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45th Sustainment Brigade: Aerial Delivery in Afghanistan

From February 2009 through the end of that year, the 45th Sustainment Brigade was responsible for managing all of the aerial drops in Afghanistan and sustaining more than 68,000 Soldiers (equivalent to 19 brigades) with equipment and supplies. During this time, more than 16 million pounds of supplies were dropped to keep the warfighter sustained and to maintain momentum on the battlefield. This article discusses the complexities of preparing and executing those airdrops.

Most of the supplies were dropped from the airdrop aircraft of choice, the C−17 Globemaster III transport. The C−17’s capabilities meet the needs of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Successful airdrop missions take days of planning, rigging, and communicating to ensure 100-percent success. A combination of Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force units, commodity managers, riggers, and airfield personnel conducted aerial deliveries on a regular schedule.

Receiving units must keep an inventory of their days of supply and anticipate when they will need to be resupplied. The overall resupply process may take days or weeks, depending on the commodity and the amount of it that needs to be dropped. Once a requirement is validated by the unit, a logistics air movement request is sent through the supporting brigade support battalion to the 45th Sustainment Brigade support operations (SPO) office for processing. Once the request is opened, a host of people are involved in the execution of the requested resupply.

Army and Marine Corps airdrop planners schedule the loads for delivery while Air Force crews contend with terrain, time hacks, and an exhaustive schedule as they execute daily airdrops. [“Time hacks” are when all parties involved in an operation set a standard time that everyone will follow.] The riggers keep pace with the never-ending demand for supplies that have to be bundled and rigged for each drop while the airfield personnel coordinate actions as each plane is loaded. Riggers translate the requirements into bundle counts, the mobility control team assigns a mission number or ITARS (intertheater airlift request system) number for each airlift, and the air mobility division allocates each aircraft for a specific airdrop mission.

Drop day is busy for the receiving ground unit because it must gather a recovery team, establish communications with the aircraft, and secure the drop zone. Ground recovery units must also contend with mountainous terrain, mud, snow, and the enemy as they collect the drops, which may take days or hours depending on their situation on the ground. Nothing is easy in Afghanistan. Challenges are so complex that different parachute systems are tested to find the optimal solution. An example of getting the right parachute for the mission was the resupply of a high-altitude site.

The site was nestled between 7,000-foot-high mountains and had a very small patch of land for receiving airdrops, so resupplying it on a weekly basis was difficult. The logical choice for a parachute should have been the Global Positioning System-guided Joint Precision Aerial Delivery System (JPADS), which can ensure the accuracy of each drop.

JPADS was designed to be precise on landing and should easily land at the site’s drop zone, but the close proximity of the surrounding mountains interfered with its ability to maneuver the parachute to its intended destination. The conventional high-velocity parachute system proved to be the better and more successful choice for resupplying the site. This situation illustrates how terrain plays a key role in determining which parachute to use in Afghanistan.

To improve JPADS for use in Afghanistan, a Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement has been submitted to request software upgrades that will better negotiate complex contours and improve airdrops by reducing delivery errors to within 25 meters of their targets. In the future, JPADS may be the parachute of choice for mountainous terrain with small drop zones. But for now, the conventional high-velocity parachute systems are accomplishing the mission.

In an exhaustive effort to reach the warfighters no matter where they are in Afghanistan, the 45th
Sustainment Brigade also contracted for CASA C−212 airplanes to deliver the smaller low-cost, low-altitude resupply bundles to remote FOBs, convoys, and even patrols on the move. Done with laser-precision accuracy, supplies are dropped from varying altitudes. These aircraft have the ability to deliver 2,200 pounds of supplies to locations where larger aircraft are unable to go. These contracted aircraft were critical to sustaining the small units in Afghanistan.

With the 45th Sustainment Brigade redeployed to its home duty station at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, it can look back knowing that it air-serviced its coalition forces to the best of its ability. The brigade provided them with what they needed in order to preserve momentum on the battlefield and to serve and protect the Afghan people. Aerial delivery remains a huge capability in supporting the warfighter in Afghanistan.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michelle G. Charge was the support operations aerial delivery operations officer for the 45th Sustainment Brigade at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. She is pursuing a B.S. degree in social science.

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