Jordan's GPS-guided aid drop to Gaza: Is an air bridge possible?

With thousands of tonnes of aid stuck on the Egypt border due to Israeli restrictions, countries are considering workarounds

Humanitarian aid being loaded on to a Jordanian military cargo plane bound for Gaza. AFP
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Jordan airdropped aid to a hospital it funds in the besieged Gaza Strip on Monday, where 2.3 million people are running out of food and hospitals lack power and medicine.

Thousands of tonnes of aid are stuck on the Egyptian side of the Gaza border at Rafah and the nearby city of Arish, due to stringent Israeli inspection rules and discord between the Israeli government and Hamas over hostages in Gaza and ceasefire demands.

As the aid crisis continues and hunger spreads throughout the enclave, countries are starting to consider ways to bypass the land border. Alternatives include deliveries by ship – that might follow a local ceasefire in the Gaza port area – and airdrops such as that carried out by Jordan.

King Abdullah II praised Monday's operation – carried out by “fearless” air force personnel – in a post on X, formerly Twitter, with a photo of an aid pallet being loaded on to a Hercules plane.

Visible at the top of the pallet is a metal box known as a Jpad, or Joint Precision Airdrop System, a GPS-guided unit that can steer the relief package to its intended landing area. Without this, airdrops might be blown many kilometres off course, rendering them almost useless in a war situation where civilians cannot move safely.

Jpads also offer the advantage of allowing relief to be dropped from above 7,000 metres – out of range of anti-aircraft guns, machineguns and most stray projectiles from the fighting raging below, as well as of some portable anti-aircraft missiles.

By contrast, unguided airdrops need to be made from as low as 100 metres to ensure accuracy. Even then, they are aimed at a drop zone 1,000 metres long and 300 metres wide, whereas a Jpad-guided pallet can accurately hit a target area 100 metres across in good conditions.

Jordan’s successful mission has raised the prospect of an air bridge to Gaza. While there is precedent for such operations, experts say it would be only an extreme, last-resort measure.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a defence consultant and British Army veteran, called the Jordanian move “bold”. He said: “Air drops are very tricky if there is an air threat, but Israel pretty much dominates the skies and this actually might be a good way to get at least some aid in.

“Much better, in my opinion, to land huge amounts of aid on the beach."

Can an air bridge meet Gaza's needs?

In 1991, more than 800,000 Iraqi-Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime were stranded on mountains on the Iraq-Turkey border.

As deaths from disease and cold soared towards 1,000 a day, the US and UN mobilised a massive international aid airlift known as Operation Provide Comfort.

The effort was a success, with cargo planes dropping about 200 tonnes of aid per day to the beleaguered Kurds, and 7,000 tonnes over five weeks in the first phase of the mission.

Airdrops were used at first because the roads were inaccessible. As the aid operation was stepped up, helicopters and eventually lorries joined the effort.

Reports afterwards said much of the aid dropped had been blown off course to remote areas or had landed directly on those it was meant to help, especially as desperate people crowded into the drop zones.

Michael Knights, a defence analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said airdrops were a "very expensive, very risky and often inefficient" method.

“They are quite susceptible to wind-shear close to the ground and obviously pose a severe risk to people and buildings," he said. "They [can] easily crush a car and fall through one or more floors of lightly constructed buildings.

“You cannot build an air bridge of any consequence this way."

Jpads had yet to be invented at the time of Operation Provide Comfort and would have helped but there is still not enough supply of the devices for large-scale operations, according to Peter J Munson, who commanded a detachment of six KC-130 transport aircraft in Afghanistan.

Even with a large multinational effort, airdrops are less than ideal, he added.

“For C-130 drops, you're talking 26,000 pounds [11.7 tonnes] per aircraft, with a traditional drop [26 x 1000lb pallets]. If you work out the numbers, that will be a symbolic relief pipeline at best, even if you scale up to C-17 with allies,” he said.

Mr Munson warned with war likely to be raging across the small Gaza enclave for months to come, there could be considerable risk to slow-moving transport aircraft.

“The complexity of conducting aid drops at the scale required, with kinetic operations going on in such a small air space, to me seems insurmountable from a logistical and tactical point of view,” he said.

“Whatever the number of Jpads fielded, they'd quickly run out at the scale required, as well.”

He said Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza were also likely to have advanced shoulder-fired air defence missiles, known as Manpads, so even high-altitude drops would carry some risk.

Hamas is known to possess Strela 2 portable anti-aircraft missiles that could strike cargo planes up to 4,500 metres, meaning Jpads in short supply would be essential for safe drops.

A recent assessment by the World Food Programme underscored the scale of aid operation needed to meet Gaza's needs.

WFP spokesman Martin Rentsch said 1,000 tonnes of food would be enough for about 500,000 Gazans for one week, meaning more than 4,000 tonnes would be needed each week for the whole population. By comparison, Operation Provide Comfort’s first five weeks averaged 1,400 tonnes per week.

“It’s both an expensive and inefficient way of getting in humanitarian supplies but Monday’s operation serves Jordan’s broader political interests,” said Raphael Cohen, director of the Strategy and Doctrine Programme, Project Air Force at the Rand Corporation, a US defence think tank.

“Amman needs to be seen as trying to aid the Palestinians in Gaza, if only for domestic political reasons.

"The Jordanians couldn’t have done this without Israeli co-operation because Gaza air space is crowded and controlled by the Israeli air force and they would have needed to deconflict it prior to the operation.

“That implies to me that there are still good Jordanian-Israeli ties at least on the working level, despite the heated rhetoric.”

Updated: November 08, 2023, 5:30 AM