By Carlo Muñoz - 03/27/12 09:48 PM EDT
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) pressed a panel of service aviation chiefs on Tuesday as to why the Pentagon continued to spend millions to buy Russian-military equipment when there are viable, U.S.-built alternatives on the market.
In the case of the Mi-17s being bought for the Afghan army, Wilson noted the Pentagon could easily ship over Vietnam-era Huey helicopters to the Afghans instead of the Russian-made helicopters.
Along with clearing out old U.S. surplus equipment, supplying the old Hueys would ensure no more American taxpayer dollars would go to Russian defense firms that also sell arms to Syria.
Rosoboronexport, the Russian company under DoD contract to supply Mi-17s to Afghanistan, is actively engaged in shipping weapons to Syria in the midst of President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on opposition forces.
A bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on March 12, urging the Pentagon to end its relationship with Rosoboronexport.
"That is a very tough question that I know everyone is wrestling with," Maj. Gen. William Crosby, head of Army aviation, said during Tuesday's hearing.
But dealing directly with Rosoboronetexport is the only way to guarantee the "airworthiness and safety cognisance" for U.S. and Afghan forces flying the Mi-17, Crosby told subcommittee members.
"If the decision by the leadership of this country not to [buy Mi-17s], then we will adjust," according to Crosby.
Until then, the Army and DoD will continue doing business with the Russian defense firm.
But the time, cost and effort needed to retrain Afghan pilots on the Huey or any other American-made helicopter would be extraordinary if the Pentagon decided to move from the Mi-17, according to Crosby.
American and coalition advisers would have to start from scratch teaching the Afghan forces, many of whom "can't read or write" how to use the Huey under battlefield conditions.
While the Huey may "seem pretty simple to us, compared to an Mi-17, they are pretty complex," the two-star general told Wilson and the rest of the House suubpanel.
On the other hand, Afghan forces have already been flying the Mi-17 on and off since the Russian occupation in the 1980's. The helicopters played an instrumental role in the U.S. offensive into the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in 2010.
Mi-17s ferried ANSF troops and provided air cover for coalition forces during the battle, which kicked off President Obama’s surge strategy in Afghanistan that year.