Saturday, December 07, 2013

Controversy over Pentagon buying Russian Helicopters for Afghans

There has been an extremely interesting case of some contention between the Department of Defense and the United States Congress unfolding over the last few weeks.  As we have been studying the nuanced ways in which elements of foreign policy is put together as collaboration between the Executive Branch and Congress, it is interesting to observe a very specific case of it taking place.  In this instance, there was contention between the two over planned equipment procurement for Afghanistan.

Mi-17s in Kabul.        Photo by Forbes.

The Department of Defense is buying Russian helicopters as aid to give to the Afghan Air Force as the United States prepares to largely depart the country over the course of the next year.  Specifically, as late as August the Pentagon had plans to spend $1.1 billion over several years on 63 Russian Mi-17 helicopters to outfit the Afghan military.  This plan quickly drew the ire of Congress.  Their concerns were fueled by the questions of why the US would be willing to send money to Russia (specifically to their state-owned primary arms-exporter Rosoboronexport) and why the Pentagon would buy Russian and not American helicopters.

Congress expressed outrage that the Pentagon was willing to support the Russian Rosoboronexport (the only source for the Mi-17s) while Rosoboronexport has beenselling weapons to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  "Doing business with the supplier of these helicopters has been a morally bankrupt policy, and as a nation, we should no longer be subsidizing Assad's war crimes," Senator Cornyn,  the Senate’s second-leading Republican said in a statement in November.  The opposition to the plans were bipartisan.  "The lack of straightforward information from the Pentagon on the ability of American-made helicopters to meet the mission in Afghanistan is but another factor severely undermining their credibility and justification for pursuing this sorely misguided procurement," stated  Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a high-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.   In fact, in August a dozen Senators from both parties called for the Pentagon to sever its ties to Rosoboronexport.

In November, the Pentagon made a concession of sorts to the Congress when it announced it would not be buying further helicopters from the Russians for this purpose.  The Pentagon decided to cancel their $345 million request for 15 additional helicopters, although their $572 million procurement of 30 Mi-17s from June was still in place.  In all, the total number of the Russian helicopters bought by the Defense Department for the Afghan military should be capped at 86.
A United States Army CH-47 Chinook.     AP photo.
More recently, deeper questions have arisen as to why the Mi-17s were chosen over the American CH-47D helicopters made by Boeing in Pennnsylvaia, commonly called “Chinooks,” in the US Army.  Pentagon officials had reportedly cited a 2010 Top Secret report which they claimed stated that the Russian helicopters were a better choice for Afghan situation.   However, the Associated Press has obtained unclassified excerpts which seem to suggest otherwise.  According to the excerpts, the US Army’s Chinook was found to be "the most cost-effective single platform type fleet for the Afghan Air Force over a twenty year" period.   The American helicopter has a greater payload and can fly at nearly as high altitudes as the Russian Mi-17s.  Even the DoD’s claims that the Mi-17s would be more cost effective are appearing suspect, as the prices of the mi-17s have continued to rise. 

It is true the Afghan Air Force is already familiar with the Russian helicopters and would face a significant learning curve for the operation and maintenance of the Chinooks.  However, the excerpts of the 2010 report envisioned a transitional scenario in which the American helicopters would be introduced and integrated into the Afghan fleets gradually.  This plan never materialized.  Perhaps the commitment to the timeline for withdrawal of American troops weighed in on the Pentagon’s decision.

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