Thanks to a multinational contract, Russian and Ukrainian Antonov aircraft are to be used as an interim solution to meet shortfalls in European strategic airlift capabilities, pending deliveries of Airbus A400M aircraft, expected to start in 2010. On 23 January, 15 NATO countries signed a contract with Ruslan SALIS GmbH, a subsidiary of the Russian company Volga Dnepr, based in Leipzig. The 15 original signatories – Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and the United Kingdom – were joined by Sweden on 23 March.
The contract provides for two AN-124-100 aircraft on full-time charter, two more on six days notice and another two on nine days notice. This multinational arrangement allows the countries participating in the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) programme to meet commitments to strengthen capabilities in both the NATO and EU frameworks.
The contract’s initial duration is for three years with a possibility to extend it further. The aircraft, which were made available from the beginning of February, are drawn from the Russian company, Volga-Dnepr, and Ukraine’s ADB. The contract is administered by the NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency and its operation is managed by the SALIS Coordination Centre in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. The countries concerned have committed to using the aircraft for a minimum of 2000 flying hours per year.
The SALIS plan evolved from the signing of a letter of intent to develop a multinational consortium to arrange for strategic airlift by NATO defence ministers in June 2003. Strategic airlift is a key capability enabling the rapid deployment of troops and equipment to where they are needed. In recent years, NATO’s ongoing operation in Afghanistan, its logistical support to the African Union’s mission in Darfur, and the earthquake disaster-relief operation for Pakistan have highlighted the need for strategic airlift which can handle outsized cargo. A single AN-124-100 can transport up to 120 tons of cargo.
Volga-Dnepr and ADB already provide AN-124-100 aircraft to support the Afghanistan mission, with weekly sorties from Germany to Afghanistan and back, under contractual arrangements with the Allied Movement Coordination Center at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.
Moreover, a memorandum of understanding on strategic airlift between NATO and Ukraine is pending ratification with the Ukrainian parliament. Similarly, a framework agreement on air transport and the necessary implementing arrangements is being developed with Russia. Progress on the air transport agreement with Russia is dependent on the ratification by the Russian parliament of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed by the Russian foreign minister in April 2004. The SOFA provides a reciprocal legal framework for the treatment of NATO and Partner troops, including Russian troops, operating in or transiting through one another's territory, covering issues related to documentation, juridical questions, taxation, customs and other technical details.