Since the advent of military aviation, armies and air forces have been working on ever more sophisticated ways of airdropping personnel and supplies from moving aircraft. While the largest air landing operations were in World War Two, they have been employed in military operations as recently as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In addition to air assaults, the delivery of equipment supplies by parachute became an important means of supporting forward deployed forces, particularly those operating behind enemy lines. Advances in the design of parachutes, harnesses and equipment stowage and in precision navigation have resulted in a revolutionary capability to precisely airdrop all manner of items.
The heyday of mass parachute drops was in World War Two, most notably the multi-division operation by U.S. and British forces in the Normandy invasion and Operation Market Garden. Special units, called pathfinders, were created to guide the airdrops to their landing zones and special delivery systems, such as gliders, were created to deliver heavy equipment and vehicles. Since 1945, there have been smaller airdrops by U.S. forces in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In addition to delivering personnel and their equipment directly into combat, airdrops have been employed to support friendly forces that outdistanced their own lines of supply or were operating in hostile territory. One of the earliest examples of such an operation was the aerial resupply of the British Long Range Penetration Groups operating behind Japanese lines in Burma in 1943-44. During the Vietnam War, airdrops were vital to the conduct of counterinsurgency operations and to the successful defense of cities and bases besieged by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. The U.S. military has airdropped supplies to forward bases in Afghanistan in order to reduce the threat to aircraft and crews from hostile fire and to ground convoys due to improvised explosive devices.
The U.S. military has worked for decades to expand the range of missions that can be conducted via airdrops. It has experimented with ways of airdropping heavy cargoes, including tanks, albeit from low altitude. The Air Force has successfully demonstrated the ability to airdrop multiple Humvees from a C-5. U.S. special operations forces have developed a host of special techniques, such as high altitude-low opening parachuting, for the delivery of personnel, military equipment and supplies in a manner to be more accurate and to minimize detection by hostile forces.
In recent years, the ability to deliver equipment and supplies safely and with precision has become of greater importance in U.S. military operations. As the conflicts in Southwest Asia and Eastern Ukraine have demonstrated, conventional supply operations are increasingly threatened by hostile air defense systems, IEDs and long-range fires. In a combat environment characterized by continuous movement in contested environments, small, autonomous units will need to be rapidly resupplied without reliance on complex and vulnerable logistics systems.
The U.S. military has invested considerable resources to revolutionize airdrop delivery of equipment and supplies. Modern parachute systems can deliver a wide range of payload weights (from 100 to 42,000 lbs.) from low, medium and high altitudes, with an extraordinary degree of precision.
Working with industry, the Army’s Natick Soldier System Center developed the Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS). JPADS provides the ability to precisely deliver payloads of as much as 40,000 lbs. from aircraft operating from altitudes up to 24,000 feet and eight miles from the desired aim point. JPADS is a smart system that consists of a specially shaped parachute or parafoil, a parachute decelerator, an autonomous computer guidance unit with GPS and a load container or pallet. JPADS can deliver payloads to within 150 feet of the desired aim point. Aircraft employing JPADS can conduct deliveries to multiple locations in a single pass.
The aerospace and defense industry has developed a number of key technologies to improve the U.S. military’s ability to deliver personnel, equipment and supplies via parachute. The latest innovations include the ability to deliver payloads from high altitudes, and to land sensitive, fragile payloads accurately, without damage or reliance on GPS data.
For example, the Advanced Technology Systems Company (ATSC) developed specialized airdrop delivery systems to support precision delivery of light payloads from aircraft and helicopters. The company’s Sensor Delivery System can precisely, reliably and covertly deploy remote sensors and tactical communications relays. Its Mosquito Delivery System can deliver small payloads such as water, medical supplies or ammunition to within a few feet of a designated location.
The Charles Draper Laboratory has been working with the Army to develop a new parachute delivery navigation system that does not rely on GPS. This new system will use satellite or drone images to provide precision aim point location.
In addition to their military applications, precision airdrop systems have demonstrated their value in providing critical relief supplies in humanitarian crises. Providing vital supplies to needy populations in austere environments or during a local conflict is a challenging mission. The use of precision airdrop systems is able to reduce the risks both to aircrews and populations on the ground while increasing the probability that the needed supplies will arrive.
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