Last week, the Pentagon announced it will no longer buy helicopters from a Russian weapons company with a controversial track record. After much hectoring from Congress and human rights and government watchdog groups, the Pentagon canceled a planned final purchase of 15 Mi-17 helicopters from Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport.
From 2006 to 2010, the State Department imposed trade sanctions on Rosoboronexport for violating the U.S. prohibition on arms sales to Iran. More recently, the company has been selling weapons to the Syrian government in the midst of a bloody civil war.
Last year, POGO blogged about the Army’s $1 billion deal to purchase 63 Mi-17s from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan government. We questioned whether the sole-source contract was in the best interest of taxpayers. Rosoboronexport charged the Army more than $16 million for each Mi-17, while the Navy had purchased the same helicopter from an American company for less than $11 million each. The Pentagon firmly insisted that only the Russian Mi-17s are suitable for the extreme conditions in Afghanistan. POGO also wondered whether Rosoboronexport, with a history of selling weapons to repressive regimes, is a responsible federal contractor (“a prospective contractor must have a satisfactory record of integrity and business ethics”) and thus qualified to do business with the U.S. government.
The Mi-17 program is on the hot seat. The Defense Criminal Investigative Service opened a corruption investigation. The former head of an Army aviation unit that oversees the program is suspected of making improper payments to two Russian subcontractors, who are accused of overcharging the Army more than $16 million for helicopter parts and repairs. Rosoboronexport is not a focus of this investigation. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is looking into the circumstances surrounding the purchase of Mi-17s for the Afghan government. In June, SIGAR issued an audit report warning that the Afghans lack the capacity to operate and maintain their fleet of Mi-17s.
The Pentagon’s decision to sever ties with Rosoboronexport was praised by Members of Congress, particularly those with helicopter manufacturers in their districts. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), in a joint statement with Representative Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), called it a “welcome, if long overdue first step” and urged the Pentagon to consider buying American. Connecticut-based Sikorsky manufactures a transport helicopter that is considered a possible substitute for the Mi-17. Sikorsky and another leading helicopter manufacturer, Bell Helicopter, also have operations in Texas, the home state of Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), who played a leading role in pushing for the cancellation of the Rosoboronexport contract.