Strategic airlift

  • Last updated: 16 Apr. 2021 08:44

NATO member countries are pooling their resources to charter special aircraft that give the Alliance the capability to transport troops, equipment and supplies across the globe. Robust strategic airlift capabilities are vital to ensure that NATO countries are able to deploy their forces and equipment rapidly to wherever they are needed.



  • 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 two initiatives aimed at providing the Alliance with strategic airlift capabilities: the Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS) initiative, and the Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC).


  • 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 (mission-ready within a few days in case of crisis) in support of national, NATO and European Union (EU) operations.

    In December 2018, the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) signed a contract with Antonov Logistics Salis, a company based in Germany. In addition to the AN-124 aircraft, the current contract also provide cargo capacity on other large cargo aircraft, namely AN-225, AN-22 and 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 current contract is in place until 2021 with options for extended agreements for another five years.

    It replaces the two previous SALIS contracts that ended in December 2018.


    The SALIS contract provides assured access to two Antonov AN-124-100 aircraft on 72 hours’ notice, access to two more aircraft on six days’ notice and another AN-124-100 aircraft on nine days’ notice. The consortium countries have committed to using the aircraft for a minimum of 1,600 flight hours per year. In 2020, a total of 2,580 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 nations almost on a daily basis in national, NATO and European Union operations. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, SALIS has played a vital role in helping participating nations to transport urgent medical equipment to tackle the crisis.


    The consortium consists of nine NATO Allies: Belgium, the Czech Republic, 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.

    NSPA manages the SALIS contract on behalf of the nations 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 nations 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 end December 2016.
    • At the end of 2016, SALIS nations 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 nine participating nations.
    • 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.
  • Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC)


    The second initiative aimed at providing NATO nations as well as partners with access to strategic airlift is the Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC), which has procured several Boeing C-17 transport aircraft on behalf of a group of 10 NATO Allies and two partner nations.

    The first C-17 was delivered in July 2009 with the second and third aircraft following in September and October 2009, respectively. Its operational arm, the Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW) at Pápa Airbase in Hungary, operates the aircraft.

    The HAW is manned by personnel from all participating nations 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 air disaster in Russia. More recently, two humanitarian SAC flights were organised to bring relief to victims in Barbados and Guadalupe in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. 

    In addition, there are national procurement programmes in place to improve airlift capabilities, including the acquisition by seven NATO nations of 180 Airbus A400M aircraft, and the purchase by Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of C-17s for national use.


    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 missions, or for other international purposes. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, participating nations have used the capability to airlift urgent medical supplies and equipment to tackle the crisis. 


    The participants include 10 NATO nations (Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and the United States) and two NATO partner nations (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 guidance 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 authorises 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, manages and supports the airlift assets on behalf of the SAC nations.
    • On 1 July 2012, in line with NATO Agencies Reform decisions, NAMO/NAMA became part of the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA).