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Low-Cost, Low-Altitude
Aerial Resupply

An Army project to resupply units by airdrop developed from a concept to a valued combat operational capability in the hands of our Soldiers in just 16 months.

Picture your?dismounted patrol or small unit navigating an extremely difficult stretch of harsh, mountainous terrain in Afghanistan. Your location cannot be reached by ground transportation, and no airfields or landing strips can be found for miles. It has been 3 days since you were last resupplied, and you are eagerly awaiting an airdrop of needed cargo at a very small clearing near your position so you can continue your mission.

You arrive at the grid coordinates that were provided the night before by your commander. Just over the horizon, you see an aircraft approaching the small clearing to airdrop cargo from an altitude of about 150 feet. Four bundles containing configured loads of ammunition, rations, water, and medical supplies are dropped from the aircraft on one pass and land within 25 meters of your covered and concealed position. Without the use of materials-handling equipment (MHE), you and your dismounted patrol quickly and easily recover the cargo bundles from the small drop zone (DZ) and move out to your designated assembly area in a matter of minutes, without leaving a single trace of your existence at the DZ. After securing the assembly area, you and your team break open the bundles and find that all of the cargo has survived the airdrop. Of special significance, mail for you and your team is included with the other critical supplies.

Precise as clockwork and right on time and on target, you and your Soldiers have been resupplied without a hitch and your mail has been delivered to you some 200 miles from the nearest forward operating base. At this point, you smile and wonder why you didn’t have such a low-cost, low-altitude aerial supply capability before. But you and your Soldiers are very thankful that you have it now.

Based on feedback from our forces in the field, the Army determined that a clear and growing need existed for a “one-time use,” or disposable, parachute system to be used for conducting low-altitude aerial resupply operations. This need was particularly great for sustaining small units in operational environments like Afghanistan and Iraq.

The routine experiences of our combatant commanders and forces demonstrated that the Army required a much simpler and far-less-costly aerial resupply capability than that offered by expensive and complex precision high-altitude airdrop systems like the Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS). What was needed was a system that can reliably provide rapid, precise, low-cost delivery of supplies when resupply by ground transportation was not possible or desirable.

In response, the Department of the Army G–4’s Logistics Innovation Agency and the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center initiated the low-cost, low-altitude (LCLA) aerial resupply project in November 2005. Other project team members and stakeholders that supported and contributed to the successful completion of the project included the Product Manager for Force Sustainment Systems (PM FSS); the Army Combined Arms Support Command (CASCOM); the Army Test and Evaluation Command (ATEC); the Integrated Logistics Support Center (ILSC) at the Army Soldier Systems Center; the 4th Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 82d Airborne Division, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; the Army Forces Command; the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, Louisiana; and the Oklahoma Army National Guard.

This article describes the LCLA project and summarizes the significant progress made to date.

The Growing Operational Requirement for LCLA

Although other parachute systems meet some requirements in certain scenarios, the LCLA project team identified a clear “capability gap” that needed to be filled to better support expanding operational needs in the new and challenging operational environments of the 21st century. In short, to meet pressing and growing operational requirements for conducting very low-altitude operations and to accomplish their combat missions in theater, our commanders required LCLA to fill a capability gap that JPADS and other airdrop systems are simply not designed to fill.
As the acronym “LCLA” indicates, the goal of the project was focused specifically on developing very low-cost parachutes for airdropping supplies at altitudes from 500 feet down to 150 feet above ground level (AGL). Such parachutes can support forces that are operating—

  • Substantial distances from forward operating bases (FOBs).
  • In remote, austere locations that are hard to reach by ground transportation.
  • With limited or no MHE to conduct recovery or retrograde operations.
  • In locations with no usable airfields or airstrips to conduct air-land operations.

LCLA is one of several key integrated logistics aerial resupply delivery systems that the Army and joint communities are developing in synchronization with surface distribution operations to provide the combatant commander with the aerial resupply capabilities and enablers needed to meet the requirements of full-spectrum operations.

The primary objective of the LCLA capability is to improve tactical logistics support by enabling rapid and precise delivery and distribution of small, tailored support packages of configured loads to small units, with no operational pauses and with a much smaller logistics footprint.

Both the goal and objective of the project have been achieved in record time.

Performance Metrics

As a key first step in meeting the project goal and objective, the LCLA project team immediately established a clear set of design performance metrics to guide and focus the project. The team geared the entire developmental process and demonstration plan to develop an LCLA parachute system (or systems) that—

  • Performs as well or better than fielded systems in meeting the key performance parameters established by CASCOM and PM FSS.
  • Costs less than the currently approved low-altitude airdrop systems, with a goal of costing no more than $375 per delivery system (not including supplies).
  • Is flexible and simple enough to be quickly rigged by Soldiers who have minimal or no rigger or loadmaster training.
  • Can be airdropped from fixed-wing airplanes, helicopters, or unmanned aerial vehicles.
  • Can deliver 350-pound loads of supplies from altitudes below 500 feet and can be clustered to increase weight capacity as needed.
  • Can deliver loads within 75 meters of a pre-designated DZ impact point, with no damage to supplies and in a condition that allows recovery by three Soldiers operating without MHE in less than 5 minutes per load.
  • Facilitates and enhances joint interoperability.

LCLA Testing and Safety Confirmation

As part of the LCLA testing and evaluation process, in July 2006, ATEC’s Developmental Test Command (DTC) subjected the project team’s five LCLA selected systems (see the chart on page 21) to a very rigorous technical feasibility test at the Yuma Test Center in Arizona. After completing 116 test airdrops of LCLA parachutes from the Oklahoma Army National Guard’s C–23 Sherpa cargo airplanes at 150 feet AGL with no system failures, the DTC concluded that LCLA parachutes, under specified operating parameters, met safety standards for use by Soldiers.

Based on the technical feasibility test’s results and an approved recommendation for a safety confirmation from the Yuma Test Center, the DTC on 10 October 2006 approved a safety release to support Soldier operational use of the LCLA family of parachute systems from a C–23 during the 4th BCT’s JRTC mission rehearsal exercise in early November. After this exercise, DTC provided a safety confirmation in support of using the systems in theater and an ATEC capabilities and limitations report documenting LCLA system parameters.

Following the initial testing and approved safety confirmation, LCLA parachutes were tested successfully from CH–47 Chinook and UH–60 Black Hawk helicopters by ATEC’s Operational Test Command Airborne and Special Operations Test Directorate at Fort Bragg in February and May 2007. Based on these test results, a second safety confirmation was issued by DTC for rotary-wing operational use of the LCLA capability. As a result, our commanders and combat forces now have the additional option of deploying LCLA parachute systems from their organic helicopters to support mission requirements in theater.

Follow-on testing of the LCLA parachute systems from the CASA–212 aircraft were successfully completed by the DTC at Yuma in July 2007 and resulted in an amendment to the C–23 safety release to include the CASA–212.

LCLA Project Progress and Results

In just 16 months, the LCLA project team moved from an idea on paper to a capability that is sustaining and supporting combat operations in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). As forces down range have demonstrated over the last several months, increased stealth, reduced vulnerability, and lower cost are all achievable by using the LCLA family of parachutes. Extreme low-altitude delivery significantly reduces aircraft vulnerability in nonpermissive airdrop environments where small arms, light anti-aircraft artillery, and man-portable missiles are prevalent threats.

Using LCLA also increases Soldier survivability by reducing the number of ground convoys exposed to hostile enemy actions. Airdropping from lower altitudes significantly increases delivery accuracy, which permits the use of much smaller DZs and reduces load dispersion at DZs. This method of airdrop also reduces the force size needed to secure DZs.

Across the board, LCLA parachute systems have far exceeded all established performance metrics. In most cases, LCLA systems perform significantly better than existing fielded systems. These systems have fared far better in all established key performance parameters, including rate of descent, payload range, altitude capabilities, and load survivability. Through the use of LCLA parachute systems, supply loads are routinely landing less than 50 meters from a predesignated DZ impact point, with no damage to supplies (100-percent survivability of cargo) and in a condition that enables the easy recovery of loads without MHE by only two Soldiers in less than 2 minutes per load.

LCLA parachute systems are proving ideal for operations in remote areas where recovery and retrograde of parachutes are difficult, not feasible, or not desirable for safety and operational reasons—areas where “one-time use” is needed. LCLA parachutes also cost about 75-percent less to produce than fielded systems—about $128 per parachute system versus $535. To illustrate the significant cost savings, a current 200-pound door bundle costs $535 and consists of three G–12 static lines ($35 each), three 68-inch pilot parachutes ($125 each), and one A–7A airdrop cargo sling assembly ($55). An LCLA double-clustered cross parachute system, which can deliver over 200 pounds, costs just $128 and consists of two single cross parachutes with static lines ($55 each) and one LCLA low-cost container (LCC) or modified A–7A drums ($18). [A cross parachute looks like a round parachute with four slices cut out, thus forming a cross shape.] Most importantly, the LCLA attains 100-percent survivability of cargo at 150 feet AGL, which provides the combatant commander with another viable alternative for conducting very low-altitude airdrop operations to complement and supplement already fielded systems.

As for supporting our combat forces training for war at key collective training locations like the JRTC and fighting terrorists in places like Afghanistan, LCLA parachute systems continue to demonstrate their operational value, simplicity, responsiveness, resourcefulness, and reliability. The 782d Brigade Support Battalion (BSB) commander made the following comments on LCLA performance in a report to the 4th BCT’s commander a few days after using LCLA parachutes to support a major field training exercise at Fort Bragg—

The low-cost, low-altitude (LCLA) aerial delivery system was a real winner last week. The 4th BCT has an operational need for this system for resupplying small units by fixed wing and rotary-wing assets when we deploy to OEF . . . 4th BCT has a further need to refine our TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] and validate our use of the system at JRTC. We could use this system to deliver everything from ammo and batteries to water and rations . . .; we are literally limited only by our imaginations.

Based on the remarkable success of the LCLA capability during the 782d BSB’s exercise, the 4th BCT formally requested that the LCLA project team not only support its mission rehearsal exercise at the JRTC but also provide LCLA parachute systems to support the BCT as part of Task Force (TF) Fury while it is deployed to Afghanistan.

Meeting the Growing Demand for LCLA
To make the LCLA capability immediately accessible to our forces, the LCLA cross parachute and the LCC have recently been assigned national stock numbers by the ILSC and can be ordered through the standard supply system prepacked and ready for use by our deployed forces.

Key LCLA stakeholders initially began the process of manufacturing and providing LCLA parachute systems to meet the growing operational requirements of our forces in Afghanistan. The LCLA project team delivered 600 LCLA parachute systems to our forces in theater to support OEF requirements while simultaneously working to institute contracts to manufacture and deliver an additional 5,000 LCLA parachutes that were requested by TF Fury. All 5,000 were delivered by Federal Express to TF Fury, with a turnaround per LCLA shipment of 4 to 6 days. The LCLA project team is currently delivering 110 LCLA parachute systems per week, with the goal of ramping up to 150 per week.

To formally institutionalize the process to meet the long-term demand for LCLA, the ILSC recently awarded a multiyear, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract to allow production of LCLA cross parachutes by several manufacturers, which has led to much greater
production rates. The contract basically picks up where the LCLA project team’s production efforts dropped off. The contract allows the Army to requisition up to 20,000 cross systems if the demand from the field requires them.

Led by the efforts of PM FSS and ILSC, the LCLA project team fulfilled the TF Fury requirement of 5,000 LCLA systems with a mix of 2,800 LCLA cross parachutes, 2,200 LCLA T–10 and T–10R parachutes modified for cargo delivery, and 5,000 LCLA LCCs.

As of 7 December 2007, TF Fury had conducted 1,092 LCLA airdrops with all critical classes of supplies, accounting for over 1 million pounds of supplies in support of OEF operations and mission requirements. Of special significance, by “clustering” LCLA parachutes for individual cargo loads (using three or more LCLA parachutes per load), the TF has been able to increase the payload range to an average weight of 600 to 700 pounds per bundle while maintaining an airdrop altitude of only 150 feet AGL and achieving almost pinpoint accuracy. As one senior noncommissioned officer of TF Fury put it in a report on the LCLA capability—

In my opinion, this program [LCLA] is a complete success and the guys on the ground cannot get enough of it. Realistically, if commanders can receive supplies that are dropped on target and exactly where they are needed, it outweighs their use of [ground combat logistics patrols] and keeps personnel off the road.

The LCLA method of delivering supplies at the operational and tactical levels substantially enhances operational response, improves load survivability, reduces the logistics footprint, hastens DZ recovery operations, and, of critical significance, improves safety and force protection. Clearly, LCLA parachute systems are meeting operational requirements that no other capability can meet.

Nicholas C. Zello is a logistics management specialist at the Army G–4 Logistics Innovation Agency. He has a bachelor’s degree in environmental business administration from Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania and is pursuing an M.B.A. degree at Pennsylvania State University with a focus on logistics and supply chain management. He is a graduate of the Army Transportation Intern program.

Colonel Daniel L. Labin, USA (Ret.), is a senior logistics specialist with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory supporting the Army G–4 Logistics Innovation Agency. He has a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University and M.S. degrees from the University of Southern California and Florida Institute of Technology.