Washington -- The United States says European allies could pool their resources to buy four Boeing C-17 Globemaster III long-range cargo jets – a plan that would help reduce NATO’s chronic airlift shortage while providing more business for Boeing.
“We have an initiative on the table to collectively buy four C-17s,” Victoria Nuland, U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in a recent interview with the Washington File in Brussels, Belgium. “The price is good because the U.S. is buying so many. What we found is that many allies don’t need a whole plane. So if they come together here, they get a 10th of a plane, a 20th of a plane.”
The C-17 is the workhorse of the U.S. Air Force. The four-engine jet can transport about 77,000 kilograms of cargo over the distance of 2,400 nautical miles (4,450 kilometers). The U.S. Air Force is budgeted to buy180 aircraft. But during the Farnborough International Airshow, which ended July 23, in Great Britain, Boeing executives warned they soon would start shutting down the production line if more planes are not ordered. Once production halts, restarting the line significantly would increase the price of individual C-17 aircraft, which currently cost approximately $200 million apiece, according to the U.S. Air Force.
Recent NATO missions in Africa and South Asia have highlighted the need for the alliance forces to be able to deploy themselves over distances spanning thousands of kilometers, requiring modern transport aircraft. NATO forces rushed to Pakistan in October 2005 to assist in search-and-rescue missions after the devastating Central Asia earthquake. This summer, NATO is expanding its force in Afghanistan from under 10,000 troops to about 15,000 as its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) begins operating throughout the country. (See related article.)
Strategic airlift “has been one of the long-standing shortfalls in European capabilities,” according to a 2005 report on the annual session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. “Most hopes are pinned on the success of the Airbus A400M,” the report said. However, the A400M is a propeller-driven aircraft that carries approximately 25,000 kilograms of cargo over long distances, about one-third the payload of a C-17. Germany, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Belgium and Luxembourg are committed to acquiring a total of 180 of the Airbus aircraft, which is due to enter service in 2010.
U.S.-based Boeing and Europe-based Airbus are commercial rivals.
As an interim airlift measure, 15 NATO member countries in January signed a three-year renewable contract to charter six Russian and Ukrainian Antanov-124-100 transport aircraft. A single Antonov can carry up to 120,000 kilograms of cargo. “NATO has used Antonovs in the past to transport troops 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,” NATO officials said in June. (See fact sheet.)
Nuland, the U.S. envoy to NATO, said several nations are interested in owning shares of aircraft rather than purchasing an entire airplane. And the ownership consortium would not necessarily restrict the aircraft to NATO missions.
Under the C-17 joint-ownership plan, “everybody collectively gets more lift, not only for NATO missions, but for national missions, for EU [European Union] missions, so this is a new kind of efficiency,” Nuland said. “It would be a consortium of allies and partners,” she said, adding that details still are being negotiated.
U.S. officials said the plan would include housing and maintaining the aircraft at Ramstein Air Base, Germany – a U.S.-run facility – significantly reducing maintenance and ownership costs associated with large aircraft.
“It’s a work in progress,” Nuland said. “But what’s most important is, can we actually solve the strategic lift problem or make significant progress in the strategic lift problem. Because now it’s proven that with Congo, with Darfur, with Pakistan, if you can’t get there, you can’t go.”
A fact sheet on the C-17 is posted on the U.S. Air Force Web site.