So the next part of the Deconstruction deals with a planned Airborne Operation carried out by Douglas Bland’s fictional Canadian Special Service Regiment (CSSR).  A lot of the shit that gets presented is seriously, blatantly, wrong, but that wrongness is not necessarily self-evident.  So I figure it might be a good idea to lay out a few key points about Airborne and Airmobile operations and Canada’s doctrine for carrying them out.

Two major disclaimers before we continue:

1) I am not Airborne.  I have never served in an Airborne unit, nor am I jump qualified.  I have served in support roles on exercises and taskings with paras and I have several jump qualified friends in the Forces, but my own personal experience with jumping out of a plane is basically zero.

Everything that I am presenting here is drawn from four CAF publications: The Parachutist’s Manual (B-GL-322-005/FP-001), Airborne Operations – Parachute (B-GL-324-004/FP-001), Airborne Operations – Airmobile (B-GL-324-002/FP-001), and the Drop Zone/Landing Zone Controller’s Handbook (B-GL-322-006/FP-001) and from personal accounts I’ve heard from my acquaintances.  I am simplifying the language a bit to make it accessible to a non-military audience, but otherwise these are the sources I’m working from.  Any errors that remain are mine alone.  If you’re reading this and you have some personal experience with Airborne operations (Canadian or otherwise) please don’t hesitate to speak up in the comments to correct me or add to the discussion.

2) The images presented in this post are (with one obvious exception) all drawn from the 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment Facebook page.  The page itself is public, and I have carefully selected images that do not show faces or disclose personal information such as ranks or name tags.  If you recognize any of the photos shown here, please refrain from identifying any of the people in it unless they themselves have given consent.  If you notice any identifying details that I may have missed (name tags that can be enlarged, photo tags that I did not detect) please let me know in the comments and I will remove the image immediately.

With that out of the way, let’s begin…

What gets called ‘Airborne?’

As we finally enter reach the action in Douglas Bland’s Uprising, we will meet the fictional Canadian Special Service Regiment (CSSR), Bland’s version of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR, often pronounced ‘see-sore’).  Both the fictional and real-life outfits are the re-establishment of the Canadian Airborne Regiment (CAR), a regiment that was disbanded in disgrace following the events which came to be known as ‘the Somalia Affair.’

Things get complicated discussing this subject, but the short version is that, during a UN Peacekeeping mission in Somalia, shit went wrong.  There were serious problems with the mission and with the Airborne’s chain of command maintaining discipline within parts of the Regiment.  This eventually resulted in the unlawful killing of two civilians, with the entire Regiment bearing the brunt of the disgrace and eventually getting disbanded.

For a while after the loss of the CAR, the Canadian airborne capability was retained in the form of Jump Companies in each of Canada’s three Infantry Regiments.  Eventually the capability (which had been seriously diluted and which we seriously needed) got reconstituted in Regimental form in CSOR.[1]

I’ll get into the Somalia Affair in greater detail at some point in this blog.  Given that it’s central to the Decade of Darkness, there’s probably no avoiding it.  In the meantime, it’s important to point out that the CAR was a special forces regiment, and CSOR is the re-creation of this force.  CSSR is the fictional version that Douglas Bland has created for Uprising.

As a further terminology note: In a Canadian Airborne unit, Platoons and Sections are still called that, but Companies are called Commandos (yes, I know the original word is plural without an ‘s’).  So in the CAF, an airborne commando is actually a force composed of over a hundred soldiers, not a descriptive term for an individual soldier.

Airborne/Airmobile Ops

On the basic level, airborne and airmobile operations are about delivering a body of combat troops to their objective by aircraft.  The former involves parachuting troops onto their objectives, the latter by landing them there via helicopter or plane.  The troops involved function essentially a light infantry (few or no vehicles, all weapons and equipment are carried by the troops themselves) and are often expected to carry out their mission outside the immediate ability for the rest of the army to support.[2]

In this article we’re going to focus on airborne operations, where the troops reach their objective by parachuting into a Drop Zone (DZ) and moving on foot to their objective from there.

In the modern CAF, there are two main types of parachute systems used: the CT-1, a dome shaped, static-line operated parachute, and the CT-6, a Ram-Air (rectangular) Military Freefall Parachute (MFP) which can be manually operated as well as static-line controlled.[3]

Parachute Types
The CT-1 parachute (left) and the CT-6 MFP (right).  Images from the CAF Parachutists Manual.

Static Line Parachute Drops

For the most part, the CT-1 static line jump is what most people are talking about when they’re referring to airborne operations.  It is a relatively straightforward system first developed during the Second World War, and since refined into the one used today.  Although it requires rigorous training and discipline, is about as close as you’re going to get to a quick, efficient and (relatively) safe way to throw hundreds of people out of planes and have them survive landing.

Static-Line Jump via Herc
A static-line jump via C-130J Hercules transport plane.

With a static-line jump, the parachutist has their main parachute on their back, and their reserve across their chest.  If the troop is jumping with their full kit (e.g.: rucksack, weapons, etc…) the rucksack hangs from their body below the reserve chute, connected by a harness that can allow it to be released just before landing.  Body armour, helmet and tactical vest are all worn, and rifle is either slung or strapped to other equipment the soldier is carrying.  Heavier weapons are packed into special bags that are either carried by the parachutist, or part of a cargo pallet that can be pushed out of the plane before the jumpers exit.

To give an idea of what this entails for the jumper, imagine picking up a full grown man in a fireman’s carry.  With that weight pressing down on your body, imagine climbing into, sitting down in, and then standing up again inside a cramped airplane or helicopter, and you’ll have an idea what the parachutist is dealing with onboard the aircraft.

There is a reason why chin-ups are a vital part of airborne PT.

A CC-130 Hercules can hold 62 jumpers, if they are only wearing their parachutes, and about 40 if they are jumping with their rucksacks as well.  The presence of a cargo pallet can further reduce the number of jumpers.[4]

As the plane approaches its DZ, the troops, under the control of a Jump Master (JM-an airborne officer or NCO trained to control the movement of jumpers while on the plane) stand up and prepare themselves. They connect a nylon strap called a static-line to a steel cable called an anchor line that runs the length of the plane.  The static-line is the mechanism that deploys the CT-1 parachute as the jumper exits the plane.

Jump Master
The Jump Master takes his position at the rear of the plane.  For this jump, the parachutists are exiting by the side doors (one of which is visible to the right of the photo).

As the plane draws nearer to the DZ, the jumpers carry out final inspection on their neighbour’s equipment, then their own equipment.  The JM does their own final check as well, before directing the jumpers to move towards the rear of the plane where their exit is (either man-sized doors in both sides of the plane, or the lowered cargo ramp that takes up the rear of the plane).  As they move aft (in a plane that may be shaking from turbulence), the jumpers must keep their balance under all the weight of their gear, while moving their static lines along the anchor line ahead of them.

One by one, each jumper takes up their place at the exit, and waits for the order from the JM before exiting the plane[5].  As they jump, the static line (still connected to the anchor line) drags out the CT-1 parachute, which should deploy fully within four seconds of the jumper leaving the plane.

Jump (Static Line Deploys)
Exiting by the side door.  Static line (yellow) can be seen still connected to the anchor line.
Jump by Ramp w-JM
Exiting by ramp.  Note the jumper who has already cleared the ramp, whose static line is mid-way through deploying their chute.  Two more static lines from earlier jumpers can be seen flapping loosely at the top of the exit.  The Jump Master stands ready at the left.

As they exit, the Jumper holds what is called the ‘Jab position’: Feet together, knees slightly bent, chin down, elbows tucked in and hands gripping the reserve chute, body bent at the waist.  They count off four seconds, then check to see that their parachute deployed properly.  If a problem has occurred (such as the risers getting tangled), the jumper has seconds to either remedy the problem or deploy their reserve chute.  If the chute has deployed properly the jumper must still watch out for hazards, like other jumpers or terrain obstacles in their DZ.

As the jumper gets closer to the ground, they lower their rucksack (releasing the harness and letting it drop to the end of a canvas strap), and brace themselves for landing[6].  The CT-1 parachute doesn’t offer too many options for steering.  It is possible for the jumper to control their fall somewhat, but for the most part the odds of the jumper making it to the ground safely depends on their DZ being well-selected in advance.  (More on this in a moment.)

Lowering Rucksack
A jumper lowers their rucksack in preparation for landing.

Upon landing, the jumper collapses their canopy, drags in their chute, then retrieve the kit that they carried with them.  The chute and its harness comes off, the rucksack goes on.  Support weapons packed separately get unpacked, radios are powered up.  If further equipment was dropped by pallets, it will also be retrieved and distributed.

Once the jumpers have sorted themselves out, they head out of the DZ to their designated Rendez-Vous points (RVs) to meet up with the rest of their platoon/commando and prepare to step off to their objectives.  Typically, there will be several RV points for each DZ, to avoid the jumpers crowding into a single space.

Sounds pretty straightforward?  Well, under ideal circumstances, it’s supposed to be.  The CT-1 static-line jump is a system designed to deliver a large number of troops from the air to the ground as fast and safely as possible, while minimizing the exposure of the planes to enemy ground fire.  But if you know your history, you’ll know that things don’t always work out this way.   The airborne drops into Normandy, for example, saw troops scattered across a wide area, with a number of planes being shot down or badly damaged before they could release their jumpers.

How it can go wrong?

The first and most obvious risk in an airborne operation is of the planes getting lost or diverted on their way to the objective.  During the D-Day landings, the Allied Airborne forces were scattered across Normandy.  Many troops had to hike for kilometres to find their units and their objectives.  Others were so far off course that they simply joined other Airborne units in their area to support them attacking their objectives instead.

Today, in the age of GPS, it’s not the biggest risk. But equipment can fail (or be deliberately spoofed), and the results can be catastrophic if it happens.  Surprise is a major advantage for the airborne operation, so dropping troops into the wrong location (or failing to drop them at all) can hand the initiative back to the enemy at a time when it’s most needed.

So there’s that.

The biggest danger in an airborne/airmobile mission is the threat of enemy airpower and anti-aircraft capabilities.  Your basic C-130 Hercules is a (relatively) slow moving cargo plane with little in the way of defensive options, making them highly vulnerable to enemy air power.  Even earlier generation fighters could cut a swath through a formation of Hercs in a matter of minutes.

Once your transport aircraft reach the DZ, they need to slow down considerably, and drop to a much lower altitude to release their troops.  Modern anti-aircraft systems are already a major threat around the objective, but even crude, third world systems could present a major threat.

This is where deception programs and the concealment of DZ markers until the very last minute are vital.  If the enemy can identify the DZ and weapons can be brought to bear in time, even your proverbial sandal-wearing yokel has a serious chance to wreck havoc.  Your basic Toyota pickup with a Dushka could present a massive threat to the entire drop.[5]

Band of Brothers-2
Band of Brothers (2001 HBO), the soldiers of the 101st Airborne struggle to keep their feet as their plane is battered by German anti-aircraft fire over Normandy.

Now, even when the enemy doesn’t have air power or anti-aircraft weapons, the troops still face considerable risk during the period when they’re on the ground and shaking themselves out.  DZs are, by definition, wide open stretches of ground, and during an airborne drop that open ground is going to be filled with troops who will largely be helpless for several minutes as they recover from their flight.

The Airborne Operations manuals both hammer this point home repeatedly.  Operations cannot be carried out unless you have (at least) air-neutrality, but preferably air-superiority.  There is also a heavy emphasis on the importance of air support before, during, and immediately following a drop to protect the jumpers and their planes as they sort themselves out.  Even after the troops are on the ground and organized, aggressive use of air power (as well as long range artillery and rocket fire from conventional forces) is vital since airborne forces typically can’t carry too much heavy weaponry with them (called ‘Organic Fire Support’ in the literature).

So that leaves a key piece of the puzzle missing: The biggest danger to airborne troops is at the moments surrounding their arrival at the DZ.  So how to we counteract this?

Pathfinders/DZ Controllers

CAF doctrine states that troops will not jump without a DZ controller party on the ground   to make sure conditions are safe, to assist and direct the incoming planes, to protect the jumpers as they land, and direct them to their RVs (which the DZ controllers are securing).  The Pathfinders who make up the DZ Controller parties are the exception to this rule.

Pathfinders are basically Airborne scouts.  A Pathfinder unit can be platoon strength or more, and contains the DZ Controller party in addition to a security element for the DZ and the RVs.  They jump in ahead of the main body of airborne troops and prepare the DZ for the main body’s arrival. Ideally, they jump around 24hrs beforehand, but the window can be as tight as an hour in emergencies.[8]  Their job is to locate the intended DZ, make sure it’s feasible as a DZ, lay out markers on the ground to help the planes orient themselves, and guard the DZ and the RVs during the drop.

In a training situation the DZ Controllers can work on their own.  Basically you’re looking at a half-dozen specially trained parachutists, riggers, and medics plus a few other personnel who are on standby to respond to emergencies.  In an operational situation, the DZ controllers must be augmented with additional Pathfinders as per the security situation on the ground, and can include Fast-Air Controllers (FACs) to call down air strikes.

Needless to say, the Pathfinders are going to have to deploy by stealth under most circumstances.  They may be some hard motherfuckers, but they’re (typically) dropping into enemy territory with even less support than the Airborne force that’s following them.  No matter how tough, if they get discovered, they’re screwed and the operation itself in in jeopardy.  So one of the preferred options is for them to drop a long way off from the DZ, and make their way in by stealth.[9]  Ideally, the markers for the DZ wouldn’t be laid out until hours or minutes before the arrival of the airborne force, so that any local enemy forces won’t be aware of it until the planes are passing overhead.[10]

 

So short version is that Airborne operations are hard.  Pathfinders train harder in order to make the job easier.  The job of the Pathfinders and the DZ control party is to minimize the random factors that can wreck the operation, allowing the airborne troops to land and begin the fight.

So who’s running this thing?

So one of the things that needs to be understood is that, as much as the bulk of the fighting (and the Hollywood-friendly drama) is carried out by the airborne forces (acronym AB), it’s the air force pilots and loadmasters (called the Air Lift or AL forces) are the ones who get them there.  So you got both Airborn forces (AB) and Air Lift forces (AL) with a say in how the operation goes down.

Above both of these forces is the Task Force Commander (TFC).  The TFC runs the show, makes sure the AB and AL commanders are working well together, represents their needs to higher, and if there’s a dispute or some confusion, sorts things out.

Now the AB and AL commanders are pretty clearly defined.  The AB is the commanding officer of the Airborne Forces, while the AL is the wing/squadron commander of the planes involved.  Who’s actually in charge in any given circumstance depends on who’s assets are key at that particular moment.  Pilots are in charge of planes, jumpers command jumpers.  Jumpers select the DZ, but if something goes wrong the pilots have a responsibility to take evasive action to save both themselves and the troops onboard.

Onboard each individual plane command divides between the load master (LM) and jump master (JM).  The LM is part of the aircrew and represents the pilots to the JM, and between the two of them they manage the jumpers who are going out the door when they reach the DZ.  The JM handles the jumpers, the LM handles the plane.

As they reach the DZ, the AB and the AL forces fall (briefly) under the command of the DZ Controllers.  While the TFC decides on the DZ, and gets a say in how the ALs will get the ABs there, the DZ Controller(s) can get a veto on the subject.  Even if the DZ is perfect at the time of selection, the Pathfinders still have the option of calling a ‘Stop-Drop’ if something changes.[11]  They are also in charge of guiding the jumpers to their respective RV points as they arrive in the DZ.

By doctrine, the DZ Controller runs the show from the time that the jumpers leave the plane until they reach their RVs and fall in under their sub-unit commanders.  Depending on the enemy threat and the ROEs, the Pathfinders may be charged with directing air strikes and long range artillery (including tube, rocket, and naval) to flatten enemy forces who might threaten the arriving AB forces.  Although it’s a narrow period of time, the Pathfinders are running the show for the drop itself.  Potentially they could re-direct the entire Airborne force, or call down massive airstrikes based without having to clear their decisions with higher.

Following their arrival at their RVs, the Pathfinders might join the newly-landed force to engage an objective, or they might remain on the DZ to guide in the next wave of airborne forces.[12]

Some Conclusions…

The whole process of an airborne operation is essentially a massive process of double-checks designed to minimize the potential mistakes that can crop up in an extremely dangerous and risky operation.  It demands an enormous level of trust and professionalism at all levels of the mission, because there are numerous points of failure at which a mistake can doom the mission.

While airborne operations have a conventional military hierarchy overall, the levels of complexity are such that authority has to be delegated back and forth between numerous professionals at different points during the mission.  Regardless of rank, the person who is in charge at a given phase of the mission (such as a JM who is a Sgt vs a jumper who is LCol) is in charge, period.  More importantly, this is an accepted part of airborne doctrine, and part of what makes the whole process workable.

These last points in particular are going to be vital in the upcoming posts for the Deconstruction.

_________________________

[1] In central Canada, 3 RCR got the Jump Company.  In this case M-Coy (Mike Company) who retain this task at the time of publication.

[2] “Dropping behind enemy lines” is the classic airborne mission, but there are a number of missions that could involve an airborne force jumping into combat so that they are still in contact with friendly forces.  ‘Relief in place’ where troops jump into combat to block an enemy penetration of friendly lines is one example.

[3] The CT-1 system is augmented by the CR-1, a manually operated reserve chute in the event that the primary chute fails.  The CT-6 has the APR (Automatic Parachute Reserve) a backup that can be automatically deployed upon cutaway of the main, or manually.

[4] Although the aircraft mentioned most often in the literature (and used in training) is the CC-130 Hercules Transport (the Canadian variation of the C-130E variant of the aircraft).  Other aircraft that can be used include the C-17 Globemaster (a much bigger transport plane), and the Griffon and Chinook Helicopters.  A decade ago the CAF upgraded to the C-130J Hercules which is somewhat bigger and has been used for airborne training, but the references I’m using here have not been updated for the new aircraft.  Presumably the C-130J will be able to carry more jumpers, but I can’t say how many.

[5] That’s the exact term used in the Parachutist manual: Exiting.  I love the understatement.

[6] There is a whole process for landing safely, depending on the terrain, your direction of drift, and any obstacles that may be present.  There are a wide number of techniques for surviving all kinds of emergencies, including getting hung up in trees, landing in water, crashing into a building, or even colliding and getting tangled with another jumper.

[7] ‘Dushka’ is the nickname (Russian for ‘sweetheart’) for the DShK heavy machine gun.  A 12.7×108 mm monstrosity, usually mounted on a tripod or on a vehicle, it’s essentially the Warsaw Pact equivalent of the NATO .50 cal and frequently turns up in the arsenals of Third World armies.  Although it is not explicitly an anti-aircraft weapon, it has the reach and power to serve effectively in that role.

[8] Everything in the PAMs I’ve read (plus what I’ve heard from parachutist friends), seem to agree that cutting it close is a really bad idea.  Get the DZ Controllers in early, so they can do their job right.  But technically, according to the manual, they can jump just hours ahead of the main body.  And fuck your life if you’re in the main body under those conditions.

[9] Although it’s not an SOP, one of the options is for the Pathfinders to drop in by CT-6 MFP, allowing them to glide in a long distance from their release point, making it even harder for an enemy to detect their arrival.

CT-6 Jump 2
The CT-6 MFP can allow a jumper to exit the plane at much higher altitude, and steer themselves across long distances to a much smaller DZ.

[10] “Hey boss!  Those planes that are coming in?  There’s a big-ass letter ‘A’ in the field underneath them!  Is that something we should be worried about boss?  Boss?”

[11] Some of the factors that can render a DZ unusable: Sudden changes in weather, the arrival of enemy forces, and (perhaps worst of all) discovering that the DZ actually sucks and shouldn’t be jumped into under any circumstances.

[12] Depending on how big the operation becomes, this could include literally tons of supplies dropped by parachute on pallets, the conversion of the DZ into a helicopter Landing Zone (LZ), or even the upgrade of the DZ into a field-expedient aircraft runway for fixed-wing aircraft.

4 thoughts on “Airborne Ops: A (very) basic primer

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