Soldiers in Afghanistan wait for supplies to hit the ground
While roadside bomb attacks continue to spike to record levels in Afghanistan, U.S. ground forces are doing everything they can to get their supply trucks off the roads. The Marines have taken the lead in using renewable technologies like solar power to reduce the amount of fuel that needs to be shipped to small outposts to quench the unending thirst of their generators, while the Army is going big—sending “smart” generators to its large bases to reduce overall fuel costs. (I have a big story about all this coming in the May DTI).
One of the ways to get convoys off the roads is to air drop supplies to remote outposts, a method of food, fuel, water, and ammo resupply that has “doubled annually since 2006, reaching 60 million pounds of supplies last year,” according to a story in today’s Wall Street Journal. Army Capt. Cole DeRosa, a company commander in the 506th Infantry Regiment tells the paper that the airdrops are “our lifeline … without receiving aerial resupply, we would have no supply."
DeRosa operates out of a small patrol base in Paktika Province, hard up against the Pakistan border, whose only road out to a supply base must pass through the Gwashta Pass, “a Taliban haven featuring steep mountainsides that offer ideal cover for ambushers”—which means that no U.S. ground convoy has used the road in two years. And it’s not just Capt. DeRosa’s unit that is being supplied from the air: twelve of the eighteen Army patrol bases in Paktika are supplied completely by air.
While aerial resupply makes lots of sense in cases like this, the Marines have been sloooowly inching themselves toward fielding an unmanned aerial resupply capability for several years now, and finally look to be close to pulling the trigger on it. The idea makes sense. While unmanned lift might not be able to lift the really big loads, small patrol bases often don’t need large, manned USAF (or contractor) aircraft buzzing low and dropping satellite guided pallets when an unmanned vertical-lift platform would do just as well.
Back in December, the Navy awarded two fixed-price contracts to Boeing/Frontier Systems and Lockheed Martin for their unmanned A160T Hummingbird ($29.9 million) and KMAX ($45.8 million), for Cargo Unmanned Aircraft System services. The service is expected to make a decision some time this summer on which system to send to theater, with an initial 6-month deployment slated for fall 2011.
The Marines have been talking about unmanned lift since at least 2007, but have insisted on going slow in its testing program up until now, so we’ll see what happens this fall.