by Lieutenant-Colonel Bernd Horn

The Canadian airborne experience is very polemic. On one end are the dedicated, intrepid individuals who chose, and continue to serve as paratroopers. These are men who, rightly or wrongly, see in the maroon beret a sense of challenge, the pursuit of excellence in soldiering, and a mission before self credo. To Canada’s airborne soldiers it has always been a case of mind over matter – the achievement of a given task at any and all costs. They not only internalized the airborne mystique but often sought to personify it. Not surprisingly, service in an airborne unit was not just another posting. It was the acceptance of a particular way of thinking, if not a distinct way of life. It entailed pushing oneself to the extreme, both mentally and physically. It also encompassed a zealous belief in not letting down the team. Physically fit, aggressive, highly skilled, tenacious, and certainly confident – not surprisingly, Canada’s paratroopers have always represented the army’s premier warriors.

Ironically, this has never been enough. On the other extremity, the Canadian airborne experience has been one of political expediency and hostage to the privileged domain of those in power. Quite simply, despite the best efforts of the individual paratroopers and the capability they represented, the Canadian attitude to airborne forces has always been schizophrenic and driven by political purpose rather than by operational necessity. The lack of a consistent and clearly identified role for paratroopers in Canada has led to a roller coaster existence, dependent on personalities in power and political expedients of the day. This state of affairs ultimately led to the demise of the Canadian Airborne Regiment in 1995, and is the reason that the nation’s current airborne capability is shrouded by uncertainty, its survival hanging by a thread.

But this is not new. It is not the fault of the current or previous government or regime in National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ). Rather it is representative of the nation’s historic perception of airborne forces. Quite simply, Canada’s military and political leadership have never believed that they represented a credible national requirement. Canadian paratroopers, with the exception of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion which was attached to a British Airborne Division during World War II, have never been used for what they were meant for. Airborne troops are specially organized, equipped and trained for delivery by airdrop or air-landing into an area to seize objectives or conduct special operations. Their greatest strength is that they provide a rapid reaction and strategic power projection capability. Although important to “Great Powers” such as Britain, France, the former Soviet Union and the United States, as well as some middle-power countries, airborne forces have never been important to Canada. For many clearly understandable reasons, speed of action and rapid deployment have rarely been demanded by Canadian governments. For them, the requirement for time to ready one’s forces is an excellent means to allow an ill-defined but potentially explosive situation to crystallize, if not dissipate. Furthermore, it takes fewer resources to follow a beaten path than it does to break trail. One need only look at the historical record to see this verity. Canada’s airborne experience spans a period of over sixty years. Throughout that entire period it was mired in confusion, debate and animosity. Canada’s political leaders and military commanders repeatedly took an irresolute approach to the requirement for airborne forces. The decision to establish a Canadian parachute capability was initially rejected in 1940 because there was a widespread belief amongst army commanders that no visible role for these special troops existed and that any attempt to create such a force would only siphon away scarce resources from the rest of the army. The idea was accepted two years later, but only because the concept had been categorically accepted by Canada’s Allies. In fact, the Americans and British were beginning to define, justifiably or not, airborne forces as representative of a modern offensive army. Not to be left behind, Canada’s senior military commanders now pushed the Minister of National Defence (MND) for just such a capability. Simply put, to be in the club, you had to be a player. Canada’s army now scrambled to meet the ante. And so the growing Allied interest in paratroopers provided the catalyst for the establishment of a Canadian parachute battalion, which later served with distinction during the conflict, but was quickly disbanded at the end of the war.

At the cessation of hostilities in 1945, the money conscious Canadian government realized that the public was weary of war and now looked for a government agenda that focussed on economic and social issues, most notably to improve their standard of living. As such the post war army was to be anything but extravagant and paratroopers were initially seen as exactly that. Not surprisingly, the latent ambivalence to parachute troops resurfaced and the debate on the requirement for airborne forces was once again fraught with hesitation and indecision. Although attitudes had not advanced, the world had. The mercurial change in technology during World War II, particularly jet aircraft and nuclear weapons, shattered the traditional dependence many nations, especially Canada, placed on geography for security. Moreover, this predicament was exacerbated by the emergence of two rival superpowers that sandwiched the Dominion between them. Of even greater concern, was the realization that the Americans viewed Canada as an exposed flank. During this period, American apprehension for the security of the North was matched only by Ottawa’s concern over Canadian sovereignty, especially in the northern reaches. It was not lost on the nation’s politicians that to keep the Americans out of Canada’s North, the Government must show not only an intent, but also a capability of guarding the back door to the continent. And so, the ill-defined threat to the North, a seemingly paranoid giant to the South, and a tight-fisted government that traditionally held the military in disdain, now merged to create favourable conditions for a resurgence of paratroopers in Canada.

It was not lost on the Canadian government that airborne forces provided a convenient solution to their dilemma. To politicians paratroopers represented a propitious, as well as viable, force that was theoretically capable of responding to any hostile incursion into the Arctic that threatened Canada, or more importantly the United States. However, for the government, they also represented an inexpensive means of safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty.

This political reality laid the foundation in the immediate post war period for the reconstitution of an airborne force, namely, the Mobile Striking Force (MSF). In 1948, official Department of National Defence (DND) statements attributed to the MSF a ‘coiled-spring’ lethality. The truth, however, was substantially different. In the acid test of the real world it became evident that the Mobile Striking Force was a ‘paper tiger.’

The Army leadership consciously maintained this state of affairs. Perhaps realizing that the government was supportive of airborne forces not for the sake of their operational effectiveness but rather for the perceived capability that paratroopers represented, some military commanders who were themselves not enthusiastic about parachute troops began to redirect the MSF from its original mandate. Not surprisingly, throughout its existence, the MSF was chronically starved of qualified manpower, supporting aircraft, and training exercises. Furthermore, its units were habitually confronted with different priorities, ones that were not ideally suited to the efficient use of airborne forces. Activities such as preparing recruits for the Korean conflict or conducting ‘all-arms combined training’ for the NATO European battlefield consistently took precedence over the stated purpose of the MSF which was the “Defence of Canada.”

The actual military and political indifference to Canada’s airborne forces became even more evident in the early 1950s with the changing threat to the North. The inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) radically transformed the nature of the danger to North America. The eclipse of the manned bomber threat over the polar icecap changed the importance of the Canadian North. It was no longer a route of invasion or possible staging area. Quite simply, to the United States it now became merely strategic depth. Predictably, American interest in the Canadian Arctic swiftly dissipated. And so too, did Canadian activity and concern for its northern territory.

The effect of this strategic shift on the nation’s airborne forces was capacious. Already neglected and starved, the airborne capability was further crippled by a restructuring that took the form of decentralized parachute companies. These were maintained only within the various infantry regiments. Quite clearly the intent was only to keep the skill alive, but just barely.

This reorganization from “airborne battalions” to “jump companies” in 1958, represented the official demise of the MSF. It was representative of the questionable importance both the political and military leadership placed on airborne forces. Collectively, the respective parachute sub-units were now designated the Defence of Canada Force (DCF) to underline their “special” role. The continued charade of maintaining a force of paratroops was simply a function of the existing joint security arrangements between Canada and the United States for the defence of North America. For Canada, airborne forces remained the sop to keep the Americans appeased. For many in the government and in the conventional circles of the military the facade of existence is what mattered. Their ability to respond to a threat, which was largely chimerical in any case, was not deemed important. For them airborne forces represented a classic political expedient.

But, once again the shifting global geo-political situation seemingly saved the nation’s premier combat soldiers. As the northern threat in Canada receded, a new menace emerged elsewhere in the world. During the late-1950s and early-1960s an international explosion of nationalistic movements and political unrest occurred. “Brush-fire” conflicts, insurgencies, and wars of national liberation flared-up around the globe. The Canadian government, still ecstatic over its new-won international role as a result of its diplomatic and military success in the outcome of the 1956 Suez Crisis, quickly supported the concept of rapid deployable forces under United Nations (UN) auspices. Four years later, the emergency in the Belgian Congo reinforced the apparent need for international forces that could deploy quickly to avert the potential escalation of regional conflicts into superpower confrontations.

At the same time, as a result of the changing international security environment, the Americans embarked on a program to better address the ‘spectrum of conflict’ with which they were now faced. They understood that their existing force structure was not adequate to deal with “limited wars” in distant lands. Therefore, the Pentagon now stressed greater strategic mobility. In addition, they expanded their Special Forces to deal with the proliferation of guerilla type conflict and they developed an airmobile capability to provide greater tactical mobility.

Predictably, the Canadian political and military leadership followed suit. By 1964, the blueprint for a revitalized Canadian Army was based on the concept of a truly mobile force capable of quick reaction and global reach. Pivotal to this vision was an airborne element that could provide the country with a strategic reserve capable of quick reaction and worldwide deployment. Four years later this vision crystalized in the form of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. Its creation was undeniably forged from the passion and high ideals of a few key military commanders, and supported by the MND. Nonetheless, by the late-1970s it suffered from the same ailment as that of its predecessors. The larger military establishment and the army in particular, never fully accepted the designated role given to the Canadian Airborne Regiment. The paratroopers’ mandate was as elusive as it was inclusive. There existed a wide variance in its stated purpose. Its role was described in briefings and official releases as everything from an international “fire-brigade,” a national strategic reserve, a stop-gap to buy time for heavier mechanized reinforcements to deploy to Europe, to an UN ready force. As an afterthought, political and military planners also claimed that the Canadian Airborne Regiment was ideally suited for Defence of Canada Operations (DCO). Moreover, the Regiment, as well as the Army Commander at the time of its inception, also believed they had a Special Forces function to fulfill. The fact that each one of its multiplicity of roles was mutually exclusive was simply ignored by nearly everyone.

In the end, the inability to fully rationalize the role, structure, and relevancy of the Canadian Airborne Regiment led to its eventual demise. The cracks in its foundation became evident early on. During the seventies the Airborne Regiment’s existence was marked by constantly changing priorities in both relevancy and role. In a period of about eight years it went from an independent formation tasked as the national strategic reserve to simply another “conventional” unit within an existing brigade. It became the target of continual malevolent debate within the army and the hostage to the predilection of those in power. As a result, its strength, both in terms of manpower and organizational integrity, was insidiously whittled away.

By the 1980s, the lack of a clear, credible and accepted requirement for Canadian airborne forces proved to be a difficult obstacle to overcome. The entire Canadian Armed Forces underwent a crisis of self-definition, exacerbated, if not caused, by the political decision to ease away from Europe and pursue different foreign policy goals. This was manifested by shrinking budgets and declining manpower levels. As the scalpel continued to shave the “fat from the bone” the Airborne Regiment found it increasingly difficult to convince its political and military masters of its relevance. Furthermore, the more its advocates attempted to prove its utility, by assigning it new tasks or reinitiating old ones, the more they highlighted its greatest weakness. It had no credible or consistent role that made it indispensable. This had a catastrophic impact and initiated a vicious turn of events. The continuing erosion of organizational status and support was mirrored by a decrease in postings to the Regiment of the vital experienced leaders and soldiers from the other regiments who were responsible for feeding the Canadian Airborne Regiment with talent. The end result was nothing less than the demise of the Regiment itself.

This time the changing environment in which the paratroopers found themselves in was not advantageous to their fortunes. The incessant proposals for the downsizing and complete disbandment of the various parachute units were always presence throughout the entirety of the Canadian airborne experience. But by the early-1990s budgetary pressures and fiscal restraints persistently raised the question of affordability. Justifiably, the query, “why do we need airborne forces” was routinely advanced. However, now, circumstance and dire necessity gave the recurring question a cutting edge. This became glaringly evident in the 1994 White Paper that signaled the most recent, as well as most serious eclipse of the national airborne capability. The document’s emphasis on generic multipurpose combat capable forces, extenuated by the conspicuous absence of any reference to airborne or parachute organizations or troops, cleared the way for an eventual dismemberment of the last vestiges of the country’s airborne structure. Quite simply, an assessment to collapse this capability can now be taken without contradicting the existing government mandated Defence Policy.

In the end, the highly publicized torture killing of a teenager in Somalia by paratroopers in 1993, the resultant scandal that rocked the highest echelons of NDHQ, as well as the release of disgusting hazing videos that implicated one of the Airborne Regiment’s commandos, all set in a climate of enormous fiscal restraint and political turmoil, finally gave enough momentum to those who believed there was no need for a viable airborne capability. Against this backdrop, the Canadian Airborne Regiment was disbanded in March 1995.

This event was significant in the context of the national airborne experience because once again the nation’s airborne capability became nothing but a hologram. The decentralized parachute capability, housed once more within the framework of “parachute companies” of the Light Infantry Battalions (LIBs), once again became but a mere shell. The rekindled “jump companies” provide nothing more than the facade of a parachute option. They clearly do not represent a viable airborne force. They symbolize only an attempt to keep the individual but not collective skill alive until something else happens requiring such capabilities. In fact, airborne operations have been renounced. The capability requirement now is defined as merely parachute insertion into a benign environment.

But the absence of a clear and prevalent role for paratroopers in the Canadian context was not the only impediment to the acceptance of airborne forces. Often, or quite frankly, normally, conventional military minds spurn the distinct, special or unique. Military practise and tradition enshrines the notion of uniformity. Resistance to the concept of an elite, as the Canadian Airborne Regiment was, rightly or wrongly, often referred to, is prevalent not only in the military but also in society at large. Canadians, at least in theory, like to think of themselves as just and egalitarian. Moreover, they do not abide special status. Therefore, the perception of paratroopers as a group above the rest created enmity.

Ironically, this hostility borne from the perception of special status, and to a degree envy was difficult to mitigate. Quite simply, paratroopers have invariably represented the best of the country’s combat soldiers. They reflected a distinct warrior caste. They were widely recognized as the more adventurous, aggressive, motivated, physically fit, and tough soldiers in the Army. Their “can-do / anything is possible” attitude became a central tenet of their philosophy. Their strength, however, was also their greatest weakness. The camaraderie, forged in the furnace of shared hardship and hazard, developed a tightly knit fraternity that welcomed fellow “jumpers” from all nations, but treated their non-airborne compatriots with an aloofness that invited rancor. This animosity often fueled the malevolent debate that invariably swirled around the question of the relevance of airborne forces.

Nonetheless, as the Canadian Forces (CF) enters the new millennium it retains its skeletal parachute capability. Although sacrilege to airborne supporters, the reality is that Canada’s airborne forces, with the exception of the World War II experience, have never been required to perform a task that could not, and was not, performed by more conventional units within the same time-frame. Operationally speaking, the absence of an airborne force would not seriously impact on the ability of the CF to carry out its mandate. Nevertheless, the debate is not so easily resolved. The relevance of a parachute capability is deeply rooted in the intangible benefits derived from training for airborne operations. Firstly, it provides a challenge for those individuals who strive to test themselves and achieve a level of soldiering beyond that offered by the more regular conventional units. As such, the demanding and hazardous nature of airborne soldiering provides a ‘leadership nursery’ effect that allows the experiences and skill developed to be cross-pollinated to the other units. It is also a vehicle for testing the courage, endurance, as well as mental and physical stamina of soldiers in a peacetime environment. American research has shown its importance. Retention rates for personnel in Special Operations Force type units surpassed that of more conventional organizations. This in fact was one of the very reasons that the former Army Commander and later Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jean Victor Allard, argued so passionately for the establishment of a centralized airborne regiment in the mid-sixties.

The existence of an airborne capability is also critical to the Army in regards to unity. The nation’s parachute organizations have overwhelmingly encapsulated Canada’s cultural mosaic, particularly, in regards to Anglophone and Francophone personnel. This provided the vehicle to promote and enhance cultural awareness, as well as establish personal ties that individuals would take back with them on return to their parent units. In short, it was a shared experience, a common bond, which united all those who answered the call to serve.

Finally, the existence of paratroopers allows the Canadian military to remain a member of the international club. This provides for the continuing exchange of ideas and personnel with foreign airborne units and Special Operations Forces. Although commonly dismissed as irrelevant, the long-term effects cannot be ignored. Membership to the club enhances links to applicable Research and Development, operational compatibility in coalition operations, and to professional contacts beneficial for future activities. Furthermore, it promotes goodwill and a sound partnership with the country’s allies. Although, exchanges between more conventional units will continue to exist, Canada will become shut out in the realm of Special Operations Forces. Significantly, this niche, within Land Forces world-wide, has seen the greatest growth and employment since the late-eighties. Conversely, the absence of these links will eventually relegate the institution to an isolated military backwater of little interest or knowledge to other forces.

Clearly, the relevance of an airborne capability is not easily dismissed. Its demise would be a serious psychological and symbolic loss for the Army. Paradoxically, although often viewed as outcasts and pariahs, Canada’s paratroopers have always represented the best combat soldiers this country has been able to offer. Renown for their courage, initiative, physical prowess, and indomitable spirit, the nation’s paratroopers have always represented the proficiency of the Canadian Army.

Lieutenant-Colonel Bernd Horn is the Commanding Officer of the First Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment and an adjunct professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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