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AP Exclusive: Rough ride for US-Russia copter deal

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 7, 2013 at 6:54 am •  Published: December 7, 2013
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The deal looked sketchy from the start.

To outfit Afghanistan's security forces with new helicopters, the Pentagon bypassed U.S. companies and turned instead to Moscow for dozens of Russian Mi-17 rotorcraft at a cost of more than $1 billion.

Senior Pentagon officials assured skeptical members of Congress that the Defense Department had made the right call. They repeatedly cited a top-secret 2010 study they said named the Mi-17 as the superior choice.

Turns out the study told a very different story, according to unclassified excerpts obtained by The Associated Press.

An American-made helicopter, the U.S. Army's workhorse Chinook built by Boeing in Pennsylvania, was found to be "the most cost-effective single platform type fleet for the Afghan Air Force over a twenty year" period, according to the excerpts.

Lawmakers who closely had followed the copter deal were stunned.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate's No. 2 GOP leader and one of the most vocal critics of the contract, said the Department of Defense "repeatedly and disingenuously" used the study to prove the necessity of buying Mi-17s.

More than two years since the Mi-17 contract was signed, a veil of secrecy still obscures the pact despite its high-dollar value, the potential for fraud and waste, and accusations the Pentagon muffled important information. The unprecedented arms deal also serves as a reminder to a war-weary American public that Afghanistan will remain heavily dependent on U.S. financial support even after its combat troops depart.

"So why are we buying Russian helicopters when there are American manufacturers that can meet that very same requirement?" Cornyn asked. "Makes no sense whatsoever and the Department of Defense has steadfastly refused to cooperate with reasonable inquiries into why in the world they continue to persist along this pathway."

As recently as September, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter cited the study in a letter to House members defending the decision. Carter left his job this past week.

Last year, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top acquisition official, and policy chief James Miller pointed to the study in a written response to questions posed by Cornyn.

Just a few weeks after the secret study was completed, Army Secretary John McHugh wrote in a 2011 memo "that the Mi-17 stands apart" when compared with other helicopters.

The Pentagon denies it misled Congress.

A senior department official said the study was focused on long-term requirements and not the immediate needs of the Afghan military, which were best met by the Mi-17. Also, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan wanted the Mi-17 because it is durable, easy-to-operate and the Afghan forces had experience flying it, according to the official, who was not authorized to be identified as the source of the information.

The war in Afghanistan, now in its 13th year, has been full of paradoxes.

What was once President Barack Obama's "war of necessity" has become a race for the exits. Hopes of eradicating the Taliban and transforming Afghanistan into a viable state have been dialed down. U.S. combat forces are scheduled to depart by the end of next year, leaving the Afghans responsible for ensuring the country doesn't collapse into the pre-Sept. 11 chaos that made it a terrorist haven.

There's no dispute that heavy-duty helicopters capable of quickly moving Afghan troops and supplies are essential to accomplishing that mission. But the decision to acquire them from Russia has achieved the rare feat in a deeply divided Congress of finding common ground among Republicans and Democrats.

Why, lawmakers from both political parties have demanded, is the U.S. purchasing military gear from Russia?

After all, Russia has sold advanced weapons to repressive government in Syria and Iran, sheltered NSA leaker Edward Snowden, and been criticized by the State Department for adopting laws that restrict human rights.

On top of all that, corruption is rampant in Russia's defense industry, heightening concerns that crooked government officials and contractors are lining their pockets with American money.

"We're not dealing with a corrupt system. Corruption is the system," said Stephen Blank, a Russia expert at the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington think tank. "This is not a world we're familiar with."

Overall, 63 Mi-17s are being acquired through the 2011 contract. It was awarded without competition to Russia's arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, even though the Pentagon condemned the agency after Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces used Russian weapons to "murder Syrian civilians."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, a high-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the arrangement has put American taxpayers in the intolerable position of subsidizing a company complicit in the atrocities occurring in Syria.

"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," DeLauro said.

No Pentagon official was made available to speak on the record for this story.

The AP also requested in late October that the department release unclassified portions of the 2010 study and other records supporting the decision to buy Mi-17s instead of Chinooks or other helicopters. The department provided only a one-page summary of a report that provided no new information.

Afghanistan's mountainous terrain demands a helicopter capable of operating in the most rugged conditions at altitudes well in excess of 15,000 feet. The Mi-17 met all these requirements, Carter and other U.S. military officials told lawmakers in correspondence and in testimony.

But so could the heavyweight Chinook. The Boeing helicopter is larger than its Russian counterpart, carries up to a 26,000 pound payload, which is twice as much as the Mi-17, and can operate at nearly the same high altitude.

The armed Mi-17s being purchased for Afghanistan from Rosoboronexport will replace older and less capable Mi-17s that the U.S. and other countries had purchased from brokers and contractors through the open market and then donated or loaned to the Afghans.

The fact that the Afghan forces had years of experience flying the Mi-17 figured prominently in the Pentagon's decision.

Carter and other U.S. defense official contended that adding the Boeing helicopter to the mix would unnecessarily burden the Afghans with having to learn how to operate and maintain an unfamiliar helicopter.

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