At the beginning of the month, Brett Barrouquere of the Associated Press wrote about the US Army’s plan to reduce its paid paratrooper positions from 51,600 to 49,000. The Heritage Foundation had a fit. I remain unperturbed, for it is conceivable that ten percent of the US Army is a few too many paratroopers. What the Army may yet lack is adequate mobile firepower for those paratroopers.
The force today is certainly impressive. Pending that reorganization, the US Army has
- Ten battalions of parachuting infantry (two each in the 325th, 503rd, 504th, 505th, and 508th Regiments)
- Three battalions of airborne rangers (75th Regiment)
- Five battalions of parachuting reconnaissance troops (four of the 73rd Cavalry, and one of the 91st Cavalry)
- Five battalions of air-droppable 105 mm howitzers (in the 318th and 319th Artillery)
I must note that large parachute formations are not endemic to the US Army. Today, the Russian Army maintains an entire airborne corps, with nine regiments or brigades of airborne and heliborne troops with air-droppable BMD-3 and -4 light tanks, and another four regiments of air-droppable howitzers. (With over 300 transport aircraft, the Russian Air Force can carry perhaps a division of this at a time.) The British and the French maintain parachute brigades with infantry and artillery. The Israelis maintain a brigade—and another four in reserve!—if just with infantry. And many other countries maintain at least battalions.
Why may be less clear. As Mark De Vore wrote in The Airborne Illusion, a 2004 working paper at MIT, the history of parachute operations points to debatable utility. During the Second World War, perhaps half of the major airborne operations were fiascos, if not outfight disasters. Since the Second World War, only two airborne operations have involved more than a battalion: the two-battalion American drop on Grenada in 1984, and the six-battalion American drop on Panama in 1989. Even the vaunted Israeli 35th Paratroopers Brigade has only made a single combat drop in its history—that of a single battalion on Mitla Pass in 1956, which didn’t go well. Plenty of other assaults at various times were considered and rejected, by Britain, France, the US and others. The memory of the disaster of the 1940s and the proliferation of anti-aircraft missiles were too much to overcome.
All the same, parachute formations have survived. De Vore argues that much of this rests with the placement of former paratroopers in high ranks, who defend their regiments in bureaucratic battles. Soviet experience was particularly bad, but the establishment of the Airborne Troops as a separate corps of the Red Army made their reduction bureaucratically difficult. But while he and others scoff at the maintenance of "elite troops that can only be used against third-rate opponents,” (p. 29), I will point out that most opponents of Britain, France, the US, Russia, and Israel fall into that category. So while I wouldn’t recommend going a bridge too far against a Waffen SS Panzer division, we mostly needn’t worry about that anymore. Sometimes, the immediacy of an airborne assault, as against Grenada or Panama, has strategic value.
But what most of these forces—pointedly omitting the Russians— yet lack is the mobile firepower of their own armored vehicles. As noted, that lack of protection was a huge issue for paratroopers before the 1960s, when both the Soviets and the Americans developed credible air-droppable light tanks. The US Army had airborne tanks until 1997, when it retired the M551 Sheridan tanks of the 3rd battalion of the 73rd Armored—the same regiment, renamed, that today drives about in unarmored Humvees. Now, even if the US Army increases the strength of those artillery battalions in its reorganization from 18 to 24 guns, it will still have only 72 cannons, towed by airdropped Humvees, to support ten percent of its regular troop strength. So it’s not surprising, as Sandra Erwin recently titled an article in National Defense magazine, that the "U.S. Army [is] in the Market for Light Tanks” (October 2013). The Army is said to want to procure a small fleet within 24 months according to a start-small, “4–14–44” plan: four early-production vehicles quickly for a single platoon, fourteen (= 4 x 3 + 2 for the CO and XO) for a single company shortly thereafter, and then 44 (= 14 x 3 + 2) for a full battalion later. Presumably more would follow later for training, testing, attrition, and war reserves.
It is even possible that more might be wanted for light tank battalions to supplement infantry brigades or divisions, particularly if combat is foreseen in places where the road and bridge networks will not easily support the weight and logistics train of M1A2 Abrams. The vehicles purchased to equip the infantry divisions would probably be ordered with heavier armor, but modular armor packages are used on plenty of product lines today. The US Marine Corps might take note too, for its M1A1s go ashore one-at-a-time on the Navy's landing craft. At one point a few years ago, the Marines were producing staff papers about a much lighter replacement for the M1 sometime after 2025. If the US Army brings something foreword earlier, the Corps could follow its time-honored approach of buying proven equipment once someone else proves the concept and works out the details.
So what are the plausible competitors for this need? If the Army opens a wide aperture in its search, it could take in many ideas:
- At the higher end, the Army will almost certainly consider a classic light tank. In this realm, the first vehicles that come to mind are the ASCOD 2 from General Dynamics Land Systems and the CV90 from BAE Systems Hägglunds, with their 105 mm guns. Hägglunds has even shown a version with a 120 mm gun. A weapon of that size would pretty much address the threat of any tank or bunker that the airborne troops might encounter.
- Towards the lower end of firepower and protection, the Army could look at wheeled armored cars with lighter cannons. Textron’s Commando, shown at the October AUSA show with a Cockrell low-pressure 90 mm gun, seems a logical contender. That weapon can defeat anything up to the robustness of a T-55 tank, and a sizable portion of armored fleets around the world are no more impressive than that.
- If a smaller gun is enough, anti-tank missiles may suffice for the armor-penetrating requirement. This compromise could lead the service to an air-droppable cavalry vehicle, an analog to—though much lighter than—the US Army's M3 Bradley or the British Army’s ASCOD SV.
- If the situational awareness and rapid weapon-training of the turret aren’t essential, weight could be traded off by designing an air-droppable assault gun—rather a fallschirmjaeger StuG or a flying S-tank. If the vehicle were small and light enough, it’s even conceivable that it could be hauled around by the Marines forthcoming CH-53K, rather as the Corps has done with its new Dragon Fire 120 mm mortars and Growler jeeps.
- Robotic solutions are just conceivable, in partial solution to the problem. Again, these would lack the situational awareness of a manned tank, like a CV90 or an ASCOD. But as a mobile anti-tank and assault gun, an autoloading 105 mm weapon might be built into a very small tracked chassis.