U.S. Special Forces soldiers will use military free-fall techniques “to mitigate anti-access and area-denial threat capabilities,” according to the latest issue of Special Warfare magazine, an official Army special operations publication. This is an interesting threat to single out as something for Special Forces free-fall teams to tackle, as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) is the strategy the Chinese intend to employ in the South China Sea and the Pacific in the event of a war against the United States.
Military free fall (MFF) is a term that actually encompasses two different, but related, capabilities. The first technique is High Altitude Low Opening (HALO), in which a parachutist in full combat gear jumps from an airplane at high altitudes while on oxygen and deploys his parachute around 4,000 feet above ground level (AGL).
The second technique, which is more practical for actual combat jumps, is High Altitude High Opening (HAHO). During a HAHO jump, the Special Forces soldier bails out of an aircraft at 30,000 feet, of course on oxygen or he would immediately asphyxiate, and deploys his parachute a few seconds after exiting the plane. Then, under canopy, he maneuvers his parachute across long distances (across an international border for example) to his drop zone. It is highly unlikely that he would be alone, as Special Forces teams almost always work in 12-man teams called Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) elements.
Special Forces pioneered MFF as an infiltration technique with Green Berets assigned to MACV-SOG making the first successful combat jumps in Vietnam. In later years, the real innovators of HALO and HAHO became JSOC’s two counterterrorism units, SEAL Team Six and Delta Force. As smaller, more specialized units, these counterterrorism operators were able to try new techniques, with less restrictions, but as the War on Terror expanded, Special Forces again got serious about what they needed to do to modernize their MFF course and make it applicable for real-world combat jumps.
For this reason, the Advanced Tactical Infiltration Course (ATIC) was stood up so that Green Berets could learn how to jump in full combat equipment—including helmet, night-vision goggles, plate carrier, and weapon—so they they would be ready to roll into combat immediately after hitting the ground. The oxygen system used was improved, and is now an “on-demand” system sort of like a SCUBA regulator rather than a mask that constantly emits O2. Special Forces soldiers would also train to land at night on unmarked drop zones, just as they would be doing in combat.
Special Forces is also interested in greatly expanding the military free fall basic course, eventually getting all Special Forces soldiers MFF qualified. Today, only one ODA in every six ODA Special Forces companies is MFF qualified and tasked with maintaining proficiency on the infiltration technique. As you can see from the graph below, Special Forces command would like to change this.
While the USASOC publication states that they want all Green Berets MFF qualified by 2017, this is simply an impossibility.
Currently, the JFK Special Warfare Center and School runs the MFF course out at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona where they run 14 classes a year, putting 52-54 personnel through each class. In October they will be shifting to a 20-classes-per-year model, one that will run about 60 students through each class. This will be accomplished by having every phase of the school occupied at all times, including ground week, wind-tunnel week, and jump week. The end state is to put 100 students through each MFF basic course class.
The conundrum is that you need more instructors to increase the size of the MFF course, but in order to have more instructors you need more soldiers to go to the jumpmaster and advanced MFF courses, but in order for that to happen you need more Green Berets in Special Forces who are actively jumping…and in order for that to happen you need more MFF qualified Green Berets. It becomes a situation where SF is kind of chasing their tails in an attempt to get the entire force MFF qualified.
Many question the logic behind qualifying all Green Berets in the first place. For starters, it sounds like a bit of a recruitment stunt to attract more soldiers to Special Forces. MFF is a clandestine infiltration technique for inserting small teams into denied areas. There is no reason for company, battalion, and group-size elements of Special Forces to be inserted by MFF. In a real-world shooting war, some ODAs will insert by MFF, some by static-line parachuting, and others by helicopter, truck, or some other unconventional means.
At the moment, Special Forces Groups don’t even have enough parachutes to support such an endeavor, nor is there a need. What would happen is that Special Forces candidates would go to the MFF course as a part of their initial training and then they would not maintain any proficiency on the infiltration technique while at their unit. Just because you have HALO wings on your uniform doesn’t mean you are prepared to conduct a night combat jump in full kit onto an unmarked drop zone; that takes extensive and continuous training.
A more realistic option may involve the new RA-1 parachute, which would allow for static-line HAHO jumps. Jumping the RA-1, soldiers would not have to learn how to actually free fall through the air. Their chute would deploy upon exiting the aircraft and they would then maneuver under canopy to the drop zone using a navigation board. Modern nav boards are now computerized, showing the jumpmaster the left and right limits he needs to stay in if he’s to make it to the drop zone. The screen also depicts the other jumpers as blue dots, showing exactly where they are; displays alternate drop zones; and current communications systems allow the jumpers to talk to one another while under canopy.
The RA-1 is an improvement upon the older MC-5 parachute in several notable ways. Made using a hybrid of porous and non-porous fabrics, it allows for almost double the amount of forward travel during HAHO jumps in comparison to the MC-5, meaning that jumpers can cover longer distances while under canopy than they could previously. The RA-1 is also more responsive when the jumper maneuvers using the toggles, and is more forgiving when jumpers make a misjudged flare attempt (pulling on their toggles to brake when coming in for a landing).
However, the RA-1 does have a few limitations. It has been deemed unsafe for door jumps, including from helicopters, restricting the number of platforms that ODAs can jump from with the RA-1. Aside from that, it could be problematic for Special Forces troops to be training in static line HAHO techniques and not learn how to “fly” in the air in free fall in the correct body position. What happens if they have a malfunction and/or have to cut away their main chute and pull their reserve?
The course instructors have made great strides in recent years, not just by standing up ATIC, but in expanding the course as much as they have. There are now several C-27J aircraft assigned to Yuma in addition to the usual C-130s that have been met with positive reviews from instructors. The instructors are also in the process of re-standing up the tandem jumper course. In the past, JSOC units have had to jump in interpreters and technical specialists who are not MFF qualified; Special Forces foresaw this becoming a problem they will have to deal with in the future as well.
Other improvements to the MFF course include consolidating all training at Yuma with the construction of a new wind tunnel capable of supporting eight jumpers in training simultaneously. Previously, the first week of MFF training was held at Ft. Bragg, where they have a wind tunnel, and then students were flown out to Yuma to conduct their jumps.
While it remains to be seen how MFF would be employed in the Pacific theater in the event of a war with China, it is interesting to see that defense planners and the SOF community are thinking about this problem set. HAHO would allow for a long range clandestine infiltration, but jumpers under canopy could also be detected by decent radar technicians. For this reason, HALO may again become the preferred infiltration method when, and if, America squares off against a sophisticated adversary.