Are airborne troops still needed in modern warfare? The question arises in military circles from time to time. Some consider airborne impractical in modern warfare - and expensive. Combat jumps have been few and far between since World War II. Army paratroopers are most visible in the Fayetteville/Fort Bragg community. Rotating brigades of the 82nd Airborne Division comprise our nation’s Global Reaction Force (GRF). The GRF is designed to rapidly deploy in an emergency with wheels up in 18 hours.
Military scholar Marc DeVore’s 2015 study “When Failure Thrives” shocked the airborne community. DeVore argues that the airborne still exists because of “institutionalization and military culture.” He suggests that U.S. airborne forces are more a product of the airborne community’s lobbying efforts rather than logical calculations. He concludes that technology advances have all but removed airborne soldiers from the modern battlefield. “We’ve gone 38 years with it being tough to say any given airborne operation was necessary to accomplish the overall objective of a given operation,” DeVore said in an Army Times interview.
Pentagon leaders don’t buy the assertion. They acknowledge that a major airborne air assault is a low-probability option, but that it remains a vital capability and deterrent. “It’s not an Army requirement. It’s a national security requirement,” says Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of XVIII Airborne Corps. Most of the Army’s top leaders have airborne backgrounds: Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Vice Chief Gen. Daniel Allyn, U.S. Special Operations Commander Gen. Joseph Votel and acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy all served at Fort Bragg. Nine of the Army’s 13 four-star generals have led or served in the 82nd or XVIII Airborne Corps.
Airborne also offers training, morale, retention and recruiting perks and a pay bonus. Soldiers who are required to jump out of airplanes as part of their military duties are entitled to “Jump Pay” or “Parachute Duty Pay.” There are two rates of Jump Pay, regular and HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening). Regular jump pay is $150 per month. HALO parachutists receive $225 per month. And there’s prestige. Members of the 82nd Airborne consider themselves the Army’s elite. They wear distinctive headgear setting them apart from regular forces.
No one suggests parachuting is obsolete; Special Forces and the 75th Ranger Regiment frequently jump into enemy territory. But does the Army need five-plus brigades -- three of them at Fort Bragg -- with ever-tightening budget restraints? Former XVII Airborne Corp Commander Lt. Gen. Joe Anderson said airborne brigades cost about 10 percent more in maintenance than standard light infantry, but roughly a third as much as an armored unit.
Over the last 15 years, members of the 82nd have seen more than their fair share of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan — but they were not involved in combat jumps. Army leaders note an air drop is the only way to get a substantial force into a conflict quickly when there’s no airstrip handy. “Today the application of a large-scale airborne assault is low probability, but it’s high consequence if we’re not absolutely prepared to do it,” said Brig. Gen. Brian Winski, deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.