NATO will rely on the Ukrainian An-124 transport aircraft to bridge its strategic airlift gap starting in March 2006. Under the so called Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) NATO will have access to up to six An-124-100 transport aircraft. Two of the aircraft will be permanently placed in Leipzig, Germany, with the remaining four available from Russian and Ukrainian airports at short notice for additional requirements. The leasing contract will initially run for three years for a leasing rate of approximately $220 million with the contract rolling on a yearly basis until 2012. Every year the SALIS members have committed themselves to a minimum usage of 2,000 flying hours. Any further operational use will result in additional leasing costs.
Since NATO members had identified strategic airlift as one of their most pressing military deficites in 2002, options were discussed how to overcome those shortfalls. Most European NATO members have decided to boost their capabilities in this regard through the acquisition of the Airbus A400M. However, with the Airbus not entering into service before the end of this decade, a short term gap remains. As an unilateral solution, the United Kingdom decided in 2000 to lease four Boeing C-17 Globemaster III for seven years with a two year renewal option for an initial price of $1.34 billion. Other European countries together with Canada signed instead the common interim solution in February 2006.
The An-124-100 can carry up to 130 tons of cargo and is due to its size also capable to handle outsized and extremely large cargo. In comparison to those specifications, the C-17 can only carry up to 84 tons and the A400M can lift a maximum of 40 tons. The advantage of the two smaller airlifters is the ability to operate from shorter unpaved runways, which makes them less dependable on existing infrastructure. The limitations of the future European A400M fleet for outsized cargo are a credible indicator that the now launched interim solution might turn into a permanent solution beyond 2012.—Joachim Hofbauer