News: Afghanistan surge: Mobility airdrops quickly bring material wherever needed
Story by Master Sgt. Scott Sturkol
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- From December 2009 to August 2010, more than 40 million pounds of cargo was airdropped for Operation Enduring Freedom. At an average of just over 4.4 million pounds a month - that's like airdropping more than 970 Ford F-150 pickup trucks every month.
Imagine that many pick-up trucks floating down from the sky from as high as 30,000 feet to within 98 percent accuracy of their intended landing zone, and being ready to drive within minutes of getting on the ground.
The direct support provided by mobility Airmen through airdrops since President Barack Obama announced the Afghanistan "surge" of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Dec. 1, 2009, has been unprecedented. Mobility air forces performing airdrops in Afghanistan are breaking 2009's record year of just over 32 million pounds of cargo airdropped with 36.2 million pounds airdropped through the end of August 2010. It's not about records though -- it's about supporting the warfighter as quickly as possible.
Gen. Raymond E. Johns Jr., Air Mobility Command commander, said airdrops not only help save lives by keeping convoys off the road, but are also one of the only ways to get supplies delivered in a timely manner. "It brings the supplies to the warfighter when they need it," he said.
Afghanistan is a remote, mountainous country that has inadequate or nonexistent roadways, treacherous terrain features and insurgent activity or other threats. In many cases, the mode of airdrop is the only way to get the troops the supplies they need quickly.
The 40 million pounds of cargo delivered by airdrop during the nine months of the surge is a figure tracked by Air Forces Central's Combined Air Operations Center, or CAOC, in Southwest Asia. The CAOC helps not only track, but also coordinate the airdrop missions in conjunction with U.S. Army, Marine Corps and coalition forces every day.
The statistics prove the CAOC and mobility forces have been busy since December 2009. For example, in November 2009 before the surge was announced, there was 2.6 million pounds of cargo airdropped in Afghanistan, By December 2009, that number jumped to 3.8 million pounds airdropped and continued to increase in the following months with no less than 3 million pounds of cargo dropped in any given month for 2010.
The airdrop figures for Afghanistan for 2010, through August, include 3.4 million pounds in January, 3 million in February, 3.2 million in March, 4.2 million in April, 4 million in May, 6 million in June, a new record of 6.4 million pounds airdropped in July, and 6 million in August. Over those months, those are a lot of container delivery system bundles, thousands of them, and other cargo being airdropped.
Under Secretary of the Air Force Erin C. Conaton said the Air Force is doing its part in supporting the warfighter "in an excellent way."
"Of the top five priorities of the secretary [of the Air Force] and the chief [of staff of the Air Force], number one is supporting the joint fight today," Secretary Conaton said during an August 2010 visit to AMC at Scott AFB. "The chief likes to say we are 'all in' and I couldn't agree with that more. We see that throughout the Air Force in terms of the contributions that our folks are making both with air platforms and on the ground in support of the joint fight.
"I think that it's not a surprise that whenever I talk to one of my fellow service counterparts from the other services, they generally begin by saying 'thank you' to the Air Force for everything we're doing -- particularly, for the ground forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan," Secretary Conaton said. "Obviously AMC is critical in that regard. We couldn't get the people, the materials, the aeromedical and the fuel that's needed in the theater without the important work that is done here at this command. So I think the direct support mission is absolutely essential and I think this command is doing it in an excellent way."
When compared to 2006, where only 3.5 million pounds of supplies were airdropped for the entire year for OEF, the monthly average of pounds airdropped for 2010 is higher at around 4.3 million pounds per month. That's partly because of the involvement in the Afghanistan surge, but another part of the success and increase in airdrops in Afghanistan might be because of the innovations in improving airdrops over the last several years.
The Low-Cost, Low-Altitude, or LCLA, airdrop platform -- the latest in airdrop platforms -- became operational in March 2010. The LCLA concept, completed mainly by C-130 Hercules aircraft, is more accurate than traditional, higher-altitude methods.
An LCLA airdrop on a C-130 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 drops are termed "low-cost" to reflect the relative expense of the expendable parachutes compared to their more durable, but pricier, nylon counterparts. "Low-altitude" alludes to the relative height from which bundles are released from the aircraft.
There's also the Joint Precision Airdrop System, or JPADS, that guides airdrop bundles to their drop zones using the Global Positioning System technology, and the Improved Container Delivery System that allows for improved precision by factoring in the altitude, wind speed, wind direction, terrain and other circumstances that might affect the drop.
Johns said accuracy in airdrops have been critical, but mobility Airmen have met the challenge. "You've developed techniques to become more accurate, to get it closer to the center of a drop zone, and to prevent people from being hurt," he said. "That's huge."
Combined effort to success
The aircraft used for airdrops in Afghanistan include the C-130 and the C-17. The planes and the Airmen who fly them come from a wide array of Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, and active duty bases -- Total Force in action.
General Johns said the combined effort of doing airdrops -- whether troops getting them done are active duty, Guard or Reserve - proves how the air mobility team has met the challenges posed by operations in Afghanistan.
"When troops are in contact [with the enemy] and they need water and ammo, we can get an airdrop together very quickly," General Johns said. "Because of the training and standards ... I have full confidence they will accomplish the mission. You have set standards that will accomplish the mission safely and that's pretty important."
Additionally, to create the airdrop bundles, it takes a joint effort between U.S. Army soldiers and Airmen.
"For an airdrop to be successful, it all starts with soldiers and Airmen working as a team," a C-17 pilot, Maj. Mike Parker from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., said after recently completing an airdrop mission in Afghanistan. "People always see the end result of an airdrop, but without our joint team we couldn't deliver the supplies warfighters need to be successful."
Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Hall, a deployed parachute rigger from the 824th Quartermasters Company, Detachment 8, at Fort Bragg, N.C., said, "Our team puts a lot of effort into ensuring we get the bundles we rig right the first time. We understand that somebody is relying on us to get them the supplies they need to complete their various missions."
As Johns has said, airdrops have been, and will continue to be done "because we have Marines and Army soldiers in Afghanistan on the perimeters."
The successes of airdrops also help the success of those forces on the ground. "They are there to help the populace stay strong enough and be resilient to thwart off insurgents," Johns said. "If those towns are not successful, they will be permeated by bad guys and they'll never get a chance to recover."
With 40 million pounds airdropped during the Afghanistan surge, more records will probably be broken, but the bottom line is, the ground forces will have what they need and "lives will be saved."
"When we have to get their [cargo] to them, going by land is treacherous," General Johns said. "That's why we have done airdrops in such huge ways."
(Staff Sgt. Angelique Smythe, 451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs; Tech. Sgt. Oshawn Jefferson, Joint Base Lewis-McChord Public Affairs; and Capt. Heather Ward, Air Forces Central Public Affairs, contributed to this story.)