In 2011, 43 forward operating bases in Afghanistan were supplied solely by air, with 27,000 troops receiving all of their food, water, ammunition and fuel from the sky, dropped primarily by the U.S. Air Force with occasional help from small contracted aircraft.
The necessity to resupply troops by air comes from several factors, not the least of which is the skyrocketing number of roadside bombs U.S., NATO and Afghan troops face, making travel by road a risky bet.
In testimony before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee on Sept. 20, the head of the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, said “in the past two years, IED events have increased 42 percent, from 9,300 in 2009 to 16,000 in 2011. This year, we’re on track to meet or exceed the number of events we saw last year. In fact, this July we saw the highest number of monthly IED events ever recorded.”
It’s not only IEDs that bedevil logisticians in Afghanistan, however. Eleven years into the war and after tens of billions of dollars spent by NATO on development projects, there are still few paved roads, especially in the mountainous Regional Command-East, which hugs the Pakistani border. So to provide food, water, fuel and ammunition to the troops scattered among the mountains and valleys of the volatile region, U.S. Air Force C-17s and C-130s, as well as contracted aircraft, have been called in to the fight more than in any other conflict in American history.
“We started tracking airdrop numbers in 2005 when we dropped about 2 million pounds” of gear, said Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Lankford, Air Mobility Command Combat Tactics Branch chief. Since then, the Air Force has nearly doubled that number every year since, culminating in 2011, when it dropped 80 million pounds of supplies in Afghanistan.
“In the Korean War in its entirety, we dropped about 30 million pounds over three years,” Lankford added, “and that was a pretty airdrop-intensive war.” So much so that Air Force Maj. Gen. William Tunner created the Combat Cargo Command to meet the need to supply far-flung troops.
The Air Force dropped about 60 million pounds of supplies in 2010 and about 30 million pounds in 2009. The huge upswing came in part due to the surge of more than 30,000 troops ordered by President Barack Obama in 2009, many of which were placed in small combat outposts in the desolate south and mountainous eastern parts of the country, where IEDs, the lack of serviceable roads and deep valleys made aerial resupply the best — and often safest — bet. The last surge forces left Afghanistan in September.
Low-flying planes are often at risk of ground fire, Lankford said, making higher-altitude drops a necessity. But even then, “my enemy is the wind. It’s bad enough when you’re dropping somewhere where it’s flat, but in the mountains, wind does a lot of crazy things” to the bundles that roll out of the back of his aircraft.
To help hit targets from higher altitudes, the Air Force has developed the Joint Precision Air Drop System (JPADS), which Lankford called “the smart bomb of cargo delivery,” since the system uses a preprogrammed GPS unit to guide the four-by-four, 2,200-pound pallet to the ground.
As an example of the capability the JPADS provides, Lankford said that in 1999, his crews needed about 260 acres of space on the ground to drop eight bundles accurately. Now, they can do it in five acres, which is critical in areas of Afghanistan where there is precious little flat ground at which to aim.
“We’ve developed some better low-altitude drops to deliver them right onto the [forward operating base],” he said, including using a device employed by hurricane hunters — the dropsonde — that measures wind speeds over drop zones. The dropsonde gives aircrews wind speeds and altitude readings from the aircraft to the ground, so that “we’ve been able to get much more accurate airdrops down there. In the past, we only had measurements from the airplane, and then on the ground,” but now crews have wind speed information all the way down that they can plug into their computers to better program their drops.