After more than five decades of service and but a single call to combat, the Israeli army has decided, amid budgetary constraints, to replace the parachutes of old with a new US-made model.
The T-11, known as the Stork in Israel, is non-steerable, like its predecessor, but its square canopy allows it to carry more weight while offering a gentler landing – a feature that, several hundred thousand Israeli paratroopers can attest, was sorely lacking in the previous model. It was first used in a training course earlier this month and will serve the Paratrooper Brigade from the November 2014 class forward.
“Our goal is to parachute a large troop force, quickly, into a certain area,” the commander of the IDF’s jump school, Maj. Elad Grossman, told the army weekly magazine Bamahane last week. “And the new Stork parachute allows that to happen within the shortest amount of time and with the greatest degree of secrecy.”
The new parachute has many advantages over the earlier Tzabar model. It can be deployed from a plane moving at a greater speed, meaning that the bulky Hercules cargo plane used for these missions — an easy target for modern anti-aircraft missiles — will spend less time over enemy soil. It also comes with a reserve chute that can be opened with either hand — the Tzabar was right hand only, which presented a problem in the event of, say, a broken arm — and that pops open far from the body, reducing the chances of entanglement with the main chute. And there is a built-in slider that keeps the cords from twisting beneath the canopy, a common problem with the old model.
And yet, some 59 years after the IDF’s last combat deployment of troops by parachute, there is little proof that paratroopers are needed on the modern battlefield.
Jump back in time
The first person to fathom modern airborne troops, Benjamin Franklin, was inspired by a hot air balloon ascension in 1783. He deemed the invention a “new turn in human affairs,” which might “convince sovereigns of the folly of wars.” His reasoning, penned in a 1784 letter, was that 5,000 balloons, carrying two men each, would cost less than five ships and would devastate an enemy.
“Where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense, so that ten thousand men descending from the clouds might not, in many places, do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?” he wondered.
Some 156 years later, in April 1940, German Fallschirmjäger troops put the theory to a test, parachuting into Denmark and Norway, and, later, Holland. The Allies reciprocated with an array of airborne assaults. The results were mixed. The novelty faded along with the element of surprise; the price in blood was often high.
The Zionist enterprise, though, as the genocide in Europe reached its final and feverish stage, sent 39 of its best men and women to be trained and airlifted by the British into Nazi-occupied Europe.
Of those, 26 were deployed, often in their native lands; seven were discovered and killed, either by execution or in death camps. Most prominent among them, at least in death, was Hannah Senesh, who was tortured and killed by the Gestapo in Hungary but whose legend played an outsized role in the formation of the Zionist fighting and literary ethos.
In June 1948, just one month after Israel’s Declaration of Independence and amid an ongoing war, the newly formed IDF, impressed with the heroism of the WWII paratroopers and perhaps willfully ignorant of the mixed results, sent a batch of 50 paratroopers to Czechoslovakia; they were trained there, with Israeli pilots, and then flown to an Israeli air base, Tel Nof, where they were dropped from the sky.
The glory days, however, came under the command of Ariel Sharon, culminating in an October 29, 1956, jump, during the soft darkness of evening, when 395 paratroopers were dropped deep in the Sinai desert, some 150 miles into Egyptian territory.
Since then, the paratroopers have managed to liberate the Western Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem (1967), and led the counterattack across the Suez Canal (1973) and pushed north, through the mountainous route, to reach Beirut first during the Lebanon War (1982). But neither the conscripted brigade nor its reserves brigades were ever called on again to parachute behind enemy lines, and many believe they never will be.
“Operationally speaking, the aerial flanking maneuver – the leapfrog over the enemy – is done today by helicopter, which is faster and more flexible,” said Brig. Gen. (ret) Uzi Eilam, who joined the first paratroop battalion, 890, in 1954, served in the 1956 Suez War in Motta Gur’s battalion, which did not jump, and went on to head the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Ministry’s R&D department.
“In terms of morale, it remains important,” he added. “That’s one of the ways the brigade draws quality individuals.”
Col. (ret) Gabi Siboni, a former head of the Golani Brigade’s recon unit and a close friend of the incoming chief of the General Staff, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, also of the Golani Brigade, refused to make explicit his opinion of the investment in paratroops in this day and age, but his intent was clear.
“As a common Golanchik,” the head of the INSS think tank’s military and strategic affairs program said, “you can just imagine what I think of the entire parachute apparatus.”
The paratroopers’ military capacity as an airborne unit has always been to deliver large forces, if necessary, far behind enemy lines. During the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein’s troops fired missiles at Israel from western Iraq, Israel contemplated dropping paratroopers into the region, the late Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron revealed in a 1999 Israel Air Force magazine article. He did not elaborate, saying the plans may be needed in the future.
But the main reason that that option was not exercised, aside from the obvious commitments to the allied force, was the same as it always is: the troops are easily spotted upon arrival, the planes are susceptible to surface-to-air missiles, and the troops can only jump with limited supplies, necessitating a re-supply run, and they are not protected by armor or artillery.
Today, more than ever before, there is an aircraft capable of replacing the paratrooper. The V-22 Osprey takes off and lands like a helicopter – vertically – and can fly, by tilting its rotors, as far and as fast as a cargo plane, which has a range that far exceeds a traditional helicopter.
In 2013, the US cleared the sale of six Ospreys to Israel, the first to a foreign country, for roughly $400 million in aid money. In October 2014, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon reportedly decided to cancel the still-unsigned agreement.
The army did not respond to a request for an estimate of the total annual cost of running its parachute training course – the chutes, instructors, parachute packers, base and, especially, air time involved.
“Operationally, the chances of using paratroopers dwindles with every passing year,” Maj. Gen. (ret) Yoram Yair told the IAF publication. But certain things, he said, have the “added value” of tradition and carry the mark of excellence, which helps the army maintain its hierarchy of units.
The central reason for continuing with parachute training, though, may not relate solely to budgetary concerns, tradition or prestige. An IAF colonel, unidentified in the article, submitted that a young soldier placed at the open door of an airplane and told to jump into the cold wind is left with a lasting impression.
“I’ve been in the IDF for nearly 30 years and fought in several wars,” he said, “and I don’t know of anything as similar to the order to get up and charge the enemy as the situation at the door of the plane, when they say ‘jump!’ and you hop out.”