Congress keeps firing at Russian-made helicopter buys

Lawmakers fired another two shots at the Pentagon Thursday over the purchase of helicopters from a Russian company that has supplied Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.

A group of 80 House members sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday asking for an explanation of why the Pentagon went forward with purchasing 30 Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport last month despite a ban on buying arms from the Russian defense firm.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), meanwhile, is requesting a briefing from the Pentagon after an inspector general report warned that the helicopters won’t be sufficiently used by the Afghan military's Special Mission Wing.

The letters from the House members and McCain are the latest shots from Congress in a long-running battle related to Rosoboronexport.

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The Pentagon has said that it needs to purchase the helicopters from the Russian company because it’s the most cost-effective and the Afghans are familiar with them.

Congress tried to stop the helicopter buys in the 2013 Defense authorization bill, but the Pentagon got around that restriction by using 2012 funds in last month’s purchase.

The House lawmakers, led by Appropriations Committee members Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Kay Granger (R-Texas), asked the Pentagon to explain why it’s in the U.S. national security interest to purchase equipment from the Russian company and to provide an assessment of how many advanced anti-aircraft S-300 missiles have been delivered from Rosoboronexport to the Assad government.

“Even as Rosoboronexport was providing weapons to the Syrian regime last year, DOD entered into no-bid contracts to purchase Mi-17 helicopters for the [Afghan security forces] from the firm,” the lawmakers wrote.

McCain did not mention Rosoboronexport in his letter, instead focusing on a recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

The SIGAR report warned that fighting between Afghan government agencies had left the Special Mission Wing unprepared and understaffed to actually fly the $772 million in aircraft provided by United States. That total includes $554 million in Mi-17 helicopters.

In a letter to Hagel, McCain requested a briefing to address how the Pentagon plans to resolve the issues laid out in the inspector general report.