May 10, 2005 Parachuting into heavy fog, dense cloud cover, rain or snow may not be everybody’s idea of fun, but it’s much better than clear blue sky when Special Operation Forces wish to insert themselves into unfriendly places without being seen. This infiltration technique is called High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) and the only problem is that if there are no visual cues available, you can land a long way from where you’re supposed to be. This can be further exacerbated if there are several parachutists in the group. Accordingly, the Natick Soldier Center’s (NSC) Airdrop Technology Team is currently evaluating three prototype Military Free Fall (MFF) navigation systems to safely, accurately and covertly insert forces into hostile environments.
The new systems will enable Special Ops to parachute from high in the sky toward their intended infiltration point aided by a navigation system in a similar manner to the way pilots rely on their instruments to guide their aircraft when visibility is limited.
Jumping from altitudes of 25,000 feet or higher, they can steer their Ram Air parachutes to pre-selected impact points even after exiting the aircraft from miles away in miserable weather.
“The best conditions are the worst conditions,” said Daniel Shedd, project officer for the MFF Navigation System. “Ideally, you don’t want to see the ground until just prior to landing, because (the enemy) can see you.”
While precision airdrop programs at the Airdrop/Aerial Delivery Directorate at Natick are working on ways to accurately deliver cargo to a planned drop zone, the MFF navigation system guides warfighters flying under canopy. In both cases, the intent is to minimize exposure of Air Force aircraft and their crews to enemy threats.
“We just want to get them close. Once they are on final approach within a kilometer, they should be able to identify their target,” Shedd said. “The Global Positioning System (GPS) is accurate to within about 10 meters, but unfortunately the altitude is not yet accurate enough considering the timing necessary of the canopy flair maneuver, which slows the forward speed and vertical descent rate for a soft and safe landing.”
He said HAHO operations are not commonly considered because commanders don’t have enough confidence to risk failure of the larger mission and possible loss of life.
Bad winds, missed release points, inaccurate release altitudes and human directional errors frequently result in missed targets. Adequate training is another concern because of airspace restrictions, aircraft limitations and logistics involved in operating in such a hazardous environment.
These infiltrations, when successfully performed, are ideal for small units requiring the highest level of security, he said.
When coupled with precision bundle capabilities and future improved personnel parachute systems, large amounts of equipment and vehicles will be able to be inserted with the unit, greatly increasing its mission capabilities.
“When the opportunity arises to train for this type of infiltration technique, the jumpers need the best tools available to ensure success and demonstrate the viability of the mission,” Shedd said.
The user-community has long sought this type of capability but has had no choice but to purchase their own handheld GPS units and attempt to mount them in places where they could be useful.
GPS-based airborne guidance units mounted on the chest or wrist were primitive attempts to navigate from under canopy, said Shedd, but the problem is that they are too difficult to view while wearing all the necessary equipment for high-altitude jumps, such as oxygen masks.
Started two years ago and funded by Special Operations Command’s Special Operations Special Technology, Shedd said the project has gained significant momentum, in addition to the participation of all of the Special Operations services.
Systems now in development consist of a Gentex high-altitude parachutist helmet with a heads-up display, a processor unit and GPS. A laptop-based or Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) mission planner along with a map overlay, alternative target designation features and predicted release cones based on wind estimates entered into the computer before the jump are all options being evaluated.
The Marine Corps, engineers from the Navy’s Coastal Systems Station in Panama City, Fla., and the NSC have produced a prototype scheduled for fielding in 2006.
It will give Marine Corps Special Operators the first MFF navigation aid to work with until an upgraded system is available, according to Shedd.
“These guys are really excited. I have no shortage of people who want to know more and eventually try it,” Shedd said, who has tested the systems as an airborne-qualified civilian employee. “Experience has shown that jumpers need a couple of jumps just to get used to it, but once they do, they all become believers.”
From altitudes as high as 35,000 feet, the system must function at minus 35 degrees F and for as long as a 20-mile offset in calm winds with MC-4 or MC-5 parachute systems. Offsets of 3-1, which is a ratio of 3 feet of forward motion for every 1 foot of descent, will increase to 5-1 or 6-1 with a future canopy, and help to provide extra protection to aircraft, according to Shedd.
Future real-time wind information will be delivered to the mission planning computer by the Joint Precision Aerial Delivery System (JPADS) for cargo delivery, a current Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program also being managed by NSC. This will further enhance mission accuracy since inaccurate winds are the most significant contributor to missed targets, Shedd said.
The Marine Corps system integrates a GPS wired to a tiny TV-like display mounted to one side of the goggle. Shedd said the system is assembled with commercial components, and the technology is relatively mature, but there is limited follow-on capability, the display is obtrusive and the helmet is of little use on the ground.
Another prototype, developed by European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. for German Special Forces, uses a handheld GPS with airborne guidance wired to the helmet display.
A display driver and antenna integrated into the helmet are fine, but the liquid crystal display begins to fail at high altitudes due to the low temperatures, and the cables restrict movement and are sensitive to damage, according to Shedd.
On the upside, he said the mission planning software is “fantastic.” It knows how to fly the mission and determine the approach, making 3-D adjustments from the sky. Also, its GPS can be used on the ground.
Shedd said the next-generation prototype should be ready within the next six months.
The eventual goal is to carry a PDA containing mission-planning software and an encrypted GPS in the rucksack that wirelessly communicates to a heads-up display.
The display is expected to be unaffected by low temperature, legible in bright light and attached to a ballistic helmet instead of a parachutist helmet.
It is hoped that the navigation aid will become the base for an electronics package that will be considered multi-mission capable, which streamlines many computer-based capabilities now expected of Special Operations, such as calling in close air support, and enabling many communications functions, according to Shedd.
“The system must be reliable and easy to use, and programming should not overly burden planning of the long-term mission,” he said. “We have to keep in mind that HAHO jumps are just a way of getting Special Operations Forces to the job.”