They Better Be 100% Silk

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Air Force photo / Staff Sgt. Chad Chisholm

A flock of Low-Cost, Low-Velocity parachutes gently drop bundles of needed supplies to a remote forward operating base in Afghanistan

Five of the first six contract awards announced Tuesday were for parachutes costing nearly $1 billion. All five contracts were for “low-cost, low velocity parachutes.” Alas, as is becoming increasingly common, the contract announcements don’t specify how many are being bought, so it’s difficult to assess the “low cost” claim. We trust the competition keeps prices down.

These so-called LCLV parachutes are one-time-use ‘chutes designed to deliver fuel, ammo and food to troops at isolated bases in Afghanistan and elsewhere. They’re packed into a “Low-Cost Container” as part of the Army’s “Low Cost Aerial Delivery Systems” program. Beginning to notice a pattern?

The parachutes aren’t made of silk, but of a polypropylene fabric similar to that often used for sand bags. “These airdrops bring the supplies closer to the troops, and lowers the risk of IED attacks by taking convoys off dangerous roads,” Bobby Robinson, a government civilian logistician, told an Air Force public affairs officer last year. “LCLV parachutes look like a big Hefty bag flying in mid-air.”

They’re dropped at a rate of less than 28 feet a second from cargo planes at altitudes ranging from 500 to 1,250 feet. Each can deliver up to 2,200 pounds.

Last year, the military was flying the parachutes to Afghanistan aboard C-5 and C-17 cargo planes, as well as hired 747s, due to the need to supply troops on the front lines.

The ‘chutes come prepackaged from the factories, which saves a lot of time in the field. “If not for prepacking,” retired Air Force General Duncan McNabb recently noted, “we could not sustain our current airdrop volume with legacy methods.” These ‘chutes now account for 96% of the airdrops in Afghanistan.

Still, it’s surprising, according to Tuesday’s contract awards, that we’re spending $838 million buying more parachutes to airdrop vital supplies to U.S. troops who have been waging war on the ground in Afghanistan for more than a decade. This is not a good leading indicator, as the economists might say.

Too bad there isn’t a way to parachute out of Afghanistan. Don’t fret, McNabb says in Air & Space Power Journal: they’re working on it. “In spite of its huge success, airdrop is one-way-only,” he concedes, “so we are now exploring ways to conduct two-way mobility operations just about anywhere in the world.”