A congressional fight over the Pentagon’s purchase of military equipment from Russia is dividing hawks on the Hill, as some blast the Department of Defense for dealing with the Putin regime while others argue that the purchases are necessary for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has continued to buy Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan army from the Russian-controlled Rosoboronexport despite congressional attempts to block it from using 2013 funds for the purchases. The Department of Defense reportedly signed a $572 million deal with the manufacturer last month, using money from 2012.
This week, the House passed an amendment to prohibit funding introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.). Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.
Some of the Senate’s strongest voices on national security, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.), John Cornyn(R., Texas), and John McCain (R., Ariz.), have criticized the Pentagon’s dealings with Rosoboronexport, which is also supplying weapons to the Assad regime. The Obama administration has demanded that Russia halt its support for Bashar al-Assad.
In addition to Russia’s support for the mass-murdering Syrian regime, it has also refused to extradite admitted NSA leaker Edward Snowden and has used its position in the United Nations to undermine U.S. efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.
"American taxpayers should not be indirectly subsidizing the murder of Syrian civilians, especially when there are perfectly good alternatives to dealing with Rosoboronexport," said Cornyn in a floor speech in June.
Cornyn and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) requested an audit of the Pentagon’s contract with Rosoboronexport, but the Russian manufacturer reportedly refused to comply.
But some hawks say there is no serious alternative to the Russian-exported Mi-17s in Afghanistan, since it would be too difficult and expensive to train the Afghan army on other helicopters.
"We can buy them Black Hawks and then take half a decade to train them up and actually get them proficient on them—but that’s quadruple the price," said one congressional aide. "Nobody wants to buy military equipment from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, we get that. But this is the best shitty option out of shitty options."
"The Pentagon looked at this seriously," the aide added. "If we’re going to leave in 2014, the Afghan national security forces are going to need vertical lift to get them up the mountains, otherwise they’re toast."
The inspector general for the military in Afghanistan released a report last month that said many Afghan forces were unable to fly or maintain the Mi-17s. However, defenders of the Pentagon’s Rosoboronexport contract said the Afghan air force leadership still has institutional knowledge for operating Mi-17s, even if many members remain untrained.
Opponents of the Pentagon’s Russian purchases argue that the contract should still be opened up to outside bids and say other helicopters could be bought at a competitive price from U.S. or European manufacturers.
Two of the most outspoken Rosoboronexport deal’s critics—Democrats Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who sponsored a House amendment to block funding, and Sen. Blumenthal, who is co-sponsoring the senate legislation—are from Connecticut. The state is also home to Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, the top military helicopter manufacturer and producer of the Black Hawk.
Blumenthal has reportedly lobbied for the Afghan helicopter contract to go to Sikorsky.
The Department of Defense has shown no sign of backing down. In addition to the recent $572 million deal with Rosoboronexport, Hill sources say the Pentagon may be trying to sidestep the congressional restrictions again with its latest 2014 budget request.
The request includes $250 million for "Medium Airlift Aircraft Replacement," which one congressional aide said could be used for Mi-17s.
"I think the budget request is deliberately vague so the Pentagon can preserve our relationship with Assad's arms supplier and continue to circumvent a bipartisan coalition in Congress," said the aide.
The Pentagon denied that the request was for Russian helicopters. "The line item is for fixed-wing medium airlift aircraft, not Mi-17s," a spokesperson told the Washington Free Beacon.
A bipartisan coalition of senators, including Blumenthal, Cornyn, and Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), wrote to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel earlier this month asking him to reconsider the latest contract with Rosoboronexport.
"It is unconscionable to provide Russia with the recently announced $550 million contract for 30 additional Mi-17 helicopters while Prime Minister Putin acknowledges sheltering fugitive Edward Snowden at the Sheremetyevo airport," wrote the senators. "The Russian state-controlled arms export firm Rosoboronexport continues to provide the Syrian government with the means to perpetrate widespread and systematic attacks on its own people."