8 December 2016

Push for east Aleppo aid drops using GPS-guided parachutes

Politicians call for American air-drop technology known as JPads to be used to supply besieged Syrian civilians, but militaries reported to be reluctant

Western diplomats have conceded that there are no technical obstacles to a plan to deliver airdrops of food and medicine to Aleppo using a GPS-guided parachute system, but the scheme has been stalled in the face of reluctance among military commanders and an absence of political will.

Diplomats and military from six governments – including the UK, US, France and Germany – have now seen the detailed operational plan proposed by an aid agency, which has been circulating among western officials for over a month.

The plan, which has been seen by the Guardian, relies on technology known as the the Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPads), which has been used by the US military since 2001 to supply troops in forward-offensive positions in areas of Afghanistan too difficult or dangerous to reach by road. It uses pallets dropped by parachute and guided by GPS navigation and a rudder.

According to the plan there are three identified feasible landing points inside east Aleppo. The main aim is to get some humanitarian supplies into the embattled and shrinking enclave to keep people alive in the hope that talks would lead to a longer-term solution.

The plan envisaged an initial delivery of 20 pallets and the flights could depart from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus or the Incirlik air base in Turkey. The ICRC could potentially verify that packages were for humanitarian purposes alone.

Aircraft would keep within 25km of the Turkish border and always remain over opposition-controlled areas. The pallets can be dropped from around 25,000ft and have a drift zone of up to 25km, thereby overcoming the main objection to air drops: that it would bring Nato planes into range of Syrian and Russian jets and air defence systems.

However, although the plan has been generally embraced by diplomats, there has been resistance from western military officers.

“One military was so reticent they denied the capability even existed,” said a source familiar with the meetings. While the technology is currently only used by the US military, its existence is clearly noted on the manufacturer’s website.

Chris Harmer, retired naval aviator and a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said: “The military has not prioritised getting this out there, there’s a sense that the military doesn’t want to get drawn into this theatre. And nobody has told them to.”

Discussions about air-dropping food into Aleppo and other besieged enclaves have been under way for months in Washington between US and UK officials, but have been stalled over inter-agency disagreements. Meanwhile, rebel-held eastern Aleppo has been overrun by pro-regime forces led by Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian-led Shia militias supported by Russian and Syrian regime aerial bombardment. Failure to agree an enduring ceasefire has stopped road convoys from getting through for more than 150 days.

The UK shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said: “The government has made clear in the past that it regards air drops as a last resort in Syria, but that is surely now the point that we have reached. I would urge the government to make every last effort, and explore every last option, to get food and medical supplies to the civilians trapped in east Aleppo before it becomes too late.”

Two engineering graduates from Aleppo University, Abdulrahman and Amr Shayah, launched an urgent appeal on Friday for JPads to be used to help the surviving civilians in the city.

“Parachutes have been used by the Russian and Syrian air forces to drop bombs … on civilian areas of the besieged city. Parachutes could be used to send urgently needed food and medical aid instead,” they said.

Alison McGovern, chair of Britain’s Syria all-party parliamentary group, said: “The government should be exploring all possible options to get aid to the desperate civilians on the ground … the government should come back to the House of Commons urgently with a plan that delivers the maximum amount of aid with the minimum risk to our armed forces.”