U.S. and European officials this week officially activated a first-of-its-kind multinational strategic airlift unit at Papa Air Base, Hungary, according to a statement released by U.S. Air Forces Europe.

The Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) program, created in 2006, will operate independently of NATO’s military command and will include Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and the United States, as well as Partnership for Peace nations Finland and Sweden.

The nations’ varying investments in the SAC Program dictate their proportionate share of the annual flying hours on three jointly acquired Boeing [BA] C- 17 Globemaster III aircraft. The first C-17, SAC 01, landed at Papa AB July 18 under the control of pilots from Norway, Sweden and the United States. Boeing will deliver SAC’s two remaining C-17s in September and October.

Each nation also contributed a proportionate share of the unit’s 131 personnel.

The nations committed to the 30-year SAC Program built the program’s multinational operational-level unit, known as the Heavy Airlift Wing in 10 months. The purpose was to collectively create a heavy airlift solution with global reach to meet national obligations to the European Union, United Nations and NATO. Primary among those obligations for all the participants is support to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

SAC 01 will begin operational missions in support of the nations’ requirements in early August and anticipates flying roughly 630 hours before the end of 2009 and more than 3,100 flying hours in 2010, all of which will be flown by multinational aircrews regardless of the nation to which the mission belongs.

A typical mission transporting troops, mechanized firepower and oversized equipment weighing tens of tons from Papa to Afghanistan and back requires roughly 15 flight hours.

Hungary will host the main operating base, its personnel and their families. It will also register the SAC aircraft, the tail flash of which will be Hungarian. The Hungarian air force will manage the Papa airfield, air traffic control operations and base infrastructure support. A Boeing team will provide materiel management, flight line maintenance and other support for the wing’s C-17s.

The NATO Airlift Management Agency will handle acquisition, logistics support and financial matters. According to SAC officials, the program’s approach to shared use of strategic airlift assets allows participating nations to achieve greater efficiencies in defense investment and operational capacity than otherwise possible. Officials say it provides a model for future consortium acquisition and management of expensive defense capabilities and for future combined operations.