Afghanistan Helicopter Deal Source Of Political Sniping In Washington, Moscow
An efforts by U.S. lawmakers try to block the Pentagon from doing business with Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport has stalled, and likely will remain so until after the elections in November. But Russian officials are arguing that the fact that the U.S. military wants to buy helicopters from Russia, in spite of politicians' wishes, is "the best advertisement our helicopters can get."
Last year, the Pentagon awarded Rosoboronexport a contract worth nearly $1 billion to supply Afghanistan's armed forces with Mi-17 helicopters. U.S. defense manufacturers complained that the Pentagon was giving business to Russia that could be awarded to American companies. But the Pentagon's reasoning was that Russian helicopters are cheaper, and more importantly were already in service in Afghanistan, meaning that Afghanistan's pilots, maintenance crews, and so on, wouldn't have to learn an entirely new system.
Last month, though, the House of Representatives stepped in to try to put the kibosh on that contract. On a 407-5 vote, representatives voted to ban any funding for the contract. The Senate is unlikely to take up the issue before the election, but U.S. military are still advocating against it. That prompted one Russian defense official, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy director of the Federal Service for Military-Technological Cooperation, to brag a little bit:
"Despite this resistance, American military officials have made it clear that they need our helicopters, which are reliable and meet all of the requirements. This is the best advertisement our helicopters can get," Dzirkaln said.
Of course, the "requirements" in this case are that the helicopters be Mi-17s, so Dzirkaln doesn't really have that much to brag about. In fact, no one's motives in this affair are especially pure. The purported reason for the House of Representatives ban was that Rosoboronexport sells to Syria, which is using those weapons against its own people. But that's obviously just a handy pretext -- just today, it was reported that the U.S.'s arms sales tripled from the year before, driven primarily by sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Would it surprise anyone, if an Arab Spring scenario popped up in any of those countries, that the government would use American weapons against its own people? The leader of the House effort, Jim Moran, represents a Northern Virginia district home to many American defense contractors, which (along with the easy political points to be gained by cheap anti-Russian gestures) is certainly a more significant factor.
The Pentagon's motivation is a little less obvious. Of course it makes sense to buy Mi-17s, but you don't have to buy them from Russia. It wouldn't be hard to buy used ones, and as the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight notes, the Pentagon-Rosoboronexport contract was not competitively bid, and the U.S. appears to be overpaying for the helicopters as well. One Pentagon official, in a letter (pdf) to U.S. senators, explained the rationale for going through Rosoboronexport:
Options for procuring used Mi-17 aircraft on the secondary market do exist, but new Mi-17 helicopters are only manufactured in Russia...
The Mi-17 acquisition effort is critical to building the capacity of the Afghanistan Security Forces, and supports the President's continuing efforts to build improved relations with Russia.
So is this (in part, anyway) a payoff to ensure Russia's goodwill? That would seem more objectionable than a tenuous connection to Syria. Anyway, without further Congressional action, the contract is in force and helicopters are being delivered.