Robust strategic airlift capabilities are vital to ensuring that NATO Allies are able to deploy their forces and equipment rapidly to wherever they are needed. That is why some NATO Allies and partners are pooling their resources to charter special aircraft that give the Alliance the capability to transport troops, equipment and supplies across the globe.
An Antonov AN-124 plane is unloaded by Slovak soldiers at Bratislava airport with 48 tons of medical material to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The cargo aircraft is part of the NATO-managed SALIS initiative .
- By pooling resources, NATO countries make significant financial savings and have the potential of acquiring assets collectively that would be prohibitively expensive to purchase as individual countries.
- There are currently three initiatives aimed at providing the Alliance with strategic airlift capabilities: the Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS) initiative, the Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) and the Multinational MRTT (Multirole Tanker Transport) Fleet.
- The SALIS and SAC programmes have been used to support NATO operations and missions, deliver humanitarian relief after disasters, and transport peacekeeping forces, among many other activities.
- The Multinational MRTT Fleet is primarily used for air-to-air refuelling, but has also been used to transport medical aid and conduct patient evacuations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- NATO’s strategic airlift initiatives have frequently included close cooperation with other international organisations, including the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU).
- In addition to these collective efforts, there are national procurement programmes in place to improve airlift capabilities, including the acquisition by seven NATO Allies of 180 Airbus A400M aircraft, and the purchase by Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of C-17s for national use.
Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS)
A multinational consortium of nine countries is chartering Antonov AN-124-100 aircraft as a Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS). SALIS provides assured access to up to five AN-124-100 aircraft (three of them mission-ready within a few days in case of crisis, an additional two subject to availability) in support of national, NATO and EU operations and missions.
In October 2021, the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) signed a five-year contract with Antonov Logistics Salis, a company based in Germany. It replaces the previous SALIS contracts, of which the last one ended in December 2021. In addition to the AN-124 aircraft, the current contract also provides cargo capacity on other large cargo aircraft, including the IL-76 (ICAO Chapter IV), subject to availability.
Under this contract, SALIS participating countries are provided with assured access to strategic airlift capability for outsized cargo based on agreed quota of flying hours per year.
The SALIS contract provides assured access to two Antonov AN-124-100 aircraft on 72 hours’ notice, access to an additional aircraft on six days’ notice, and two additional AN-124-100 aircraft subject to availability. The consortium countries have committed to using the aircraft for a minimum of 1,500 flight hours per year. In 2021, a total of 3,174 flight hours were provided through the SALIS contract.
A single Antonov AN-124-100 can carry up to 120 tons of cargo. SALIS participating countries have used Antonov aircraft in the past to transport equipment to and from Afghanistan, deliver aid to the victims of the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, and airlift African Union peacekeepers in and out of Darfur.
SALIS is used by its participating countries almost on a daily basis in national, NATO and EU operations and missions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, SALIS has played a vital role in helping participating countries transport urgently needed medical equipment. SALIS also helped some participating countries evacuate equipment during the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan in 2021. It is currently supporting participating countries to deliver equipment to NATO’s multinational battlegroups in Central and Eastern Europe, reinforcing NATO’s military presence in the east of the Alliance.
The consortium consists of nine NATO Allies: Belgium, Czechia, France, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
The capability is coordinated on a day-to-day basis by the Strategic Airlift Coordination Cell, which is co-located with the Movement Coordination Centre Europe (MCCE) based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
The NSPA manages the SALIS contract on behalf of the participating countries and provides support to the SALIS Support Partnership.
- In June 2003, NATO defence ministers signed letters of intent on strategic air- and sealift.
- In January 2006, 15 countries tasked the NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency (now the NATO Support and Procurement Agency) to sign a contract with Ruslan SALIS GmbH, a joint venture between the Russian company Volga-Dnepr Airlines and the Ukrainian company (formerly) Antonov Design Bureau, based in Leipzig, Germany.
- In March 2006, the 15 original signatories were joined by Sweden at a special ceremony in Leipzig to mark the entry into force of the multinational contract. This also marked the launch of the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) initiative in order to ensure strategic airlift for consortium countries until a long-term procurement solution could be found. The contract’s initial duration was for three years. Finland and Poland also joined the SALIS programme.
- The SALIS contract was re-competed in 2012, and Ruslan SALIS GmbH was awarded a new contract (2013/2014). The SALIS contract was renewed and then expired at the end of December 2016.
- At the end of 2016, SALIS countries signed a memorandum of understanding which established the Strategic Airlift International Solution as a consortium with 10 countries.
- In December 2016, the NSPA placed two contracts with two companies based at Leipzig-Halle Airport (Antonov SALIS GmbH and Ruslan SALIS GmbH), assuring access to strategic airlift capability for outsized cargo based on agreed quota of flying hours per year. These contracts expired on 31 December 2018.
- Since January 2019, Antonov Logistics Salis is the sole contractor providing assured access to strategic airlift capabilities to the current participating countries.
- In September 2019, the new SALIS Base of Operations was inaugurated at the Antonov Logistics Salis facilities at the Leipzig-Halle airport, marking full operational capability of the new SALIS Base of Operations.
- In October 2021, a new contract was signed between the NSPA and Antonov Logistics Salis. The contract was amended in May 2022, further to the impact of the Russian invasion in Ukraine on the fleet availability and its maintenance capability.
Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC)
The second initiative aimed at providing NATO Allies and partners with access to strategic airlift is the Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC), which has procured three Boeing C-17 transport aircraft on behalf of a group of 10 NATO Allies and two partner countries.
The first C-17 was delivered in July 2009 with the second and third aircraft following in September and October 2009, respectively. The SAC’s operational arm, the military Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW) at Pápa Airbase in Hungary, operates the aircraft.
The HAW is manned by military personnel from all participating countries and its missions support national requirements. Operations have included support to the International Security Assistance Force (Afghanistan), the Kosovo Force (KFOR), Operation Unified Protector in Libya, humanitarian relief in Haiti and Pakistan, African peacekeeping, and assistance to the Polish authorities following the Smolensk air disaster in Russia. Two humanitarian SAC flights were organised to bring relief to victims in Barbados and Guadalupe in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. The SAC was also used to transport essential personal protective equipment to several of its members during the peak of COVID-19 in 2020. In 2021, SAC flights were deployed to Afghanistan to assist with the evacuation of personnel from Allied and partner countries, and NATO-affiliated Afghans and their families, following the collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces. More recently, the SAC transported firefighting units from member country Romania to France to help fight wildfires in 2022.
The C-17 is a large strategic transport aircraft capable of carrying 77,000 kilograms (169,776 pounds) of cargo over 4,450 kilometres (2,400 nautical miles) and is able to operate in difficult environments and austere conditions.
The planes are configured and equipped to the same general standard as C-17s operated by the US Air Force. The crews and support personnel are trained for mission profiles and standards agreed by the countries.
These strategic lift aircraft are used to meet national requirements, but could also be allocated for NATO, United Nations and European Union operations and missions, or for other international purposes based on a participating country’s request. During the COVID-19 pandemic, participating countries have used the capability to airlift urgently needed medical supplies and equipment.
The participants include 10 NATO Allies (Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and the United States) and two NATO partner countries (Finland and Sweden). Membership in the airlift fleet remains open to other countries upon agreement by the consortium members.
The Multinational SAC Steering Board has the overall responsibility for the governance and oversight of the programme and formulates its requirements. The NATO Airlift Management Programme provides administrative support to the Heavy Airlift Wing at Pápa Airbase.
- On 12 September 2006, a Letter of Intent to launch contract negotiations was publicly released by 13 NATO countries. In the intervening period, Finland and Sweden joined the consortium and NATO participation evolved to the current 10 members.
- In June 2007, the North Atlantic Council approved the Charter of a NATO Production and Logistics Organisation (NPLO), which authorised the establishment of the NATO Airlift Management Organisation (NAMO).
- The Charter came into effect upon signature to the memorandum of understanding and notification to the North Atlantic Council, in September 2008. The Charter authorised the establishment of the NATO Airlift Management Agency (NAMA), which acquired, managed and supported the airlift assets on behalf of the SAC countries.
- On 1 July 2012, in line with NATO Agencies Reform decisions, NAMO/NAMA became part of the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA), which took over their responsibility for managing and supporting the SAC airlift assets.
- On 14 November 2012, the SAC reached its Full Operational Capability.
- In 2016, the programme moved to new purpose-built facilities at Pápa Airbase in Hungary, including the largest C-17 hangar on the continent.
- A new C-17 simulator building is planned to be built in 2023.
Multinational MRTT (Multirole Tanker Transport)
The MRTT is a multi-function aircraft that can serve to transport cargo, troops and as an aerial refuel tanker. Air-to-air refuelling (AAR) tankers are especially critical for the projection of air power. As they are a pooled asset, interoperability is essential. The MRTT project enables the six participating Allies to collectively acquire Airbus A330 Multirole Tanker Transport aircraft and establish a NATO-owned and operated MRTT fleet.
The initiative’s aim is to optimise the use of existing and planned AAR assets, and develop a European Multinational MRTT Fleet (MMF). This multinational fleet arrangement is a cost-effective and flexible solution, reducing the European shortage in AAR capabilities and the reliance on US capabilities.
The MRTT fleet is one of NATO’s High Visibility Projects, whose aim is to drive down costs through economies of scale while improving operational values through increased commonality of equipment, training, doctrine and procedures.
The MRTT fleet currently consists of nine Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft, with seven aircraft already delivered in mid-2022 and final delivery scheduled for 2024. There is an option for adding two additional aircraft to the fleet.
The participants include six NATO Allies: Belgium, Czechia, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway. The MRTT Capability was established as a joint initiative with the European Union (EU), as both organisations identified shortfalls in air-to-air refuelling and the participating Allies, with the exception of Norway, are also members of the EU. As such, it is an example of the close cooperation between NATO and the EU.
The aircraft in the Multinational MRTT Fleet are owned by NATO, and managed by the NATO Support and Procurement Agency, with the support of the Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation. Overall, the project therefore constitutes a practical example of effective cooperation between NATO and the European Union in delivering critical capabilities.
- Following operations in Libya and extensive analyses by the European Defence Agency (EDA), it was agreed at the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago that the EDA would lead an initiative to address the shortfall in AAR capacity in Europe.
- In 2016, Luxembourg and the Netherlands formally launched the project. Following the project’s launch, Germany and Norway joined in 2017, followed by Belgium in 2018, and Czechia in 2019.
- The first Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft was delivered in June 2020.
- In September 2020, the option for more aircraft was turned into a firm order, expanding the MRTT Capability to nine aircraft (with the option for two additional aircraft).
- Seven out of nine aircraft have been delivered. Final delivery is scheduled for 2024.