AvStop Magazine Online
Section II. LIMITATIONS OF AIRBORNE OPERATIONS
First of all, it should be remembered that airborne operations are governed by the same strategic and tactical principles that apply to any envelopment or flanking movement. A correct evaluation of the terrain and the time element, the ratio of friendly and enemy forces as well as the proper depth of attack in proportion to the available troops, the concentration of forces in a main effort and arrangements for containing the enemy at other points, the elements of surprise and deception-all have to be weighed and taken into account just as carefully as in ground operations. Consequently, they do not have to be discussed in further detail at this point.
The new element in airborne operations is the peculiarity of the approach via the third dimension, that is, by air. The accompanying difficulties as well as advantages should therefore be analyzed with particular care and must be taken into account in an evaluation of the above-mentioned factors.
In the main, this new method of attack by air gives rise to the following difficulties:
1. The forces employed for air landings are highly vulnerable while they are on the approach route. This necessitates control of the air along the entire route, from the take-off points up to and including the landing area. Apart from other factors, the geographic limits of the area in which the attacker enjoys air supremacy determine the depth of a large-scale airborne operation.
2. An air landing, more so than any operation on the ground, is a thrust into unknown territory. The conventional means of reconnaissance and sources of information offer inadequate results and require a great deal of time. From the moment the airborne troops land, they face surprises against which they are not protected by advance reconnaissance and security measures and from which they are no longer able to escape. Consequently, every airborne operation involves a greater risk than ordinary ground combat, requires more time for preparation, and entails a distinct moment of weakness during the first phase of landing.
3. After the initial landing the fighting strength and mobility of airborne forces depend on their chances for resupply by air. It will no doubt be possible to improve the purely technical facilities available for this purpose. In this respect the military planners need not be afraid of asking too much from the men who are responsible for research and development. The really decisive factor is whether the military situation in the air permits the air transport of supplies. Just how far the attacker's air supremacy can be extended, not only in space but also in time, is a fundamentally important question.
Another vital consideration is the time interval until contact with friendly ground troops can and must be established. The proper evaluation of these possibilities will always be the determining factor for the extent and scope of airborne operations and hence for the selection of suitable objectives as well. These difficulties are not insurmountable. They will be overcome by technical progress, organization and training of the forces, and proper tactical and strategic commitment, always of course within reasonable limits and with the necessary prerequisites.
4. However, there is one unalterable difficulty-the inflexibility of an airborne operation at the time of execution. Once the plan has been decided upon and the operation has been set into motion, the entire action necessarily has to unfold according to schedule. The only control the high command can still exercise is through the commitment of its reserves. The initiative exercised by intermediate and lower echelons, which in ordinary ground combat assures flexibility of adjustment to the existing situation and which in the German Army was particularly stressed as a vital combat requirement, is largely eliminated during airborne operations. It cannot begin to take effect until an attack is launched from the captured airhead.
Only in part can these deficiencies be offset by careful and detailed preparations, which take time, and by committing even greater quantities of troops and materiel, which again proves that airborne warfare is a "rich man's" weapon. [Field Marshal Kesselring's comments on the inflexibility of airborne operations: I do not agree that airborne operations are absolutely tied to a fixed schedule and are therefore too rigid in their execution. Naturally, an airborne operation executed according to plan will be assured the greatest probability of success. Should the situation require a sweeping change in plans, however, this can be carried out by signal communications from ground to air and between the flying formations.
This will require the preparation of alternate plans and intensive training of the units. Formations on the approach flight can be recalled or can be ordered to land at previously designated alternate fields. This is less complicated in the case of later serials. In my opinion such changes can be carried out more easily in the air than on the ground. In land warfare, once large formations are committed in a certain direction toward a definite objective, major and minor changes involve equal difficulties. There is no reason why this should be any different in an airborne operation.]