NATO to buy big planes for airlifts

In a NATO initiative, 12 nations signed a deal Wednesday to jointly buy and operate three giant transport planes to fill a shortfall that has dogged international missions from Afghanistan to Sudan.

Under the agreement, reached after two years of negotiations, they will jointly acquire three Boeing C-17s and place them at new operating base in Hungary early next year under the command of a U.S. officer, said NATO spokesman James Appathurai. The planes will be available for NATO, European Union and United Nations missions.

NATO has long suffered a shortage of large transport aircraft, and the deal reached by 10 of its members and two non-NATO members – Sweden and Finland – is aimed at addressing that problem.

Appathurai said the arrival of the planes will provide an “important new capability” for the alliance and is a model for how smaller nations can pool resources to acquire equipment beyond the reach of their individual defense budgets.

The planes will be based at Papa air base in Hungary with multinational crews.

The C-17 is the workhorse of the U.S. Air Force. However, other NATO allies lack such big planes, making it harder for them to transport troops, equipment and supplies on peacekeeping, humanitarian or combat missions in places like Afghanistan and Chad.

NATO also is seeking to overcome its airlift problem through an arrangement under which a group of 16 countries led by Germany has chartered six Antonov An-124 transport aircraft from a Russian-Ukrainian aviation joint-venture.

Appathurai said talks are under way to extend that arrangement.

The 10 NATO members that took part in Wednesday's deal are Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and the United States. Britain and Canada have separately acquired a total of 10 of the planes.