Celebrating 10 years of the Strategic Airlift Capability

27 June 2019


On Thursday (27 June) the Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC), which is comprised of the operational unit the Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW), and the NATO Airlift Management Programme (NAMP), an integrated part of NSPA, celebrates ten years of flight operations, providing efficient, flexible and cooperative strategic airlift for its member nations.

In 2006, a group of nations started discussing how they could address a defence capability gap they all faced: inadequate strategic airlift. This group of nations looked at how they could achieve more, for less and with greater flexibility in terms of strategic airlift. In 2008, ten NATO Allies (Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, the United States) and two NATO partners (Finland and Sweden) signed a memorandum of understanding to establish the SAC.

The common goal was straightforward: they all needed airlift capability outside the scope of their national capacities and they all believed in developing multinational cooperation based on cost sharing and pooling flight hours. The construct was simple: available flight hours are based on how much a member nation contributes to the annual budget of the programme. The four largest contributors are The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and The United States.

The SAC became operational in 2009 and has been providing the member nations with a flexible and responsive strategic airlift capability for the past decade.


“We had seven volunteers in twenty seconds”

Members of the SAC are free to determine how they would like to use the capability to support their security and defence objectives. The SAC’s missions range from supporting NATO, EU and UN missions, to providing humanitarian relief on extremely short notice, as it did in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, in Pakistan during flooding in 2010, or on the Island of St. Maarten after a devastating hurricane in 2017. One of the SAC C-17s provided logistic support after the Malaysia Airlines MH17 incident in 2017.

Dutch Master Sergeant Rob Dokter, who has been working in the Command and Control Squadron of the HAW since the very first mission in 2009 recalls a one of the most remarkable missions he participated in over the past ten years.

“A memorable mission I worked on was a medical evacuation mission in Romania in 2015, where we needed to assist the fire victims from site of a dance club in Bucharest by transporting them to hospitals all over Europe. It was a Saturday when we received a call to bring burn victims to England, Finland, and Norway. We had to gather a crew really fast, and it was really good to see how quickly everything was possible. We asked for volunteers from a crew that was coming back from another mission, and we had at least seven volunteers in twenty seconds. It went so smoothly, everything worked out so fine and I think it made quite a big impact. Not only on the lives of the victims, but also on the lives of our crew. In some strange way, it’s good that we can do things like that. It’s good to see that in such a small community like ours, it is very easy to arrange things quickly,” he added.


Multilateral Cooperation in Action

The ground-breaking construct was, and to this day is, unique in the world. The SAC’s operational arm, the Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW) does not come under the NATO Force Structure. It answers to a governing body, the SAC Steering Board made up of representatives of the twelve nations. Since the HAW is not a legal entity, NATO provides a framework for daily operations through NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA).

The home of the Programme is Pápa Air Base, near a small Hungarian town. Originally abandoned as a major operational base by the Hungarian Air Force in the early 2000s, the base became a hive of activity once again when the SAC chose it as its new home. 

The three Boeing C-17 Globemaster III’s of the SAC fly under the Hungarian flag and the 150 military, 60 civilian, and 60 Boeing maintenance contractors have helped reinvigorate this airbase once on the brink of retirement, now home to the first purpose-built C-17 hangar in Europe.

Over the past ten years, the men and women of the SAC have flown more than 27,000 hours for 2,500 missions, moving an immense volume of 79,000 tons and 130,000 passengers.

The Strategic Airlift Capability is a delicately balanced, highly efficient common effort of twelve nations combined with NATO and the Host Nation’s support. Celebrating ten years of successful multilateral cooperation, the SAC looks forward to continuing to provide this invaluable capability.