British airborne forces training NATO counterparts 16 Air Assault Brigade Exercise Swift Response CREDIT Crown Copyright 2016
British airborne forces training alongside NATO counterparts to develop their ability to work together to deliver a Swift Response to international crises (Picture: Crown Copyright 2016).
Analysis

Lima Charlie: Does Britain still need a parachute regiment?

If parachute units have not been deployed en masse since WW2, why do we need them?

British airborne forces training NATO counterparts 16 Air Assault Brigade Exercise Swift Response CREDIT Crown Copyright 2016
British airborne forces training alongside NATO counterparts to develop their ability to work together to deliver a Swift Response to international crises (Picture: Crown Copyright 2016).

One of the iconic images of military operations since the Second World War is that of paratroopers jumping out of their aircraft, leaping into the unknown, to take on the enemy on the ground. 

The concept of troops trained to show extreme aggressiveness, leaping out without knowing what enemy they face, or when they would be relieved, is central to the near-legendary status enjoyed by the Parachute Regiment. 

Yet for all the positive images this scene creates, it is now 66 years since the Paras last jumped into combat in large numbers – Suez in 1956.

Although the regiment has fought with distinction across many campaigns since this point, it has not and, arguably, is unlikely to jump into combat en masse again. 

Why then does Britain (and many other nations) maintain an airborne capability and what does the future hold for this most elite of all regiments? 

The British Army has had a parachute capability since World War 2.

Parachute Regiment Parade Helles Barracks Catterick CREDIT BFBS
After 28 weeks of training, these recruits are now full members of the Parachute Regiment.

The regiment carried out a wide number of operations, including dropping into Normandy as part of an airborne attack to disrupt German positions ahead of the D-Day landings – then some 7,000 British troops (alongside US and others) landed, causing chaos behind enemy lines and capturing key positions. 

Later in 1944, paratroopers were deployed in Arnhem, where they sought to capture a vital strategic bridge, in the hope of being relieved by heavier forces. 

Due to a variety of complex reasons, this did not happen as planned and the battle remains one of the most well-known defeats for the allies in the late war campaign.

Finally, in 1945, Operation Varsity dropped some 17,000 British and American paratroopers from three divisions behind German lines, helping to encircle enemy forces and bring about their defeat while allied troops crossed the Rhine. 

After the Second World War, the UK (like other nations) retained a limited air assault capability and next used it at Suez in 1956, when a battalion-sized drop by 3 PARA was carried out to seize a key airfield to support wider Anglo-French objectives. 

This event marked the last time a significant airdrop has been carried out by British airborne forces.

Since 1956, the Parachute Regiment has been deployed in some of the toughest and most difficult operations faced by the British Armed Forces. 

Service in Northern Ireland, the Falklands War, Operation TELIC, HERRICK and other locations too. 

These operations saw paratrooper units deployed as either elite ground infantry or via helicopters. 

They played a key part in helping deliver success but were not launched into battle by parachute.

3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment 3 PARA 47 Squadron C130J Hercules Ex Askari Storm in Kenya Image ID 45166132 CREDIT Crown Copyright 2020
3 PARA soldiers about to jump from a 47 Squadron C130J Hercules during Ex Askari Storm in Kenya 2020 (Picture: Crown Copyright 2020).

Other nations have used paratroopers operationally since WW2, including the French during their war in Indochina and more recently in Mali, the Americans in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama and Iraq and the Russians as recently as their invasion of Ukraine. 

It is now many years though since large-scale operational drops occurred. 

Despite this lack of employment in their intended role, the British Army retains a not insignificant airborne capability. 

Brought together under the structure of 16 Air Assault Brigade, today the Parachute Regiment comprises three regular and one reserve battalions, of which one is permanently part of the Special Forces Support Group and the other two regular units (2 and 3 PARA) are intended for air assault. 

These troops are backed up by a range of support arms including an RLC logistics unit, Royal Engineers, Artillery and Royal Signals, enabling the UK to deploy a potent force if required to take part in an airdrop. 

This force is intended to be delivered by aircraft from the Royal Air Force and allies. 

In the UK, the venerable C130 Hercules has been the backbone of the force since the 1960s, although it is due to be retired next year. 

The A400M Atlas, of which the RAF is getting around 24, is intended to replace the Hercules but is not yet cleared for dropping paratroopers – although trials are planned soon. 

The RAF also operates a force of C17 Globemaster transports, which are mostly used for strategic airlift, but can also carry out parachute drops too – this was most recently demonstrated in 2022, when British paratroopers carried out high altitude, high opening (HAHO) jumps over Macedonia as part of NATO exercises. 

British troops can also jump using allied planes, such as from the US Air Force as well as use helicopters like the Chinook to move into action quickly. 

What are the roles the British Army could end up using its paratrooper force for and how likely is it that they will be used? 

This is a big question and one that has caused a lot of head-scratching (and likely some arguments) for many years. 

What do you do with paratroopers in the 21st Century? 

Parachute Regiment British Paras Spanish CH47 Chinook helicopter Exercise Listed Paratrooper Image ID 45161856 CREDIT Crown Copyright 2016
Pictured are British Paras jumping from a Spanish CH47 Chinook helicopter during Exercise Listed Paratrooper in 2016 (Picture: Crown Copyright 2016).

Realistically, the best use of the force is as fast-moving infantry able to take and hold ground and wait for reinforcement. 

This would usually involve being dropped to capture a strategic point like an airbase enabling it to be opened for reinforcements to be flown in and build a bridgehead that can help gain ground. 

The challenge is to do this before the opposition can take on and defeat the attackers. 

This highlights the first challenge of airborne infantry, namely that they are great at capturing lightly defended facilities, but if the local opposition is competent and able to respond quickly, they may find themselves overrun.

The chaos of airdrops, with forces all over the place and equipment scattered, does not make it easy for the attacker – they must rely on the element of shock and surprise to overcome the defenders and hope they have time to regroup and dig in for any counterattack. 

In Normandy, the airborne landings saw British and US troops scattered across the region, causing disruption, but at times unable to mount a coherent offensive punch. 

Similarly, the Russians tried this in the opening stages of the Ukraine conflict in 2022, when their elite airborne units tried to seize an airfield near Kyiv, only to be defeated by the Ukrainian forces. 

Jumping in as reinforcements to areas already held is another possible good use of paratroopers. 

The US tried this in Kandahar in 2001, with their forces landing into an airfield already secured by ground troops but providing both helpful reinforcements and a strong psychological message about their potential reach. 

Another possible use, albeit on a smaller scale, is for a form of raid, with limited troops (say company-sized) jumping into an area to carry out an attack on a hostile target, then extracting to safety as needed. 

It is possible to airdrop light vehicles and support with the initial landing and then keep the troops supplied from the air as required while they are on the ground. 

The benefit of this move is that it allows forces to reach far into enemy territory, causing disruption, but with only a small number of troops committed to the operation. 

Parachute Regiment British Paras landing from a Spanish CH47 Chinook helicopter Exercise Listed Paratrooper Image ID 45161857 CREDIT Crown Copyright 2016
Pictured are British Paras jumping from Spanish CH47 Chinook helicopters during Exercise Listed Paratrooper (Picture: Crown Copyright 2016).

The challenge of doing this is that the risks of things going wrong are high. 

If the force is compromised or lands badly with troops scattered across a wide area, there is a risk of their operation being blown or stopped before it has even started. 

The French have tried this sort of localised insertion into places like Mali and it can be effective but does require a lot of resources (both on the ground and airlift) to work well. 

A final key use is being able to respond rapidly to a changing tactical situation, providing troops to reinforce and hold critical areas that are under threat from hostile forces. 

In this scenario, the airborne units are landed at key locations providing emergency reinforcements to support areas under threat of capture or to quickly exploit possible gains made in a breakthrough. 

It is this sort of mission that NATO has been exercising recently, with British troops jumping into Macedonia as part of Exercise Swift Response. 

In this case, some 2,000 British troops jumped, alongside NATO peers from Italy and France, to demonstrate the ability to rapidly reinforce member states.  

All these missions show there is a role for paratroopers to play on the modern battlefield, but this use requires several different factors to go well. 

Firstly, any deployment of troops by air will likely be part of a much bigger land operation. 

It is highly unlikely that the UK, or other nations, would deploy paratroopers without an easy means of reinforcements arriving. 

The big challenge in doing this is the shortage of airlift to ensure that all parts of the plan work as intended. 

During the 1980s, it was estimated that 15 Hercules would be required to carry and deploy two paratrooper battalions in a single operation. 

Today, the RAF has barely 15 Hercules left in service and these are due to be retired in 2023. 

3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment 3 PARA soldiers move to their next location using a dirt road during a live firing platoon level attack Exercise in Kenya Image ID 45166120 CREDIT Crown Copyright 2020
Soldiers from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment move to their next location using a dirt road during a live firing platoon level attack while on exercise in Kenya (Picture: Crown Copyright 2020).

Meanwhile, the Atlas force has suffered both from serviceability and availability issues and is not yet cleared to carry paratroopers. 

There are unlikely to be enough planes available to support a significant airdrop without reducing cover elsewhere or relying heavily on allies. 

Given that any drop is likely to be done in support of an ongoing military operation and the troops will need resupply and support, any plan to conduct a mass parachute landing will draw on aircraft already being used to supply the wider forces in the field. 

The challenge planners will face is not having anywhere near enough aircraft to do everything they want and working out what to prioritise.

This also assumes of course that no aircraft are lost on the mission. 

One of the uncomfortable facts about airborne operations is that they are tremendously high risk. 

A well-placed shot or surface-to-air missile can easily take out a slow transport aircraft, killing scores of troops in one go. 

That is even before they have landed on the ground, where the risk of injury or capture on landing is high, as is the wait for reinforcements afterwards. 

There is a high likelihood that any air landing will result in not inconsiderable casualties as a result. 

As events in Ukraine have shown, in a contested air defence environment where you do not have air superiority, hostile air defence can wreak havoc with your forces. 

For planners and politicians alike, the question is whether the human cost of carrying out a mass parachute landing is simply too great given the risks involved to friendly forces. 

Would any politician willingly sanction flying troops into contested airspace, knowing the risks it involves and the likely cost – and is the gain worth the sacrifice? 

In all likelihood, the days of massed airdrops have probably passed due to a combination of insufficient resources to carry them out and the sheer risk that they entail, often for relatively little gain. 

Does this mean though that Paratroopers have no future in the British Army? 

Parachute Regiment Parade Helles Barracks Catterick CREDIT BFBS
After 28 weeks of training, these recruits are now full members of the Parachute Regiment (Picture: BFBS).

The answer is an emphatic no – there is still a place for Airborne forces, but it needs to be carefully planned to ensure its ongoing relevance. 

It is far more likely that future airborne operations will involve limited airdrops – perhaps of lead recce platoons like the Pathfinders, or maybe a small number of advance troops for covert insertion, rather than massed landings. 

The remainder of troops will probably be used as helicopter-borne infantry, being inserted by RAF Chinooks or Pumas, rather than jumping. 

This is easier to do on a large scale, particularly as you have more control over where troops land compared to jumping. 

It is also easier to bring in heavier equipment – for example the 105mm light gun, central to the Royal Artillery airborne unit, can be underslung beneath a Chinook. 

This means that troops can move in with better support and equipment, making them more likely to succeed in their mission. 

The mission in Kabul last year, Op PITTING, is perhaps a good example of this type of mission – relying on ground insertion of elite troops onto Kabul airport who used mobility to help defend their position on the airfield until collapsing the perimeter down as the evacuation ended. 

Although the unit did not jump into the operation, the ability to send a mobile force at short notice to conduct the operation was key to its eventual success. 

The ability to parachute into operations remains a powerful symbol and unifying bond for the unit. 

At a political level, being able to send troops to jump into foreign nations through NATO exercises or with allies, helps serve as a reminder that, in a crisis, British military support can easily be delivered in a hurry by air to intervene as required. 

Even if not deployed by parachute, the mere existence of the capability sends a powerful message of deterrence.

Soldier 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment 3 PARA Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise Kenya Image ID 45166114 CREDIT Crown Copyright 2020
A soldier from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment about to starting compound clearance on a the Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise in Kenya (Picture: Crown Copyright 2020).

Even if the Parachute Regiment is unlikely to jump on a large scale in future, it continues to provide a unique source of highly trained and motivated troops able to take on the toughest of soldiering challenges. 

As a vital quick reaction force, they provide the British Government with a range of military options to respond to emerging crises, from small-scale patrols through to battalion-sized deployments. 

The range and reach of this force make it highly flexible and militarily potent. 

It is unlikely then that the British Army will ever get rid of the Parachute Regiment or its ability to jump but it is exceptionally unlikely that it will ever jump en masse again.

There is no doubt that the ethos and perceived 'elite' status of the Parachute Regiment will see it continue to attract recruits who want to join a unit likely to be committed to the toughest operations that the British Army will face. 

At a unit level, there is a considerable sense of ethos and pride drawn from those who wear the maroon beret and wings, knowing that all who have it have passed exacting training and selection courses like P Company and met the highest standard. 

It builds a bond that helps create a very powerful sense of unit identity and cohesion – which can make a massive difference to the ability to operate and fight together for real. 

Recruits joining now will enter at a fascinating time. 

They are unlikely to see operations such as previous members saw in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, but they will be required to be flexible and able to handle complex problems. 

They are as likely to deploy from helicopters, or on foot, as they are from an aircraft, but no matter where they deploy from, they will certainly uphold the highest standards and finest traditions of the Regiment.

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.