By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 6, 2006 – The same global positioning technology that helps fighter and bomber pilots deliver smart bombs with pinpoint accuracy now allows bundles dropped from cargo planes to steer themselves to drop zones.
A C-130 Hercules from the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron here dropped supplies to a U.S. Army unit in Afghanistan Aug. 31, using the military’s newest airdrop system for the first time in a combat zone.
An Air National Guard crew, deployed from Alaska’s 144th Airlift Squadron, dropped bundles using the Joint Precision Airdrop System, or JPADS, which the Army and Air Force have been developing together since 1993.
“This was the first Air Force employment of the Joint Precision Airdrop System in an operational or combat airlift mission,” said Maj. Neil Richardson, chief of the combat programs and policy branch at Air Mobility Command. He deployed here as part of the JPADS Mobile Training Team to oversee the first combat use of the system and to train C-130 crews how to use it.
“The system did exactly what it was designed for and delivered ammunition and water to ground troops here in Afghanistan,” he said.
The JPADS is a family of systems designed to bring the same accuracy to the airlift community that strike pilots have enjoyed since the development of GPS-guided bombs, called joint direct attack munitions, or JDAMS. “It’s the JDAMS of logistics,” Richardson said.
The goal, when the system is fully developed, is to field four sizes of JPADS: extra light, light, medium and heavy. Though still in the concept-development phase, the heavy JPADS may be able to airdrop up to 60,000 pounds of cargo, more than enough to deliver the Army’s eight-wheel Stryker combat vehicle.
“Soldiers in forward fighting positions will have a viable means of airdrop resupply, which is more accurate and increases survivability of critical supplies, like ammunition, fuel, food and water,” said Chief Warrant Officer Cortez Frazier, aerial delivery chief for Combined Joint Task Force 76’s Joint Logistics Command. “JPADS will ensure the warfighter can continue to combat and win against terrorism.”
The JPADS loads have GPS receivers that are updated while traveling in the airplane through a repeater in the cargo bay that re-broadcasts the aircraft’s GPS coordinates to electronics fastened to the cargo.
When dropped, the GPS receivers guide steering mechanisms that literally fly the cargo under a rectangular “parafoil,” to the desired point of impact.
“They are autonomously steered by GPS and electro-mechanical steering actuators,” said Maj. Dan DeVoe, a command tactician at the Air Mobility Warfare Center, at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., and also on the mobile training team. The actuators pull risers on a parachute — turning it one direction or another — to position the load over the desired point of impact.
Once the load is positioned over the drop zone, a second parachute deploys, and the cargo descends almost straight down to troops on the ground.
In Afghanistan, C-130 crews drop the light version of JPADS, dubbed the “screamer” because it falls at 100 mph. It can deliver container delivery system bundles containing food, water, ammunition and other supplies weighing 500 to 2,000 pounds to troops on the ground.
“We’re resupplying small units, so we don’t need a big volume of parachutes and equipment,” said Army Lt. Col. Robert Gagnon, the deputy commander of the 10th Sustainment Brigade, whose job is resupplying aoldiers in Afghanistan. “It allows us to get into a small area from a stand-off distance, where the aircraft is out of harm’s way.”
Prior to dropping the screamer, a C-130 loadmaster will pitch a small transmitter called a “dropsonde” from the back of the aircraft. The dropsonde relays wind speeds and direction back to the navigator’s laptop computer.
“It’s a very accurate, very real-time wind picture of what’s going on out there,” Richardson said. “A lot of your error comes from wind, and we’ve taken a lot of the error out.”
Under traditional airdrop procedures, C-130 navigators guided pilots to a single point in space to take advantage of forecasted winds to blow unguided loads under a parachute to a drop zone on the ground. Forecasted winds may or may not have been the same by the time aircrafts actually arrived at drop zones.
With JPADS, navigators gather up-to-the-minute information about wind direction and speed, then, because the loads can steer themselves, can fly to an area over the drop zone to release the loads as opposed to a single point.
“As long as you are in that “launch acceptability’ region, you can call “green light’ and your loads are going to go to their intended targets,” Richardson said.
In addition to accuracy, JPADS allows different bundles to steer themselves to more than one drop zone.
“You can basically fly to an area, drop the bundles, and they will steer where they need to go,” DeVoe said. “With one green-light call, bundles can go to multiple locations.”
The increased accuracy and ability to drop to more than one location at the same time means that soldiers on the ground recover the cargo quickly and know exactly where it will land.
“(JPADS) ensures the supplies are received in a timely manner,” Gagnon said. “The soldiers get what they need, when they need it and how they need it. The drop zone is set up for a shorter period of time, the loads come in, the aircraft is gone and the Soldiers are gone before the enemy knows what’s taken place.”
The new system also allows aircrews to drop from higher altitudes, moving C-130s farther from the threat of enemy ground fire and still deliver cargo accurately by air drop. The higher an aircraft drops, the less accurate the loads become — until now.
“JPADS takes the aircrew and the aircraft out of harm’s way by being higher and further away from the drop zones and therefore, further away from the threats,” Richardson said.
“On the ground side, the precision of the airdrop systems themselves allows the guys to pick up all the stuff right around the desired point of impact, as opposed to being dispersed or scattered across the entire drop zone,” he said. “They’re not risking their lives gathering the loads.”
(Air Force Maj. David Kurle is assigned to the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing.)