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STUTTGART, Germany — The multinational Heavy Airlift Wing will officially activate on Monday when defense ministers and NATO officials assemble in Papa, Hungary, where the 12-nation consortium is set to launch a ground-breaking partnership aimed at bolstering airlift support to places such as Afghanistan.

In the weeks leading up to the wing’s activation, it has conducted a couple of small missions already in a new C-17 Globemaster III.

“The first flight went great. The plane is fantastic,” Col. John Zazworsky said last week, shortly after touching down in Charleston, S.C., during an interim stop on his way to Hungary. Zazworsky, commander of the Heavy Airlift Wing, was traveling with a load of cargo to help support the missions ahead.

The wing is now poised to move forward with its main effort: supporting the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

“The bulk of our missions are pointed that way,” said Zazworsky, referring to a busy schedule that involves troop rotation and resupply support. “We’ve got as much business as we can handle at this point.”

The Strategic Airlift Capability project, formed to help fill a shortfall in heavy airlift support in Afghanistan and beyond, has not been without its challenges.

With nothing to model itself after, the wing’s leaders have had to invent their own system for doing business. During the start-up, the wing went beyond planning missions and getting pilots trained. In certain respects, that was the easy part. The harder part is developing the logistical pieces and policies that guide a wing.

“I think the challenge is how do you build (a wing) from scratch in a foreign country,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Johnston, the outgoing chairman of the advisory board that governs the consortium. “There’s no historical basis.”

Typically, status of forces agreements are in place when a unit sets up in a country. But when the organization is a mix of nations, some NATO and some not, new policies must be established with the host nation.

Then there are the nitty-gritty details of doing business that need to be worked out: figuring out diplomatic rules for multinational crews to get clearance into various countries, customs regulations for incoming parts and gear, and, in the event something happens on a trip, how does the wing pay out claims? How do the claims get divided and who pays what?

Johnston said many of these issues are still being worked through. In the future, if similar consortiums form for other purposes, the SAC could serve as a good case study, he said.

The HAW will be flying three C-17s out of Papa, carrying cargo in support of NATO operations in Afghanistan as well as other European Union and U.N. efforts. The two additional C-17s will be arriving in the next couple of months.

The wing, which formed in October after two years of negotiations between the nations involved, is expected to log 3,500 hours of flight time per year. 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.

The U.S. leads the way with 1,000 promised flight hours, and has invested the most into the consortium — $250 million.

In recent months, pilots and crew chiefs have been training for their new missions on C-17s. The wing consists of 131 personnel and some 70 contractors from the various nations. Then there are the family members joining them for the accompanied tour.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be blending the children from the wing into the local Hungarian schools, where some classes are conducted in Hungarian and others in English.

Last spring, commanders met with the Hungarian education minister to discuss the common needs of the nations.

“It’s moving in a much more positive direction than a couple of months ago,” Zazworsky said.

About 35 students were enrolled in the schools last year as the wing began to take shape. That number will jump to about 110 children during the upcoming school year.

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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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