Precision Cargo Air Drop -
Coming to Your Servicing Theater

Albin R. Majewski                          CPT Arthur A. Pack

     Just a few years ago if you had spoken to personnel from units outside the Airborne and Light Infantry communities about precision air drop resupply, you would have received some mighty strange looks. Today, because of highly dispersed operations, the length of ground lines of communication (GLOC), the enemy’s continuous attacks on convoys and increased use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Southwest Asia, the expanded use of cargo air drop resupply doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The operational environment has caused the Army to rethink the way to sustain the warfighter and to accelerate delivery of a precision air drop capability, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Urgent Operational Need
Off-the-shelf technology called the Sherpa 900 system was the immediate answer to an urgent request from Multi-National Force-Iraq for extra-light air drops to Marines in forward operating bases. The Sherpa 900 gets its name not because of its 1,200-pound load weight, but because of its 900-square-foot RAM air parachute canopy that can be steered - unlike the standard round canopy. The Sherpa drops since last August typically have been Meals, Ready to Eat and bottled water delivered within 100 meters of the predetermined impact point in remote locations.

     The Directorate of Combat Developments for Quartermaster (DCD-QM), US Army Combined Arms Support Command, has been playing an active role in securing advanced technology for precision air drop since approval of a mission needs statement in 1997. However, the initiative gained visibility in October 2002 when the Deputy Commanding General, US Army Quartermaster Center and School, decided for DCD-QM to pursue precision air drop as an official Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD). At the same time, the Army Natick Soldier Center was developing a linkage between the Air Force’s Precision Air Drop System (PADS) and the Army’s Precision Extended Glide Airdrop System (PEGASYS). Together, the Army and Air Force pursued an ACTD for their linked programs, named the Joint Precision Air Drop System (JPADS). The go-ahead for the JPADS ACTD came in August 2003.

     What is an ACTD and why is it so important? ACTDs emphasize technology assessment and integration rather than technology development to solve important military problems. The ACTD’s goals are to provide warfighters a prototype of a capability and to support the Soldiers evaluating that prototype. Warfighters evaluate technologies in real military exercises. Also, a key ACTDs objective is to provide an operational capability to the warfighter as an interim solution before procurement of a successful prototype.

     The assessment of the Sherpa 900 system for extra-light precision air drop in Iraq became an interim solution while the JPADS ACTD’s process worked toward the demonstration of a 10,000-pound total rigged weight capability and a 2,200-pound total rigged weight capability. The Sherpa 900 system’s 1,200-pound load weight met a more immediate need for combat operations.

     In May 2004, the Army G3 (Operations) approved an Urgent Operational Needs Statement initiated by Multi-National Force-Iraq, requesting an extra-light precision air drop capability in the theater of operations during FY04. The system’s users would be Marines – in particular the riggers from 1st Air Delivery Platoon that is part of Combat Service Support Battalion 7, 1st Force Service Support Group delivering supplies to Marine units throughout the vast western portion of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province. After completing coordination, Marines from the Marine detachment in theater and from their home base at Camp Pendleton, CA, completed Sherpa 900 training at Yuma Proving Ground, AZ.

     The Sherpa 900 system consists of a mission planner, central processing unit (CPU), parachute control unit (PCU) with built-in Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance unit, and the 900-square-foot canopy. By contrast, the Army/Air Force JPADS with a 10,000-pound total rigged weight is considered the light version in the JPADS family of systems under development. The extra-light version of JPADS has a total rigged capability of 2,200 pounds. The Sherpa 900 is considered a 60 percent solution to what is to come. The final solution will be incorporated with the Air Force’s PADS capability and then boosted to a total rigged weight of 2,200 pounds.

Battle Hand-Off During Operation Iraqi Freedom
After the Marines completed training in Arizona, two Sherpa 900 systems were packed and shipped into theater in Iraq. The two systems were accompanied by two Army officers, a combined team consisting of the materiel developer and the combat developer, who ensured a proper battle hand-off to the unit. While in theater, the team witnessed the first operational use of the Sherpa 900 system in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom on 9 Aug 04. Both Sherpa 900s were dropped for a Marine forward operating base (FOB) called Camp Korean Village.

     By late Autumn 2004, 9 of 11 air drops with Sherpa 900 systems had been successful. Drop number six failed after the GPS did not receive satellite lock before exiting the aircraft. This resulted in an unguided flight to the ground. A problem on drop 11 caused the main canopy not to deploy. The cause of this canopy problem has not yet been determined, but the system has since been replaced. After completion of the required 10 extra-light air drops, DCD-QM anticipates that Multi-National Force-Iraq will request that Army G3 provide 18 more systems to complete its original Urgent Operational Needs Statement.

Modernizing Theater Distribution
Both the Army and the Air Force had been independently working their respective pieces of the JPADS program, but that came to a halt last August when the Air Staff directed incorporation of Air Force analysis and requirements into the Army documentation. On 28-29 Sep 04, DCD-QM hosted a Joint Requirements Working Group that brought all military services up to speed on both the JPADS program and documentation required for the JPADS Extra Light and Light versions. Ultimately, the intent is to submit the 2,200-pound Extra Light requirement in 2d Quarter, FY05, followed by the 10,000-pound JPADS Light requirement as soon as its ACTD results are known.

     The Air Force plays an important role on two fronts. First, the Air Force provides most JPADS aircraft delivery platforms, Secondly and most importantly, the Air Force brings its PADS capability that will provide near real-time wind information, further improving airdrop accuracy. The PADS today is a single, portable package of three major components on the PADS laptop computer. PADS will provide greater accuracy to ballistic high-altitude air drops and precision-guided, high-altitude air drop systems through algorithms and high-fidelity wind data.

     Cargo air drop, and JPADS in particular, directly lead the way in supporting Modernization of Theater Distribution: one of the Army G4 (Logistics) four focus areas. Based upon the asymmetric battlefield, with long GLOCs and widely dispersed units, cargo air drop with a precision air drop capability is just what the combatant commander ordered. As one logistics operations officer with Multi-National Force-Iraq stated: "The Army is attempting to modernize its supply distribution process throughout Iraq and aerial delivery is certainly part of that. If we can use aerial delivery to keep Soldiers and Marines off the roads, then that’s a winner for everybody."

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