Challenging terrain, bad weather and improvised explosive devices have conspired at times to make resupply by ground a dangerous proposition in Afghanistan.
Dozens of forward operating bases and thousands of service members depend on supplies that drop daily from the sky, and the dedicated members of the Cargo Aerial Delivery Team, Product Manager Force Sustainment Systems, or PM FSS, at Natick Soldier Systems Center make it all possible. Their efforts have taken resupply convoys off the road, saving Soldiers lives.
Though Operation Enduring Freedom is winding down, the aerial resupply business continues to thrive in Afghanistan. From November 2011 to October 2012, more than 62 million pounds were delivered by airdrop. At its peak, 80 million pounds floated to earth there in one year.
“This is the biggest combat aerial resupply in history that’s been done by airdrop,” said Gary Thibault, Cargo Aerial Delivery Team leader. “It’s been a window into exercising airdrop at a very high tempo and getting great feedback to posture us for the future.”
Thibault made reference to a quote posted on a wall for his team to see: “Work like your life depends on it, because someone else’s does.”
According to Thibault, PM FSS and its counterparts at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center take that to heart.
“It’s just amazing how much people (are) relying on airdrop, and all of the folks on the team see that,” Thibault said. “So it really motivates and engages them to recognize that, hey, you’re making a huge difference here.”
The team has made that difference with a pair of systems, the Low-Cost Aerial Delivery Systems, or LCADS, and the Joint Precision Aerial Delivery Systems, or JPADS. LCADS are one-time-use systems that deliver supplies from low altitudes, while JPADS release at high altitudes and use airborne guidance units for precision drops.
Rapid improvements to both systems were made possible in recent years by the high operations tempo in Afghanistan, Thibault said.
“Without that environment, where you had the tempo and you had all the people touching it and all the great feedback from all of those tens of thousands of people receiving supplies by airdrop, it could have taken years,” Thibault said. “I think it exceeded everybody’s expectations in terms of what you could do with airdrop.”
LCADS have been the mainstay of airdrop in Afghanistan, replacing much more costly conventional parachutes.
“It makes things very simple for the Soldiers,” said Scott Martin, LCADS project lead. “The genie’s out of the bottle. (Leaders) recognize the value of an expendable system. It’s not going away.”
The JPADS 2K system delivers far fewer supplies than LCADS but is used in situations where precision is critical. It can deliver loads of up to 2,200 pounds.
“Afghanistan ramped up and the requirements actually had to be doubled,” said Eric Campagna, the JPADS 2K project lead. “The accuracy had to be twice as good, it had to be lighter, and it had to go higher and be disposable.”
The JPADS 10K, which will be able to deliver up to 10,000 pounds, should be fielded by May or June, according to project lead Dave Haley, who described it as a joint project.
“We only work as well as we work with other services,” Haley said. “We can’t do it on our own.”
That interservice cooperation and the lessons learned in Afghanistan over the past decade bode well for the future of airdrop.
“We’ve done a lot already, but what can we do better with things like LCADS, things like JPADS?” Thibault said. “How can we take it to the next level?”
Thibault said that LCADS will become even less expensive, smaller and lighter, and possibly be made of green or repurposed materials. JPADS, he added, will be less expensive, lighter, smaller, disposable, and include vision navigation as a backup for GPS-denied areas.
“Without a doubt, airdrop has really carved a niche,” Thibault said. “People see it now as a real logistics tool. Because of Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to get supplies at all costs to these places that couldn’t otherwise get them, airdrop might actually be the preferred way of doing it.”