NATO agrees plan to buy Boeing transport planes to fill airlift gap

NATO nations have agreed to buy at least three Boeing transport planes to fill a shortfall in the alliance's ability to deploy troops quickly to far-flung countries such as Afghanistan.

Fifteen of the 27 NATO allies, along with partners Sweden and Finland, signed up to the project Wednesday, setting up an agency to order and manage the C-17 Globemaster planes once they are delivered. They aim to buy or lease 3-4 aircraft.

"The Strategic Airlift Capability initiative will help address NATO's - and Europe's - critical shortfall in strategic airlift," said NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. "This capability will support our current operations, including in Afghanistan, and will be a pillar of the alliance's long-term transformation," he said in a statement.

The lack of large transport planes has long been highlighted as a critical gap in the NATO arsenal, forcing European allies to rely on U.S. aircraft or hiring planes from companies in former Soviet nations.

Under the plan, the new planes will be flown by multinational aircrews and a multinational command structure will be created to run the aircraft.

The plans had been delayed by concerns from France and some other allies who were worried that purchases of the C-17 would cut into orders for the new A400M, the first military plane produced by Europe's Airbus consortium.

But officials said progress was made in overcoming those concerns at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels last week.

The prototype Airbus aircraft is scheduled to take to the sky in less than a year and about 200 will enter service in eight European air forces starting in 2009.

In a statement, NATO said the nations in the C-17 consortium can use them for national operations, NATO, or EU missions as well as humanitarian airlift or disaster relief for the UN.

The first plane is due to be delivered in 2008.

NATO members Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, United States joined the consortium to operate the planes, along with Sweden and Finland.

Besides the C-17 plan, NATO is also seeking to overcome its airlift problem through an arrangement under which a group of 16 countries led by Germany has chartered six giant Antonov An-124 transport aircraft from a Russian-Ukrainian aviation joint-venture to serve as NATO's strategic reserve.

The Antonov, the world's largest airfreighter, has a load capacity of 120 tons compared with the C-17's 77 tons. It also has a longer range than the Boeing plane, but cannot use short airfields.

The C-17 is the workhorse of the U.S. Air Force because of its ability to operate from short, unprepared airstrips such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The European plan to acquire the C-17s was first announced at a meeting of NATO heads of state in Riga, Latvia, last November.