Standing in the door of the lead aircraft, the paratroop commander adjusted his helmet and equipment one last time. The jump light glowed red. The land below was enemy-held terrain, with objectives ripe for seizure by his crack forces. Their mission, as befitting paratroops, had strategic and operational objectives at its heart. Sixty miles behind enemy lines at a thousand feet, the war’s rapid conclusion could be within his grasp. The light turned green and out he stepped. The slipstream pulled him down and away, toward his fate on the ground.
The paratroop commander could have been an American, British, or Polish officer over the Netherlands in 1944 or a Russian officer over Ukraine more recently. Being dropped behind enemy lines in pursuit of strategic and operational objectives, fighting outnumbered and surrounded by enemy forces, and trying to hold on until the ground forces arrive remain constants for an airborne force. The geographic similarities between mass parachute operations in the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden and the early morning airborne assault on Antonov Airport near Kyiv are striking. Both objectives were approximately sixty miles from the nearest friendly lines. Commanders sought to significantly shorten the war by seizing critical operational and strategic objectives. Commanders in both cases underestimated the enemy forces waiting below. By analyzing the airborne drops and subsequent ground combat in 1944 and 2022, through the prism of American airborne doctrine, the vertical envelopment practitioner and planner can learn valuable lessons paid for in the blood of these airborne soldiers.
Russian Airborne Forces
The Vozdushno-desantnye voyska Rossii (VDV) is an elite Russian airborne organization, designed to be, as one Russian analyst stated, “light imperial infantry,” responsible for quick reaction within Russia’s near abroad. Except for the vaunted and mysterious Spetsnaz, the 45,000-strong VDV is seen as the most elite element of the Russian military, with its own annual and nationally recognized Paratroopers Day and having a separate branch status on par with the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, responsible for ground-based nuclear missiles, within the Russian Armed Forces. The VDV was the first military organization to practice parachute operations as a mass military maneuver, starting with initial twelve-parachutist sticks in 1930 and progressing to brigade-sized elements by 1933.
Increasing the VDV’s capabilities was a key priority of the 2008 New Look reforms to the Russian army. This increase in capabilities focused on the ability to project power via expeditionary operations, improving readiness and effectiveness by increased proportion of contract personnel, and increases in modernized equipment. The VDV is also unique in military circles as being one of very few, if not the only, large-scale airborne formations with organic armored vehicles capable of inserting with their paratroopers into operations. The VDV is often the first unit of the Russian military to openly conduct operations within the Russian sphere of influence, most famously as the core of the “Little Green Men” who took part in the annexation of Crimea. The VDV attempted to replicate this success in the early days of the Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022 and were met with the dire realities of modern air assault/airborne operations.
Sixty Miles to End the War: Market Garden, 1944
By the fall of 1944, the European Theater of Operations was one of burgeoning hope and optimism. The overall aim of the combined Market Garden operation (Market being the airborne element and Garden being the ground element) was to create an entrenched foothold into the Ruhr valley to enable destruction of the German industrial base, thereby diminishing Germany’s ability to make war and creating the conditions for a quick surrender by Christmas 1944. Supporting the airborne plan were the well-supplied and battle-tested Allied airborne divisions (the British 1st Airborne Division and the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions) and the Polish 1st Independent Airborne Brigade, a total of approximately forty-two thousand paratroopers. Garden’s units, aligned under the XXX Corps, consisted of ten motorized and armored brigades, numbering approximately fifty thousand men. Opposing them were nearly one hundred thousand German soldiers, including two Waffen-SS Panzer divisions being rearmed and refitted.
While initial airborne operations successfully captured key terrain and roadways, the inability of XXX Corps to conduct a quick linkup with the Allied airborne forces, combined with stiffer-than-expected German resistance, caused the overall plan to collapse. Market Garden has gone down in the annals of history as a bitter Allied loss, resulting in approximately sixteen thousand Allied casualties and delaying Allied plans to capture the Ruhr valley by at least seven months, resulting in several more tens of thousands of deaths.
Sixty Miles to End the War: Antonov Airport, 2022
The initial VDV assault into Antonov Airport consisted of approximately a company-sized element of three hundred light infantry soldiers with light antitank and modern assault rifles, supported by Ka-52 and Mi-8 helicopters for fire support and transport, respectively. The perceived aim of the assault was to create an air bridge for subsequent units of the VDV, notably those of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division from Pskov, Russia, to launch a rapid and sustained decapitation strike of the Ukrainian government to quickly end the war in Russia’s favor. Arrayed against them was the National Guard of Ukraine’s 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade, a combined arms force trained to NATO standards, which includes a tank battalion, an artillery battery, and an intelligence section with organic signals intelligence and unmanned aerial vehicles, in support of its two infantry battalions. The lack of air support, poor intelligence, and an inability to counter a combined arms attack ultimately spelled the doom of the operation and subsequently created the conditions wherein the Antonov Airport was rendered inoperable by the Ukrainians, meaning the VDV failed in its overall objective.
At the tactical level, both the Allies and Russians suffered from a failure to use intelligence appropriately. Both believed they were going against the decaying husks of beaten enemies. Despite an abundance of signals intelligence from the Ultra intercept program, Allied intelligence officers were unable to convince commanders of the dangers to the airborne forces posed by German troop strength. The Allies believed the Germans’ fighting spirit had been crushed in the summer offensives of 1944 out of the Normandy beachhead and all that remained was to crush the Ruhr industrial area and end Germany’s physical ability to make war. The Allied commanders believed the bulk of the German Army had moved into Germany and the area along the Market Garden route would be defended by the old, infirm, and Hitler Youth.
The Russian VDV’s perception of its enemy was similar. When interviewed, captured Russian soldiers stated they believed the Russian military would be welcomed as heroes by Ukrainians, who wanted a return to Russia, and were tired of a supposedly corrupt and Nazi-infested Ukrainian government.
Landing and Air Movement Plan
In 1944, the Allies controlled all the water crossings along the sixty-four-mile route for the Garden portion of Market Garden and were able to prevent any successful German counterattacks. The use of a daytime drop meant the Allied paratroopers were able to effectively and quickly mass at their specified drop zones and move to their D-Day objectives. The relative lack of concentrated enemy forces in the American 101st and 82nd sectors of operation were meant to be overcome on D+1 (the second day of the operation) by XXX Corps relieving their positions. The British and Polish airborne forces at the northern end of the sixty-mile penetration of Allied forces were ordered to hold out for ninety-six hours before they would be relieved by XXX Corps.
Despite their vaunted and historical use of parachutes to insert troops, commanders of the 11th Guards Air Assault Brigade used twenty to thirty-four Mi-8 assault transports escorted by Ka-52 attack helicopters for a morning landing. The Russians wanted to insert their desantniki (paratroopers) to create an air bridge for follow-on forces to be flown into the airport and quickly move twenty miles into the city center of Kyiv. Similarly, the aerial insertion of the Allies’ 1st Allied Airborne Army took place in the daytime, roughly around 1230–1400 for initial drops, and captured key terrain and bridges for follow-on forces of XXX Corps to flow through and break into the Ruhr.
Both operations were initially successful. By midmorning, Russian forces had secured the airfield and eighteen Il-76MD troop transports headed toward Kyiv after taking off from Pskov, Russia, base of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division. A CNN news crew even conversed with one of the VDV commanders on the airfield only thirty-six minutes after the first helicopters were spotted over the Dnieper River near the airfield. By noon, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed the airport was in Russian hands.
Defensive Actions on the Drop Zone
While surprise assaults are key for airborne and air assault forces, and daring will often initially carry the day, the professional airborne practitioner must also be prepared for the enemy’s reaction. The Allies were initially very successful in the Market portion of Market Garden, but the Garden portion only achieved half their anticipated distance on the first day. Meanwhile the Germans also quickly realized what was happening and what the Allies thought were defenders who were too old, young, or sick to effectively fight were actually two SS Panzer divisions. These battle-hardened German units immediately and viciously counterattacked, separating the lightly armed and hard-to-reinforce Allied paratroopers. The Germans isolated Allied units, destroying them using combined arms and armor to overwhelm the airborne light infantry.
At Antonov Airport, the Russians used the speed and surprise of their initial assault into Ukraine to give the VDV a psychological advantage and present the Ukrainians with a fait accompli. Russian planners, however, failed to account for the strong resistance encountered both en route to the airport and after its initial securing. Conducting a daylight attack enabled Russia to overcome a lack of night-vision equipment and increase coordination but also left Russian forces vulnerable to man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), resulting in the loss of two Ka-52 and three Mi-8 helicopters. Furthermore, the Ukrainians quickly determined the Russian plan and immediately counterattacked with the 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade of the Ukrainian National Guard with Su-24M attack aircraft for close air support. Despite Russian use of both rotary- and fixed-wing air support to counter the armored vehicles of the 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade, the Ukrainian counterattack was a success. Russian paratroopers were driven off the airfield and into the surrounding woods by 2200.
Finalizing the Operation and Securing the Drop Zone
When the Allies were unable to meet their key strategic objective of crossing the Rhine, they were left with an exposed salient sixty miles deep. The exposed salient left the Allies open to counterattacks that needed to be defended against and repelled. The requirement to defend the salient further slowed Allied momentum as troops were now tied to an ancillary area of the European theater. The aftermath of Market Garden and the many noted deficiencies in intelligence and leadership led to a further nine months of occupation of the Netherlands and an estimated sixteen thousand additional Dutch deaths.
After the Ukrainian’s successful counterattack, the Russians reattacked Antonov Airport the following day with a combined air and ground attack that succeeded in finally driving off the Ukrainian defenders. The Ukrainians were successful in preventing the airport’s use as an air bridge into Kyiv by destroying the runway and other facilities to prevent the landing of further Russian transports. The Ukrainians maintained pressure on the Russians in the surrounding area of Hostomel and repeatedly attacked Russian armored columns, blunting any chance of a quick strike emerging from the airfield into Kyiv. At the operational and strategic levels, the VDV’s inability to support a quick strike meant its forces were tied down for weeks until finally being withdrawn in early April.
In the analysis of Operation Market Garden and the assault on Antonov Airport, the similarities are quite telling and present a list of considerations for planners of vertical envelopment operations in the future. A lightly armed group of paratroopers can use speed and violence of action to force an enemy into capitulation, but they must have surprise on their side. FM 3-99, Airborne and Air Assault Operations states, “Tactical surprise and detailed planning should enable units to seize their assault objectives and to establish the airhead before the enemy has time to react in force.” The ability to understand the terrain, objectives, and supporting fires is critical in the time between first landings and reinforcements, when the assault is at the most vulnerable stage.
Before intelligence planning and equipment loadouts are to be considered, the mission has to be a sustainable one. Airborne forces are not designed to hold out for extended periods of time. The Market Garden operation was supposed to take forty-eight to ninety-six hours and the Antonov Airport assault ended up taking approximately the same amount of time. The physical distance between relieving forces and the air assault bridge needs to be considered. By understanding the potential obstacles and resistance to operations, the vertical envelopment plan can come to more realistic aims, increasing the chance of success. The air assault, be it by parachute or helicopter, puts the trooper in a very precarious position. It is incumbent on the paratrooper’s leadership to ensure the ways, means, and ends of an operation align and ensure no airport or bridge is too far.
Gunnery Sgt. Jeremy Kofsky is a Marine with small unit operational experience on five continents. He is currently a parachute operations staff noncommissioned officer in charge at II Marine Expeditionary Force aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: mil.ru