Since 2009, the strategic airlift capability (SAC) of NATO has provided guaranteed strategic and tactical air transport capacity for its 12 members: NATO partners Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and the US, as well as the NATO Partnership for Peace nations Finland and Sweden.

“The SAC’s 12 nations have demonstrated what can be accomplished when resources and expertise are pooled and shared.”

“The SAC is a groundbreaking initiative in the field of pooling and sharing defence capabilities,” says Wiek Noldus, NATO’s airlift management programme manager.

“As such, it falls within the framework of ‘smart defence’, the new NATO approach to defence spending during austere times.”

The SAC’s operations are performed by the Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW) and administered by the NATO Airlift Management Programme Office (NAMPO), part of NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency. The HAW operates three Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft from Hungary’s Pápa Air Base.

Unlike many smaller national air forces, the HAW can carry out the full range of airlift missions, from aerial refuelling and airdrops to assault landings and aeromedical evacuations – in all weathers, and at any time of day or night. Members can rely on the HAW’s aircraft meeting all their national, UN, EU and NATO obligations, and to respond to national emergencies and humanitarian missions.

Sharing economy

The idea of shared ownership and operation of C-17 aircraft in Europe was born during the first decade of the new millennium. Initially, 17 nations showed interest, signing a letter of intent at the 2006 Farnborough Airshow. The final 12 member nations established the SAC on 23 September 2008, committing to jointly own and operate its C-17s for at least 30 years.

Pápa Air Base was chosen as the host site in 2007. Right in the heart of Central Europe, this Cold War-era fighter station was designated as a NATO contingency airfield in the late 1990s. It has since seen substantial infrastructure investment, funded by the Hungarian Government and the NATO Investment Programme.

SAC 01, the first C-17 transport bought by the member nations, arrived in July 2009. Two more C-17s arrived in the following months with the HAW achieving full operational capability in November 2012.

Based on their initial financial contribution to the SAC programme, each nation owns a share of the 3,165 annual C-17 flight hours that it can allocate to its own missions without the need to consult other members. The US tops the list with 1,000 hours, followed by Sweden with 550 and Norway with 500. In contrast, Estonia and Lithuania only have 45 hours each.

“Highest priority is given to requests to use the aircraft as national support to EU, NATO and UN operations, and in response to an armed conflict or crisis in which the requesting member nation is involved,” says Noldus.

One flight last December is a good example, with the SAC called in at the last minute to support exercise Dagger Resolve. A C-17 flew to the US 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion, picked up a heavy-duty dump truck and a bulldozer, and then airdropped them over the Hohenfels Training Area Drop Zone in Germany.

Earlier in 2015, the HAW flew many flights in support of Operation Trident Juncture, NATO’s largest exercise in 20 years. It was also critical in supporting the build-up to the exercise, flying numerous missions in order to deploy SAC member nations’ troops and equipment.

Humanitarian missions have also figured prominently, such as the three flights to Haiti in 2010 on behalf of Sweden. Last November, an HAW aircraft responded to an emergency by flying ten seriously injured people from Bucharest to the UK and Norway. All of the patients, six of whom were in a critical condition, had received serious burns in a disastrous fire at a Bucharest nightclub.

“Only a couple of hours after the Romanian mission request had received final approval, a SAC C-17 was dispatched to Bucharest,” says Noldus. “Recently, our C-17s have frequently supported SAC member nations participating in the EU and UN operations in Mali.”

Chartered accounts

It’s worth noting that the SAC sits alongside NATO’s long-running Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS). This is due to end this year as Airbus commences deliveries of its delayed A400M. Rather than owning the aircraft, the 13 countries in the SALIS consortium charter a fleet of Antonov AN-124-100 transports.

The HAW’s 145-strong multinational force is picked from the 12 member countries, similar to the way NATO mans its E-3 AWACS aircraft. Each nation’s contribution corresponds to its share of flight hours.

“HAW personnel broaden their horizons, and pick up valuable knowledge and skills by participating in USAF training and by attending courses at the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany,” says Noldus. “When HAW personnel return home after having completed their tour of service, they bring their expertise and networks with them.”

A new training facility recently opened at Farnborough to offer more convenient access to C-17 aircrew training systems (ATS). That has cut costs significantly compared with the earlier arrangement that used the ATS at Charleston AFB in the US.

“Aircrew members travel at least four times a year to Farnborough to attend training, with evaluator aircrew travelling at least six additional times to conduct check rides, in addition to their own training,” says Noldus.

“Potential future developments include acquiring and operating an ATS at Pápa Air Base,” he adds.

‘Virtual Fleet’ membership also helps the SAC provide excellent service quality at the lowest possible cost. The Virtual Fleet is another name for the Boeing Globemaster III Integrated Sustainment Programme (GISP) that provides spare parts and maintenance support for C-17s. Just like the SAC, GISP brings together a host of C-17 user nations to jointly contract manufacturer Boeing to handle aircraft maintenance, again minimising expenses.

Boeing has also established its C-17 Field Services Integrated Product Team at Pápa Air Base. The US Government provides the majority of the C-17 fleet’s technical, logistics and training support through its Foreign Military Sales programme.

Significant investment in Pápa’s infrastructure continues, with a new air traffic control tower inaugurated in December 2015 and a large number of ongoing IT projects. A new maintenance hangar, other maintenance and storage facilities, and office buildings are also due for completion later this year.

“It will support C-17 operations and assist the SAC in reducing maintenance costs, and enhance aircraft availability for the participating nations,” says Noldus. “Pápa Air Base has the potential to grow into a large cargo hub.”

NAMPO intends to start building a personnel terminal this year and has further ambitious plans for a runway extension. That would ease current operational restrictions, while a new hydrant refuelling system would result
in faster aircraft turnaround.

Stretch goals

There’s no doubt the SAC has done an outstanding job in meeting its founding goals. Annual operating costs have remained well below the target level of $133 million and its C-17s have achieved an outstanding availability rate of 94%. By the end of 2015, they had flown almost 1,500 missions and carried a total of more than 54,000t of cargo.

The SAC works closely with other military organisations such as Eindhoven’s Movement Coordination Centre Europe, the European Air Transport Command and the European Defense Agency. For NATO in particular, the SAC offers rapid access to airlift capacity, and SHAPE, its strategic HQ, is currently looking at other bilateral or multilateral arrangements with SAC member nations to improve this further.

“The SAC has been able to execute the overwhelming majority of its member nations’ mission requests, even at very short notice,” says Noldus. “We strive to remain a world-class provider of strategic military airlift by continuously searching for efficiency and improvements.”

Possible future developments include closer cooperation with the US’s Air National Guard and the UK’s Royal Air Force, which operate C-17s of their own. The SAC’s successful multinational model has also demonstrated the value of pooling and sharing Euro-Atlantic defence assets, forming a template for more recent initiatives such as the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft fleet and the NATO ‘Global Hawk’ Allied Ground Surveillance (AGS).

The initial MRTT fleet will help close NATO’s long-standing ‘tanker gap’, with the eventual aim being to operate eight aircraft. In the AGS, 15 NATO nations will jointly acquire, operate and maintain five Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft, as well as their associated command and control stations.

“By organising these weapon support partnerships under the umbrella of NSPA,” explains Noldus, “we can share knowledge and expertise, benefitting from synergies in the areas of airworthiness, governance, supply chain management, project management and support to operations.”

The SAC is still open to expansion, with other nations welcome to join the organisation. A new member would have to invest between 45 and 400 annual flight hours.

“The SAC’s 12 nations have demonstrated what can be accomplished when resources and expertise are pooled and shared,” says Noldus. “From day one, the SAC has executed military airlift missions safely and cost-effectively around the world.”