The U.S. government is snapping up Russian-made helicopters to form the core of Afghanistan‘s fledgling air force, a strategy that is drawing flak from members of Congress who want to force the Afghans to fly American choppers instead.
In a turnabout from the Cold War, when the CIA gave Stinger missiles to Afghan rebels to shoot down Soviet helicopters, the Pentagon has spent $648 million to buy or refurbish 31 Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters for the Afghan National Army Air Corps. The Defense Department is seeking to buy 10 more of the Mi-17s next year, and had planned to buy dozens more over the next decade.
The spectacle of using U.S. taxpayer dollars to buy Russian military products is proving a difficult sell in Congress. Some legislators say that the Pentagon never considered alternatives to the Mi-17, an aircraft it purchased for use in Iraq and Pakistan, and that a lack of competition has enabled Russian defense contractors to gouge on prices.
“The Mi-17 program either has uncoordinated oversight or simply none at all,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who along with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) has pushed the Pentagon to reconsider its purchase plans. “The results have led to massive waste, cost overruns, schedule delays, safety concerns and major delivery problems.”
U.S. and Afghan military officials who favor the Mi-17, which was designed for use in Afghanistan, acknowledge that it might seem odd for the Pentagon to invest in Russian military products. But they said that changing helicopter models would throw a wrench into the effort to train Afghan pilots, none of whom can fly U.S.-built choppers.