March 2020 Handgrenade

John T Kuehn's picture

March 2020

Handgrenade of the Month

The Legend of Airborne Operational Efficacy

By John T. Kuehn

            Continuing my trend of going after legends and myths of military history, this month examines—queries—the narrative of the  tactical and operational efficacy of airborne operations.  It looks especially at those in the European theater of operations (ETO) in World War II.   There is another narrative of these operations in the Pacific, well, lack of a narrative, that we may look at in some point in the future.

            It is well attested that those operations were of very limited value in the ETO, and in many cases not only was their sufficiency in accomplishing objectives wanting, but so was their necessity.  From North Africa to Sicily to Normandy, their operational impact was underwhelming, if not bordering on catastrophic for all the time, effort, and resources devoted to them.  And then the grand-daddy of them all, Market Garden, was called by one of its planners “The Last disaster of the War.”[1]

            So why all the cultic worship of “airborne”?  Two main reasons, one institutional and one cultural, and they overlap.  The cultural reason has to do with the romantic appeal to Americans of elite soldiers jumping from aircraft behind enemy lines, outflanking them vertically, and then disrupting key nodes in the enemy’s rear, holding key bridges, and generally being a nuisance.  But the success of most of the major operations in World War II by the Allies had little, if anything, to do with their airborne components.   Although the courage of their executors is undoubted, it is the wisdom of their inception, and continued employment, that is in doubt.  Only a coalition rich in resources would’ve continued such operations on the vain hope they might deliver something, anything, more than they did.  But Hollywood, in movies like “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan” has continued to feed the romantic image for a public that is both willing to believe in something that has little substance and does so from a generally poor knowledge of these operations.  They have been portrayed in film and on TV as effective, so they must have been effective.   Venerable historian, retired Emeritus Major General Stofft Chair Jonathan M. House put it this way: 

Commanders had to abort to abort many planned airborne operations because, by the time the decision was made and planning completed, the advancing ground troops had overrun the proposed drop zones. ..The poor firepower and mobility of an airborne division was especially significant for the British and Americans, because the shortage of combat troops of all kinds meant that airborne divisions frequently remained in ground combat alongside conventional divisions even after the two forces had linked up.  Ultimately, U.S. airborne commanders urged that their divisions be organized and equipped like conventional infantry divisions, with heavy weapons and vehicles rejoining the airborne division overland after the drop zone had been secured.[2]

            The institutional reason resides inside the services, especially their infantry branches, in the US Army and other armies like those of the British and the Canadians.  There is an institutional cult of “the airborne”—and to question its veracity brings one condemnation and anger.  This is not to say airborne formations have not performed well on the battlefield, but when they have they have done so as “straight leg” infantry, as at Bastogne.   Too, they wear their jump paraphernalia and patches in the way acolytes of some ancient, gnostic church would, replete with de riguer mottoes and prayers, “all the way” “lead the way” etc.  And often with no self-awareness of the actual dismal history of the prima fascia reason for these units in the first place, to jump out of aircraft, take the enemy unawares, and accomplish some tactical or operational result.

            The exceptions are far and few between, and tend to come under the heading of “special operations” rather than “airborne operations,” such as the famous German seizure of Fort Eben Emael in 1940.  In today’s anti access environment any attempt to jump anywhere inside an integrated air defense environment is sure to suffer grievously if not become an outright bloody massacre.  The commitment to this idea –that the US or any other nations needs large numbers of conventional airborne formations--by military professionals  reminds me of the early years of World War I, where failed tactics were simply re-executed in the hope that tweaks would lead to success, “if only we keep on trying…next time it’ll work.”

            There are better ways to create elite infantry…but why have elites versus non-elites in the first place?  It is almost un-American.

 

[1]Brian Urquhart, “The Last Disaster of the War,” in The New York Review of Books, September 24, 1987 Issue.

[2] Jonathan M. House, Toward Combined Arms Warfare  (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 1984), 137-138.

I believe the question is a bit of a strawman, I cannot easily recall any military historian or thinker who argues that airborne forces are more efficient operationally then traditional ground forces.

The value of airborne forces, IMO, lies in their strategic value - they have the ability to project force relatively rapidly over land and sea. This is far from a perfect capability - they certainly do not replace the need for a Marine Corps, being relatively 'light' - but especially after World War II, world wide, they appear to grant those nations who posess such forces a greater ranger of stratgeic options.

Interesting topic John,
Your argument about the cult of the airborne forces within the U.S. military reminded me of a parallel cult that existed within the Soviet military as well (and continues to this day in Russia). Being the first military to experiment with airborne forces, that maybe a little understandable.

Looking over some of the research done by David Glantz on the effectiveness of Red Army airborne forces in WWII, it seems to collaborate your overall thesis John. Red Army Airborne were more effective as ground forces than in actual airborne operations. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/combat-studies-institute/csi-b...

Stephen Satkiewicz

I think my post may have been misunderstood. It is not a criticism of military historians collectively but of service cultures that devote an inordinate amount of resources, training, and I daresay a slavish Faith, in a misplaced and romantic misunderstanding of the history and efficacy of airborne forces, both in the 20th century and the future.

Clausewitz perhaps identified part of the problem:
"War is generally not as theatrical as people often imagine."
Carl von Clausewitz, from The Campaign in Italy, trans. eds. N. Murray and C. Pringle.

One need not know how to jump out of an airplane to get on one, ride it to an air port of debarkation and then disembark.
If one is not shot down by an S-400 or S-300 or Patriot or Aegis system on the final approach that is.

best, John T. Kuehn
Past Major General William Stofft Chair of Historical Research
US Army Command and General Staff College