Air Transportation: The RAF War On The SAS


September 29, 2010:  For five years now, the Royal Air Force RAF), and the British Army have been feuding over the lack of aircraft for  parachute training. The latest row involves Britain's SAS (Special Air Service) commandos, who have been unable to train all their operators in complex parachuting techniques, because the RAF has been unable to provide transports to carry the SAS personnel into the air. This is considered a more serious matter than previous problems with not having enough transports to train members of the Parachute Regiment. The SAS threatens to send their operators to the United States for training, relying on long standing ties with their American counterparts (the U.S. Army Special Forces and SOCOM). This would be embarrassing for the RAF, and that would be the point.

This sort of feud has been going on for a long time. For example, four years ago it was revealed that the British Army had to decide between supplying its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and providing aircraft for its paratroopers to complete their training. As a result of this shortage, in 2005, only about 25 percent of paratroop trainees were able to make the required jumps, to become qualified parachutists. Back in 2003, 93 percent were able to successfully make their jumps. In addition to the morale boost, being a qualified paratrooper also gets you an extra $3,000 a year in bonus pay.

In practice, paratroopers rarely make combat jumps anymore. Their last really large scale jump (4,000 troops) was in 1950, during the Korean war. The last major combat jump was in 1967, when the 845 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted in. There were some smaller (less than 400 troops) jumps during the Vietnam war. In 1983, 500 U.S. Army Rangers jumped over Grenada.

Most of the combat jumps these days are of small units, or teams of a dozen or fewer troops. These are usually made by commando type troops. But being a paratrooper is also good for morale, and produces a superior combat soldier. So sending someone through parachute training, and then not letting them make the jumps to qualify their success, is not good for morale.

A larger issue has been the decades old RAF campaign to control  all military aircraft. This struggle has been going on since World War I. Back in 1914, the Royal Navy had more aircraft than the Royal Flying Corps (which belonged to the army). But at the end of World War I, it was decided to put all aircraft under the control of the new Royal Air Force (the former Royal Flying Corps). The navy was not happy with this, and just before World War II broke out, the admirals got back control of their aircraft, at least the ones that operated from ships.

The army reformed its Army Air Corps during World War II, to control artillery spotter aircraft, gliders (for parachute divisions), and a few other transports for supporting commando operations. After World War II, the Army Air Corps mainly controlled the growing fleet of transport and attack helicopters.

As it did after World War I, the Royal Air Force generals now want to control everything that flies, believing that is more efficient. The army and navy, not to mention the experience of many other nations, says otherwise. At the very least, the army needs to control its helicopters, and some small transports. In Russia, the army controlled ground attack aircraft, as well as some fighters. In the United States, the Marine Corps controlled its own fighters, light bombers and helicopters. It made a difference, especially to the marines on the ground, that the marine aircraft were being flown by marines.

Another problem with a unified air force is that it becomes, quite naturally, air force centric. This is understandable, and the air force proceeds to develop strategies, and tactics, that emphasize looking at military matters from an air force viewpoint. Before World War II, this led to the doctrine of strategic bombardment. This was supposed to be a decisive weapon, but it wasn't. When nuclear weapons came along, the air force believed that it finally had a way to make strategic bombardment decisive. But it didn't, as ballistic missiles (another form of artillery) became the key delivery system for nukes, and nuclear weapons were so destructive that they became more of a threat, than a weapon that you could use (and they have not been used again, since the first two atomic bombs were dropped in 1945.) The fact of the matter is that wars are still ultimately won by the ground forces. As the army likes to point out, the ultimate air superiority weapon is your infantry occupying the enemy air bases. Everyone else (the navy and air force) is there to support the infantry in actually winning the war. All the British paratroopers want from the RAF is a little help in getting closer to the enemy.



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