News Column

Joint Precision Airdrop Systems

February 1, 2014

Gourley, Scott R

Improving on capabilities originally developed and fielded in response to urgent combat requirements, to- day's Joint Precision Airdrop Systems (JPADS) provide the U.S. military with a unique set of logistics resupply capa- bilities that save lives of aerial delivery crews and warfighters on the ground in selected tactical environments.

The success of the programs to date reflects a close, cooperative working re- lationship between the Natick (Mass.) Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC); the U.S. Army Product Manager, Force Sustainment Systems (PM FSS), within the Program Executive Office for Com- bat Support and Combat Service Sup- port; and the U.S. Air Force.

"We take the technology work that is done by the NSRDEC and integrate that into programs of record," ex- plained Gary Thibault, team leader for the cargo aerial delivery team within PM FSS. "We operate based on require- ments from Army users that tell us to 'go find this technology and field this capability' and work in close partner- ship with the NSRDEC-co-located here at Natick-to advance those tech- nologies that are needed to achieve the desired capabilities."

In the case of JPADS, those technolo- gies were integrated into a unique re- supply capability whereby a para- chute can be dropped from up to 25,000 feet and flies itself to a target drop zone on the ground. An attached autonomous guidance unit contains the airdrop software and controls the direction of the parachute. The vertical and horizontal offsets between the air- craft and target drop zone result in minimized exposure to both aircrew and personnel on the ground.

"Users really started looking at the doctrine for precision airdrop in the 1990s," Thibault said. "They started to say that we needed to get a lot more precise, we needed to achieve height and we needed to get offset. That started the technology wheels spin- ning at places like the NSRDEC. They conducted a number of programs in the 1990s and early 2000s that really went out and found those types of precision airdrop technologies."

He added that a requirements docu- ment was approved for JPADS in 2007 to start that program in formal devel- opment "once all the technologies had been 'seeded' out there with industry."

From a product manager perspec- tive, the JPADS program encompasses two different systems that have been developed and are either being fielded or have been fielded: a 2,000-pound payload variant (JPADS 2K) and a 10,000-pound payload variant (JPADS 10K). JPADS 2K allows one ton of sup- plies to be dropped using a container delivery system, while the scaled up JPADS 10K allows platform-type air- drops of larger supply loads or small vehicles.

Thibault said, "JPADS does a couple of things. It reaches a considerably high altitude while maintaining excel- lent precision and accuracy, and it also allows for great load survivability. The other thing JPADS gives you that bal- listic systems don't is a move from two-dimensional airdrop to three-di- mensional. Before JPADS, all drops were ballistic. The plane had to fly di- rectly over the intended drop zone, so the enemy knew exactly where the drop zone was. Now, the plane can be offset by nearly any number of kilo- meters and remain at a higher altitude, completely out of the sight of the drop zone and still get the supplies on tar- get. It's really for us in those non-per- missive threat environments where the aircraft threat is elevated. You can get the aircraft out of harm's way and avoid letting people know where your drop zones are," he said.

Some precision airdrop technologies were rapidly fielded on an urgent ba- sis by NSRDEC as early as 2006-07, but they did not become programs of record. The JPADS 2K program of record was also fielded on urgent ma- teriel release to Afghanistan in 2008 but was subsequently type-classified in 2009.

Thibault said, "The original equip- ment manufacturer for the JPADS 2K system was Airborne Systems North America. That original development and production contract, which was competitively awarded, has since been completed. Now, we're in the process of going out on a new competitive contract to continue to procure that system over the years."

He estimates the JPADS 2K variants in theater "have probably per- formed in excess of 200 drops. That's not a lot; the reason is that in theater right now, the threat is not there to drive them to go very high and offset. The more economical way to drop over there right now is ballistic airdrop. They can go right over the drop zone because they own the airspace. That's why you need the ballistic systems in your tool- box in addition to the precision guided systems, because they're intended for different threats."

The original contract for the JPADS 10K system was competitively awarded to Airborne Systems. "It's in the process of being fielded in FY [fiscal year] 2014," Thibault said. "We completed the development program in 2012, and we received full materiel release ap- proval in December 2012. We started the initial production, but we ran out of space on that contract. We are in the process of obtaining a new RFP [re- quest for proposal]-it actually closed in late November [2013]-so we will be awarding a new competitive follow- on contract for JPADS 10K production for the next five years."

In addition to the activities sur- rounding the JPADS 2K and JPADS 10K programs of record, the product man- ager is also working with NSRDEC to look at some of the new precision guidance science and technology ef- forts to see which technologies might be brought back into the program to modify the fleets.

"For example, with JPADS, one of the things that can be done fairly easily is upgrading the guidance, navigation and control, which are software- and hardware-based," Thibault said. "The NSRDEC is working on a range of tech- nologies that we're very interested in incorporating into the future fleet through modifications down the road."

Richard Benney is the director of the aerial delivery directorate at the NSRDEC and emphasizes the coopera- tive relationship between his office and the product management team. When asked about some of his directorate's ongoing science and technology activi- ties, Benney explained, "We're invest- ing in [modifications for] weight classes that we think would be applicable to the two weight classes already fielded, or any other weight class in which the Army or other services might want to invest. We have done some very large JPADS-we dropped up to 40,000 pounds back in 2009 and earlier-and we're supporting the [U.S.] Marine Corps, which is running an ultralight weight class." He added, "Quite a bit of the work that we're doing is on the guidance, navigation and control. Ulti- mately, we want to reduce the cost; make them more accurate for all weight classes; and reduce the retro- grade burden-that is, make the re- coverable pieces, if it has reusable pieces, as low-volume as possible."

Some of the technologies being ex- plored to accomplish those goals range from the installation of strategically placed bleed-air actuators in the top skin of the parafoil to the use of video guidance to allow precision drops in global positioning system-denied areas.

"A lot of people want their target to go to a laser spot, but that's fairly diffi- cult based on the laser tracking systems currently available because they have a fairly small cone angle," Benney said. "They are meant for weapons coming straight down. These aircraft are glid- ing and turning for final approach, so they're not always pointing at the right location and would lose track."

Based on the NSRDEC efforts, Thi- bault said the product manager is look- ing in the FY 2015-18 time frame at a possible block upgrade to the JPADS 2K system, based on whatever tech- nologies they may have matured at that time.

"One thing would be something like collision-avoidance technologies," Thibault said. "The JPADS are getting so accurate now that when you drop a lot in a single stick, the tendency is that they will follow in the same air- space. They can run into each other. We want to get advanced software and hardware so that each system knows where the other systems are in flight and they can avoid each other.

"With precision airdrop, it's kind of like when we first went from 'dumb bombs' to precision-guided muni- tions," he continued. "Initially, they weren't used much because they were still trying to figure out all the tactics, techniques and procedures. At the same time, they were continually ad- vancing the technology. I think we're seeing the same thing with JPADS. Right now, it's a unique tool that's needed only when the threat is high enough, but as we continue to expand the capability and make it more user- friendly, simpler to employ, more cost- effective, more reliable and more accu- rate, I think you're going to see that it's going to get used even more than that original kind of niche area it was designed for." ?

Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS) bundles are loaded in Afghanistan. JPADS uses global positioning system (GPS) navigation to guide parachute bundles to precise drop zones.

Parachute bundles equipped with JPADS GPS guidance descend directly to a remote forward operating base in Afghanistan. JPADS minimizes collateral damage and troop travel time.

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Source: Army

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