The U.S. Defense Department has decided it’s in the national interest to keep buying MI-17 transport helicopters for the Afghan military from a Russian company that has been scrutinized by Congress over its arms sales to Syria.
The Pentagon “has an urgent, near-term need to purchase an additional 30 new military-use MI-17 helicopters” to equip Afghanistan’s counter-terrorism forces, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wrote yesterday to U.S. lawmakers in a letter obtained by Bloomberg News.
Carter outlined steps the Pentagon took to reevaluate purchases from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-run arms trader, in the letter sent to lawmakers including Republican Representative Bill Young of Florida, chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, and Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, who heads his chamber’s defense appropriations panel.
Lawmakers raised concerns last year that the company supplied arms to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Pentagon decided to keep buying from Rosoboronexport after the U.S. Army canvassed other helicopter makers and failed to find an alternative that would meet the Afghan military’s requirements, Carter said. Afghan personnel have flown the MI-17 since the 1980s and are deeply familiar with their operation, Pentagon officials have said previously.
“Careful consideration of all the information available to the department” after the Army evaluation “confirms it would be in the public interest to procure the MI-17s needed” from the Russian firm, Carter wrote.
Rosoboronexport, based in Moscow, accounted for 85 percent of Russia’s arms exports as of 2010, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a research group based in Alexandria, Virginia. It is the sole Russian company controlling exports of the MI-17, according to the Pentagon.
The U.S. Army had one $375 million contract to buy 21 Russian-made MI-17 helicopters for the Afghans from Rosoboronexport. The Pentagon agreed on July to buy 10 more for $171 million.
Lawmakers including Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, faulted the Pentagon last year for buying equipment from a company that does business with the Syrian government. Assad’s regime has been fighting a two-year civil war in which more than 70,000 people have been killed.
“We should not be using U.S. taxpayer dollars to support a firm that is arming a regime in Syria that’s murdering innocent men, women, and children,” DeLauro said in an interview in August.
The U.S. defense authorization law for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, prohibits using funds to pay Rosoboronexport for helicopters unless the Pentagon invokes a national security waiver.
Carter said the 30 helicopters would be purchased with funds approved in fiscal 2012 so the prohibition wouldn’t apply. Still, the Pentagon would have invoked the waiver “in the national security interests of the United States,” if necessary, he wrote.
While Carter didn’t mention the concerns about the company’s sales to Syria in his letter, Pentagon officials have previously responded to lawmakers’ questions on the issue.
Frank Kendall, undersecretary for acquisition, in a July 27 letter to Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said, “I share your concerns over the point of origin of these helicopters.”
“But I believe our mission in Afghanistan is of much greater significance” than ending relations with the Russian company, Kendall wrote.
James Miller, undersecretary for policy, acknowledged in a March 2012 letter to Cornyn “that Rosoboronexport continues to supply weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime,” and “there is evidence that some of these arms are being used by Syrian forces against Syria’s civilian population.”
Still, Miller said “the MI-17 acquisition effort is critical to building the capacity of Afghanistan security forces.”
The helicopters function well in “the extreme environments of Afghanistan” and are easy for the Afghans to operate due to their “low technical complexity,” making them a key part of the U.S. exit strategy from the country, Miller wrote.