Airborne AFVs

Almost a decade ago I looked closely at what would be an ideal airborne AFV (armoured fighting vehicle). The inspiration was the Russian BMD series of the VDV.

The classic employment of forces with such vehicles would be to land and then race to capture and defend some logistical hub for reinforcements (or a base) - such as a bridge (Arnhem scenario), airfields (Crete scenario) or a port.
They should also be capable as a theatre-wide reserve that simply gets dropped into a local land war crisis, to reinforce the tip of an offensive or to quickly block the escape (or advance) of hostile forces.

Russian airborne troops in combined arms attack exercise
Most Western airborne forces are far away from such capabilities. They lack armour support, motorised mobility and their artillery and mortar components are no match for a conventional brigades' fire support. They're typically just light infantry formations. Their utter lack of organic combined arms capability is seriously restricting their utility, but it's at least an "airborne on the cheap" approach.

A mechanised airborne force has many other advantages over a largely foot-mobile force, too: It can drop far from its objective(s) because of its high speed march capability. the ability to move quickly with some degree of protection also allows it to break out of encirclement or simply withdraw in face of overwhelming opposing forces.

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Germany has no regular infantry brigade and uses its mountain and airborne infantry brigades as regular infantry instead. Their Wiesel vehicles are nothing but barely bulletproof weapons carriers.

U.S. airborne forces have been used as regular infantry or as low logistical footprint quick (air-lift) deployment force (such as in the opening days of Desert Shield '90) for two decades - much like the British and French ones. The Russian airborne forces serve as a national quick reaction force for the whole, incredibly huge Russia (and CIS!), but they have roots in a quite ambitious and aggressive concept.

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There's such a thing as an international consensus that large-scale, Crete-style airborne operations are very, very unlikely in the future. There was a surprising quantity of combat jumps in the post-WW2 period, though. A recent example is the air-drop of commando companies in Sri Lanka's civil war.

Invasion of Crete. Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-0864 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA

That didn't deter me from looking at the equipment problem of large-scale offensive airborne ops when I was still more interested in hardware than in the "what to do" and "how to do it".

My basic conclusion at the time was that the risk of the air drop (about a tenth of the equipment can be expected to get lost in accidents and screw-ups and problems may reduce the properly landed force to any percentage!) was an important factor.
Such an air assault force had to be able to compensate for almost any loss of capabilities. Redundancy and versatility were required - no specialised vehicles would be acceptable.
The Russians probably thought the same when they gave the BMD-4 the BMP-3's weaponry of 100mm gun, 30mm autocannon and coaxial machine gun.

I was never a fan of this kind of armament, though. Instead, I would combine a French 81mm turret mortar (MCB 81) with a 12.7 mm coax machine gun. This would allow for direct  AND indirect high explosive (fragmentation) and red phosphorous (incendiary smoke + some illumination) fires and also for direct rapid fire against thinly armoured vehicles and soft targets.

AMX10-PAC with MCB 81 (81.4 mm gun-mortar)

The Russian approach seems to aim more against AFVs and doesn't meet an indirect fire requirement. The availability of portable high performance AT weapons lets me believe that no such emphasis on AFV vs AFV combat is necessary. Instead, it can be a capability of some or all dismount elements.

This dismount element could be a small (7) squad with very versatile training and equipment.

Such a light airborne AFV (similar to BMD) with substantial fire support capabilities could turn airborne infantry battalions into combined arms battalions. It wouldn't meet the current "mine resistant vehicle" fashion, but that wouldn't be a significant problem in the envisaged airborne mission profiles. The airborne troops can still trade their vehicles for mine-protected trucks if they're sent to a stupid, mine-infested war.

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My more recent thoughts on operational art don't include such an airborne combined arms regiment. It looks like a non-essential luxury to me now (and I wasn't sure about its necessity back then).

I remember this concept as the one and only exception of my general, strong distaste for turreted mortars (= very expensive, bulky, high and heavy mortar installations in comparison to solutions such as CARDOM). This one time I weighed the versatility advantage of the turret heavier than its extra price tag.


edit 2010-12: http://www.sinodefence.com/army/armour/zlc2000.asp



  1. Agree with your thoughts from 10 years ago. And it's not a luxury capability! It's the logical evolution of "Bewegungskrieg".

    Thing is, that the U.S. is unable of Bewegungskrieg, and actually stuck somewhere in the 1920's. And the U.S. dominate Western military thinking. Besides that, nobody else in the West has enough C-130 to actually do "Mech AirCav" assaults.

    There are no real cavalry forces in the West any more. There is nothing between mech-armor and mot/light infantry. This also has to do with the tribal structure of the U.S. forces, that effectively make close air-ground coordination, real airmobile/airborne troops which heavily depend on constant aerial support, an impossibility. This is also one of the major f***-ups of the whole forcible entry capability of the U.S. forces.

    U.S. helicopter cavalry is a joke, reaching back to their origins in Vietnam. Read about Lam Son 719. Nothing changed since.

    The VDV is impressive. And the whole concept is studiously ignored in the West.

  2. It's interesting to read this after reading your essays about IFV's, in which you argued that the IFV's biggest weakness is it tries to be everything at once and that more specialized vehicles would be more effective. Here, you seem to be arguing in favor of a jack-of-all-trades vehicle.

    That said, I agree with you in both cases. An airborne division and a heavy armored division have very different roles, and it makes sense to approach their vehicles in different ways leading to different conclusions.

    I was just wondering what your thoughts would be on how this proposal for an airborne AFV/IFV would compare with conventional heavy division vehicles.

    1. Airborne armour should be useful for overrunning rear area troops (bridges, airfields, depots, railhead, harbours, capital guard battalion and the like).
      The American AGS is a fire support vehicle which doesn't really suit this, and generally most vehicle concepts don't.
      Air drop capacity is expensive, so budget vehicles such as the cheap APCs I would like to see in service would be wasteful.
      The light weight adds a unique set of restrictions, which leads to a different trade-off optimum.

      A comparison with regular armour is pointless because a replay of Arnhem (paras vs. tank division) would be doomed without an overmatch of air support anyway.