Senators debate Russian-Afghan helicopter contract

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) pushed back Thursday against fellow lawmakers' plans to stop Russia from supplying some 30 helicopters to Afghanistan's air force.

The Pentagon has a $553.8 million contract with Russian arms supplier Rosoboronexport to provide the Mi-17 transport helicopters to Afghan forces. U.S. forces are currently training the Afghan air force on the aircraft.

However, there are bipartisan proposals in both the House and Senate to curtail that contract, with lawmakers arguing that continuing the contract benefits Russia even as it takes aggressive moves in Ukraine.

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During a hearing on the nomination of top military officials, Inhofe questioned Army Gen. John Campbell, the president's pick for U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, on whether the program should be ended.

"If we had to change the Mi-17...we'd be several years behind and we'd have to start a whole new training program," Campbell said.

"I hope that all the members of the committee heard you loud and clear," said Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sens. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) are proposing that the U.S. send American-made helicopters instead.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who supports ending the contract, accused the Pentagon of refusing “to listen to any other suggestions about it.”

“Now we have Russia invading the Crimea ... so I’m not very personally pleased with that decision," he said. 

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.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said the committee received a letter from current U.S. and NATO commander Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford two weeks ago, outlining the "catastrophic effect" on the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.

"Any loss of Afghan National Security Force operational reach would degrade force protection [for U.S. troops]," King said.

"I would agree with Gen. Dunford's assessment," Campbell said, adding that if the contract was ended, it would immediately cut off spare parts and ground the entire Mi-17 fleet.

"[In] six months to 12 months, it would become combat ineffective," he said.