Let’s Make a Deal, Russian Helicopter Edition

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By James Gibney

Given the Russia-backed butchery in Syria, the U.S. should cancel its contract with a Russian firm to supply helicopters to the Afghan National Army.

Rosoboronexport, the company behind the Afghan sale, is also supplying Syria with billions of dollars in weapons, including attack helicopters, that are being used to kill civilians and suppress dissent. Why should a Russian state-controlled entity be rewarded for that behavior? More tellingly, why should the Russians take seriously U.S. calls for an arms embargo on Syria if we're willing to do business with one of its prime offenders?

That leaves the very real problem of supplying Afghan troops with helicopters. They have been using Russian ones for the last three decades.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and some of the other members of Congress urging cancellation of the Rosoboronexport contract (worth potentially about $1 billion) would be very happy to replace the 21 Russian Mi-17s with U.S. models, as DeLauro herself has said. (Cornyn and DeLauro have each received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from helicopter makers such as United Technologies, Boeing and Textron, which may help in this case to fuel their humanitarian zeal.)

But comparable U.S. models are more complex, and as one U.S. general has pointed out, "the folks that we're training and we're equipping and working with over there, many of them can't read and write." U.S. helicopters aren't as cheap, either -- as one Thai officer pungently noted, "We are buying three Mi-17 helicopters for the price of one Black Hawk. The Mi-17 can also carry more than 30 troops, while the Black Hawk could carry only 13 soldiers."

I've got an idea that will kill two birds with one helicopter: Ask India, a budding strategic partner and one of the countries with the biggest Mi-17 fleets outside Russia, to sell Afghanistan some of its choppers. (The U.S. military has previously procured surplus Mi-17s from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.) In return, the U.S. could give India a great deal on some Black Hawks, more Apache Longbows, Chinooks or any other U.S. chopper they want -- a market the military-industrial complex really wants to crack.

Let's tack that on to an after-hours session of the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, which is happening today, and tell Vladimir P. to put that in his hookah and smoke it.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)


-0- Jun/13/2012 17:50 GMT