WASHINGTON — A group of U.S. Democratic and Republican lawmakers is urging Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to ignore a legal loophole that would allow him to green-light the purchase of Russian-made helicopters for Afghanistan’s military, arguing that Moscow is arming the Syrian military.
The lawmakers are raising concerns amid reports the Defense Department is planning to purchase 20 Mi-17 helicopters from Russia’s state-run Rosoboronexport. Pentagon officials have long argued the most cost-effective manner in which to buy helicopters for the Afghan military is to purchase the Soviet-era choppers with which Afghans are so familiar.
Not so fast, say several House lawmakers.
“Russia continues to transfer weapons through Rosoboronexport to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Hagel released Monday. “Since the Syrian uprising began, Russia has continued to serve as the Assad regime’s chief supplier of weapons, enabling the mass murder of Syrian citizens at the hands of their own government.”
The lawmakers cited several recent comments by senior Russian officials vowing to continue fulfilling “contract obligations” that call for them to send weapons to Assad’s regime
The letter is signed by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.; Kay Granger, R-Texas; James Moran, D-Va.; Jack Kingston, R-Ga.; Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Martha Roby, R-Ala.; Chellie Pingree, D-Maine; Walter Jones, R-N.C.; Frank Wolf, R-Va.; and James McGovern, D-Mass.
The letter notes the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act “prohibits the use of funds into any contracts or agreements with Rosoboronexport.” But, they note, Pentagon officials last summer indicated they would ignore that provision, and another overwhelmingly approved by House lawmakers, by exercising an option in an existing contract with the Russian company.
The lawmakers also acknowledge there is an exemption in the 2013 act that allows the defense secretary to buy the Russian helicopters if he “deems it to be in the interest of national security.”
They want Hagel to “explain his justification” for buying more helicopters from Rosoboronexport.