USA — Airdrops Break Records in Afghanistan

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill., July 13, 2010 — When your unit is sur­round­ed by an ene­my hit­ting you with small-arms fire and rock­et-pro­pelled grenades, and mor­tar rounds are scream­ing in and you’re run­ning low on food, ammo and every­thing else, you can’t exact­ly send some­one to Wal-Mart for sup­plies.

C-17 Globemaster III
Con­tain­er Deliv­ery Sys­tem bun­dles para­chute to the ground from a C‑17 Globe­mas­ter III trans­port jet over a drop zone in Afghanistan on May 9, 2010.
U.S. Air Force pho­to by Staff Sgt. Manuel J. Mar­tinez
Click to enlarge

That’s when you pray for an air­drop. Now.

“Some­times these mis­sions are like dri­ving an 18-wheel­er through a 5 o’clock traf­fic jam while try­ing to ask for direc­tions with a cell phone that isn’t get­ting any recep­tion,” said Air Force Capt. Scott Huff­stetler, an air­drop mis­sion plan­ner with the 8th Air­lift Squadron in Afghanistan. “Even­tu­al­ly, you just mus­cle your way through and get the job done.

“The air­space in [Afghanistan] can be incred­i­bly busy, and often times the ter­rain makes radio recep­tion poor,” Huff­stetler added. “Last night, my crew and I flew a mis­sion into an area of the coun­try where the air traf­fic con­ges­tion could rival Frank­furt, Atlanta or Chica­go.”

Huff­stetler said com­mu­ni­ca­tion and coor­di­na­tion had to be accom­plished dur­ing that mis­sion by talk­ing with many dif­fer­ent air traf­fic con­trol areas, none of which could hear the oth­er.

“One of the biggest chal­lenges that we face dur­ing the air­drop mis­sions is coor­di­nat­ing clear­ance into the dif­fer­ent air­spaces with­in the coun­try,” Huff­stetler said. “With about 10 min­utes until the drop, we had four dif­fer­ent radios which were active­ly being used to accom­plish this. With dozens of air­craft fly­ing a wide vari­ety of mis­sions, and all of them need­ing access to the same air­space at the same time, things can get com­pli­cat­ed quick­ly.

“In short,” he con­tin­ued, “with three pilots talk­ing on four radios, some of which were less than ‘loud and clear,’ and dri­ving 20 min­utes out of our way in order to avoid traf­fic and blocked air­space, we suc­cess­ful­ly got the drop off and deliv­ered the goods to the user. All of this being at night and on [night-vision gog­gles].”

In spite of com­mu­ni­ca­tion glitch­es and oth­er prob­lems encoun­tered on these mis­sions, dur­ing a recent 12-week peri­od, about 500 bun­dles were dropped per week, which amounts to 450 tons dropped each week.

For com­par­i­son, dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Bulge in World War II, 482 tons of sup­plies were dropped in a two-day peri­od in Decem­ber 1944. In Viet­nam, dur­ing the bat­tle of Khe Sahn, 294 tons were dropped in a 77-day peri­od.

Air Force Col. Kei­th Boone, recent­ly reas­signed after serv­ing as direc­tor of the Air Mobil­i­ty Divi­sion at the Com­bined Air and Space Oper­a­tions Cen­ter in South­west Asia, man­aged air­drops since his arrival in Afghanistan last year. He’s been cho­sen to be vice com­man­der of the 621st Con­tin­gency Response Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lake­hurst, N.J. April set a record for month­ly bun­dles dropped, with more than 2,700 deliv­ered, Boone said, with April 7 set­ting a sin­gle-day record of 200 bun­dles, equal­ing 160 tons.

“We have been steadi­ly increas­ing since sus­tain­ment air­drop oper­a­tions began in 2005,” he said. “Undoubt­ed­ly, this is the longest aer­i­al deliv­ery sus­tain­ment in the his­to­ry of mil­i­tary oper­a­tions. With the excep­tion of about five days, we have had at least one drop every day since I have been here, and I sus­pect that is true for the past two years.” Meth­ods of deliv­er­ing sup­plies to troops in the field have improved dra­mat­i­cal­ly since the ear­ly air­drops of World War II were con­duct­ed by push­ing small crates with para­chutes out of the aircraft’s side car­go doors.

“Lots of great inno­va­tions [are] hap­pen­ing in the­ater,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Bar­bara Faulken­ber­ry, recent­ly reas­signed after serv­ing as direc­tor of mobil­i­ty forces and com­man­der of Air Mobil­i­ty Command’s 15th Expe­di­tionary Mobil­i­ty Task Force. “The end result is we’re pro­vid­ing what the warfight­er needs, when he needs it, and where he needs it.” Faulken­ber­ry has been select­ed to be deputy chief of logis­tics for U.S. Africa Com­mand in Stuttgart, Ger­many.

Among those inno­va­tions are the Joint Pre­ci­sion Air­drop Sys­tem, the Improved Con­tain­er Deliv­ery Sys­tem and the most recent devel­op­ment, the C‑130 “low-cost low-alti­tude” com­bat air­drop to resup­ply sol­diers at a for­ward oper­at­ing base.

JPADS uses GPS, steer­able para­chutes and an onboard com­put­er to steer loads to a des­ig­nat­ed point on a drop zone. It inte­grates the Army’s Pre­ci­sion and Extend­ed Glide Air­drop Sys­tem and the Air Force’s Pre­ci­sion Air­drop Sys­tem pro­gram. ICDS allows for improved pre­ci­sion by fac­tor­ing in the alti­tude, wind speed, wind direc­tion, ter­rain and oth­er cir­cum­stances that might affect the drop. A low-cost, low-alti­tude air­drop is accom­plished by drop­ping bun­dles weigh­ing 80 to 500 pounds, with pre-packed expend­able para­chutes, in groups of up to four bun­dles per pass.

“The LCLA drops will meet the needs of a small­er sub­set of the units,” Boone said. “This is a sig­nif­i­cant step for­ward in our abil­i­ty to sus­tain those engaged in coun­terin­sur­gency oper­a­tions through­out Afghanistan.

“Our main method of sup­ply will con­tin­ue to be through air-land mis­sions — land­ing at air­fields and offload­ing sup­plies,” Boone con­tin­ued. “Where that isn’t pos­si­ble, we will deliv­er sus­tain­ment require­ments through larg­er-scale [Con­tain­er Deliv­ery Sys­tem air­drops] — every­thing from ammu­ni­tion to meals.”

These resup­ply mis­sions are coor­di­nat­ed by U.S. Trans­porta­tion Com­mand with its com­po­nent com­mands: the Army’s Mil­i­tary Sur­face Deploy­ment and Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mand, the Air Force’s Air Mobil­i­ty Com­mand and the Navy’s Mil­i­tary Sealift Com­mand.

Air Force Gen. Dun­can J. McN­abb, Transcom com­man­der, recent­ly flew on one of the air­drop resup­ply mis­sions in Afghanistan.

“The work these air­men do every day is sav­ing lives,” McN­abb said. “I am amazed by our air­men — no mat­ter the size of the chal­lenges they face, they find solu­tions and get the job done. These air­drop mis­sions are a ter­rif­ic exam­ple of how our phe­nom­e­nal peo­ple in the field will always deliv­er to the warfight­er.”

U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand Com­bined Air and Space Oper­a­tions Cen­ter offi­cials said 97 per­cent of the air­drops have been on tar­get.

“Tac­ti­cal air­lift has nev­er been so respon­sive, so agile in our [tac­tics, tech­niques and pro­ce­dures], and crit­i­cal in a fight,” Faulken­ber­ry said. “Air­drop is enabling the small, dis­persed [coun­terin­sur­gency] unit to engage and oper­ate. This April, we dropped 4,860,000 pounds to ground forces who need­ed the food, fuel, or ammo. It is tak­ing air-ground team­work to suc­ceed, and togeth­er, we’re mak­ing our his­to­ry.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)