Amid continued efforts to speed up the nation's quick reaction force, the 82nd Airborne Division is testing a new technique that could extend Army helicopters by hundreds of miles.
The "Airborne FARP" being tested by the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade could help Army helicopters reach the ground forces that train to parachute into enemy territory under the cover of darkness.
A FARP, or forward arming and refueling point, provides fuel and ammunition for helicopter crews.
Often, they are located at forward operating bases or airfields in areas with existing military security.
The 82nd Airborne wants to be able to place them well beyond the reach of those bases and closer to the front lines of battle. To do that, the 82nd is developing procedures to airdrop components of a FARP and the soldiers who would operate it.
That would extend the reach of helicopters, which unlike much of the 82nd Airborne's equipment, cannot be dropped from a plane.
Col. Erik Gilbert, commander of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, said the Airborne FARP helps bring the division's air power to the fight and gives additional options for commanders planning for the Global Response Force, which is tasked with deploying anywhere in the world on short notice.
Without a FARP, the helicopters would need to wait for an airlift into paratrooper-held territory. With a FARP, their reach would be expanded by hundreds of miles.
"It's all about getting combat power to the fight," Gilbert said. "All this comes together and extends the legs of the CAB to get to the fight."
On a recent night at Sicily Drop Zone, soldiers continued to hone the skills and develop the standard procedures for the future Airborne FARP mission.
Three large packages slid from the back of the plane as massive parachutes filled with air above them. The air drops -- which included simulated fuel, a pump system, ammunition and a Humvee -- fell silently, punctuated by a reverberating thud upon landing.
Minutes later, the C-17 again flew over the drop zone. This time, it released about 50 paratroopers into the air.
Twenty soldiers, mostly assigned to A Company, 122nd Aviation Support Battalion, worked with little light and virtually no noise, unpacking the pump system, known as an Advanced Aviation Forward Area Refueling System, or AAFARS, and hooking it up to real fuel, delivered to the drop zone via truck to replace the water dropped as part of the exercise.
They worked under the watchful eyes of the company's leadership team, Capt. Jesse Monico and 1st Sgt. Michael Smith.
Monico said the exercise was the first time the entire system had been tested.
Soldiers previously practiced "dry runs" without drops in both day and night conditions. And earlier in September, they trained at Fort Stewart, Georgia, while dropping a smaller package that did not include a Humvee or simulated ammunition.
"This is the first time it's all together," he said, adding that he was excited with the progress made over more than a year of training.
"They've gotten a lot quicker. That is good," said Monico, comparing them to NASCAR pit crews.
Lt. Col. Stephen Owen, commander of the 122nd Aviation Support Battalion, said the capability of dropping a FARP from a plane was not entirely new to the 82nd Airborne, but it hadn't been done in more than a decade.
That's how long it's been since the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade has been on jump status. Army leaders took the brigade off jump status to allow for the growth of a fourth infantry brigade within the division.
A decade later, that brigade has been inactivated. And 82nd Airborne officials are looking at again expanding paid parachutist positions into the aviation brigade.
In the meantime, paratroopers from another 82nd Airborne Division unit are jumping after the FARP supplies. And the aviation soldiers are running onto the drop zone after them.
Eventually, Owen said the goal was to have aviation soldiers jumping after the equipment as part of a self-sustaining operation, providing their own security and eventually maintaining 24-hour operations if the mission calls for it.
"It's a new capability right now," Owen said.
The brigade has been developing the Airborne FARP capabilities for about 15 months, officials said.
The Fort Stewart exercise was meant to illustrate how soldiers conducting Airborne FARP operations could help facilitate travel over great distances, by refueling helicopters en route to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
The Fort Bragg training built on that exercise, adding more equipment and more complex conditions, with rain and lightning on the horizon.
Owen said the training will get even more complex. He said the battalion has begun sending some soldiers to the Army's airborne school at Fort Benning, Georgia.
It also has sent soldiers to Kentucky to work with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell.
Currently, only the 160th maintains Airborne FARP capabilities, so 82nd Airborne soldiers have learned from that unit, although they are developing their own operating procedures to guide future missions.
"We're pioneering this capability for the 82nd," Monico said.
Gilbert said the Airborne FARP was one of several ongoing efforts by the brigade to speed up its deployments and prepare for operating in austere environments.
The brigade has focused on expeditionary training and has developed plans to more quickly outload Apache helicopters.
Apaches are now among the first equipment unloaded from Air Force planes after a paratrooper force seizes an airfield. The Global Response Force previously relied on OH-58 Kiowa Warriors to deploy quickly after an airfield seizure, providing eyes and combat support for paratroopers.
With the Army phasing the Kiowa out of the force, Gilbert said the outload training is meant to help the Apache and unmanned aerial systems replace the older helicopter.
So far, he said, that has been a success.
The Apache is a more modern and lethal helicopter, Gilbert said. And crews are continuing to develop ways to deploy it faster.
Col. Michael R. Fenzel, deputy commanding general for support of the 82nd Airborne, said more than just the aviation brigade was focused on speed.
The Global Response Force must be able to quickly respond to any theater anywhere in the world. To prepare for that mission, the division is constantly looking to extend the reach of its capabilities.
He said the Airborne FARP, Apache outload and the use of ultra-light tactical all-terrain vehicles, like the MRZR and DAGOR, are a few of the efforts underway to speed up the 82nd Airborne.
"They're parts and pieces of a larger strategy to make us more expeditionary," Fenzel said. "They give us additional capabilities and additional options."
Among those options, Fenzel said, is that troops can now push out from the drop zone faster using the all-terrain vehicles. And with an Airborne FARP, they could get helicopter support faster than before.
"Wherever we go in, we can expand quickly," Fenzel said. "That's the idea."
"Lighter, faster, more capable and more lethal," he added. "That's our mantra."