New Strategic Airlift Agreements with Russia and Ukraine

Stephan Wallace

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 nine of its NATO/EU allies and partners will continue relying on Russian and Ukrainian An-124 aircraft to transport heavy and outsize loads in support of their international military and humanitarian relief operations, despite NATO’s 2014 decision to suspend all practical military and civilian cooperation with Russia.  Because of Ukraine’s refusal to continue its partnership with Russia in the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS), separate contracts have been signed with Russia’s Volga-Dnepr and Ukraine’s Antonov airlines.  Both providers will continue operating from Germany’s Leipzig-Halle International Airport in Schkeuditz, where Volga-Dnepr also has a maintenance hangar.               

The NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA), acting on behalf of the ten SALIS participants, awarded two-year contracts for 2017-2018, with options to extend the agreements for an additional five years,  according to information first reported by Germany’s Mitteldeutscher Zeitung and Leipziger Volkzeitung in early November 2016.[1]  German public television network ARD later obtained copies of the documents, which revealed that NSPA/SALIS contracted for at least 1,602 flight hours in 2017, 973 of which will be flown by Russia’s Volga-Dnepr and 629 by Ukraine’s Antonov.  Germany’s armed forces remain the largest single user of the program, reserving 1,080 flight hours for 2017 and 980 flight hours for 2018.[2]  The other participants are Belgium, Czechia, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.[3] The An-124 flights are used to transport exceptionally large or heavy items, such as helicopters, armored vehicles, and self-propelled artillery—many of which cannot fit on smaller transports—as well as large quantities of bulk items, such as ammunition and supplies.

Ruslan SALIS, a 50-50 joint venture between Volga-Dnepr and Antonov, has provided NATO and EU participants in the SALIS project with strategic airlift services since the beginning of 2006, guaranteeing assured access to six An-124-100 aircraft, two of which are kept available for immediate use at Germany’s Leipzig-Halle Airport.  Participants in the program also have been able to use Il-76 and An-225 transport aircraft if and when they are available.[4]

The previous contract with Ruslan SALIS was extended at the end of 2014 for an additional two years, despite decisions made earlier that year “to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia.”[5]  The extension was justified legally on the grounds that the contract was signed with a “German company” registered in Leipzig and operating under German law.  The more pragmatic reason was that the An-124 offered significant advantages in comparison to other large cargo aircraft, and only Volga-Dnepr had enough An-124s in its inventory to meet the expected demand.  Antonov’s decision to remain in the joint venture with Volga-Dnepr at that time undoubtedly made the decision easier to accept politically.  German officials have since praised the reliability of both Antonov and Volga-Dnepr, and a German defense spokesman recently told Deutsche Welle there have been no signs of Russia trying to use the program for political influence.[6]

A Two-Contract Solution

Efforts to negotiate a new contract with Ruslan SALIS failed after the Ukrainian government forced Antonov to end all cooperation with Russian entities and withdraw from Ruslan SALIS by the end of 2016.  In July 2016, Antonov registered a German subsidiary, Antonov SALIS GmbH with headquarters at Schkeuditz, to compete against Ruslan SALIS—now solely owned by Volga-Dnepr—for the new contract.[7]  NSPA, acting on behalf of the SALIS group, initially rejected the individual bids from both companies and encouraged them to find a way to continue working together.  Antonov’s proposal was considered too expensive and technically risky, since it had too few aircraft and a significant portion of the spare parts for its An-124s would have to come from Russia.  Volga-Dnepr’s bid also was considered too risky because the airline would have difficulty obtaining overflight permission from Georgia, Ukraine, and possibly other countries.[8]

  • Regarding the cost of the Ukrainian bid, Germany’s ARD reported that Antonov sought €37,509 per flight hour compared to Volga-Dnepr’s bid of €23,341 per flight hour. Greens Bundestag Deputy and Defense Committee member Tobias Lindner said the German Defense Ministry was unable to explain why the difference was so large.[9]

Unable to reconcile the former partners, SALIS program participants reportedly decided to split the contract between the contenders—awarding roughly 60 percent to Volga-Dnepr and 40 percent to Antonov.  In response to an inquiry from the Leipziger Volkszeitung, a spokesman for the German Defense Ministry confirmed in late October or early November that NSPA would sign separate contracts with Volga-Dnepr and Antonov.[10]  The decision reportedly was made at a meeting of SALIS participants on October 20, according to a report posted by Russia’s ОРУЖИЕ РОССИИ on November 14.[11]

Both before and after the decision, Ukraine’s representatives at NATO attempted to convince the alliance that Antonov alone should get the new SALIS contract and that Russia should be denied the income and political capital derived from cooperation with NATO because of its aggression against Ukraine.[12]  At a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission on 7 December, Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin was still trying to convince his NATO counterparts that Ukraine could satisfy NATO’s airlift needs on its own without any support from Russia.[13]

Germany and France are Leading Users of SALIS

The conservative daily Die Welt reported in June 2016 that the German Bundeswehr relies on chartered civilian air transport, contracted primarily through SALIS, for about two-thirds of its air transport needs.[14]  The Bundeswehr depends on the SALIS program to sustain its peace support operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East as well as its train and equip program for the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq.  Over the past several months, Germany has relied on SALIS flights to provide critical logistic support to Kurdish Peshmerga fighting against Islamic State terrorists in northern Iraq.

  • October 5, 2016: an unspecified An-124 delivered 71 tons of military supplies to the Peshmerga in Irbil, including 3.9 million rounds of 7.62mm ammunition for G36 assault rifles and 65,000 rounds for P1 pistols.[15]
  • October 29, 2016: a Volga-Dnepr Il-76 delivered protective equipment, NBC protective equipment, and medical supplies to Iraqi government forces in Baghdad and Kurdish Peshmerga in Irbil, as well as spare parts for Wolf 4×4 vehicles operated by the Peshmerga.[16]
  • November 15, 2016: a Volga-Dnepr An-124 delivered 1,000 G36 assault rifles and 2,480,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition to Kurdish Peshmerga in Irbil.[17]
  • December 6, 2016: an unspecified An-124 delivered 2,520,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition, as well as spare parts for G36 assaults rifles, MG3 machineguns, and P1 pistols to Peshmerga in Irbil.[18]
  • December 13, 2016: a Volga-Dnepr An-124 delivered 2 million rounds of 5.56 mm ammunition, 1.4 million rounds of 7.62mm ammunition, and spare parts for trucks and other vehicles to Irbil.[19]

France also relies extensively on Russian and Ukrainian transport aircraft to meet its strategic airlift requirements.   According to a report published by France’s Court of Auditors in November 2016, the French Air Force carried only 23.2 percent of the material needed to support France’s international operations in 2015.  The SALIS program accounted for 34.7 percent and a separate French contract with Paris-based International Chartering Systems (ICS) accounted for 33.7 percent.[20]  In addition to An-124 aircraft provided by Volga-Dnepr and Antonov, ICS uses An-124s operated by the Russian Air Force’s 224th Flight Unit and the UAE’s Maximus Air Cargo.[21]  The French government reportedly paid €40 million in 2015 for 1,115 flight hours chartered through SALIS and ICS.[22]

The French government concluded its most recent contract with ICS in January 2015 for up to 48 months of air transport services. Annual extensions of the contract are due before the end of each calendar year through 2018.[23]


[1] Steffen Höhne, “Antonovs bleiben am Flughafen Halle/Leipzig stationiert”, Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, 3 Nov 2016,

Frank Johannsen, “Nato verlängert Antonow-Flüge in Schkeuditz”, Leipziger Volkszeitung, 3 Nov 2016,

[2] Christian Thiels, “Knebelverträge am Himmel”, ARD Tagesschau, 14 Dec 2016,

Ben Knight, “German military relying on Russia, Ukraine firms to transport tanks”, Deutshe Welle, 14 Dec 2016,

[3] Movement Coordination Centre Europe, Strategic Airlift Coordination Cell,

[4] NATO, “Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS)”, 8 Apr 2014,

[5] NATO, “Statement by NATO Foreign Ministers, 1 Apr 2014,

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,

NATO, “Wales Summit Declaration”, 5 Sep 2014,

[6] Ben Knight, “German military relying on Russia, Ukraine firms to transport tanks”, Deutshe Welle, 14 Dec 2016,

[7] “Antonov SALIS GmbH”, Unternehmen 24/Unimedia AG, 9 Nov 2016,

[8] Диана Михайлова, “Украина, ГП “Антонов” и проект НАТО SALIS”, RIA Novosti (Ukraine), 31 Jul 2016,

Christian Thiels, “Knebelverträge am Himmel”, ARD Tagesschau, 14 Dec 2016,

[9] Christian Thiels, “Knebelverträge am Himmel”, ARD Tagesschau, 14 Dec 2016,

[10] Frank Johannsen, “Nato verlängert Antonow-Flüge in Schkeuditz”, Leipziger Volkszeitung, 3 Nov 2016,

[11] Диана Михайлова, “По тендеру проекта SALIS принято соломоново решение: будет подписано 2 контракта”, ОРУЖИЕ РОССИИ, 14 Nov 2016,

[12] Диана Михайлова, “Украина, ГП “Антонов” и проект НАТО SALIS”, RIA Novosti (Ukraine), 31 Jul 2016,

[13] Анастасия Руденко, «Украине стоит удваивать усилия по реформированию», День, 8 Dec 2016,

Кушкинa Арина Трофимовна, “Климкин объявил, что Украина сумеет обеспечить стратегические транспортировки НАТО”, ЭРА Новостей, 8 Dec 2016,

[14] Thorsten Jungholt, “Von der Leyen ist von Putin abhängig”, WeltN24, 2 Jun 2016,

[15] PAO Erbil, Nächste Lieferung: Munition für Peschmerga, German Armed Forces, 7 Oct 2016,!ut/p/c4/LYvNCoMwEITfKGug4M9NsdBCT71UeymrWWRpTCRdK0gfvgk4AwMzHwNPiHb45QmFvUMLHfQjV8Omhs3Qi9h9UPZY8S0rWXtMJDvBI50NqdE7kpRCTjjmFFB8UIsPYhNZQ4hEsYE-022j81N2SP_q86W8FWVetNfmDss8139snwKC/

[16] PIZ EinsFüKdoBw, Irak: Nächste Lieferung an Peschmerga und die Zentralregierung, German Armed Forces, 29 Oct 2016,!ut/p/z1/hY_NDoIwEITfiC0ggsdigZAQNII_7cU00CAGW9JU4sGHt8TozbiHSXZm99ssMDgBk3zqO256Jflge8qW5zgq6sJbeR6p9xjlSYA21Zr4GQrhAMd_I8zG6EdhBFUrgFpG-JORuVABA9YKp1FSmFmNkKa32mlulHZGpc0wJ3etbeL0LVDkktgNF59T7hOnmPgJiiKSx7sZeOUTf3x3eTM_DfTCZTuIrWrw2xhvaVSWQfcCOINzOw!!/dz/d5/L2dBISEvZ0FBIS9nQSEh/#Z7_B8LTL2922DTUA0IE50OSCD3GG1

[17] PIZ EinsFüKdoBw, Nächste Lieferung: Gewehre und Munition für Peschmerga, German Armed Forces, 17 Nov 2016,!ut/p/z1/hY_LDoIwEEX_iGmrPFyCCCEhaCw-6MY00CAGW9JU4sKPt8TojjiLm8y9M2cywOAMTPKxa7nplOS97SvmXaIgL3OyIiQuDyHKNi7a0nW8SJEPRzj9G2E2RjMVIqCNgMoy_FlGioECA9YIp1ZSmEmNkKaz2mpulHYGpU0_JQ-tbeJ0DVQIxxH2l99T-BUmNPKWmOA4i_YT8MZH_vzt8np6Gqorl00vdqoOP8ZwT4KicNs3VCLfRg!!/dz/d5/L2dBISEvZ0FBIS9nQSEh/#Z7_B8LTL2922DTUA0IE50OSCD3GG1

[18] PIZ EinsFüKdoBw, Munition und Ersatzteile für Peschmerga, German Armed Forces, 8 Dec 2016,!ut/p/z1/hY_NDoIwEITfiC0oAsciQkgIGsGf9mIaaLAGW9JU4sGHt8TojbiHSXZm99ssUDgDlWwUHTNCSdbbntDVJQ6LuvAiz0vqA0b5xkfbap0sMhTAEU7_RqiN0UxhBFXLgVhGMMvIXKiAAm250yjJzaSGSyOsdpoZpZ1BadNPyUNrmziiBYLcJHaD5feU-8JZGtEI-UGSx_sJeGMje_52WTM9DeTKZNvznWrwxxjuaViWfvcGi0gvfw!!/dz/d5/L2dBISEvZ0FBIS9nQSEh/#Z7_B8LTL2922DTUA0IE50OSCD3GG1

[19] PIZ EinsFüKdoBw. Nächste Lieferung in den Irak: Munition für den Kampf gegen den „IS“, German Armed Forces, 14 Dec 2016,!ut/p/z1/hY_LDoIwEEX_iGlRXksQJSSID_BBN6aBBjHYkqYSF368bYzuiLO4ydw7cyYDBM5AOB27lqpOcNrrviLuJfKzMrMD247LQ4jSpYM2xSKeJciDI5z-jRAdo4kKERQNg0ozvElGgqEAAqRhVi04U0YV46rT2kqqhLQGIVVvkoeUOrG6BiqE4wh78-8p_AqTdeTuAozjNNob4I2O9PnbpbV5Gqor5U3PtqIOP8ZwX_l57rRvWzhGfw!!/dz/d5/L2dBISEvZ0FBIS9nQSEh/#Z7_B8LTL2922DTUA0IE50OSCD3GG1

[20] Philippe Chapleau, “Affrétements stratégiques aériens: turbulences et trous d’air selon la Cour des comptes”, Ouest France / Lignes de defense, 15 Nov 2015,

Jean-Dominique Merchet, “Transport stratégique : plus de 30 tonnes chaque jour par voie”, L’Opinion, 15 Nov 2016,

[21] Philippe Chapleau, “ICS va affrêter des avions-cargo pour le MinDef dans le cadre d’un contrat de 48 mois maximum”, Ouest France / Lignes de defense, 25 Jan 2015,

[22] Jean-Dominique Merchet, “Transport stratégique : plus de 30 tonnes chaque jour par voie”, L’Opinion, 15 Nov 2016,

[23] Philippe Chapleau, “ICS va affrêter des avions-cargo pour le MinDef dans le cadre d’un contrat de 48 mois maximum”, Ouest France / Lignes de defense, 25 Jan 2015,

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.