Pentagon cuts ties with Russian arms supplier

The Pentagon has officially cut ties with Russian arms supplier Rosoboronexport, drawing praise from lawmakers who slammed the company's ties to the Syrian regime. 

The decision effectively cuts off the Pentagon's supply of Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters, used by American military advisers to outfit Afghanistan's nascent air force. 

Prior to Wednesday's decision, the Pentagon had been slated to complete a 30-helicopter buy for the Afghan air force from the company. 

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But the Defense Department's long-standing deal with the Russian weapons maker drew immediate scrutiny from Capitol Hill after details emerged on Rosoboronexport's weapon sales to Syrian President Bashar Assad. 

A June 2012 U.S. intelligence report sent to Congress showed Rosoboronexport was also supplying Tehran with critical components to support its current long-range missile development program.

In light of those revelations, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn spearheaded the effort to ramp up the political pressure on the Pentagon to end its relationship with the Russian firm. 

Cornyn went so far as to put a congressional block on then-nominee Heidi Shyu to become the Army's top weapons buyer in June 2012. 

On Wednesday, Cornyn praised the Pentagon's decision to walk away from the Mi-17 deal. 

“I applaud the Defense Department’s decision to finally cancel its plan to buy additional helicopters from Rosoboronexport," he said in a statement to The Hill. 

"Doing business with the supplier of these helicopters has been a morally bankrupt policy, and as a nation, we should no longer be subsidizing Assad’s war crimes," he added on Wednesday. 

While Cornyn and others in Congress lauded the Pentagon's decision to kill the Rosoboronexport deal, the move puts the department in a difficult position as it prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan. 

Since June, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have taken the lead in combat operations in the country, as part of the White House's plan to have all combat troops out of the country by 2014. 

While Afghan forces have held their own on the battlefield against the Taliban and other militant extremist groups, continued operational gaps in air support continue to plague ANSF units. 

That said, the key to closing that gap is the Mi-17, according to the Pentagon's latest assessment report of the Afghan war. 

"The Mi-17 is the workhorse of the [Afghan air force]," according to the report. 

"Although the [ANSF] effectively employs Mi-17s, increased operational tempo during the summer reduced ... helicopter mission availability due to required maintenance and inspections," the report, released earlier this month, states. 

That said, U.S. and allied military trainers are experiencing difficulties with the Afghan Mi-17 fleet on the ground now. 

"Only 11 to 17 Mi-17s were available for operations at any given time" due to those maintenance and repair difficulties, according to the Pentagon. 

"Long term contractor support at some level will likely be required to provide adequate maintenance support" for the Afghan fleet, Pentagon officials say.