December 11, 2008 – U.S. forces have sharply increased the number of airdrop supply missions in Afghanistan in the past three years, as roads have become more dangerous and allied troops have established remote outposts.
The number of airdrops has increased to 800 this year from 99 in 2005, according to Central Command’s air operations center. Planes dropped 15 million pounds of cargo this year, nearly double last year’s load of 8.2 million pounds.
The statistics include missions throughout Central Command’s region but mostly refer to airdrops in Afghanistan.
Dropping supplies by air means fewer convoys on the ground.
“We’re doing it because it saves lives,” said Air Force Gen. Arthur Lichte, commander of the Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
Afghanistan’s roads have grown more dangerous. The number of roadside bombs and suicide attacks has increased to 1,041 this year from 224 in 2005, according to the NATO command in Afghanistan. This year, more than 1,400 bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices, were discovered before they were detonated.
The increase in air missions comes as the U.S. military in Afghanistan attempts to reduce its reliance on its main supply line, which goes through neighboring Pakistan.
About 70% to 80% of supplies for U.S. and NATO forces come through Pakistan, according to the U.S. Transportation Command.
U.S. officials have met with the leaders of neighboring Central Asian countries to explore alternative supply route options, said Navy Capt. Kevin Aandahl, public affairs officer for the U.S. Transportation Command.
Militants have launched several attacks recently on the main supply line.
In the latest incident,, militants attacked a supply depot near Peshawar, a teeming border city, and torched more than 100 vehicles bound for U.S. and Afghan forces.
U.S. officials have said convoy attacks haven’t disrupted the flow of supplies to troops. “The bottom line up front is that Pakistanis are protecting our lines of communication, and we have had no real effect in our logistics status here in Afghanistan because of that,” Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, deputy chief of staff for NATO forces in Afghanistan, said last week.
Afghanistan poses more difficult logistics challenges than Iraq, which has flat terrain and relatively advanced infrastructure.
Afghanistan’s forbidding terrain has challenged a succession of foreign forces, going back to Alexander the Great.
“A lot of the remote firebases are beyond conventional lines of communication,” said Air Force Capt. Josh Watkins, a staff officer with U.S. Air Forces Central.
Air resupply can never replace ground convoys, but it can reduce the number of supply vehicles on Afghanistan’s dangerous roads.
Improvements in technology have made airdrops vastly more accurate than in previous wars when pallets were kicked out of the back of airplanes and were as likely to end up in enemy hands as the intended drop zone. The bundles were subject to winds and sketchy calculations.
Today, a device dropped from planes measures actual wind conditions from the plane’s altitude down to the ground.
Airdrops generally land within 200 yards of the target in 98% of the missions, Watkins said.
“We’ve gotten a lot more accurate over the years,” Lichte said.