Boeing's efforts to ensure the long-term survival of its C-17 strategic transport aircraft programme received a partial boost last week, with NATO's confirmation of a multinational plan to acquire up to four of the aircraft to support coalition operations from late 2007.
Contract negotiations for an initial fleet of three or four aircraft are poised to begin between the manufacturer and the NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency, with the latter to act on behalf of 13 signatories to a letter of intent (LoI) to operate the aircraft on a pooled basis.
Denmark became the first nation to publicly back the initiative when it signed the LoI during July's Farnborough air show, and its participation has now been bolstered by support from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the USA.
NATO could follow the UK in deploying the C-17
With strategic airlift previously identified as a key area of capability shortfall across its member states, NATO has announced its intention to complete negotiations on the purchase by year end, and to take delivery of its first C-17 from mid-2007.
Initial operating capability should be declared by the third quarter of next year under the plan, with deliveries of its remaining aircraft to follow at approximately six-monthly intervals until 2009.
The aircraft could eventually form part of a larger NATO transport aircraft fleet, potentially to also include additional platforms such as Airbus Military's A400M, says Jim Lovell, air defence section head at NATO's defence investment division. "We want to leave our options open for the future and not preclude anything," he says.
Several additional countries - potentially including Partnership for Peace (PfP) or European Union member states - could also sign up to the C-17 initiative, with additional details likely to be announced around the NATO Summit to be held in Riga, Latvia in late November.
The new C-17 fleet will be operated under the auspices of a NATO Strategic Airlift Capability organisation to be established under multinational command at Ramstein airbase in Germany, with the aircraft to be flown by mixed nationality aircrews.
The Dutch defence ministry revealed last week that it expects to gain access to 500 flight hours on the aircraft per annum under a 30-year national commitment worth some €300-450 million ($380-570 million).
Six of the new C-17 signatories - including Denmark and the Netherlands - were among 16 NATO and PfP nations which earlier this year signed an initial three-year contract with ANTK Antonov and Volga-Dnepr Airlines to use at least 2,000 flight hours per year on an assured fleet of up to six An-124s.