March 8, 2012: A U.S. Air Force C-130 recently dropped supplies to several hundred Mali soldiers and civilians besieged in the town of Tessalit, near the Algerian border. Tessalit has been under siege by Tuareg rebels for several weeks and a relief force of Mali troops was recently rebuffed before it could reach the town. The U.S. has been providing aid in dealing with Islamic terrorists in the area but has generally stayed out of the disputes with the Tuareg tribes. Apparently, several hundred Tuareg tribesmen returned from Libya last year, after working for the late dictator Moamar Kaddafi. The returning Tuaregs brought with them additional weapons and a willingness to break the peace deal they had with the Mali government. That resulted in several thousand heavily armed Tuareg launching yet another rebellion (for more autonomy) against the Mali government (that is dominated by black Africans). Tuaregs are eight percent of Mali's population (14.7 million)
There were no details on the U.S. air drop, but for the last five years the U.S. Air Force has been using a reliable high altitude guided cargo parachute systems, mainly for drops in Afghanistan. These guided parachutes have also been used for relief operations, in Afghanistan and Haiti, where the landing zone was small or the weather bad.
The JPADS (Joint Precision Airdrop System) and ICDS (Improved Container Delivery System) provide a system whereby C-17s or C-130s carrying pallets of supplies are equipped with GPS and mechanical controls to guide the direction of the descending parachute for pinpoint landings. Before the parachute is used, the pallets first release a parafoil (a parachute that can be controlled in such a way that the user can gain altitude and travel over long distances) and the pallet descends at about 44 meters a second (from an altitude of about 6,000 meters, safely away from any ground fire), guided towards the landing point. When a few hundred meters over the programmed drop zone the parafoil is released and the parachute deploys, bringing the pallet (with up to five tons of supplies) down within a hundred meters of the programmed landing point. A single C-17 can deliver up to 40 pallets this way, to many different landing zones. JPADS has release point information (calculated using current weather conditions) sent to the C-17, along with GPS landing coordinates for the pallets. This GPS data is transmitted to each pallet via a wi-fi type system.
The new system has been developed over the last decade from earlier precision para-drop systems. All rely on GPS to give accurate landing information and easily manipulated parafoils to provide the maneuverability. The aircrews find it fascinating to push a bunch of pallets out and then watch as they form into "flocks" and head off for their various drop zones. For the troops on the ground, it's a convenient way to get supplies, no matter where they are out in the boondocks.
Before the development of GPS guided air drops, a large percentage of air dropped supplies were lost, either by falling into enemy hands or into things that destroyed them (especially water). With the new delivery systems it's even possible to do night drops if you don't want to alert nearby enemy troops.