Chairman: US needs Russian choppers

The top lawmaker on the House Armed Services Committee said the United States needs to continue buying Russian-made helicopters for the Afghan air force despite tensions over the annexation of Crimea.

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Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who recently took a trip to Afghanistan, said the country’s soldiers are used to the Russian-made helicopters, which he said are easier to operate and maintain than American choppers.

“I met with the colonel that’s training their air force. They’ve been flying those helicopters for 20 years,” he told reporters on Thursday.  

“Our machines are just much more sophisticated and complicated,” he said. “It’s cheaper, [Afghans] understand them, they know how to fly them, they know how to repair them.”

Some members of Congress have renewed a push for the Pentagon to end the $550 million contract with Russian arms dealer Rosoboronexport and instead buy American-made helicopters for the Afghan air force. They say the move makes even more sense now that Russia has defied the United States and other world powers by moving into Ukraine.

Proponents of ending the deal include Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), whose state is home to a competing aircraft manufacturer, Sikorsky.

Defense officials argue the Russian-made helicopters are simpler to operate and maintain, and are more suitable to the Afghan terrain. The transport aircraft are important for giving the Afghan military an edge over Taliban insurgents, officials say.

McKeon also called for U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan for three to four years after the NATO combat mission ends in 2014, in order to make sure the country does not become an al Qaeda safe haven again.

“Afghanistan is the epicenter of where al Qaeda planned and launched the 9/11 attacks against innocent Americans and continues to be an operational location for al Qaeda and its affiliated groups,” he said.

He said 10,000 to 12,500 U.S. troops were the minimum outlined by military leaders that were needed to continue training Afghan troops, as well as to conduct a counterterrorism mission there.

“We’re in Afghanistan not to help make a better country, we’re there to protect American interests,” McKeon said.

McKeon acknowledged there is little U.S. support for leaving troops in Afghanistan, but said if the American people only knew the accomplishments the military was making there, they would change their minds.

“The president hasn't talked much about Afghanistan … so the support for the effort has dropped,” he said. “We’re also doing a lot of good things for the people. They have the opportunity to become a good, solid nation.”