The U.S. Air Force is increasingly training airmen on its new pinpoint airdrop system before going into theater in a bid to make sure personnel are up to speed on the fast-evolving technology.
Before February, airmen were unlikely to take charge of a Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS) until they arrived in theater.
“This is the most rapidly changing system in airdrop and supply,” said Capt. John Linden, C-130 weapons and tactics instructor with the 317th Airlift Group at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. “The training is allowing us to keep current with those developments, which is a job in and of itself.”
JPADS are GPS-steerable parachutes loaded with an onboard computer capable of steering loads to a drop point with considerable accuracy. The system can hit within 150 meters of a target 90 percent of the time, typically dropping payloads of food, water and medical supplies.
With the ability to deliver bundles accurately from as high as 25,000 feet, JPADS can take aircraft out of harm’s way. A conventional load typically is dropped from 1,000 feet — a fly zone that is not only vulnerable to enemy fire, but also crowded with UAVs, helicopters and friendly artillery. “It can be very busy airspace, as well as very dangerous airspace,” Linden said.
Training is underway at Joint Base Lewis-McChord AFB as well as at Dyess, where pilots have successfully dropped JPADS from as high as 10,000 feet.
While the basic components of the system have remained the same for decades, technological advances have driven a need for heightened instruction and hands-on practice, Linden said. Many software improvements are coming out of the Army Research Laboratory at Natick, Mass.
In addition to improvements in GPS guidance systems and WiFi-based communications, the system also has undergone mechanical improvements meant to drive down costs and enhance ease of use.
For example, a new method of construction allows those on the receiving end to break down the guidance units into their essential components and throw the rest away. That means less to carry and less to recover.
Likewise, designers have discarded a bulky metal casing in favor of a disposable plywood box, and have adopted a pre-packed, single use parachute to replace an older model that could take eight hours to rig.
“We’re getting better, we’re getting cheaper and the unit maintains the same degree of accuracy,” Linden said.
The enhanced training program will help ensure JPADS handlers will be up to speed on the technology, as software developments drive capabilities to new extremes. “In the future, we will be able to drop it in your front yards,” Linden said. “And we are talking months, not years, for that kind of accuracy.”