NATO/EU Cooperation with Russia on Military Airlift
Defense and Security Policy Analyst
Stephan Wallace is a defense and security policy analyst following political, military, and economic developments in Europe. He has worked more than 33 years on this area for the U.S. government, most recently for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Germany and its NATO and EU partners continue to rely on Russian heavy airlift to support their expeditionary military and humanitarian relief operations in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Africa, despite political tensions over Ukraine and associated western sanctions. Germany was the driving force behind the creation of the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS), which provides assured access for fourteen NATO and EU member states to Russian and Ukrainian An-124-100 large cargo aircraft operating out of Germany’s Leipzig-Halle Airport. When the requirement was rebid in 2012, NATO determined that the combination of Russian and Ukrainian An-124s offered by Ruslan SALIS was the only solution that fully met its members’ technical requirements for the transport of heavy weight and outsized cargo.1 Another extension of the program is likely before the end of this year
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, NATO foreign ministers announced on 1 April a decision “to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia.” A North Atlantic Council meeting at the level of foreign ministers on 24-25 June decided to maintain the suspension, as did the NATO Summit meeting in Wales 4-5 September.2 One area thus far unaffected by this decision is cooperation with Russian commercial air services providing heavy airlift support for NATO- and EU-led military and humanitarian relief operations as well as for members’ national military requirements.
The decision to rely on charters of Russian and Ukrainian transport aircraft to satisfy the heavy airlift requirements of NATO and EU military forces was determined primarily by the significant advantages offered by the An-124 in comparison with other large cargo aircraft. The An-124 has nearly twice the payload capacity and greater range than a Boeing C-17, and it is more cost effective to operate. It can load and unload cargo from both ends and its ability to “kneel” for front-end loading and its built-in cranes and winches make rapid turnarounds possible even at underdeveloped airfields.
An-124 Commercial Operators
Number of Aircraft
224 Flight Unit
Maximus Air Cargo
United Arab Emirates (UAE)
A Means to An End: Ruslan SALIS and 224 Flight Unit
Ruslan SALIS, a joint venture of Russia’s Volga-Dnepr Group and Ukraine’s Antonov State Company, has provided heavy airlift services for up to eighteen NATO and/or EU members since 2006. The contract was re-competed in 2012 and Ruslan SALIS was awarded a new two-year contract for 2013/2014 with options for extension until 2017.
According to a NATO report dated April 2014, the SALIS consortium currently serves the heavy airlift needs of Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. These countries have contracted for a minimum of 2,450 flying hours in 2014. Germany is the largest single user and Germany and France together account for about two-thirds of the total flight hours.3
Ruslan SALIS has access to a combined fleet of seventeen An-124-100 aircraft, ten of which are operated by Volga-Dnepr and seven by Antonov. It guarantees assured access to six An-124-100 aircraft, two of which are kept available for immediate use at Germany’s Leipzig-Halle Airport. Two more are available on six days notice and two more on nine days notice from the home airfields of Volga-Dnepr and Antonov in Ulyanovsk, Russia and Gostomel, Ukraine. The current contract also allows participants in the program to use Il-76 and An-225 transport aircraft if and when they are available.4
NATO and EU members have relied on the SALIS program to support and return their forces and equipment from Afghanistan and to respond to a number of emerging crises in Africa and the Middle East. In March 2014, Germany offered some of its SALIS airlift quota to help EU partners move troops and equipment from Europe to the Central African Republic for the EU’s interim peacekeeping mission EUFOR RCA, which was tasked with securing the area around the capital Bangui and providing a safe environment until the UN peacekeeping force MINUSCA took over in mid-September.5
Germany also has relied on the SALIS program to transport military equipment and humanitarian relief supplies to areas of northern Iraq threatened by Islamic State extremists.
- On 22 and 27 August, Volga-Dnepr An-124-100 transport aircraft flew a total of 120 tons of humanitarian relief supplies—food, medical supplies, and blankets—from Leipzig-Halle to Irbil.6 A third Volga-Dnepr An-124-100 delivered about 80 tons of German military equipment from Leipzig to the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq on 5 September.7
- Three Ruslan SALIS An-124-100 flights were conducted between 27 September and 1 October, transporting antitank weapons, machine guns, assault rifles, and associated ammunition as well as night vision devices, trucks, and all-terrain utility vehicles for use by the Peshmerga. According to the German Ministry of Defense, three more flights were scheduled for early October.8
Germany was able to take advantage of empty cargo space on Ruslan SALIS An-124s flying out to Afghanistan to bring home German military equipment and supplies—either directly from Mazar-e Sharif to Leipzig or to the Bundeswehr’s transit hub in Trabzon, Turkey for transfer to sealift. The shipments to northern Iraq involved only slight detours for the An-124s and avoided the necessity of chartering additional aircraft to fly supplies to the Peshmerga.
224 Flight Unit (224 Лётный отряд) is a Russian state-owned air transport company operating under the authority of the Russian Air Force, which provides the aircraft and crews for its operations. The company is best known for transporting the Russian president’s cars and equipment during state visits abroad, but it also has secured numerous contracts to provide air transport services for NATO members, including the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.9
- In late 2010, France signed a four-year contract with the 224 Flight Unit through its French partner ICS to provide air transport services for the French military. Between April and September 2011, the 224 Flight Unit reportedly flew more than 100 flights between air bases in France and French operating bases in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates.10
- In early 2013, France used An-124s and other transport aircraft from both the 224 Flight Unit and Volga-Dnepr to deploy French forces to Mali in support of Operation SERVAL.11 Jean-Christophe Notin, in his recent book La guerre de la France au Mali, claims that Operation SERVAL’s success depended to a great degree on the availability of Russian transport aircraft.12
- The Netherlands relied on An-124s operated by Russia’s 224 Flight Unit to transport three CH-47 Chinook helicopters to Mali on 9 and 11 September 2014 in support the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA).13
Voronezh-based Polet Airlines, a Russian commercial operator with four An-124-100 aircraft (two of which were sold to and then leased back from Ilyushin Finance Company), also has provided military airlift services for NATO countries, in particular the United Kingdom. However, financial and legal difficulties over the past year have hindered the company’s operations. The British Ministry of Defense reportedly has refused all freedom of information requests seeking details on the types of military cargo Polet has carried for the UK and to what destinations.14
An Essential Military Asset but a Political Embarrassment
FAKT, a political magazine produced by Germany’s Mitteldeutsche Rundfunk for ARD television, attempted to spark a political discussion over German and NATO dependence on Russian airlift in a program first aired on 16 September. Martin Hoch, a security expert for the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, and Omid Nouripour, a Green member of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, both argued that it is unwise to continue relying on Russia for heavy airlift support when tensions are strained over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the West is imposing sanctions on Russia. Former German defense minister Franz Josef Jung, who played a major role in launching the SALIS project, also argued that there would have to be consequences for SALIS if a solution is not found quickly to the situation in Ukraine.15
German defense officials were quick to defend the use of Russian airlift and reject suggestions that the SALIS program should be suspended or cancelled because of political tensions with Russia over Ukraine.
- A Defense Ministry spokesman told the Leipziger Volkszeitung in mid-September that there is no reason to reconsider the agreement with Ruslan SALIS. The spokesman described Ruslan SALIS as a “reliable partner” and said sanctions against Russia do not preclude cooperation with “a German company under Russian management” (Ruslan SALIS is registered as a German company based in Leipzig).16
- Lieutenant Colonel Boris Nannt, the Defense Ministry’s press spokesman for logistics, said current tensions with Russia “have no ramifications” for cooperation with Russia on military airlift.17
- Hans-Peter Bartels, Chairman of the Defense Committee in the Bundestag, told the weekly Focus there is “no reason to question the SALIS agreement, because it is working.” Bartels went on to describe the SALIS program as “ideal for the Bundeswehr.”18
Despite the Defense Ministry’s defense of the program, German political leaders have been wary of associating themselves with it in public.
- According to an article in Air Forwarder Global, a weekly newsletter for the air freight industry, Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to visit the Volga-Dnepr An-124-100 aircraft exhibit and lounge when she made her opening rounds at the ILA Berlin Air Show on 20 May. Moreover, the Chancellery reportedly demanded that the Russian aircraft be completely removed from the ILA exhibition area at Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport for the duration of Merkel’s visit to the air show.19
- Although Ruslan SALIS An-124s have carried most of the German military and humanitarian relief supplies to northern Iraq, a delivery of arms timed to coincide with the visit of defense minister Ursula von der Leyen to Irbil on 25 September was loaded aboard a Dutch KDC-10 transport. The KDC-10 broke down in Leipzig, however, and was unable to deliver the arms during von der Leyen’s visit.20
Prospects for Future Cooperation
The latest two-year contract with Ruslan SALIS expires at the end of 2014 but discussions are already underway among the participants on another extension, according to spokesmen for the German Defense Ministry and Volga-Dnepr.21
Lloyd’s Loading List, a London-based news service for logistics professionals, reported in mid-August that Volga-Dnepr and Antonov Airlines intend to continue their cooperation despite the tensions between Russia and Ukraine and political and trade disputes between Russia and the West. The report cited Ruslan International sales director Paul Furlonger, who said that Volga-Dnepr and Antonov will continue their cooperation in Ruslan International and Ruslan SALIS “until and unless some external action dictates otherwise.”22
Ukraine’s Antonov needs to remain in the program for financial reasons. The New York Times reported in mid-October that Antonov’s revenues from aircraft sales have fallen sharply and cited critics who claimed the company is “now on life support” and living off its earnings from the joint venture with Volga-Dnepr. With 13,000 jobs on the line at Antonov and another 70,000 workers at other factories supplying parts, the Ukrainian government is unlikely to put the company at risk by forcing an end to the Ruslan SALIS venture.23
German defense and military officials also reportedly remain committed to SALIS.24 The Defense Ministry told Germany’s Mitteldeutsche Zeitung that the extremely limited availability of comparable airlift capabilities on the world market, delays in the introduction of the A400M transport aircraft and the proven past performance of Ruslan SALIS in terms of reliability, flexibility, and affordability all argue in favor of continuing the program.25
Over the longer term, NATO and EU demand for An-124 service will decline due to the end of combat operations in Afghanistan and the delivery of new C-17 and A400M transport aircraft to allied fleets. However, the An-124’s ability to carry outsize loads too large for even these aircraft and to quickly deliver equipment and supplies in a crisis with the fewest possible flights are likely to keep these aircraft employed at some level in support of NATO and EU operations well into the future.
Stephan Wallace is a defense and security policy analyst following political, military, and economic developments in Europe. He has worked more than 33 years on this area for the U.S. government, most recently for the U.S. Department of Defense. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are those of the author alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute (AGI).
Credit for this post’s featured image goes to L’Etat-major des Armées (EMA) [French Defense Staff] and L’établissement de communication et de production audiovisuelle de la Défense (ECPAD) [French Defense Ministry’s Establishment for Audiovisual Communication and Production].
1. Antonov, “Antonov aircraft will continue airlift operations within the SALIS programme”, 9 Jul 2012, Link
2. NATO, “Statement by NATO Foreign Ministers, 1 Apr 2014, Link and NATO, “Public opening remarks by NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, at the Press Conference following the meeting of the North Atlantic Council and the meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at the level of Foreign Ministers”, 25 Jun 2014, Link and NATO, “Wales Summit Declaration”, 5 Sep 2014, Link
3. NATO, “Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS)”, 8 Apr 2014, Link
4. NATO, “Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS)”, 8 Apr 2014, Link
5. German Foreign Office, “Germany willing to provide air transport for the EU military operation in the Central African Republic”, 28 Mar 2014, Link
6. Cornelia Riedel, German Air Force (Luftwaffe), Hilfsgüter der Bundeswehr starten von Leipzig aus in den Irak, 22 Aug 2014, Link and Frank Bötel, German Air Force (Luftwaffe), Irak-HIlfe: Zweiter Flug ab Leipzig gestartet, 27 Aug 2014, Link
7. Press and Information Center, Joint Forces Operations Command (Einsatzführungskommando), Erster Transport militärischer Ausrüstungsgüter ist in Erbil angekommen, 5 Sep 2014, Link
8. German Defense Ministry, Waffenlieferungen in den Nordirak werden fortgesetzt, 1 Oct 2014, Link
9. Mikhail Barabanov, Moscow Defense Brief, “Flight Unit 224: Russian MoD’s Commercial Airline”, 2011 Link
10. Mikhail Barabanov, Moscow Defense Brief, “Flight Unit 224: Russian MoD’s Commercial Airline”, 2011 Link
11. BBC Russia Service, “Что делают российские транспортные самолеты в Мали?”, 15 Jan 2013, Link and Vadim Zaitsev, Kommersant, “Французские солдаты летят в Мали на российских самолетах”, 17 Jan 2013, Link
12. Jean-Christophe Notin, La guerre de la France au Mali, 10 Jun 2014, Editions Tallandier, ISBN: 9791021004566 and Philippe Chapleau, Lignes de Défense, “Antonov et Iliouchine sont les deux mamelles dex opex françaises”, 30 Jun 2014, Link
13. Netherlands Armed Forces (Defensie), “Eerste transport helikopter naar Mali”, 9 Sep 2014, Link and Brabants Dagblad, “Antonov met Chinooks op weg naar Mali”, 10 Sep 2014, Link and BN De Stem, “Antonov pikt Chinooks op voor Mali in Gilze-Rijen” (video en fotoalbum)”, 10 Sep 2014, Link
14. The Independent, “Ministry of Defence using Russian subcontractor Polet to move sensitive cargo – despite legal action against firm”, 21 Feb 2014, Link and David Harris, Cargo Facts, “Polet wobbles as court cases continue”, 28 May 2014, Link and Alex Lennane, The Loadstar, “Polet must return one AN-124 after losing Russian court case against finance house”, 9 October 2014, Link and Polet Airlines, Link
15. Sandro Poggendorf and Marcus Weller, ARD/MDR FAKT, “Heikel: NATO nutzt russischer Transportflugzeuge”, 16 Sep 2014, Link and Mitteldeutsche Rundfunk, “Militärtransporte durch russische Firma: Kritiker warnen vor Sicherheitsrisiko für die NATO”, 16 Sep 2014, Link
16. Robert Nößler, Leipziger Volkzeitung (LVZ-online), “Trotz Kritik an Antonow-Flügen: Nächste Woche erste Waffenlieferung von Leipzig in den Irak”, 17 Sep 2014, Link
18. Thomas Scheuer, Focus, “Im Bauch des russischen Bären”, 29 Sep 2014, Link
19. Heiner Siegmund, Cargo Forwarder Global, “Merkel Insults Russian ILA Exhibitors”, 26 May 2014. Link
20. Gordon Repinski, Der Spiegel, “Von der Leyens Pannenmission im Irak”, 25 Sep 2014, Link
21. Will Waters, Lloyd’s Loading List, “Ruslan continuing Russia-Ukraine partnership, despite tensions”, 11 Aug 2014, Link
22. Pavel Davydov, RIA Novosti, “NATO Extends An-124 Airlift Contract Until 2015”, Link and Steffen Höhne, Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, “Russen fliegen deutsche Waffen”, 22 Sep 2014, Link and Robert Nößler, Leipziger Volkzeitung (LVZ-online), “Trotz Kritik an Antonow-Flügen: Nächste Woche erste Waffenlieferung von Leipzig in den Irak”, 17 Sep 2014, Link
23. Neil MacFarquar, New York Times, “Aviation Giant is Nearly Grounded in Ukraine”, 11 Oct 2014, Link
24. Clemens Haug, Döbelner Allgemeine Zeitung, “Erste Maschine mit deutschen Waffen für Kurden startet Mittwoch von Leipzig-Halle”, 23 Sep 2014, Link
25. Steffen Höhne, Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, “Russen fliegen deutsche Waffen”, 22 Sep 2014, Link