Letter to the Editor

John Barras

January 15, 2013

Dear Sir,

In Vol 1, Issue 1, Colonel David Benest set out the case for a UK parachute assault capability and commented on the widely held perception that parachute assault has had its day. I would like to offer a light blue perspective contesting that perception but also highlighting the realities of air assault.

The ability to project force, rapidly and at long range, should be very attractive to a nation with global commitments and interests. Force projection by air can be achieved in a wide variety of ways, for example using helicopters deployed by air to a forward mounting base, or by flying transports directly onto a suitable runway. The helicopter option is limited by the air transport capacity to move the helicopters and the air land option depends on a runway being available. In such circumstances, parachute assault offers a commander the option to deliver a battalion sized battlegroup onto a target over a period of just a few minutes, several thousand miles from the mounting base in the UK, within 48 hours of the decision to take such an option.

Those who dismiss the utility of parachute assault do so principally for two reasons; the cost of maintaining the capability, which mostly lies in the training bill for the tactical transport crews; and the historically high casualty rates of opposed parachute assault. It is the second of these that I would challenge as a reason for not maintaining such a capability.

At one end of the spectrum, the rapid insertion of a parachute force may not necessarily be opposed at all; an insertion may be to bolster an allied force, or block an enemy force. Both of these actions could quickly change the balance of forces and cause a hostile force to withdraw or reconsider offensive action. In such a situation it could be argued that a parachute insertion saved lives. However, it would be naive not to recognise that when you are most likely to employ parachute assault, it will be against a defended target. if the insertion is opposed, the assault force will incur losses. A great deal can be done to minimise losses – night transit, ultra low-level flight profile, random synchronised run-ins to the drop zone, and of course the element of surprise and overwhelming force. Nevertheless, it is still prudent to plan on the loss of 20% of the insertion force either before reaching the drop zone or in the assault itself. These losses need to be considered within the context of the strategic consequences of a failure to act at all.

Air supremacy would be helpful, but not at the expense of the element of surprise over the drop zone, and it may not be possible to deploy the required air assets forward in a timely or covert manner. However, a combination of available kinetic and cyber effects might suppress or distract air defences to an acceptable degree – it depends on the sophistication of the opposing forces.

The Achilles Heel of any air assault operation is logistics. Any airborne force in contact with the enemy consumes a great deal of ammunition. Air drop resupply missions direct to gun lines will be required within a few hours of the insertion, almost inevitably in daylight and with attendant risk. A runway will need to be quickly seized, or built, to allow rapid in-load of combat power, possibly including more heavy weapons, armour, and attack helicopters all of which require further logistic support. This will stretch the air transport forces to the limit and attrition of that force must be considered in the planning of the operation, as well as identification of a swiftly achievable End State or plan for force extraction.

It is conceivable that an opposed parachute assault could result in more casualties in a single day than we have seen in a year in Afghanistan. Therefore, the adoption of a course of action which includes parachute assault will inevitably require political approval at the highest level; possibly one of the most difficult decisions a prime minister might be called upon to make, demanding courage and resolve to see the operation through. Whether or not the risks and potential casualties are acceptable, depends on what is at stake – for example the rescue of British citizens from a rapidly developing hostage situation, or the prevention a nuclear weapon falling into terrorist hands.

The bottom line is this – a difficult choice is better than no choice at all.

John Barrass
Wing Commander (retd)

John Barras was formerly a flight commander in 47 Sqn RAF, special operations officer in 436 Sqn RCAF, and OC 30 Sqn RAF.