By Bob Fehringer
U.S. Transportation Command
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.
"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. Transportation Command