Humanitarian air drops - a complex, risky task

2016-06-05 21:23
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Paris - The United Nations will on Sunday ask the Syrian government to allow airdrops of humanitarian aid -- an operation that military experts say is complex, risky and not always that effective.

Security risks

The UN wants Damascus to allow airdrops of food and medicine to civilians trapped in besieged areas which aid convoys cannot reach.

At least 592 000 people live under siege in Syria - the majority surrounded by regime forces - and another four million live in hard-to-reach areas, according to the UN.

The planes sending the aid need to be able to fly in a secure airspace, either with the agreement of warring parties, or by flying at very high altitude to escape missile fire.

"One can imagine that the Syrian army would get orders from President Bashar Assad to prevent the drops, but this would be very bad for him on a political level," said Jean-Claude Allard, an expert in military aeronautics at Paris's Institute of International and Strategic Relations.

He said this would look bad for Assad because he was trying to position himself as a key player in the fight against the Islamic State group.

"Islamist rebels could also try to stop the air drops because taking the population hostage is part of their strategy," Allard added.

However, these groups are not known to have high altitude surface-to-air missile capability.

If Syria does give the green light to the UN, tight co-ordination would be required between the Russians and Americans who are both active in Syrian skies.

Technical complexity

If the planes do not have security guarantees, they will have to parachute aid packages from a very high altitude, reducing the precision of the drop.

"Depending on the nature of the threat and the weather, we determine from what height we can ensure a certain radius of dispersal," said a military specialist in the field, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He explained that by analysing wind flows, experts calculate a point from which to make the drop with the parachutes.

However, at high altitude, icy temperatures can block the opening of parachutes and if winds are too strong the mission would have to be cancelled.

If security is ensured, the plane can descend to a low altitude of about 50m above ground and throw out packages without using parachutes.

"It is cargo like flour and rice... not very fragile... that is dropped without a parachute," added the military expert.

Using a parachute, items can be dropped from up to to 8 000m.

However, airdrops are very complicated in urban areas.

"We typically aim for inhabited areas, far from major highways. In an urban zone we need to find open spaces. An airport for example can do the trick," said the military specialist.

Allard said the alternative was using a helicopter which can land on the equivalent of half a football field or make a drop from a few dozen metres.

However, this is high-risk.

"It would be exposed to snipers as it slows to descend... and takes off again," said Allard.

Limited results

The load that a plane can carry is a lot less than the amount that can be taken by trucks in a road convoy.

Allard said there was also always a risk that cargo from an airdrop did not fall into the hands of those who needed the help.

And there was also a risk that falling packages hit and injure inhabitants.

In addition, finding those willing to send their planes into Syria to carry out the drops could be a challenge.

"I can't see many countries sending military aircraft over there," said Allard.

Read more on:    un  |  syria  |  aid

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