The brigade was formed as part of the defence reforms implemented by the Strategic Defence Review on 1 September 1999, by the merging of 24 Airmobile Brigade and elements of 5th Airborne Brigade. This grouping created a highly mobile brigade of parachute units and airmobile units, which employ helicopters.
After a ceasefire was declared in the Republic of Macedonia between government forces and rebels known as the National Liberation Army, NATO launched a British-led effort, Operation Essential Harvest, to collect weapons voluntarily given up by the rebels. The brigade HQ and some of its elements deployed in August 2001, acting as the spearhead for the NATO operation. It returned home after the NATO mission was successfully completed in September.
After the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, NATO established a peacekeeping force in December known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), based in the capital Kabul. The brigade HQ and some of its units deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, 2006, 2008 and again in 2010–11, 16th Air Assault Brigade has deployed to Afghanistan more than any other formation to date.
During the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the brigade, commanded by Brigadier 'Jacko' Page, was deployed to Kuwait in February 2003. The brigade was part of 1 (UK) Armoured Division and after extensive training in Kuwait it took part in the beginning of the invasion on 20 March. Initial speculation in the British media suggested that the brigade would support the American 82nd and 101st divisions in an airborne assault on the Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. This plan did not, however, come to fruition. The brigade's eventual objective was to secure the southern oil fields before they were destroyed by Saddam Hussain's forces. The brigade's 7th Parachute Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery entered Iraq on 20 March to support U.S. Marine Corps forces in their efforts to capture the Rumaila oil fields, nearly all of the oil wells being taken intact. The rest of the brigade, supported by its AAC helicopters, entered Iraq soon afterwards, still tasked with securing Rumaila. The brigade often met sporadic resistance and had to deal with disarming the many explosives attached to the infrastructure.
The brigade was subsequently used to guard the oil fields and protect Allied supply lines with elements moving further north of Basra – Iraq's second largest city – to provide a screen protecting it from Iraqi attack. On 31 March, the brigade, assisted by artillery and air support, attacked an Iraqi armoured column advancing on Basra, destroying 17 T-55 tanks, 5 artillery pieces and 7 armoured personnel carriers. After British forces entered Basra on 6 April, 3 PARA was employed to clear the 'old quarter' of the city on 7 April due to the narrow streets making it inaccessible to vehicles.
After Basra's capture, the brigade was based in Maysan Province, centred around the province's capital Al-Amarah. The brigade carried out patrols into towns, helped bring normality back to the south, tried to maintain order and destroyed any conventional weapons caches that were found. The war was officially declared over on 1 May and the brigade began to return home that same month. During one patrol into Majar al-Kabir on 24 June, the brigade suffered its largest casualties in Iraq when six Royal Military Policemen of 156 Provost Company were killed by a large Iraqi mob.
As the British Army's rapid response formation, 16 Air Assault Brigade has served in the vanguard of all of the Army's recent operational deployments to Sierra Leone, Macedonia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and is the largest brigade in the Army, with 8,000 personnel. Its structure makes it a highly flexible unit. It comprises a Formation Reconnaissance Squadron, an artillery regiment with an attached air defence battery, an engineer regiment, two parachute infantry battalions, two air assault infantry battalions, three aviation regiments, logistics, medical and mechanical engineering regiments or battalions and the Pathfinder group.
The brigade HQ is based in Colchester Garrison and was under the operational command of the tri-service Joint Helicopter Command (JHC). For administrative purposes, it is under the control of 5th Division, now Support Command. As of September 2015, Commander Land Forces will assume operational control of the brigade.
The Brigade Headquarters has personnel from both the British Army and the Royal Air Force assigned, enabling it to carry out air and land operations.
Due to the brigade's mobile role, it is lightly armed and equipped. The brigade's land equipment includes Scimitars, WMIK Land Rovers, Supacats, towed L118 105 mm light guns, Javelin anti-tank and lightweight Starstreak air-defence missile launchers. The aviation element of the brigade consists of three attack regiments equipped with WAH-64 Apache and Lynx helicopters from the Army Air Corps, Chinook and Puma support helicopters from the RAF, and Merlin support helicopters from the Fleet Air Arm (all of which are controlled by Joint Helicopter Command). Furthermore, two four-man Tactical Air Control Parties (TACPs) manned by the RAF Regiment provide airspace deconfliction, integration of air platforms within the battlespace, and terminal control of air assets.
In 1984, 5th Airborne Brigade was in the process of developing its Limited Parachute Assault Capability (LPAC). This required a formation of 15 Hercules aircraft to drop a parachute battalion group over two drop zones (DZs) in under five minutes, by day or night. To do this, there was a requirement for the DZs to be clearly marked, to ensure that the crews had an easily identified reference point to allow them to drop accurately and consistently. With the demise of the 16th Parachute Brigade in 1977, the disbandment of No 1 (Guards) Independent Company meant that the expertise had been lost. Regimental Headquarters was asked to look at the options for providing this capability. Major Phil Neame produced a paper in October 1984 recommending the formation of an independent platoon, with manpower drawn from all three battalions and coming directly under the command of the Brigade Headquarters. It would number a total of 28 in 7 patrols of 4 men and include 2 Royal Signals operators.
Today, the Pathfinder Group is made up of selected personnel from the armed forces, who have undergone a rigorous selection and training programme. The Group is formed around a platoon to company strength cadre of reconnaissance and communications specialists. Its roles include locating and marking parachute drop zones and tactical and helicopter landing zones for air landing operations. Once the main force has landed, the group provides tactical intelligence to assist operational decision-making within the brigade headquarters. The pathfinders can utilise various airborne insertion techniques, which range from the current in-service Low Level Parachute (LLP), to High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) and High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) systems.
The numeral 16 is derived from the 1st Airborne Division and 6th Airborne Division of the Second World War, first used by the 16th Parachute Brigade formed in 1948.
The brigade's original emblem was a light-blue and maroon shield with a light blue Striking Eagle outlined in maroon emblazoned upon it, and was adopted from the Special Training Centre in Lochailort, Scotland, where Special Forces and Airborne troops were trained between 1943 and 1945. The sign was worn on the left arm. The colours chosen were traditional and showed the make-up of the brigade, maroon for Airborne and light-blue for Army Air Corps.
The symbol of 5 Airborne Brigade had been Bellerophon on top of Pegasus (a winged horse of Greek mythology) and became synonymous with British airborne forces during World War II. When 16 Air Assault Brigade was formed there was some controversy when the Parachute units of 5 Airborne had to give up the Pegasus symbol and replace it with the Striking Eagle symbol. However, following Army 2020 restructuring, command of 16 Air Assault Brigade was transferred from Joint Helicopter Command to the British Army, and the Pegasus emblem returned as the symbol of British airborne forces on 25 November 2015.
From November 2016, 16 Brigade will report direct to Commander Field Army whilst the Army Air Corps units previously assigned to the brigade will remain under Joint Helicopter Command.
Commanders have included:1999–2000 Brigadier Peter Wall (late Royal Engineers)
2000–2002 Brigadier Barney White-Spunner (late Blues and Royals)
2002–2004 Brigadier Jacko Page (late Parachute Regiment)
2004–2007 Brigadier Ed Butler (late Royal Green Jackets)
2007–2008 Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith (late Irish Guards)
2008–2011 Brigadier James Chiswell (late Parachute Regiment)
2011–2013 Brigadier Giles Hill (late Parachute Regiment)
2013–2015 Brigadier Nick Borton DSO MBE (late Royal Regiment of Scotland)
2015–Present Brigadier Colin Weir DSO MBE (late Royal Irish)
16 Air Assault Brigade Headquarters and Signals Squadron (216)
D Squadron, Household Cavalry
7 Parachute Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery
23 Engineer Regiment (Air Assault), Royal Engineers
1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment
The Royal Irish Rangers, now known as 2nd Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment
1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment
3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment
3 Regiment, Army Air Corps
13 Air Assault Support Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps
16 Medical Regiment, Royal Army Medical Corps
7 Air Assault Battalion, Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers
156 Provost Company, Royal Military Police
16 Air Assault Brigade in Colchester (Reaction Force)
216 Parachute Signal Squadron in Colchester
2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment in Colchester
3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment in Colchester
4th Battalion, Parachute Regiment in Pudsey (Army Reserve)
2nd Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles in Folkestone
7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery in Colchester
23 Parachute Engineer Regiment in Woodbridge
7 Air Assault Battalion Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in Wattisham
13 Air Assault Support Regiment Royal Logistic Corps in Colchester
16 Medical Regiment Royal Army Medical Corps in Colchester (includes 144 Parachute Medical Squadron of the Army Reserve)
Note: 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment now operates within the Special Forces Support Group.