Russian arms deal divides Congress

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Congress is deeply divided over whether to kill a contract with a top Russian arms supplier, Rosoboronexport, to provide helicopters and parts to the Afghan air force. 

The Defense Department opposes sanctioning the firm, arguing that canceling the contract would damage Afghan forces, just as U.S. troops end their combat mission.

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Yet, support for the helicopter contract is a heavy lift, as lawmakers move to sanction Moscow after pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are believed to have downed a civilian airliner, killing nearly 300. 

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) has called for cutting all U.S. government contracts with “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s arms dealers.” 

“Rosoboronexport facilitates and funds Putin’s foreign-policy objectives through the sale of military equipment and technology,” Coats told The Hill on Monday. 

“Taking steps to meaningfully obstruct this agency’s work and the revenue it provides the Russian state is among the most effective ways the United States can condemn Putin’s aggression,” he added. 

Two Senate panels have already moved measures that would terminate all existing contracts with the arms giant and prevent new deals. The full House has also passed legislation that would do the same.

The Pentagon, though, has already purchased a total of 88 Russian Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan air force, at more than $1 billion. 

Defense officials firmly back the program, arguing the helicopter is best suited for Afghanistan’s rugged terrain and thin altitude and less work for Afghans to keep running than rival-U.S. made systems.

U.S. forces are currently training Afghan pilots and crew on the platform, but are slated to leave the country in 2017, making future contracts for spare parts and maintenance critical.

Defense officials say that blocking the Rosoboronexport deal would have a “catastrophic” effect on Afghan forces’ ability to provide security.

“Their ability to do that would be significantly degraded without the Mi-17,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, warned lawmakers.

Defense officials fear the helicopter program will be scrapped, unless the full Senate rejects the sanctions and House lawmakers don’t insist on its inclusion in a final compromise bill.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s defense policy bill included language terminating all existing contracts, and the fiscal 2015 defense budget approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee would prevent future contracts with the arms supplier.

The measure passed the Armed Services panel 15-11, with six Democrats and nine Republicans on board, but both the chairman and the ranking member opposed ending the contract.

“That probably is the most contentious issue on this — up here. I agree with the chairman on this,” said Senate Armed Services ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “I’ve seen some of the pretty extreme and courageous statements made. Whether or not some members up here agree with them is a different matter.”

The push to end the Russian helicopter deal has been led by many lawmakers whose states house rival firms that hope to supply the Afghan military.

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) — two of the top advocates in Congress for ending the Russian contract — have touted helicopters from Sikorsky, a local company, as a replacement supplier. Another possible supplier at one point included Boeing’s Chinook. 

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who voted for the ending the contract, expressed some regret but blamed the Pentagon for being unwilling to change their minds earlier.

“The Defense Department made up its mind early, was rock solid on it, refused to listen to any other suggestions about it. And now we’ve had Russia invading the Crimea,” he said at a July 10 hearing. 

“And so, I personally am not very pleased with that decision. … But it may be too late to reverse that decision,” he said.