Europe’s Strategic Airlift Gap

Quantifying the Capability Gap and Measuring Solutions

By Major

By Maj



, US


Allied Air Command

 September 2014
Subject Areas: Air Transport


The identity, mission, and requirements of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have been evolving since the end of the Cold War. The pace of this evolution in mission sets has been increasing and on a vector towards a more global and rapid expeditionary force responding to both conflict and humani­tarian need. Strategic airlift is a core capability required by NATO nations if they are to carry out these end­eavours across the globe. While the United States (US) possess a tremendous strategic airlift capability other NATO nations suffer a severe gap in strategic airlift requirements and capacity.

For reasons of sovereignty and shifting strategic ­focus for European nations, it is important for reliance on US and even Canadian strategic airlift to be miti­gated. To address airlift shortfalls, European NATO allies have collectively pooled resources through multiple initiatives. Pooled leasing of contract airlift through the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS), the multi­national purchase and operation of Lockheed C-17s via the Strategic Airlift Consortium (SAC), and the eight-nation group purchase of Airbus A400Ms constitute significant efforts in collectively addressing airlift deficiencies.

My research as part of the USAF’s Advanced Study of Air Mobility (ASAM) attempted to quantify the stra­tegic airlift requirement for deploying NATO’s forces and compare these requirements to both current and projected airlift capacity, excluding North American assets. Although the study included many other aspects of research, including alternate fleets of additional C-17s, only the results of current (Table 1) and planned future (Table 2) airlift fleets are described within this article.

Current and future airlift fleet capabilities were measured using both air campaign planning equations and deter­ministic modelling, specifically a modified version of the USAF’s AMC Mobility Planner’s Calculator (AMPCALC). Scenarios used for the research were derived from past NATO and defence industry studies. NATO Rapid Response Forces and their deployment were the focus of all scenarios. Qualitative data regarding NATO’s airlift was gathered through interviews with prominent subject matter experts from NATO, US Air Forces Europe (USAFE), Air Mobility Command, RAND and others.

Scenario Framework

To quantify requirements, three key variables were ­determined: how much needs to be transported, at what distance and under what time constraints. Comparing current and future aircraft groupings against scenario requirements established if a capability gap existed and quantified it as a shortage of X aircraft, Y days, or Z Million-Ton Miles per Day (MTM / D).

In particular, two studies provided the force structure and timelines analysed within this research. In 2005, the Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) conducted an airlift simulation using NATO’s Allied Deployment and Movement System (ADAMS). Forces were accurately constructed using NATO’s LOGBASE for deployment-related data and their Force Data Manage­ment module.1 This data was mirrored in the first two scenarios of this research.

Additionally, a study performed by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), provided a more recent scenario modelling the multinational mili­tary effort in Mali, January 2013. The force requirement provided by EADS served as an accurate estimation of actual forces deployed via airlift. Although much smaller (nearly 1 / 3rd) than the forces required for scenario 1 and 2, this 3rd scenario does closely approximate a smaller NRF land component, the initial response por­tions of a large NRF or EU battle group deployment. Past studies of the Battle Groups suggested the initial deployment phase should occur within the first 10 days.2 Therefore a time period of 10 days was used for scenario 3 of this study to determine airlift shortfalls. The basic requirements derived are seen in Table 3.

Aircraft Fleets

Aircraft not already in AMPCALC, were added by using performance data provided by the manufacturers or obtained through published open sources. That data was then used to build a scatterplot from which a linear trend line was created. Payload-range values were determined in this manner for the following ­aircraft: A400M, C-130J, A-310, A-330, A-340. The average R2 value for these aircraft was 0.92588.

The capacity for Europe’s current strategic airlift fleet was determined by examining actual aircraft fleets and determining their capability within each scenario.3

The fleet described in Table 1 was used in total for the Bahamas and Rwanda Scenarios. The Mali Scenario cargo was limited to C-17, C-130 and A400M aircraft due to airfield restrictions. The SALIS contract guarantees 6 AN-124s, but they are limited to 20 days or 800 hrs per month. Mirroring the 2005 JAPCC study, the researcher limited the AN-124 fleet using the 20 day per month constraint which approximates 66 % of full fleet use per month, or 4 AN-124 aircraft. To account for the ‘assured’ access to the aircraft, the maintenance capability rate for the AN-124s modelled was kept at 100 % rather than the 85 % used for the rest of the fleet.

Future airlift fleets were examined by projecting current procurement initiatives.

AN-124s provided by SALIS were eliminated in accordance with publicly stated intentions to do so once the A400Ms are operational.4

Results and Analysis

The three scenarios were first examined by calculating the MTM / D required to move all requirements within the specified time constraint.5

Next, each set of models examined the current and future fleets of European strategic airlifters and their performance within each of the three scenarios. These models first determined how many days it would take to deliver the required cargo to the given destination. The models were then run again to see how much cargo the current fleet was capable of transporting within the specified time constraint (i.e. 30 or 10 days).

Scenario 1 Analysis (Bahamas)

Scenario 1 to the Bahamas was very taxing on the Euro­pean fleet. While Scenario 2 to Rwanda did include a greater amount of cargo, Scenario 1’s distance of more than 8,000 miles round trip placed an enormous stress on airlift. Both MTM / D calculations and modelling concluded that a significant gap exists in Europe’s current airlift fleet, yet their future fleet should have adequate capacity.

Within Scenario 1 and in all scenarios, passenger move­ment was never a limiting factor. Without procuring commercial transport, NATO allies have more than enough capacity to rapidly move expeditionary forces. This is of course if airfields in or near the AOR allow ­access to their more commercial-like MRTT aircraft. Regarding the transport of cargo, the current airlift fleet was only capable of moving 6.94 MTM / D. This includes using all MRTT aircraft for cargo when not used in their primary role of passenger transport. This falls well short of the calculated 10.95 MTM / D required. When modelled for best closure, the results show an even larger gap by a factor of 2.16. What the allies want to move in 30 days was determined to take nearly 65. When the model was limited to 30 days available the results mirrored previous findings, showing only 47.7k s / Tons of the required 77k s / Tons could be delivered (61 %).

Modelling the future fleet resulted in much better results. With the most notable changes being the deletion of SALIS AN-124s and the addition of 170 A400Ms, all requirements were delivered in less than 21 days. These results of course benefit from the full use of all European strategic airlifters from all continental allies, hampered only by a 5 % training fence and 15 % maintenance fail rate. Although optimistic, these assumptions may not be unfeasible in an effort of grave importance to the allies as a whole.

Once the model was restricted to 30 days, it was ­possible to narrow down a more accurate number of A400Ms needed to complete the scenario. A more manageable 89 A400Ms (or only 52 % of the projected total) was required.

Whether looking at MTM / D, obtainable force closure timetables, or cargo capabilities within outlined timelines: Scenario 1 shows a significant capability gap. This gap however is adequately bridged through the projected purchase of A400M aircraft. In fact, only half of those under contract would be needed to accomplish European contingency objectives for the given scenario.

Scenario 2 Analysis (Rwanda)

Scenario 2, transporting a large NRF to Rwanda included the largest required cargo loads. As with Scenario 1, MTM / D calculations and modelling concluded that a significant gap exists in Europe’s current airlift fleet, yet their future fleet should have adequate capacity, baring barriers to MRTT aircraft providing cargo support.

Europe’s current fleet of aircraft was able to produce full force closure in 73.59 days, significantly missing the 30 day goal. The 5.89 MTM / D capability fell far short of the calculated 10.17 MTM / D requirement. Running the model with a 30 day limit on transport, the current fleet was only capable of moving 56 % of the required 93k s / Tons mirroring MTM / D calculated shortfalls. Once again, passenger movement was not a factor, however the shortage of cargo lift may be even more significant when one considers the lack of infrastructure in Africa. This model assumed MRTT aircraft would be useful in transporting both passengers and cargo. By moving cargo off MRTT aircraft for this scenario, force closure jumps to nearly 92 days. In reality, poor infrastructure and lack of adequate airfields may significantly increase the airlift gap for certain operations.

Using the full fleet of 170 A400Ms, the model results showed force closure in 26.08 days. Restricting the model to 30 days, shows a minimum of 124 A400Ms are required for force closure. Again these results included MRTT aircraft in a cargo role. With MRTT aircraft restricted to passenger transport to nearby airfields, force closure for the full 170 A400M fleet grows from 26.08 days to 32.05 days. Given MRTT constraints, when the model is run to minimize the number of A400M required to meet the 30 day goal, the result is 185.

If MRTT aircraft are further prohibited from passenger transport, the number of required A400Ms only slightly increases. With zero MRTT support, AMCALC shows passenger closure can be completed by using less than 40 C-130H aircraft for passenger transport. For the Rwanda scenario C-130H were limited to an average payload of only 3.77 s / Tons / Day, therefore only 3 additional A400M aircraft were required to make up the difference in the cargo capacity lost by using a portion of the C-130 fleet for passenger movement. With MRTT lift available, the future fleet does appear to fill the current gap. Without MRTT support however the additional 170 A400Ms projected to Europe’s fleet falls just short of meeting contingency timetables.

Scenario 3 Analysis (Mali)

For the Mali scenario, varying sized forces were air­lifted from four separate locations. To optimize the use of each fleet input to AMCALC the program’s inte­­gra­tion feature was used. The Integrate Cycles application allows the spread the available aircraft across any / all cycle combinations according to the percentage of the total cargo and passenger requirements.

Scenario 3, transported a rapid response force similar to that used for Mali’s real-world operation in 2013, aimed for 10 day force closure. As with scenario 1, MTM / D calculations and modelling concluded that a significant gap exists in Europe’s current airlift fleet, yet their future fleet should have adequate capacity to meet stated goals.

Referencing real-world airfield constraints, this scenario was limited to C-130, C-17 and A400M aircraft for cargo transport. The current fleet of available aircraft was able to close airlift from Europe and all three African locations in 16.53 days. The ability to only lift 3.25 of the required 5.05 MTM / D was significant. If only given 10 days for airlift, the current fleet would fall 29 % short of transporting all requirements according to AMCALC.

Using the future fleet of A400Ms and additional ­C-130Js however, force closure results are achieved in less than 4 days. Two of the African battalions may actually be moved in less than 2 days. Running ­AMCALC to minimize the A400M fleet shows only 25 are necessary to close within 10 days. This greatly reduced number is significant when one considers that the research still used MRTT aircraft to transport passengers in this scenario. It is highly feasible that this trans­port may not be available in a scenario such as this, requiring austere airfield capable aircraft such as the C-130, A400M and C-17 to carry both cargo and passengers. When the model is run without the use of any MRTT aircraft, ­results show that a small increase in A400M numbers in coordination with C-130 passenger transport adequately meets all requirements within stated time­tables. Using 27 C-130 for passenger transport and bringing the total A400M fleet up to 28, all passenger and cargo requirements are met within 10 days.


Europe’s current strategic airlift shortfall is significant. Given capabilities, initiatives and priorities stated by NATO and the EU, a substantial gap exists between what is available and what is desired. This research supports the projected 2020 fleet of European aircraft to meet strategic airlift goals. The fulfilment of A400M orders will not only help European nations become a global contingency enabler, but will allow them to act and operate on their own for strictly European oper­ations. Deployment of the NRF will likely be done ­using multimodal transportation, but the future fleet of Euro­pean aircraft should enable the rapid deployment of NRF forces.

Massai, C. (2005). ‘Deploying the NRF: Meeting the Airlift Challenge’, The Journal of the JAPCC, Ed. 2, p. 14 – 17.
European Defence Agency: Landscaping study for the European air transport fleet initiative – final report (1 Feb. 2011). Cambridge, England: Marshall Solutions.
‘NATO Air Transport Capability: An Assessment’ (2011). Kalkar, Germany: Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC).
SALIS – Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (5 Feb. 2013). Retrieved, 10 Sep. 2012, from
Brigantic, R. T. and Merrill, D. (2004). ‘The Algebra of Airlift. Mathematical and Computer Modeling’, p. 649 – 656.
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Allied Air Command

Major Lee Hages is the Chief, Core Joint Forces Air Component Exercise Branch, Allied Air Command headquartered at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Major Hages entered the Air Force in 2000 as a graduate of the US Air Force Academy, earning a degree in Political Science, Nation Security Studies and US Foreign Policy followed by a Master of Business Administration in Human Resources and a Master of Science in Logistics. Prior to conducting his research for AMC’s Advanced Study of Air Mobility, he has served as a KC-10 Flying Training Unit (FTU) Chief, 305th Operations Group Standardization and Evaluations Chief, and USAF Expeditionary Center Executive Officer and CAG Chief. Major Hages is a KC-10 senior pilot with more than 3,000 flying hours and over 100 combat sorties.

Information provided is current as of September 2014

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