Need for Airdrops Skyrockets in Afghanistan

A C-130J Super Hercules takes off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, on April 1, 2018. Air Force photo by SSgt. Divine Cox.

The number of airdrops conducted in Afghanistan last year increased nearly 1,900 percent from 2017, and the airmen tasked with providing this capability to US and allied forces on the ground did so at a perfect rate.

In 2018, US aircraft airdropped a total of 667,880 pounds of supplies across Afghanistan, up from just 33,423 in 2017, zero in both 2016 and 2015, and just 28,000 in 2014. In 2013, the last time US aircraft flew a higher rate of airdrops, the US military had more than 65,000 troops in the country compared to about 16,000 in mid-2018.

The increase was coupled with a dramatic spike in airstrikes—2018’s total of 7,362 was more than the previous three years combined, and the highest total since at least 2009, according to statistics provided by Air Forces Central Command.

These numbers show the fight in Afghanistan is far from over. Even as US negotiators work toward a framework for peace with the Taliban, ISIS-Khorasan remains a threat. AFCENT, in a statement to Air Force Magazine, would not specifically provide details on how its operations changed, saying only that weather changes, the movement of forces, and resupply needs can shape how mobility missions occur.

“We operate in a dynamic, ever-changing AOR [area of responsibility], and therefore the movement of assets and resupply missions vary,” AFCENT spokeswoman Capt. Holly Brauer said in a statement.

The huge increase in airdrops, which were largely flown by C-130Js and airmen primarily from Little Rock AFB, Ark., can be attributed to the evolving fight.

“The difference I noticed, wasn’t a change in the pace of operations or a build-up and draw down. It was more where we were … flying into. It was where the fight was being fought,” said Capt. Michael Morrison, a C-130J pilot with the 41st Airlift Squadron. Morrison couldn’t say exactly where the fighting was taking place, but he said the more remote, mountainous areas did not have a “a suitable airfield, so we have to do the airdrop instead.”

In January 2018, when the airmen and aircraft from Little Rock deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, the pace of airlift operations was “business as usual.” Aircrews flew approximately every other day, about four lines per day, doing “air-land” cargo deliveries, meaning they would land on a remote airstrip at an established forward operating base.

However, as the deployment progressed, operations in Afghanistan shifted. US, coalition, and Afghan forces fought more in Eastern Afghanistan, in places like the remote and mountainous Nangarhar Province, against ISIS-Khorasan fighters who had holed up in these harsh areas. Also in early 2018, the Army deployed its first Security Forces Assistance Brigade to rural outposts to train small units of Afghan forces in areas closer to Taliban strongholds and the soldiers needed regular resupply. These SFAB teams augmented existing US and allied Expeditionary Advisory Packages deployed with Afghan forces throughout the country.

Aircraft were needed to supply forces in rough areas, and operate at a pace that was “minimizing our level of exposure,” said Capt. Jonathan Cordell, a C-130J pilot with the squadron who was the tactics officer while deployed.

This meant more remote forward operating locations, without airstrips, and in contested areas. Resupplies had to be rethought, and soon the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid AB, Qatar, called on the C-130Js to airdrop supplies.

From the beginning of the deployment until the end of March, there was not a single pound airdropped in Afghanistan. By the end of April, aircraft dropped 135,840 pounds, with 191,400 more in May, and 126,000 pounds airdropped in June. The rate dropped through the end of summer before picking back up at the end of the year, according to AFCENT statistics. The increase in airdrops “is something, to be honest, no one really had expected to do once we got out to Afghanistan,” Morrison said. “We knew it was definitely a possibility, and we could carry out that kind of stuff.”

At first, the C-130Js solely landed and rolled off cargo, but by late spring they were flying airdrop missions roughly once per week.

“It’s a tribute to the C-130’s flexibility, and our ability to go anywhere, anytime. We‘ll carry out the mission and get it done,” Morrison said. “We do that better than any airplane.”

In May 2018, C-17s got back in the fight, when an Al Udeid-based Globemaster dropped more than a dozen pallets in Southern Afghanistan—the type’s first airdrop within US Central Command in 18 months. The Afghan Air Force also increased its capability, with its first emergency airdrop from a C-208 in June of that year.

The Little Rock crews tallied a 100 percent recovery rate throughout their deployment, which ended in June, meaning their pallets landed on target and friendly crews were able to pick it up immediately. After the drops, aircrews would make sure to connect with the ground forces to ensure everything was picked up, and plan ways to improve the process for future drops, Cordell said. Sometimes the soldiers would make personal requests, but unfortunately the aircrews were “not a part of that decision-making process,” he said.

The missions were planned days or weeks in advance, with soldiers working with loadmasters to prepare the bundles for airdrops after tasks came in from the CAOC. Airdrop missions took more time to prepare, because the bundles had to be outfitted with parachutes and readied to be tossed out the back of an aircraft. But it also allowed for a faster turnaround on missions. At times, an aircraft could airdrop a load of supplies, then land to roll on more pallets for a traditional air-land mission right away, said A1C Matt Madson, a C-130J loadmaster with the squadron.

At one point in early May, a Resolute Support Expeditionary Advisory Package in a remote mountainous area needed a large resupply, one that couldn’t be carried by one C-130J. Instead of using a different aircraft, such as a C-17, or doing multiple passes into a hostile area, the CAOC brought in another C-130J and airmen from the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at Al Udeid AB, Qatar, comprised of Reserve airmen deployed from the 403rd Wing at Keesler AFB, Miss. The two C-130Js flew in tight formation through the night to drop the supplies nearly simultaneously to the friendly forces. This type of mission was “more tactically sound, with less exposure time,” pilot Capt. Christian Fontaine said.

It was the first time C-130Js from separate bases, in different countries, flew a dual formation airdrop in the 18-year-long war. The two squadrons practiced the exact mission set before deployment, during spin-up training at the Green Flag-Little Rock training exercise in Arkansas. These types of missions are trained regularly back home, but had not been flown in Afghanistan in the same circumstances.

The mission provided lots of equipment to Army guys on the ground safely, and was a “timely, awesome proof of concept,” said Capt. Mark Hunkins, a C-130J pilot with the squadron.

As the deployment progressed, the airmen and mission planners were able to refine their tactics and capability. Maintainers kept the aircraft at a high mission capable rate, because “canceling a line, that means people and cargo aren’t getting to where they need to,” Morrison said.

“We pride ourselves in being professional aviators,” Morrison said. “We want to be the guys in the squadron that the Army calls when they need something done. We want them to call us first. We don’t want them to call C-17s … We want them to call us. We can take care of them, they know what they’re going to get and they’re going to get it on time.”