I’ve coma across a report that lists some of the reasons for this failure. First, the Impro Rig Mk I still had a few known issues but the impact of that was pretty minor. Second, there was only time for limited training before deployment. Several of the paratroopers later reported that they were not 100% confident in the usage of the rigs. Third, in order to maintain the tactical advantage of the rigs, the Impro technology was to be kept secret from the Chinese at all cost, so soldiers were not allowed to dump the rigs in the field. This meant they were fighting at a lowered capacity. The leadership even ordered that the rigs of injured or fallen soldiers be retrieved – the implication being that the injured men might be left behind. I find that last part to be really infuriating. During training we get told that it’s not always possible to rescue injured soldiers on the battle field. I get that it might pose too much of a risk, but to prioritize some piece of equipment over saving a comrade’s life is complete bullshit. Luckily that requirement was quickly scrapped when the officers in charge realized it would only cost more lives.

Fourth, it seems the brass had somehow failed to consider something that any half-decent soldier should know: on the battle field things don’t always go as planned. In a couple of cases the VTOLs were unable to come down for pick-up due enemy anti-aircraft capabilities, and in others the fighting on the ground simply went on for longer than expected. The overall result was that soldiers ran low on ammunition and other supplies; some even reported ditching their service rifles and picking up enemy AKs. The fifth, and most critical, thing that went wrong is that the brass overestimated the tactical advantage offered by the Impro Rigs. Initially the airborne troopers where successful but the Chinese quickly learned to target the VTOLs and as the battle raged on in the streets of Taipei, both sides fighting fiercely for each block, it became apparent that fully equipped regular soldiers were simply more effective than the airborne men carrying their clunky Impro Rigs.

Drawing from the lessons learned in Taiwan, command revised the way Airborne Infantry works. Aside from better equipment and better training, the most obvious improvements were to let the men dump the rigs once they were on the ground – the strategists deemed that it was the chemical formula for the foam which was secret, not the rigs themselves – and to come up with a system to resupply the troops in the field. Each VTOL was initially designed to take a squad of ten soldiers including the squad leader. Our squad size has decreased to eight people, while the space for the ninth and tenth men is now taken up by a special drop safe capsule that gets loaded with eight fully packed infantry backpacks plus as much spare ammo as will fit. After dropping off the squad, the VTOL will retreat up to a safe height and wait there. On a given signal from the squad leader, the VTOL will then make a sweep down and drop the capsule. This allows the people on the ground to resupply and be ready to continue fighting within minutes.

The biggest change however, was adjusting the Airborne Infantry’s role within the military organization. The battle of Taipei showed that against well equipped and well organized enemies, ordinary mechanized infantry is better suited as frontline troops.  Analysts came to the conclusion that the biggest tactical advantage of the Impro technology would be against the type of irregular forces the army would most likely face in asymmetric warfare. To put it more bluntly, when the enemy doesn’t have radar, a couple of VTOLs sweeping in and dropping a platoon of combat ready soldiers should be incredibly effective. With this, we were transformed into a Counter Insurgency Strike Force that gets deployed during peace keeping missions. The name ‘Airborne Infantry’ is perhaps not very suitable for this role, but for whatever reason the brass never changed it.

Everyone remembers their first drop, but strangely I don’t remember my first real combat drop. Perhaps I should clarify, I remember the mission very well, but I don’t remember much of actually dropping out of the VTOL. The 1st Airborne Infantry Division’s 3rd and 5th Battalions had been deployed as part of the peace keeping forces in the former Chinese Controlled Region in what had previously been [Congo]. This was my first tour overseas and I was nervous as hell on the way over. It didn’t take long however, before things settled into a kind of everyday rhythm. It’s kind of amazing how fast humans adapt to living under completely different conditions than they are used to. Here we were in a large camp consisting of tents and makeshift buildings, nothing but jungle and scrubland around us, in an unstable region of the world. The people of the region had different attitudes to our presence, from friendly, to neutral, to openly hostile, but it was impossible for us to know how any given person on the streets viewed us – anyone could be a potential threat. And yet, it didn’t take long before constantly being vigilant started to feel normal.

While stationed in the Former CCR our lives were governed by a rotating schedule of duties that shifted every week. There was always one  company on standby back at camp, ready to take off within 3 minutes. Two companies would be on active patrol outside the gates, searching out threats. One company would be doing exercises and additional training, and one company would be off duty but had to remain in camp. Things went on like this for months without much happening; the patrols had a couple of incidents with the locals but nothing that couldn’t be handled on the spot. We knew that there was a group of Chinese ”colonists” who had stayed behind when their government pulled out of the region. We learned through military intelligence that this group was planning something, possibly a revolution or an attempt to recolonize the region, but rules of engagement said we couldn’t use force against them unless they actually took hostile action.

Being on standby during that period was extra tense because we knew the Chinese Ex-colonialists might do something. One day when Delta Company (to which I belonged) was on standby, we got the order to gear up and lift off. Apparently a group of militia men, consisting of both Chinese and locals, had attacked a small village and taken control of it. Our task was simple: neutralize the militia and free the village. Gearing up and getting on the VTOLs went by pure routine and we were in the air within minutes. The only thing i remember of the flight is being so nervous I kept checking and rechecking my rifle. The next thing I know I was standing on the ground in a cloud of dissipating Impro foam. I guess I must have dropped with my brain on autopilot. The militia only had a few guards on the perimeter, when they saw us land they fired a few shots in our direction, the bullets leaving tracks through the red foam as they passed overhead. A moment later the foam disappeared and I ducked down and fired back, hitting one of them, then dashed into cover behind the nearest building where my squad mates were waiting. As the militia scrambled we pressed our advantage, taking them down before they were able to take up defensive positions, we didn’t even stop to ditch our Impro rigs. The main fighting was over within twenty minutes and we regrouped in the north side of the village.

Our company commanders suspected there could still be militia men hiding in the village so we started clearing houses in search of them. Fighting on an open battle field is fine, it’s what we train for, clearing houses is something completely different. You enter a room not knowing what to expect, there could be an enemy pointing a gun at you, a bunch of scared civilians, or just an empty room. You have to be ready for whatever it is, and it only takes a second to make the wrong decision. Nothing in life is a tense as the moment before you bust through a door. Afterwards, when you’re done, the tension releases, then on to the next house.

The first house was empty but we found a bunch military equipment in the various rooms: backpacks, a couple of empty ammo crates, cigarette butts all over the floor. Apparently some militia men had kicked out the inhabitants and taken it over. In the second house we found a family who had taken cover when the fighting started. They were scared shirtless, thinking we were coming to kill them. We nearly did too, my squad mate who was on point was about to shoot the father but stopped himself just in time. We made sure there was no one else in the house then told them to stay put until we signaled it was all over.

As we were moving to the third house, half the squad covering the other half as we dashed across the street, someone opened fire from a second floor window. While our squad mates took cover and returned fire, me and my three comrades kicked in the door and rushed in. We quickly cleared the first floor which turned out to be empty. As we were moving to the second floor an enemy popped out on the landing above us but the man on point took him out directly. As we were coming up the stairs bullets started slamming into the low wall around the stairwell, splinters of wood raining down on us. I lobbed a flashbang over the wall and after it detonated we made quick work of the dazed militia men. Realizing what was happening, the guys who had fired at us from the window now burst out from one of the rooms, firing wildly in our direction. Throwing ourselves into cover, the bullets whizzed over our heads. I managed to shoot one of them in the leg, and as he fell screaming and clutching his leg, I finished him off. One of my comrades shot the other one directly in the chest. We quickly checked the other rooms but they were all empty.

By the time we had finished clearing the third house we got word over radio that the entire village was now clear, the militia men either dead or captured. The company gathered in the central square of the village and a few minutes later the VTOLs came in for pick-up. With that our mission was over. I’ve been on many similar missions since then but this one stuck in my memory because it was my first time to actually come under fire. That was a long time ago now, I’m going to retire in a few weeks but before that I have one last mission left. I’ve been writing this down during off duty hours in camp and now I’m putting down the last few sentences as the VTOL brings us out to the target. I remember my first drop like it was yesterday, today will be my last.