational asset, whereas they are in fact a strategic national asset. Given all these factors, Britain really needs to decide whether it wants or needs to be able to project or poise force quickly as a strategic asset or not. If it does, it should fund and ramp up that capability back up to what it used to be: an airborne brigade that had a lead parachute battalion group and a number of follow up parachute and air landing battle groups. If not then messing about with company-sized drops is an irrelevance and it would be better that the Parachute Regiment hang up its parachutes altogether and disband having done a job well. Otherwise it just becomes another military misnomer.

    ReplyDelete
  13. The French have recently proved how important parachute capability STILL is when they jumped into mali.....just goes to show that the below statment taken from the regimental charter of the parachute regiment is 100% correct.


    i quote from the parachute regimental charter

    "THE FUTURE

    These special capabilities are demanded more than ever in an evolving operational environment where complexity, ambiguity and confusion abound.

    The requirement for speedy, preventative deployment is still paramount, where airborne soldiers may have to operate at the limits of endurance and sustainability.

    They must be light and agile, ready to deploy at short notice, inherently self-reliant and innovative, with the skill at arms, cunning and boldness to bring all their firepower to bear. They have to be a highly disciplined and professionally competent force, deployable by helicopter, aeroplane or parachute.

    Attaining this professional standard requires motivated volunteers whose qualities are above the norm. In sustaining the specialised capability that remains the hallmark of The Parachute Regiment, appropriate selection and training is as critical now as it ever was."



    ReplyDelete
  14. Good riddance, brainless halfwits, they are nothing but drunken chavs wearing DPM instead of shellsuits, waste of money, stick em all in jail where they belong instead

    ReplyDelete
  15. The Parachute Regiment is not hugely tough because it's members jump out of planes. It is because they are subjected to a brutal selection process-"P Company"- which only very fit and highly motivated candidates pass. Whilst accepting that financial and perhaps operational considerations make large scale parachute operations unlikely, it will be important to retain P Company if the membership is to retain it's extremely aggressive ethos/ability. That is what the Parachute Regiment is all about. What makes Paras different? Well, each and every one of them has risked their self esteem by undergoing P Company and then jumping out of an aircraft. Critics are often people who are too afraid of failure to try....

    ReplyDelete
  16. I think the point is being missed. It doesn't matter that if they parachute into action or not. The training regime, that includes parachuting produces aggressive, high calibre, elite infantry soldiers. Disband the Parachute Regiment and you need to replace them with another, similar unit. Taking away the parachuting aspect I don't believe you would achieve the same esprit de corps. Rottweillers in camo carrying weapons, they still have a place in the order of battle and that place is still in front kicking the crap out of all comers. (Ex craphat sticking up for gobby Para's? Whatever next?)

    ReplyDelete
  17. I saw this on a search for a similar topic. The Australians don't even have a parachute regiment.
    http://www.army.gov.au/Our-future/DARA/Our-publications/~/media/Files/Our%20future/DARA%20Publications/AAJ/2012Summer/Parachute-Capability-AAJ-Vol9-No3-Summer-2012.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  18. Dien Bien Phu, 1954: French up against it; all available Para trained forces deployed, & desperate need for more "boots on the ground". Solution? A battalion of non Para infantry received a morning's ground training, and later the same day dropped over the besieged garrison - jump casualties from a very low altitude onto an LZ about as "hot" as it can get were no higher than those sustained by the super-dooper "elite" Paras of the Foreign Legion and Colonial Para units - fact. Strange how the Para Reg advocates never mention this awkward truth.

    Reality, IMO, is that all this Para Reg malarky is expensive balony - sure, Paras are excellent light role infantry, and are very worth retaining as such, but the current BCP is a week's training "crammed into a month" retained in present (very costly!) form as a job creation scheme for many, notably as a "machismo signifier" for otherwise underemployed RAF PE teachers. Yet another example of egregiously wasteful defence spending.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There talks a man with a large chip on his shoulder.probably got hammered by the maroon machine at some stage or failed P Company - or both!

      Delete
  19. iParrot Post is a global read and reporting news platform that enable users to post their account of events witnessed, worthy local and International news. iParrot Post is a breaking news portal.iParrot Post exists to provide independent news and information to the masses, comprised of news feeds from around the world. We enable our users and subscribers to submit local News that they see as important. It is also a portal to allow users and subscribers to comment and contribute to the News events of the day. Worldwide News UK | English UK News | Local UK News | UK Political News | English British Sports News | Business UK News | Breaking UK News | Technology UK News |

    ReplyDelete
  20. You are nothing more than an apologist for the Coalition government's plans.

    ReplyDelete
  21. History shows again and again any effective army needs hard shock troops (see everything from ancient Persia to WWII !) Having seen the effectiveness of 50,000 'hats' in the BAOR, loose the Para's, then it will be cut the Marines and where does the SAS/SBS recruit from? Military parachuting is a symbol and has a significance that once it has gone will be seen in 20 years time as the point where the military gave up! We buy every thing from China, why not use the PLA?

    ReplyDelete