Morale: Alaska Goes Airborne


May 17, 2022: The U.S. Army has a morale problem with the two combat brigades stationed there. The soldiers stationed there wear the shoulder patch of the 25th “Tropic Lightning” division. This is a unit that was formed 81 years ago in Hawaii, and went on to become known as a specialist in tropical and jungle warfare. The 25th began forming just before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a surprise attack that brought America into the war. After a year of training the 25 th fought continuously in the Pacific until 1945. When the Korean War broke out in 1950 the 25th was sent there and later served in Vietnam. In 1995 the 25th added an airborne brigade and most of the division was based in Alaska with one brigade still in Hawaii. After September 11, 2001 units of the division served in Iraq and briefly in Afghanistan. Some units of the division continued to be based in Hawaii but more and more were based in Alaska.

To help with morale and solve the division’s identity crises, the brigades in Alaska, including the airborne unit, will now be designated the 11rh Airborne division even though it will specialize in arctic operations. Part of the morale problem is that most of the brigades are equipped with Stryker wheeled armored vehicles, which perform less effectively in snow covered terrain than tracked vehicles. The division needs special arctic warfare vehicles for that.

The current arctic warfare division is the 10th Mountain Division. This unit is based in upstate New York, an area that gets more snow every year than Alaska. What makes Alaska unique is that it is a huge area with longer periods of extreme cold each year.

The 11th Airborne is currently inactive and has been since 1965. The 11th Airborne was formed in 1943 and operated with distinction in the Pacific during World War II and was deactivated in 1958. It was reactivated in 1963 for two years to reinforce American forces in Vietnam.

Currently the army has two airborne units, the 82nd Airborne Division based in the U.S. and the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which is stationed in Europe. The 101st Airborne division still exists but since the 1960s has been an airmobile (helicopters) unit. The reactivated 11th Airborne Division will have some parachute combat capability and that may boost morale a bit. A major morale boost would come from equipment suitable for arctic warfare. That costs a lot of money and in a time of tight defense budgets, that is a cure that is out of reach.

Then there is the problem with large airborne units. They are more image than reality. That’s because airborne troops are a 20th century invention that looked great on paper, was hugely popular with the troops and the public, and never really worked as intended. As a result, there hasn't been a major airborne drop since 1945, and that one turned out to be unnecessary. The basic concept is to drop large infantry units (several battalions or several divisions) behind enemy lines and thus disrupt the enemy army.

This sort of worked during 1944. The June 1944 D-Day drop of three airborne divisions was a disaster, at least from a planner’s point of view. The night drop was disrupted by poor visibility which, of course, was expected and enemy anti-aircraft fire that was also expected. Since you can't really practice this sort of thing and accurately simulate anti-aircraft fire, you learn by doing. What was learned during World War II was that large scale airborne drops, especially at night, put the troops in unexpected places. Trained to form into their units after a drop, troops dropped at night found themselves scattered all over the place. Most paratroopers are trained to use initiative, and this they did in Normandy. Seeking out and fighting whatever enemy troops they could find, the paratroopers caused chaos in the enemy rear area. But once daylight arrived, the enemy got the upper hand. Without the cover of darkness, it was realized how few, dispersed and lightly armed the airborne troops were. At that point, either friendly ground forces showed up, or the paratroopers began to get chopped up. This was the experience in every major airborne operation and was demonstrated as early as 1941.

After jumping onto the island of Crete in 1941, the German parachute division got beat up pretty badly, and without the timely arrival of air landed troops via a captured airfield the Germans would have lost. As it was, the German paratroopers took such a beating that they never again attempted a major airborne operation. Part of the German problem was two bad practices that American paratroopers noted, and fixed. First, the German parachutes were designed so that the paratrooper could not control exactly where he would land. Second, they jumped without their weapons, which were placed in containers that were dropped separately. American paratroopers were trained to work the risers; control fabric connecting the trooper with his parachute so that a specific landing area could be selected. American paratroopers jumped with their weapons, and were ready to fight as soon as they landed and unhitched their chutes.

Russia also formed large airborne units, and lost them whenever they dropped them. But it was noted that smaller airborne operations with from a few dozen to a few hundred troops tended to be more successful. In particular, parachutes were useful for commandos and spies.

After World War II, only the United States and the Soviet Union maintained large airborne forces. Many other nations had a battalion or a brigade of paratroopers, mainly as an elite intervention force. This, in fact, was what the American and Russian paratroopers were used for as well. As a consequence, they weren't used much at all. More often, there were smaller drops of elite troops. Sometimes they were paratroopers, at other times they were even more elite forces like American Rangers or Special forces, French Foreign Legion, British SAS or Russian Spetsnaz.

The idea of mass parachute jumps still remains in the military playbook. But as a practical matter, the airborne generals remember their history, and use smaller jumps, coming in via an airport or moving into battle on helicopters rather than everyone parachuting down.




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