Senate Defense bill would end Russia contracts

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) announced Friday that a bipartisan proposal was included in the Senate's defense bill to end a Pentagon contract with a Russian firm to supply the Afghan air force with 18 more transport helicopters. 

The amendment, identical to a bill sponsored earlier this month by Coats and Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), would end all existing and future contracts with the Russian arms company Rosoboronexport. 

“The Armed Services Committee has taken the right step, and it is now time for the full Senate to approve this targeted economic sanction that will harm Russian interests without damaging America’s economy," Coats said in a statement Friday. 

If passed, the bill would cut short a $553.8 million Pentagon contract to supply the Afghan air force with 30 Mi-17 transport helicopters. So far, 12 have already been delivered. 

The U.S. has already spent $546.4 million on a previous contract to purchase 33 Mi-17 helicopters.  

Pentagon officials say the Russian-made helicopters are better suited for Afghanistan's thin altitude and rugged terrain, and are easier to operate than U.S.-made helicopters. Also, they say some Afghan pilots are already familiar with the aircraft from the Soviet Union's previous occupation of the country. 

They also say that providing the Afghan air force with an alternative U.S.-made helicopter could take years -- first to build the helicopters, and then to train Afghans on how to fly and maintain them. 

However, lawmakers argue that contracts with the Russian-owned company support the government's policies towards Ukraine and Syria. 

“Russia has been fueling the war in Syria through Rosoboronexport, illegally annexed Crimea and continues to destabilize Ukraine,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), co-sponsor of a similar House defense bill proposal. 

“We must stop supporting Russian jobs and the Russian interest and start acting in America’s interest and on behalf of America’s workers," she said.

The House's defense bill, which passed on Thursday, would allow the Pentagon to keep the existing contract, but ban the Pentagon from any new contracts, for spare parts, or other services.  

Earlier this month, the Pentagon said it was looking for alternatives for those spare parts and other services. 

"Now, we are looking inside the department to see if we can find an alternative supply chain and repair parts, believe me," Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said at a May 6 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. 

The Senate proposal would also ban direct and indirect use of U.S. tax dollars for contracts with any domestic or foreign company that cooperates with Rosoboronexport to design, manufacture or sell military equipment. 

The amendment passed the Senate Armed Services Committee in a tight vote, 15-11, according to Coats' office. 

In order for the amendment to become law, it would have to be included in a defense bill approved by both the House and Senate.