Afghanistan Special Delivery

Pentagon plans to continue air-dropping supplies to shrinking number of U.S. troops

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Army photo / Sgt. Mark VanGerpen

Troops await the delivery of air-dropped supplies in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in August 2013

The presumption in warfare — especially counterinsurgency — is that as you win the local population over to your side, things should begin to return to normal.

That has rarely been true in Afghanistan, where the volume of supplies air-dropped to U.S. troops — because ground support was too dangerous or difficult — soared from 2 million lb. (900,000 kg) in 2005 to 99 million lb. (45 million kg) in 2012.

The Pentagon’s U.S. Transportation Command is planning to keep up the effort, even as the U.S. pulls out, according to a revised solicitation issued last week for what it calls its Low Cost/Low Altitude Aerial Drop.

Delivering food, fuel and weapons to the remaining 38,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan isn’t easy. These clauses from the solicitation dated Jan. 8 read like a blueprint for retreat under fire:

— Aircraft are not to land in areas where there is active fighting.

— If an aircraft has been disabled in enemy territory and is likely to be seized by the enemy, the contractor shall make every reasonable effort to destroy the cargo to prevent it from being recovered by the enemy.

— Authorized marking on all aircraft will be the contractor’s name on each side as well as required markings such as tail numbers.

— Other identifying marking, such as ‘U.N.,’ ‘ISAF,’ ‘NATO’ or ‘SFOR’ are not allowed and must be removed.

— It is in the best interest of all parties that aircraft not be painted in a color that is close to military colors and paint schemes.

— Any color other than white should be reviewed and approved by the government prior to deployment.

— Aircraft must have ballistic protection around the windshield, aircrew seats and crew area.

— The government accepts no liability should any contractor be taken hostage or be killed during any mission or while under contract with the government.

— Due to constraints on size of [drop zones], contractor shall be required to perform paradrop of equipment bundles at altitudes as low as 150 ft. [46 m] above ground.

— Government Security Forces and Quick Response Forces personnel will provide security and force-protection procedures for the contractor while on military installations and during contract performance.

— It is the contractor’s responsibility to obtain prior approval from the combatant commander to arm its personnel or install armament on its aircraft.
— The contractor shall establish a program to prevent unlawful seizure of aircraft.

— In the event a contractor is illuminated or ‘spotlighted,’ or is fired upon in the air or on the ground, the crew shall note the date, time and approximate area from which the event originated.

This method of delivery has been growing in popularity in Afghanistan recently. Unlike bigger bundles dropped from high altitudes from big Air Force cargo planes, these — which have been delivered by a DHC-4T Caribou aircraft — fly low and slow and drop their bundles within 20 m of their target. Civilian pilots have debated the wisdom of signing up for such assignments.

Aircraft must be ready to fly 24/7, although they are limited to 10 hours on any single day, and are expected to average about five. The contractor is expected to launch “emergency resupply missions” on six hours’ notice and be ready to deliver some 400 bundles monthly to “forward operating bases, combat outposts and/or associated drop zones.” The air-dropped packages range in weight from 250 lb. (113 kg) to 560 lb. (254 kg)

Such flights began delivering supplies from Bagram to Ghazni in May. “It saves lives — it takes soldiers off the road,” one soldier told an Army public-affairs officer in August. Too many fellow troops had been wounded on the 12-hour overland convoys, he added, “It doesn’t matter who goes out, someone’s getting hit every day.”