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​The Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC)

The Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) is a multinational initiative that provides its participating nations assured access to military airlift capability to address the growing needs for strategic and tactical airlift.


The Strategic Airlift Capability consists of the Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW) and NATO Airlift Management (NAM) Programme Office supported by the Boeing Company and the Hungarian Defence Forces (HDF). The multinational team of military and civilian experts representing these organizations makes together the SAC airlift missions happen. Photo: Veronika Dévényi

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SAC - A Unique Model for Cooperation

From Initiative to Reality

SAC and Hungary

In the modern world, strategic airlift – the capability for a fast transport of equipment and personnel by air over long distances to respond to military and humanitarian crises – is in high demand even though the financial environment remains restrictive.

The Strategic Airlift Capability, established in September 2008, is an independent and multinational program that provides this crucial capability to its 12 partner nations by owning and operating three Boeing C-17 Globemaster III long-range cargo jets. SAC is based at the Hungarian Defence Forces (HDF) Pápa Air Base in Pápa, Western Hungary.

The SAC nations consist of NATO members Hungary, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and the United States and NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) nations Finland and Sweden.

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The three Strategic Airlift Capability Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft are owned by the 12 SAC member nations. They are registered and flagged in the program host nation Hungary bearing the name of the SAC home base, HDF Pápa Air Base, on their tails. Photo: HAW / Ville Tuokko

Each participating nation owns a share of the available flight hours of the SAC C-17s that can be used for missions without the prerequisite to consult with the other participants to serve the needs of their national defense, NATO, EU or UN commitments and humanitarian relief efforts.

The governing bodies of the program are the Strategic Airlift Capability Steering Board and the NATO Airlift Management Programme Board that consists of representatives of the member nations.

The SAC Steering Board exercises overall responsibility for the guidance, execution and oversight of the Strategic Airlift Capability in accordance with the SAC Memorandum of Understanding. It formulates SAC requirements and communicates them to the NAM Programme Board for execution.

The Strategic Airlift Capability has a lifespan of a minimum of 30 years and its member nations have committed to constant development of the program and its capabilities.


According to the Strategic Airlift Capability Memorandum of Understanding, SAC nations have access to 3,165 annual C-17 flight hours produced by the Heavy Airlift Wing. The hours are divided among nations according to a pre-agreed share.

LEARN MORE: SAC Governance


A Unique Model for Cooperation

The Strategic Airlift Capability is a groundbreaking initiative in the field of smart defense and pooling and sharing of defense capabilities.

SAC C-17s are operated by the Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW), the operational arm of the program. The wing is manned with personnel sent by the 12 SAC member nations making it the first operational multinational military airlift unit in the world.

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A Strategic Airlift Capability C-17 is loaded with cargo at the Mazar-e Sharif Airport, Afghanistan. Photo: HAW / Ville Tuokko.

Also the way SAC's administrational and technical support is arranged is unique.

The aircraft and supporting equipment operated by the Heavy Airlift Wing are owned by the NATO Airlift Management Programme on behalf of the SAC Nations.

The NAM Programme is the legal entity of SAC and an integral part of the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA), and consists of a Programme Board and a Programme Office. The NAM Programme Office is executing the ownership roles of the NAM Programme and related responsibilities for the assigned aircraft and other assets, and performs configuration / sustainment management of the C-17 weapon system. In addition, it contracts on a competitive basis logistics support identified by the Commander of the HAW, administers approved operations budgets for the HAW and provides legal, procurement and information technology services for the wing

Besides these two main product lines, support is provided in the field of Information Systems, Legal Affairs and Organizational Development.

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The technical support for SAC C-17s is contracted through a Foreign Military Sales program from the Boeing Company. Photo: HAW / Ville Tuokko.

Strategic Airlift Capability relies on a partnership also in the technical support of the C-17 aircraft. The manufacturer of the C-17, the Boeing Company, is contracted through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program of the United States Government by the NAM Programme Office. Boeing is responsible for the maintenance of SAC aircraft and support equipment, engineering and technical support and the management and supply of C-17 spare parts. For this purpose Boeing has based a Field Services Integrated Product Team at the Pápa Air Base.

LEARN MORE: SAC future developments


From Initiative to Reality

The idea of the shared ownership and operation of C-17 aircraft in Europe was born during the first decade of the new millennium. It was initially labelled as the NATO Strategic Airlift Capability (NSAC).

On 23 September 2008 the 12 nations established the Strategic Airlift Capability by signing the SAC Memorandum of Understanding.

After its establishment, SAC proceeded quickly from an idea into an operational airlift initiative.

On 14 July 2009, Strategic Airlift Capability received its first C-17 aircraft, bearing the registration SAC 01. The remaining two aircraft, SAC 02 and 03, were delivered in the following months and operations with the Heavy Airlift Wing started immediately thereafter at Pápa Air Base.

In November 2012 the Heavy Airlift Wing achieved Full Operational Capability (FOC). The unit was then considered fully capable of missions containing air refueling, single ship airdrop, assault landings, all-weather operations day or night into low-to-medium-threat environments, limited aeromedical evacuation operations and utilizing C-17 air-land and air-drop mission capabilities.

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Strategic Airlift Capability C-17s are capable of a wide spectrum of airlift missions such as carrying out parachute assisted delivery of personnel and various types of cargo. Photo: HAW / David Velazquez.

Since 2009 the Strategic Airlift Capability has supported a variety of operations at its 12 member nations' requests including the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF, 2009 – 2014) and the Resolute Support Mission (RSM, 2015 –) in Afghanistan, NATO operations in Libya (2011), UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA, 2013–), European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali, 2013–), European Union military operation EUFOR RCA (2014 – 15) and UN mission MINUSCA in the Republic of Central Africa (2015–).

Strategic Airlift Capability has also participated in the logistics support provided to the investigation of the 2014 Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash in Ukraine.

In addition to the above operations, significant humanitarian operations supported include earthquake relief in Haiti (2010) and flood relief in Pakistan (2010).

As of February 2016, the Strategic Airlift Capability C-17 fleet has achieved over 18,000 flying hours, flown over 1,400 missions, delivered over 120 million pounds (over 54,500 metric tons) of cargo and carried over 76,000 passengers.

LEARN MORE: Significant milestones in SAC history

The Strategic Airlift Capability and Hungary

Hungary has a special role in the Strategic Airlift Capability as the host nation for SAC. Hungary provides the home base for SAC, the HDF Pápa Air Base to be the home base of the Heavy Airlift Wing. SAC C-17s are registered and flagged in Hungary. They also bear the national military aircraft insignia of the nation.

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The services provided by the Hungarian Defence Forces at HDF Pápa Air Base, such as the Air Traffic Control functions are a part of Hungary's host nation support to the Strategic Airlift Capability. Photo: Veronika Dévényi.

Strategic Airlift Capability is an active part of the community in the town of Pápa and the surrounding regions. In total SAC organizations the Heavy Airlift Wing, NAM Programme Office and the Boeing Field Services Integrated Product Team employ approximately 260 multinational military and civilian personnel in Pápa.

LEARN MORE: The past and present of the HDF Pápa Air Base