As Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Ukraine this week to confer with US allies there, back on Capitol Hill lawmakers are planning some steps of their own to ratchet up pressure on Russia.
These steps involve, notably, proposed sanctions on a state-owned Russian arms manufacturer, which some US lawmakers also accuse of supplying arms to Syria and Iran.
The problem is that Pentagon officials have been quietly asking them to hold off on these measures, because the arms export firm, Rosoboronexport, also supplies the helicopters used by the struggling Afghan Air Force.
“The word the Pentagon keeps using with us is ‘flexibility,’ which means they want us to give Rosoboronexport a giant exception,” says a congressional staffer, who would speak only on condition of anonymity. “But these folks are tools of Russian foreign policy, and Russian foreign policy at the moment is to poke the United States in the eye.”
The Russian Mi-17 helicopters were purchased through a no-bid contract initiated by the US Department of Defense, a move that, as recently as last year, raised eyebrows and garnered warnings from within the Pentagon itself.
In the wake of the Russia's incursions into Ukraine's Crimea region last month, those warnings sharpened.
“We should not be paying any money to a Russian export agency that is funding Russian troops in Crimea,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut tells the Monitor. “I think the Pentagon needs to take a stronger stand with the Afghan military and insist we’re not buying any more arms from Rosoboronexport with American taxpayer money.”
Some Pentagon officials “are very sympathetic to our point of view, but they also sense a need to be responsive to the military needs stated by the Afghans,” Senator Blumenthal adds. “I think the Pentagon may feel that it’s caught in the middle.”
These stated military needs include an easy-to-fly, easy-to-fix helicopter. The Mi-17s are just that, says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and now co-director of the Responsible Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
The rotary craft is the “Ford F-150 pickup truck” of helicopters, Mr. Barno adds. “They’re like farm tractors – they’re simple to operate, simple avionics, simple to maintain.”
They are also familiar to Afghan pilots, who flew the helicopters during the Soviet era.
The problem, defense analysts say, is that the Afghan military is not making great strides in either flying or learning to fix the Mi-17s – a conundrum illustrated in a report last year from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), aptly titled “DOD Moving Forward with $771.8 Million Purchase of Aircraft that the Afghans Cannot Operate and Maintain.”
The bottom line is that the Afghan Air Force does not have enough pilots to fly the aircraft it already owns, nor does it have enough mechanics to maintain them, says the report, citing “ongoing recruiting and training challenges.”
These challenges include “finding Afghan recruits who are literate and can pass the strict 18-to-20 month US vetting process” – required to come to the US for training, as all Afghan pilots do – "a process that attempts to eliminate candidates that have associations with criminal or insurgent activity.”
The NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan says 87 qualified Mi-17 pilots are currently in the Afghan Air Force and 47 are in the Special Missions Wing (SMW), for a total of 134 qualified pilots. The Afghan Air Force is currently using 51 helicopters, the command adds.
Including mechanics, the Special Missions Wing had a total of 180 personnel as of January 2013, which is “less than one-quarter of the personnel needed to reach full strength," according to the SIGAR report.
Part of the problem, the report adds, is that Pentagon officials “do not have a plan that identifies milestones and final dates for achieving full SMW personnel force strength to justify the approved fleet.”
Though Rosoboronexport was sanctioned under the Bush administration, President Obama lifted the sanctions during the “reset” with the Russian government and gave the state-owned firm a no-bid contract to provide the aircraft.
The company still owes 21 of these aircraft to the US government, and they are supposed to be delivered to the Afghan Air Force later this year. US lawmakers are concerned, however, that Rosoboronexport will “slow roll” delivery of the helicopters. “The Russians are probably going to sandbag these things as long as they can” to stave off sanctions, knowing that the Pentagon needs them, the congressional staffer says.
Instead, the Pentagon should cancel the contract and buy US-made Boeing Chinhook transport helicopters, say lawmakers, some of whom have congressional districts with defense contractors that would benefit from such a purchase.
“If you were to incorporate the CH-47s into the fleet, you’d reduce the risk of relying on the Russians,” the staffer argues.
For his part, Blumenthal, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Airland subcommittee, says that if the purchase of the Mi-17s hasn’t been halted by May 20, he will consider legislation, and he expects it to have “very strong bipartisan support.”
If the Pentagon is caught in the middle, “then Congress can be the bad guy,” he says.
Maj. Gen. Michael Williamson, director of the Army Acquisitions Corps, told lawmakers in a hearing earlier this month that the penalty for canceling the contract, in costs as well as fees for breaking it, would be “upwards of about $100 million.”
“In my view, if it’s simply penalties for breaking contracts,” Blumenthal says, “let the Russians try to collect from us.”