January 25, 2012: Israel recently held its first large scale airborne assault exercise since the 1990s. Over a thousand soldiers of the Paratrooper Brigade jumped. Since the 1990s only small groups of paratroopers have dropped and the mass jump is part of an effort to prepare the Paratrooper Brigade to carry out large scale jumps. This is part of a new policy to increase the ground forces ability to fight conventional war. Since the Palestinians began a terror campaign twelve years ago the ground forces have concentrated on counter-terror operations. But for over five years now the Palestinian terror threat has been suppressed, while the Iranian financed Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon are continuing to prepare for war with Israel.
Getting the Paratrooper Brigade ready for airborne operations is costly. Parachute units are more expensive to train (you need a parachute school) and maintain (aircraft for periodic training jumps and additional medical expenses for jump related injuries, plus bonus pay for troops on jump status). As a result of the cost, fewer and fewer parachute troops are in service worldwide. Another problem is that there have been few instances in which large numbers of paratroopers were used at once. Parachute troops are a relatively recent development and were only widely used during World War II (1939-45). At the end of the war airborne forces were seen by many as expensive and difficult to use.
During World War II and on the U.S. was one of the heaviest and most successful users of parachute troops. It was 72 years ago that 48 volunteers formed the U.S. Army Parachute Test Platoon. On August 16, 1940, they made their first mass jump. The exercise was considered a success. America went on to raise over 100,000 parachute and glider infantry (all volunteers) and formed five airborne divisions (11th, 13th, 17th, 82nd, and 101st).
The parachute was nothing new in American history, the first jump was made (from a balloon) in 1819 (the earliest such jump was made in France in 1797). The first jump from an airplane was made by an American in 1912. The basic elements of combat jumps by infantry (using a rip cord) were developed and tested by Americans in 1919. Had World War I gone on an additional year the first combat jump would have been over Germany by American paratroopers. Instead, German paratroopers startled the world in May, 1940 when they dropped on an "impregnable" Belgium fortress and conquered it in hours. The U.S. Army noticed and went on to field the world's largest airborne force.
During the 1930s, Germany and Russia organized large parachute forces and trained frequently with them. But Germany and Russia both suffered heavy losses during airborne operations and did not continue maintaining a lot of jump qualified (they regularly jumped) airborne troops during the war.
The first American combat jump was in North Africa in November, 1942. U.S. paratroopers went on to make a total of 93 combat jumps. Air-dropped infantry has rarely been used since World War II. The helicopter, first used at the end of World War II, had much to do with the decline of parachute forces. America still has the largest and most capable parachute forces (about two divisions worth, although only one complete airborne division). The Russian airborne force is almost as large in personnel but with a lower level of training and readiness.
Other nations have brigades or battalions of paratroopers, which serve mainly as elite infantry or commandos. In that role, American paratroopers have frequently been in combat, earning 70 Medals of Honor in the process. Other nations have had similar experiences but have noted that the paratroopers rarely get to use their parachutes. Israel believes this may change in the near term and are getting ready.