Watchdog criticizes Pentagon over Russian-made helicopters purchase

A government watchdog said Friday that the Pentagon’s controversial $554 million contract to purchase Russian helicopters for the Afghan military could be a waste of money because the Afghans aren’t capable of operating and maintaining the fleet.

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The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) recommended that the Pentagon suspend the contract with Rosoboronexport for 30 Mi-17 helicopters until an agreement is reached with the Afghans that ensures the force will be in place to use the helicopters.

The report said that $772 million worth of aircraft could sit idle, as the watchdog also recommended a $218 million contract for 18 fixed-wing planes should be suspended.

The report will fuel criticism on Capitol Hill of the Pentagon’s decision to purchase the helicopters from Rosoboronexport, a Russian company that also supplies arms to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

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Congress tried to block the Pentagon from purchasing helicopters from the Russian arms company in the 2013 Defense authorization bill. The Pentagon instead used money from 2012 to purchase the helicopters in a contract awarded last week.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) blasted the purchase on the Senate floor after it was made public.

“American taxpayers should not be indirectly subsidizing the murder of Syrians,” Cornyn said.

The inspector general report said that the Afghan Special Mission Wing, which was established for counterterrorism and counternarcotics missions, is lacking both personnel and expertise to use the Mi-17 helicopters and Sierra Nevada PC-12 fixed wing planes.

The watchdog reported that the wing had just 180 people, less than a quarter of what was expected.

It also said a dispute between the Afghan Ministers of Defense and Interior over who would have control of the unit would adversely impact its growth and capacity.

SIGAR warned that “U.S.-funded SMW aircraft could be left sitting on runways in Afghanistan, rather than supporting critical missions, resulting in waste of U.S. funds.”

The Pentagon disagreed with the inspector general’s recommendation, saying that suspending the contracts “would not be in our national interest.”

Michael Dumont, deputy assistant secretary for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, wrote that it would  “unacceptably delay our efforts to develop the SMW into a capable force.”

The Pentagon has also argued that there currently is no sufficient alternative for the Afghans to the Mi-17 helicopters.

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