The project, a joint operation with the Naval Research Laboratory, actually began with the Afghan government’s approach to the U.S. Geological Survey. The aim, according to John Brozena, head of the NRL’s Marine Physics Branch, was “to develop a project that would help exploit or look for economic resources within Afghanistan.” Those resources include gas, oil, minerals and terrain where roads or bridges could be built.
“This is part of the United States’ effort to build a stable, self-sustaining economy in Afghanistan,” said Brozena. “It was suspected that Afghanistan could have substantial geologic resources that could allow them to build a legal economy. Right now, they have essentially no legal method of generating jobs and money inside the country. USGS was given the task of helping them do that, and NRL became involved because of its experience working with the Navy on airborne surveys.”
Brozena approached VXS-1 about the possibility of taking an NP-3D Orion to Afghanistan, outfitted with remote sensing devices to do the job. “The answer from VXS-1 was that they were interested, and the job was do-able,” he said.
After two years of negotiations and discussion, the Afghan government underwrote the project for $4 million. Another $2 million came from U.S. sources that “took the opportunity of the airplane being there with these sensors to piggy-back on top of what the Afghans wanted,” said Brozena.
With funding completed in August 2005, the Afghan government “wanted us to deploy as quickly as possible,” said VXS-1 Commanding Officer Cmdr. Patrick Herring. “The serious modification work began in early September 2005, but when the modifications to the NP-3D were done, the limiting factor was that we were going to operate out of Kandahar, and they were in the process of rebuilding the runways.”
He continued, “We were ready in mid-March, and we deployed the day after they completed the left half of the runway.” The advance party to set up maintenance, computers, telephones, etc., left Pax River on May 2, 2006. The main body of the force left May 8. The NP-3D arrived in Kandahar in early June. The project was done with one airplane and staff of approximately 40, which included U.S. Navy air crew as well as U.S. civilians and Canadian Forces project specialists.
When it arrived, the NP-3D had an extensive array of equipment installed, including:
“It was a very complete group of airborne geophysical sensors, probably the most complete flown to date,” said Brozena. “Certainly this group of sensors has never been flown before.”
Herring noted that all the modification work was done at Pax River. In addition to the sensors, “There had to be modifications made for survivability, just like any other aircraft going into a combat theater,” said Herring. Those included gray paint on the outside, foam in the fuel tanks, an infrared strobe, and a warning system complete with chaff and flares.
At the same time, a survey plan was developed that would cover as much of Afghanistan as possible. With mountain peaks as high as 20,000 feet, the operation was limited by the necessity of maintaining ground clearance from hostile fire. All told, the NP-3D flew 40 missions over a period of 10 weeks, totalling 226 hours over the country and mapping approximately two-thirds of the nation.
As it happened, the safest place to be was in the air. The NP-3D was never fired on, but, said Herring, “on the ground, Kandujar was a very busy place while we were there.”
The result of this detailed mapping is that, according to Herring, “if you look at a spot on the ground, you can look at various levels of information for that one spot, where in the past you’d have a map from one effort, then a map from another effort, and maybe a map from a third. The airplane would not have been in the same place for all three, and they may have each been done 20 years apart.”
Without GPS, which was invented by NRL in the 1960s, the project would have been virtually impossible, said Brozena. “We can position the airplane very precisely – to within a couple of inches.”
All told, the survey collected 50 terabytes (a terabyte equals 1,000 gigabytes) of data, much of which is yet to be processed. “The final delivery of gravity and magnetics will be in two-three months,” Brozema said. “The rest will take longer because there’s more of it. We’ll be working on this for quite some time.”
VXS-1 aircrew members returned home to Pax River August 28, and when Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, at the Pentagon in late September, Brozena and Herring presented him with an image of Afghanistan’s Kazaki Dam generated from the mapping survey, as well as a flag in commemoration of the project.
This is probably not the end for such surveys. There is interest by Pakistan in a similar survey of its eastern territories which border Afghanistan, according to Brozena. In addition, “There is interest in not only economic development but humanitarian issues,” he said. “There has been discussions with Central Command to help them in some areas of Africa where there is a terrible drought and U.S. armed forces are out there actually digging wells.”
“At this point, we expect there will be future missions taking science and technology out into the field, contributing to the Global War on Terror,” Herring said.
Making the mission a success is “where the relationship here on the base has been important. For example, we worked with AIMD to insure we had a spare engine and propeller standing by. It never happened, but if we had lost an engine or a prop, we would have had to draw on the fleet – but a replacement for the fleet’s stock would have been shipped immediately from Pax River, so we would minimize our impact on the fleet,” Herring said.
Other examples: VX-20 did the flight quality checks on the radome installed on the NP-3D. PMA-290 (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) worked on the mission’s survivability issues. NAVAIR was intimately involved with the project’s flight planning. “This shows the unique partnership of what we do at Pax River,” he continued. VXS-1’s remaining staff had to keep up with the workload while half the squadron was on deployment. “No one can say we did it all by ourselves; I can’t say enough about that partnership.”
Herring concluded, “Most of the people on this project feel it is the most important thing they have ever done in their military careers. They had the vision of what this was doing to help the Afghan people to be self-sustaining. It will always be a milestone for me.”