September 19, 2011: Australia’s SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is taking control of army parachute units (actually, one parachute battalion), in recognition that it’s increasingly common for most parachute operations to be undertaken by special operations troops.
With this move, Australia is leading a growing trend to consider parachute troops as not just elite units, but ones that ought to be considered special operations quality. In practice, parachute troops have long been considered elite, just not quite “special operations” quality.
Then there’s the fact that parachute units are more expensive to train (a parachute school) and maintain (aircraft for periodic training jumps and addition medical expenses for jump related injuries, plus bonus pay for troops on jump status.) As a result of the cost, fewer and fewer parachute troops are in service. At the same time, special operations troops are more in demand, and more common. So now the Australians are one of the first to take the logical next step and merge parachute units into special operations forces.
Parachute troops are a relatively recent development. It was 71 years ago that 48 volunteers formed the U.S. Army Parachute Test Platoon. On August 16, 1940, they made their first mass jump. The exercise was considered a success. America went on to raise over 100,000 parachute and glider infantry (all volunteers) and formed five airborne divisions (11th, 13th, 17th, 82nd and 101st).
The parachute was nothing new in American history, the first jump was made (from a balloon) in 1819 (the earliest such jump was made in France in 1797). The first jump from an airplane was made by an American in 1912. The basic elements of combat jumps by infantry (using a rip cord) were developed and tested by Americans in 1919. Had World War I gone on an additional year, the first combat jump would have been over Germany, by American paratroopers. Instead, German paratroopers startled the world in May, 1940 when they dropped on an "impregnable" Belgium fortress and conquered it in hours. The U.S. Army noticed and went on to field the world's largest airborne force.
The first American combat jump was in North Africa in November, 1942. U.S. paratroopers went on to make a total of 93 combat jumps. Parachute infantry has rarely been used since World War II. The helicopter, first used at the end of World War II, had much to do with the decline of parachute forces. America still has the largest and most capable parachute forces (about two divisions worth, although only one complete airborne division.) The Russian airborne force is almost as large in personnel, but with a lower level of training and readiness.
Other nations have brigades or battalions of paratroopers, which serve mainly as elite infantry or commandos. In that role, American paratroopers have frequently been in combat, earning 70 Medals of Honor in the process. Other nations have had similar experiences, but have noted that the paratroopers rarely get to use their parachutes.
Australia SOCOM consists of several hundred elite SAS commandoes and about a thousand highly trained airborne troops in six commando companies (somewhat similar to the nine ranger companies in the U.S. 75th Ranger Regiment.) The parachute battalion from the army could easily be converted to another three companies of airborne commandos.