STUTTGART, Germany — The first C-17 hasn’t even touched down at its future home in Hungary, but the new multinational heavy airlift project at Papa Air Base is already catching the eye of some other countries.

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Johnston, who is serving as chairman of the advisory council that oversees the Strategic Airlift Capability program, said the 12-member consortium is on pace to start flying missions by summer.

"We’re already starting to get interest from countries that are not members," said Johnston, who also serves as U.S. Air Forces in Europe’s director of plans, programs and analyses. "We could take on a couple more."

But for now, the focus is getting the international crews trained to conduct missions, upgrading the Hungarian air base and assimilating accompanying family members into the small town of Papa, he said.

The Strategic Airlift Capability program, which launched in October, is an unusual military partnership.

It stands on its own and operates independently of NATO or any single nation. Instead, the heavy airlift wing is made up of 10 NATO countries and two Partnership for Peace countries.

The wing is governed by a Steering Advisory Council, which gives each member country an equal vote. The chairman position, now held by Johnston, rotates among the participating countries.

The partnership has been touted as a step toward helping to fill a critical airlift capacity shortage within NATO while making more efficient use of resources.

The 12 nations involved are: the U.S., Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and two non-NATO countries — Sweden and Finland.

"You’ve got a proven platform in the C-17. It’s capable of doing missions [that] any nation would want," said Johnston, adding that the financial climate in the world makes such alliances even more appealing for many countries that don’t have daily airlift demands.

"You don’t have to buy five or four C-17s, and you can be part of a consortium," he said.

The SAC’s three C-17 Globemaster IIIs will be available for a variety of missions, such as humanitarian and disaster relief efforts.

The C-17, capable of hauling heavy loads and landing on short and rugged runways, also is expected to play an important role in delivering supplies in support of NATO-led efforts in Afghanistan.

While each country has an equal vote on the Steering Advisory Council, final decisions about what missions to conduct are left to the wing commander on the ground.

Currently, that is U.S. Air Force Col. John Zazworsky, though the position rotates among members.

The wing commander, who is in the best position to prioritize, must be empowered to make those decisions, Johnston said.

"He (the wing commander) has the final say and that’s why it’s going to work," Johnston said.

Last week, the consortium hit an important milestone when the first of the three C-17s to be stationed in Hungary had its four major fuselage sections joined together.

It takes 200 days to construct a C-17, and members of the consortium gathered at a Boeing Co. facility in Long Beach, Calif., to commemorate the progress.

The first plane will arrive in Hungary in July and begin missions upon its arrival. The wing is expected to be fully operational with all three C-17s by October 2011.

Currently, there are more than 70 airmen at Papa from the 12 countries as well as accompanying family members. Eventually, about 140 airmen, 40 of whom are American, will call the small town of Papa home. Children are already attending schools in the town.

As for the future, Johnston sees the potential for similar partnerships down the road. Whether it’s a consortium of MC-12 manned surveillance aircraft or the C-130, there’s plenty of potential, Johnston said.

"I think there can be more," he said.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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