NATICK Mass. -- The 101st Sustainment Brigade commander and various staff members, who recently returned from Afghanistan, came to the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center Feb. 28 to discuss airdrop capabilities with employees.

Colonel Mike Peterman and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Joshua Hughes briefed and discussed their combined 78 months of operations experience in Afghanistan, emphasizing the importance of airdropping supplies to the troops in isolated areas and harsh environments.

Weather and terrain in Afghanistan pose many problems for Soldiers, who often travel on one-lane dirt roads with a cliff's edge on one side and a mountain on the other. Snowfall varies based on altitude, but often amounts to between 2-8 inches or more. Wadies are scattered throughout the landscape, and these long stretches of dried-up river beds become sinkholes and are tough to identify and avoid. On top of these complications, add frequent, tremendous seasonal dust storms, and this is only a snapshot of what a Soldier in Afghanistan has to adapt to while performing logistical operations.

Airdrop capability is necessary for this environment, and it allows for rapid resupply in contingency situations. Soldiers are responsible to secure the area, acquire all dropped supplies, gather rigging materials and parachutes, and bring supplies back to their Forward Operating Base, properly disposing of certain materials, as needed.

The mountain passes that Peterman noted specifically include: the Tera Pass, about 12,000 feet above sea level; the Khost-Gardez Pass, 10,500 feet ASL; and the Salang Tunnel, which is roughly 12,200 feet ASL at the bottom and opens at 13,000 feet ASL at the top. Airdrop, which continues to be improved upon, is necessary especially when tunnels in the area are not driveable during the winter.

"The Salang Tunnel is a series of tunnels that the Russians built in the 1970s, and it will fill in the day with water and then freeze during the night," Peterman said. "What complicates it for us is that we have 13 brigade combat team equivalents that are fighting here. In this battle space all-year long, there are eight FOBs that you cannot get to by helicopter or (airland, fixed wing). When the weather is bad in Afghanistan, upwards of 33 FOBs you cannot get anybody in there (via ground transportation)."

Airdrop use has continually improved in order to fit the needs required in theater. Hughes spoke of his second tour, from 2007 to 2009, and stated that in 2007 Joint Precision Airdrop, or JPAD, systems went through some proof of principles drops in theater.

"There is no airdrop in Iraq, but in Afghanistan this is something we absolutely need," Hughes said. "There were some initial problems with these (JPAD) systems. Systems were going several kilometers off course, and people were not receiving the fuel and ammunition that they needed. In fact, enemy combatants would sometimes receive the supplies U.S. Soldiers were supposed to receive."

Many of these systems did not have terrain-avoidance capability, but now JPADS has incorporated this capability, one-time-use, low-cost canopies, and Modified Airborne Guidance Units. As a result, supplies are landing closer to their designated points-of-impact more consistently; generally, the bundles land within 100 meters of the PI, and sometimes within 10-15 meters. Looking toward the future, inexpensive parachutes are ideal, because, frequently, JPADS currently cost more than the supplies being sent.

"We need to focus on low-cost, one-time-use everything," Hughes said. "Everything we use, everything we do needs to be a one-time-use drop, and that's hard to get."

With the drawdown in Afghanistan, airdrop should be reduced slightly, but a challenge still lies ahead. New FOBs will be open in areas where there are no roads and no landing strips. Hughes noted that there are areas in Afghanistan that still need to be ventured into and made secure.

"More Soldiers are being kept off the road and out of harm's way every time we do one of these airdrops," Hughes said. "Every time we do an airdrop with a C-17, we are keeping two trucks, two trailers, Soldiers, not to mention their convoy escorts and everyone else that goes with them, off the road. These are lives being saved by us doing airdrop."

The bottom line is that airdrop is a necessary capability used in theater in Afghanistan and will continue to be a technology relied upon by the Army. While forces are being reduced, airdrop's vital mission remains the same.