We’re Still Stupidly Air-Dropping Aid Directly Into the Hands of the Enemy
New gear could safely rush supplies to starving civilians, so why aren’t we using it?
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Feb. 24, the United Nation’s World Food Program dropped 21 tons of humanitarian aid over the Syrian city of Deir Ez Zor. Caught between the Syrian regime and Islamic State fighters for nearly two years, the residents there were in desperate need of food, water, medicine and other supplies.
“We have received initial reports … that pallets have landed in the target areas as planned,” Stephen O’Brien, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the members of the U.N. Security Council later that day.
But it quickly became clear that wasn’t true. Many of the containers — dropped from cargo planes that flew as high as 20,000 feet in order to avoid ground fire — had strayed off course or broken open after hitting the ground.
Syrian army units inside the city had more than enough time to watch the crates sail down — and rush in to grab them. Little if any aid actually reached hungry civilians.
“High-altitude drops are extremely challenging to carry out and take more than one trial to develop full accuracy,” the WFP stated on Feb. 25.
Unfortunately, the Deir Ez Zor mission was hardly the first time vital care packages have missed their mark — or worse, have actually aided the combatants who were responsible for the dire conditions, in the first place. Not coincidentally, the Pentagon is working hard on a new way to air-drop aid.
Since 2010, the U.S. Army has worked with the U.S. Air Force and the Pentagon’s top transportation headquarters to design a system that can get food and water quickly and safely from a plane into the hands of needy civilians on the ground. American troops can sling similar gear underneath a helicopter or a V-22 tiltrotor.
At first glance, the prototype setup for cargo aircraft looks like a typical crate, but with an attached parachute. Crews can drop it from as high as 25,000 feet above sea level or as low as 800 feet from the ground.
At a preset altitude, the box breaks open and the water and food packages fall to the ground. Nearly 3,000 food bars or around 2,400 water packets fit into each cardboard container. Each unit weighs half a ton. The helicopter-compatible version works on the same principle, but dangles underneath the copter and simply bursts open on command.
In true military style, the Army nicknamed the fixed-wing system “Humanitarian Operations Packaged Essentials,” or “HOPE.” The helicopter-type goes by “Humanitarian Operations Packaged Essentials From an Underslung Load,” or “HOPEFUL.”
The most important feature of these new systems is their internal padding. All of the aid comes insulated in soft foam. And all of pieces of the container remain attached either to the parachute as it floats down or to the helicopter as it flies away. Troops can even quickly reload the helicopter variant back at base.
Existing systems either keep the aid secured inside one huge crate or break up the container as it exits the plane. These methods can cause serious problems for civilians on the ground.
“They can land with enough force to severely injure ground personnel and thus are required to have a drop zone free of buildings and people,” an official Army fact sheet explains. “Delivering a substantial volume of aid in a single container also raises secondary concerns such as a dominant or weapon-wielding group taking control of the container and ration out the aid as they see fit.”
The latter issue would be a major factor in Deir Ez Zor and Syria in general, where government troops and militants routinely abuse innocent bystanders. To avoid anti-aircraft fire, the WFP’s contract pilots would’ve had no choice but to fly high — too high to safely drop the kind of smaller, unparachuted containers that could have helped disperse the aid without risking the supplies falling into combatants’ hands.
The Army said it designed the HOPE gear specifically to increase the “probability of contacting a person” with an individual package.
U.S. Transportation Command and the Air Force first ask the Pentagon to look into this problem following the devastating magnitude-seven earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010. With transportation in shambles and few public institutions left standing, the poor Caribbean nation quickly began to starve.
When the U.S. military’s assessment team arrived in the capital Port-au-Prince two days after the initial quake, it had to fly in circles for two hours before it could land, according to an official Air Force history. At Toussaint L’Ouverture intentional airport, no one was directing air traffic on the ground and planes and helicopters were parked dangerously close to each other, wherever there was space.
Despite the chaos on the ground, the Pentagon had not expected to drop aid directly to Haitian communities. The population was simply too densely packed in urban areas like Port-au-Prince for an airdrop to be safe or practical.
But with the slow turnaround of planes at Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Air Force’s top command for the Caribbean and Latin America dug out old surveys of potential drop zones in the country.
After a military coup ousted Haiti’s then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, U.S. planners carefully studied the island, just in case. Sure enough, in September 1994 American troops parachuted into Haiti to restore the old government.
All that experience came in handy two decades later. The Pentagon knew where the best drop zones were. But that didn’t mean airborne aid-delivery was totally safe.
“The critical concern was that the airdrop deliveries could inflict damage — injuries or fatalities — on the Haitians or local structures,” Air Force historians wrote. “When all was said and done, only four aerial delivery
missions took place.”
While those initial drops in 2010 went smoothly and no one got hurt, Haitian authorities continued worrying about accidents. The Pentagon halted the airdrop missions and, instead, focused on opening up additional airstrips for cargo deliveries.
HOPE and HOPEFUL could help solve similar problems in the future. But they aren’t perfect solutions — at least not yet. When the military tried stuffing HOPE and HOPEFUL with prepackaged Meals, Ready to Eat and water in plastic bottles, it discovered that the systems were no safer than old-style parachute-containers.
The MREs and bottles were simply too hard. Not even HOPE and HOPEFUL’s elegant dispersal techniques could prevent them becoming potentially dangerous projectiles. The Army and its partners had to come up with softer packaging.
The Pentagon initially planned to complete the new gear in three years — in other words, in 2013. At that point, the engineers would turn the program over to the U.S. Agency for Intentional Development for actual deployment.
But five years after the Haitian quake, neither HOPE or HOPEFUL is ready for real-world use, Richard Benney, the head of the Aerial Delivery Directorate at the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, told War Is Boring via email.
“The HOPE project information has been shared with … the Department of State/USAID, who are not yet prepared to support HOPE,” Benny explained. “NSRDEC has shared HOPE activities with NATO and other allied nations since the … system was first conceived.”
While the new systems wait in the wings, the United Nations must continue dropping aid inaccurately from high altitude, sometimes depositing vital supplies directly in the hands of combatants as civilians continue to suffer — as happened in Deir Ez Zor.
- What’s the Meaning of Failure?
- The U.S. Air Force Can Build a Drone Base in Less Than a Month
- What’s This Apparent U.S. Army Spy Plane Flying Over Libya?