The US has decided to discontinue purchases of Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters to equip the Afghan military. (Romeo Gacad / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON – Members of Congress and human rights activists alike have lauded the Pentagon’s decision to not request any new purchases of Mi-17 military helicopters.
The Pentagon has purchased 63 of the rotorcraft, exported by Russian firm Rosoboronexport, to equip the Afghan Air Force. But after months of political pressure, the Defense Department has decided to remove a request for more helicopters from the fiscal 2014 budget.
“After initially requesting funds from Congress in the FY14 budget to provide additional enhancements for the Afghan National Security Forces, the department has re-evaluated requirements in consultation with Congress,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “We currently do not have plans to purchase additional Mi-17s from Rosoboronexport beyond those in the Afghan Program of Record.”
Previously purchased rotorcraft will not be impacted by the decision.
The purchase of Mi-17s has been controversial due to the relationship between Rosoboronexport and the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Russian firm has supplied Assad’s military with weaponry used in its ongoing struggle against rebel forces in Syria.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who last year held up the nomination of Heidi Shyu to become the Army’s top acquisitions officer over the Pentagon’s decision to purchase from Rosoboronexport, has been active in opposing future deals with the Russian firm. He supported DoD’s decision.
“I applaud the Defense Department’s decision to finally cancel its plan to buy additional helicopters from Rosoboronexport,” Cornyn said in a statement. “Doing business with the supplier of these helicopters has been a morally bankrupt policy, and as a nation, we should no longer be subsidizing Assad’s war crimes.”
Cornyn was notified of the decision by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, a Cornyn aide told Defense News.
The announcement also drew praise from a human rights organization concerned with the ongoing situation in Syria.
“This is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do,” said Human Rights First’s Sonni Efron. “It will save American taxpayers money while showing that the United States will not keep doing business as usual with firms that are profiting from enabling gross human rights violations.”
In June, the Pentagon’s Inspector General called a decision to purchase 30 Mi-17s, at a cost of $553 million for the Afghan Special Missions Wing “imprudent” due to a variety of issues with training and capability.
“Without an effective support structure, US-funded SMW aircraft could be left sitting on runways in Afghanistan, rather than supporting critical missions, resulting in waste of US funds,” the IG report said.
It’s been a rough few months for relations between Afghanistan and the US, with negotiations between the two countries regarding a long-term military presence turning testy and a major government watchdog saying much of the country is too dangerous to inspect. But military officials at the Defense One conference in Washington on Nov. 14 indicated positive signs for the Afghan military.
“The real goal is to help them build a force they need to sustain,” Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said. “That’s been our focus, working with them to help them understand what kind of platforms they need and what ones they can actually realistically maintain on their own.”
“Their fighting prowess against the Taliban this year, they’ve done pretty well,” said Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff, director for Strategic Plans and Policy on the Joint Staff. “The belief is there is some more work institutionally that the Afghan Ministry of Interior and Defense have to do. There is still a lot of work that has to occur, but this year has been encouraging in terms of how it fights the Taliban.”
John T. Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.