By Meg Tucker
I wish I could say an airborne operation is as exciting now as it was when I got my wings as a new Captain. Sadly, a familiar tedium has slowly replaced the thrill that once came with jump day. Today, my soldiers and I wait tentatively, crammed into the long benches that run the length of a dusty, oversized shoebox known as a jump shed. Jump masters are finalizing pre-jump checks. I have not seen my detachment sergeant, my right-hand man, in a few days. He has been performing jump master duties, and now darts around making final preparations. They ensure parachutes are properly packed, the harnesses tightly cinched to our bodies and static lines routed to avoid any unplanned midair amputations. It’s a comforting thought, really. We have sat for over an hour in this rigged-up configuration, fighting the urge to use the facilities because doffing equipment is not an option.
I shudder imagining how many hours the 82nd Airborne soldiers, whose jump operations are much larger than ours, must spend practicing bladder Zen. We did pre-jump rehearsals in a gaggle on the Battalion lawn yesterday, awkwardly pantomimed the maneuver to escape power line entanglement, and got the don’t-let-your-reserve-chute-rip-you-out-the-door brief for the umpteenth time. Stuck in the shed for now, I attempt to distract myself with a mental list of the million things I must do tomorrow, as today’s a wash. When we’re through, we will have jumped away a minimum of 400-man hours that could have been applied to training operational skills we actually use. Many times before, while sitting and waiting to jump, I’ve wondered if it was all worth it. After giving this question much thought, investigation and discussion with peers, my answer is a firm and confident “No.”
It is time for U.S. Army special operations forces to redirect effort and resources away from airborne operations toward more urgent training needs in the 2021 battlespace. As an innovative organization, Army SOF is well-suited to lead in modernization, economizing assets and honing the most relevant capabilities. What better time than now to reexamine how SOF applies its resources, especially as the Department of Defense pivots to focus on Cold War 2.0?
The question of airborne relevance in the Army at large is nothing new. RAND Corporation gives it thorough and favorable treatment, arguing that the capability can be adapted for the future fight. Conversely, political scientist Dr. Marc Devore applies a robust critique on this topic in his 92-page report for The Army Press, likening airborne units to self-licking ice cream cones. Yet the brightest Army special ops minds have not meaningfully weighed in on the conversation despite the role of airborne operations as a gravitational force on all SOF training calendars. The legacy arguments to keep sustained airborne operations training across the formation do justice neither to the complexity of SOF mission sets, nor to the need for adaptability and combat relevance therein.
The Big Picture of Army Airborne
Perhaps the most commonly cited justification for keeping airborne in the Army at large is its deterrent effect in strategic competition. As such, airborne ops are regularly part of joint training exercises with U.S. allies. These exercises are often advertised as deterrent activities in American press releases, undoubtedly with the understanding that America’s foes will study them. These exercises are designed, at least in part, to deter belligerent states or “encourage adversary restraint.” The problem with the deterrence argument is that America’s main adversaries already have this capability. For deterrence to work, a state’s military power must pose a threat through more advanced capability or creating a perception of this superiority. America and its adversaries maintain comparable airborne insertion and anti-air capabilities: there is not much upper hand to be found except in the former’s arguably superior quick global air response.
In that vein, the air survivability aspect most strongly defeats any slim margin of deterrence the Department of Defense gains from maintaining airborne operations. Troop-filled aircraft are at extreme risk of being shot down by anti-air weapons while flying the low altitudes and slow airspeeds needed to safely drop their payload. The modern threat environment pits the most advanced anti air weapons ever known against a relatively unchanged airborne force. As Devore points out, “The spread of surface-to-air missiles and armored vehicles has rendered airborne operations extremely hazardous unless they are conducted against the least sophisticated opponents. For this reason, the only airborne operations conducted since the 1956 Suez Campaign have been against extremely weak enemies.”
This hazard is likely the strongest reason commanders have not employed airborne in combat since the 173rd conducted a “mass tac” jump in 2003, under no enemy threat, into a drop zone Green Berets had already secured. There may be future situations where mass tac could be applicable, but not without extreme risk of casualties by anti-air. In those missions with minimal or no air-defense threat, other insertion options reduce risk of troop injury, separation, or disorientation, and mitigate weather impacts. The Army is maintaining a capability that its commanders wisely leave shelved.
Perhaps reminding the adversary that America maintains a particular capability justifies the deterrence argument. It is not outwardly threatening to maintain a matched asset, but at least it demonstrates zero capability degradation. This is probably why China and Russia maintain their own airborne capabilities. This point lends support to conventional Army forces keeping the airborne option in either the current or an adjusted form. Maybe it is “better to have it and not need it.” Nonetheless, Airborne’s mass applicability to Army special operations units, and maintaining this burgeoning task in an increasingly more irregular global battlespace, remains a target for intense scrutiny.
Airborne’s Tenuous Place in Special Operations
While the topic of airborne is normally addressed in the bifurcated terms of “keep it or scrap it,” considering it on a utility spectrum lends some nuance. On one end are units whose airborne ops are the core mission, rendering standard cost-benefit considerations moot. Imagine 1st Battalion, 507th Infantry Regiment on this end of the spectrum: it is the Army’s paratrooper school, and therefore has no purpose without airborne. In the middle are units for which airborne enhances capabilities but also imposes significant tradeoff costs—consider all the Brigade Combat Teams in 82nd Airborne. Jump status maintains the designation and soldier currency, but these units mostly deliver troops to combat by other means, and soldiers primarily serve as infantrymen, or support to that effort. The far end of the spectrum is units whose airborne ops provide no mission enhancement while imposing negative impacts on training and readiness: U.S. Army SOF fall in the last category.
What makes airborne irrelevant for SOF? Foremost, much like in the broader Army, operators do not jump into combat via static line anymore. They are inserted into theater in conventional ways (e.g., air lift followed by ground transportation), and sometimes via unconventional ways, such as high-altitude low-opening or high-opening jumps. These jumps are most comparable to free-fall skydiving on the civilian side. In this configuration, the soldier deploys her own canopy.
Theoretically—and with proper training—military free-fall is safer and lower-impact because of more steerable parachutes, and due to the variance in insertion airspeed and altitude that mitigate air defense threats. MFF chutes also provide softer landings, without the requirement for an aircraft to pull the static line away from the soldier to deploy the chute. Unfortunately, the static-line method carries risk for brutal outcomes when things go wrong. While the tribes of Psychological Operations, Civil Affairs and Special Forces are all required to maintain airborne currency, only the Green Berets also maintain a military free-fall capability. The solution is simple: eliminate airborne to free up training time and funding for free-fall qualification in those units that may need it for upcoming combat deployments.
What makes airborne costly to special operations? It takes money, time, and key leaders away from vastly more important tasks. The airborne expense does not reflect responsible and mission-focused resource allocation. It is hard to imagine the price tag that comes with maintaining $150 a month in jump pay per operator, parachute purchase and maintenance aircraft maintenance, fuel, and rigger pay and training.
The long-term medical costs are more incomprehensible. The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs must cover expenses for those operators that retire with disability claims from airborne injuries for the rest of the retirees’ lives. Some are medically retired because they can no longer serve due to their injuries. Thus, the system pays to make an operator, wittingly breaks an operator, then pays for the fix indefinitely.
Lost training hours are a bit easier to figure. Per quarter, each unit dedicates about two hours for pre-jump refresher, five to twelve hours for jump operations, and anywhere from two to ten hours of duty per tasked jump master to prepare for a capability SOF has not used in nearly twenty years. Regular airborne operations re-direct a substantial amount of key leaders’ finite time to support jump efforts, and when soldiers must convalesce from injury, also pose challenges to unit readiness. With thinning numbers to fill intense deployment cycles, operators are a rare and critical resource, yet they are regularly pulled off the real training mission to support airborne ritual.
What critical Army SOF missions are suffering because of airborne? The answer is all of them. It is no mystery that the American military is in a state of transition, moving mission focus away from “forever wars” in the Middle East and toward strategic, or great power, competition. It is past urgent time to focus on tradecraft. From personal perspective as a Psychological Operations leader, we have failed to win the narrative game in recent conflicts, and are falling woefully behind in competition with Chinese and Russian information operations. The Russian 2016 election meddling and Chinese narrative manipulation regarding Taiwan are just a few examples of these problems. Especially with the Psychological Operations Regiment building a new Information Warfare Center at 1st Special Forces Command, all resources need to be applied to the competition realm. Certainly, Special Forces and Civil Affairs also have more critical points of focus in the threat environment. The money, time, and key leader losses to ARSOF airborne training are unnecessary casualties.
A common but significant drain on unit resources is soldier injury. There is no question that jumping is inherently risky even in ideal conditions. Airborne landings cause significant musculoskeletal injuries, the primary reason soldiers are removed from deployment rotations. Though Army special operations use the steerable MC6, touted as a safer parachute than other versions, these chutes are still designed for expedient descent. This equates to a hard landing despite extensive parachute landing—or controlled fall—training. The community knows well that soldiers often do not report injuries to avoid losing jump status, pay, or deployment opportunities, so the numbers are likely higher than believed.
In the least severe injuries, soldiers may miss training to attend medical appointments and recover, detracting from deployment readiness. In some cases, a servicemember may be pulled off a team he has been training with for months. In the worst scenarios, commanders could force operators into medical retirement. While the Army typically does not release these statistics to the public, soldiers know said injuries are common. It is proper to acknowledge that injury and death can also occur during military free-fall training; but yet again, applying this more controllable and frequently-employed capability to fewer soldiers could significantly reduce risk across the SOF formation.
Airborne’s Tenuous Role in Special Operations Culture
Some have defended airborne in SOF as a key part of the culture, claiming that it adds to the unit’s “eliteness The reality is that these units are remarkable irrespective of airborne operations. The concept of special ops “eliteness” conjures ideas of unique skills and training, high intellect, performance under pressure, and extreme courage, cognition, and endurance. While these characteristics apply to some paratroopers willing to jump from the proverbial “perfectly good airplane,” they do not apply to everyone. In fact, the Army airborne school produces about 14,000 paratroopers annually: a key principle of Army SOF is that special operations forces “cannot be mass produced.” What makes the organization elite primarily lies outside of airborne parameters.
Similarly, some airborne advocates argue that it builds esprit de corps. Yet one can find the real bonding agent in the nature of special operations missions. Frankly, quarterly jump operations hold no candle to the sense of community built in a SOF detachment. Operators train in extremely small, tight-knit teams, leaving their families and the comforts of home to deploy to the most dangerous regions of the world and do the DoD’s bidding. They live, work and fight as a family in extremely challenging conditions.
That airborne develops SOF leaders is another recurrent argument. While airborne leaders are critical to safe and effective jump operations, these skills extend little beyond technical and planning aspects. The principal leader development comes in executing one’s core specialization. Special operations troops are not only technical experts in their roles and in planning, but they also manage extreme responsibility and travel in high-ranking circles of both American and allied forces when deployed. It is common for mid-grade SOF noncommissioned officers to work with diplomats and military leaders several echelons above them in rank. They develop and manage subordinates, communicate effectively, navigate tense situations, and endure immense stress, all in politically sensitive environments where a simple mistake can have catastrophic strategic impact. Simply put, SOF develops extraordinary leaders with or without airborne operations.
Waving Off the Jump
In the year 2022, the U.S. Army will not have started the next chapter in its story: it will have picked up a whole new book. Gone are the days of protracted counterinsurgency in the purgatorial Middle East. The resources and planning emphasis already being reallocated to strategic competition are sobering. It is time for Army SOF leaders to take a hard look at the organization, and recognize we are wasting time, money, and human capitol on an irrelevant capability that commanders will likely never used again.
The sunk cost constituency would disagree. They would say it is a waste of a massive investment, an argument that has undoubtedly echoed for years across conference rooms to influence key decision-makers. Yet recent failures in Afghanistan have taught us to abandon this fallacy. It would be a mistake to sit idly by while America’s greatest adversaries adapt to the environment and develop relevant capabilities. Recent history could repeat if Army SOF does not reallocate investments that build competitive capacity on the global scale.
What about airborne’s role in the broader Army? Though that question is beyond the scope of this piece, points herein could contribute to the conversation. Sooner or later, the Army at large must conduct the cost-benefit analysis. It may be most sensible to keep initial airborne qualification as a capability-in-reserve, for leader development or soldier incentive, while dissolving sustained training requirements. There are, after all, thousands of air-assault qualified soldiers who have not rappelled from a helicopter since just before they pinned their wings. They wear the badge, nonetheless. Pathfinder qualified soldiers continue to sport their badges as well, despite the Army eliminating the school.
No remedy is strong enough to heal the airborne love spell. However, if critical thinking is not dead, it’s worthwhile to entertain a change that is radical in theory but logical in practice. The affection some have for airborne is undeniable, and for good reason. It is genuinely an institution, rife with history and honor—but so was the U.S. horse-mounted Calvary. After all, the Army kept the Stetsons and got rid of the horses. Army SOF can keep the heraldry and still hang up the static line.
Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own, and do not represent the official or unofficial position or opinion of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any branch of the U.S. Government.
 For the purposes of this article, “airborne” refers to inserting soldiers into the battlespace via static line jumps from fixed or rotary-wing aircraft, with the assumption that soldiers conduct this training quarterly to maintain proficiency. It does not refer to all configurations of military parachute operations, nor their associated jump frequencies.
 “Mass tac” refers to air insertion of hundreds of soldiers at once by static line.
 The VA’s website did not yield any statistics on retiree compensation rates directly related to airborne jump injuries, nor did other open-source sites. The VA does provide disability compensation from injuries sustained during military service, the incidence of which is presumably much higher in airborne units than the rest of the force. The Army Public Health Center Parachuting Injuries fact sheet shows impact injuries as a concern, and acknowledges that “some injuries can have permanent career or life-long impacts.”