Pentagon Defends Arms Buy From Russia

Farrah Zughni

The Department of Defense is responding to congressional criticism of its purchase of helicopters from a Russian firm that also is supplying arms to the Syrian government, saying the aircraft are central to U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and have qualities that the alternatives do not.

In a letter sent March 30, made public several weeks later, the Pentagon said the Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport, a state-owned Russian arms exporter, are “a key part of our on-going strategy to hand over the security of Afghanistan to the Afghan people” and warned that canceling the procurement would “complicate the maintenance, sustainment, and supply systems required to support the fleet.”

Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller said in the letter to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) that the Pentagon’s plans to buy at least 21 Mi-17 helicopters were “made after considering [their] proven operational capabilities in the extreme environments of Afghanistan.” Cornyn’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Miller’s letter.

As part of growing congressional opposition to the Mi-17 deal, a bipartisan group of 17 senators, including Cornyn, sent a letter in March to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta calling for an end to the U.S. government’s relationship with the Russian firm because of its ties to Syria, citing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of a popular domestic uprising. (See ACT, April 2012.)

In his letter, Miller acknowledged there was evidence that the company’s arms were being used by Syrian forces against the country’s civilian population. He said the Defense Department had registered objections with Russia and would continue to do so “at all levels and at every opportunity.”

Miller also stated that the decision to purchase the Mi-17s was made in light of their “low technical complexity,” making it easier for members of the Afghan air force to maintain and operate the equipment.

“The contract with Rosoboronexport is the only legal method to purchase the military version of the Mi-17 and to provide ensured cognizance of safety and airworthiness,” said a Defense Department spokeswoman in a May 18 e-mail to Arms Control Today.

The Russian embassy in Washington declined to comment on the helicopter sale.